When it comes to the wonders that literacy presents, one that can’t be underestimated is our ability to connect the dots between the stories we read and our own lives. Such was the case for me recently when I reread a story originally sent to me by my pal Roger Fessler several years ago that was simply too good to throw out.
It was a wonderful retrospective piece written some years ago by Michael Gartner, the former president of NBC News and a Pulitzer Prize-winning editorial writer. Gartner’s piece was primarily about his parents amidst an array of childhood reminisces. While, in parts, it was achingly nostalgic, hearkening back to far simpler times when Gartner was a boy growing just after World War II in Des Moines, Iowa, it was also a fine example of humorous writing, especially when he spoke of his father, who, Gartner said, gave up driving at 25 years old in 1927, feeling he’d be better off walking through life and enjoying it rather than driving through life with all the stresses and complications that came with operating a motor vehicle.
During Gartner’s and his older brother’s childhood, Dad promised that when the older brother turned 16, he’d buy him a car. That happened in 1951. Initially, the car was the exclusive domain of Gartner’s brother. However, despite dad’s holding fast to his own boycott when it came to driving, Gartner’s mom, at 45 years old, decided that she wanted to drive for the first time in her life.
What amused me greatly and struck several of my own nostalgic chords was when Gartner spoke of the family friend that took his mother out to teach her how to drive. Her training ground was the cemetery, which, according to Gartner’s father, was the perfect place to practice because, after all, she surely couldn’t hurt anyone there!
While chuckling, I couldn’t help but think of my own driving lessons so many years ago when I played instructor to my daughters, Shannon first and then Katie, in the months before their 16th birthdays. When