Thursday, January 2, 2014

Driving Lessons

When the visibility is down around a quarter of a mile, that truck in front of you looks no larger than a spool of thread, until its brake lights come on, and then it looks enormous.  With almost a foot of snow, it looked so peaceful out there, everything blanked in white, the surface as innocent and smooth of surface as so much cream.  But it's not a good day for travel, hundreds of flights cancelled, probably thousands when all is said and done.  Don't drive if you don't have to, the radio warns, as under the hood, the engine of a truck rumbles with threat and promise both.

Big Bro taught me how to drive, but what I remember most was his teaching me how to drive in the snow.  We'd take the little VW Bug I had over to the empty high school parking lot  where there were no people or light poles.  There I learned all about braking, sliding, skidding, and the physics of stopping with a stalemate of snow and rubber.  He'd teach me to recognize a skid, how to  immediately pick out a distant visual target and keep my eyes focused on that target, while I steered out of it as he issued commands to keep me pointed in the right direction like a border collie directs cattle, his tone fast and quick and light, words darting in and out of my field of vision.
As I relaxed into well practiced maneuvers,  I simply listened to him talk, about things that angered him, things he wished he could change as he got older, what was right with the world, and what he could to do preserve those things.  And I quietly listened, there amidst snow flying as if from a blower and donuts formed of chewed rubber, circles as identical and monotonous as milestones.

I put his teachings to test on hill and valley, letting that little car run  like it was a little horse, leaning forward with a yell as we got into fourth gear, as if by doing so I could somehow outpace it as we both fled the sheer inertia of earth.  That car and I  ran free of the fence lines, free of ourselves, racing with a quality of movement in our motion totally separate from the imaginary  pound of hooves or the whoop of joy as I discovered flight in four wheeled form. I put mile after mile on that car, the land stretching out until only darkness stopped me, the heavy scent of pines laying across the road for my trusty stead to disperse, as if the scent were tangled skeins of smoke.

I also knew when to rein it in, slowing it down on slippery turns, downshifting through those sharp corners that are judgement and sentence and execution.  I knew to stay behind the clusters of bright shiny cars, artificial flowers to which the restless bees of the law would be drawn. I  also knew when to drive away, coasting out of a driveway when I arrived at a high school crush's to find him with someone else,  that long slow tearing that leaves no scar of tire, but only an internal lament that is the tearing of raw silk.
Those lessons saved me more than once, when the car slid towards a embankment late one night, that dark space where your shadow waits for your death, only to recover and continue on.  You've all likely been there as well.  It happens so fast, one minute you're staring bored at the speedometer and the next you're snatched out of your lane in a torrent of rubber and refinanced steel, other vehicles around scattering like rabbits suddenly looking for their warren. 

When that happens you  don't even know what the cause -  speed, black ice, or the force of mother nature that's as distant to indictment as God.  All you know is for a moment, your  useless hands were clasped tight to a useless steering wheel, and by only muscle memory, you try and keep the pointy end forward, the headlights revealing not your safety, but the now empty roads' abiding, unmitigable denial.  When you finally stop, all you can hear is your heart and the tick of a watch, that curved turmoil of faltering light and shadow  in mathematical miniature, reminding you how close you came to running out of time.
Such moments are the reason my last little car was traded in for the Bat Truck, though in city traffic it's about as maneuverable as a dirigible. But I don't mind.  I know about weather and idiot drivers.  But I also know about fate.  For fate waits, needing neither patience nor appetite, for yesterday, today and tomorrow are its own.  For fate I'll arm myself, as I look down on a Smart Car that's scooting along the slick road  between semi's like a lone circus peanut among a herd of stampeding elephants.

I hear Big Bro's  voice in my head on these drives, echoes of the phone calls we make while we still can.  Sometimes he just wants to rant a bit, everything he's worked for now  at risk, due to decisions made by others for political gain, his defense job gone, his military retirement cut, his health and the insurance that guarded it, turned into a house of cards foundationed on an abyss.  But I let him talk without interruption, for one thing he taught me, other than slips and skids, was that there are things we should never stop refusing to accept,  be it injustice and dishonor and outrage, not for cash for a better car, not for accolades, not for anything, there are things one must continue to be outraged over, to fight for, hands firmly on the wheel of where you want your life to go. His words in my ears to this day, you will have regrets but never let yourself be shamed.
So many words of his as I drive along, words of not just wheels, but commitment to something bigger than us both.  They are words that got me to change course when I lost direction, words that helped me, as well, take on a mantle of duty  I've never regretted, words that like a long climb up a rocky road, were stepping stones of atonement.  All of them, words I'll remember long after he is gone, words that I've handled so long the edges are worn smooth, words I keep alive.

 "focus on the target,  you can do this. . ."


Jennifer said...

Good reminder for more than just driving.

quizikle said...


Sunnybrook Farm said...

I learned to drive in the snow in a VW bug, first a 1964 and then a more powerful 72. We used to put a couple army sand bags on the rear bumper to put a little more weight on the rear driving wheels. Those bugs were really good in snow and I miss them. Their weak point (other than all the anti pollution junk that got added) was the front end design, it rusted out especially in salty areas and wasn't safe to drive. They all seemed to disappear off the roads within several year back in the late 80s. They were fun cars.

Monkeywrangler said...

Well said, Brigid, in so many ways, on so many levels. Prayers for you and your Big Bro.

And in a complete aside, why is it the media and government are so surprised that there is a big snowstorm ongoing? I mean, it's the Northern/Eastern US, in January. It's supposed to snow lots!

Ed Bonderenka said...

I miss having a handbrake at my side.
My wife does not. :)

Rob said...

I took drivers ed in Ca. got my DL in MN. When I got my Fla DL the guy at the DMV said "you driven in snow??" "yes sir." A short road test and he passed me. Driving in winter is a whole different ball game. I saw that you maybe under a load of snow and I was praying you are safe.

naturegirl said...

Giggling at the Smart Car description. Those are rolling death traps.

I was lucky, had drivers ed during a Chicago winter and an instructor who purposely made us stuff the old dodge into snowbanks and slide across the parking lot. Multiple times. I have no fear of driving in snow or on ice - it's the OTHER drivers that freak me out completely. And I do miss rear wheel drive, LOL.

Wise words and life lessons from your Big Bro for you to treasure always. Wishing him health and easier times in 2014. Your Dad too.

immagikman said...

Beautiful and heart rending, you know I think about those kinds of things..the betrayals and the other mean incidents from our youth, it strikes me how much more immediate and sharp it still seems for you, where, having similar experiences I remember that I was hurt and distraught but I can't feel the pain or even remember is the past and I have well moved on and there is nothing left of the event but empty memory, my wife on the other hand like you seems to still feel the sting when thinking back. Is this a man/woman thing? or am I broken? I don't know but I think I prefer this way to having those raw emotions.

As for the driving thing...for me it was the Mall parking lot in Bangor Maine where I really learned how to drive, I took my Chevy S10 pickup with the wimpiest V6 ever produced by man which did 0 to 60 in about 3.8 minutes....ahh the memories of defiling the pristine snow cover with my donuts and slides, breaking and accelerating all to test how things worked....good times.

Ad absurdum per aspera said...

The more you tell us about your brother, the higher my regard for him.
Not just the winter driving lessons for his sister, but the subject matter of the venting. You can't always win but at least you can have the satisfaction of letting the bad guys know they aren't fleecing you unawares...

Brigid said...

Jennifer - thank you. I like to keep those words in my head.

quizikle - my best to you Sir, and your family during this season.

Sunnybrook Farm, mine was a 1974, a bit high on miles, and it had no radio (Dad went for the locking gas cap instead, sigh). But I remember my Mom driving an old 60's model when I was a kid. I'd actually sit in the little luggage compartment behind the back seat while she ran errands.

Monkeywrangler. He appreciates the prayers. He's in remission right now, likely short lived but we're grateful for every day.

Ed - a side handbrake, now THAT is a good mod idea for the Triumph.

Rob - people in Florida would have no idea what it's like with your weather (my grandparents on one side are from Minnesota afterimmigrating from Scandinavia).

naturegirl - we're a very short drive to Chicago, if you get up this way, let me know and we'd love to have you over to dinner.

immagikman - I'm so glad this resonated with a few of you. Your words mean a lot to me and I shared them with Big Bro who passed on his thanks.

Brigid said...

Ad absurdum - thank you for that. He is truly one of a kind, my best friend when I was growing up, my guide after Mom died and Dad was lost in his grief, my protector.

There's a rare day that goes by where we don't talk.

Doug Hansen said...

Thanks for all the blessings you share with us all. Blessings and prayers for you and your family & friends.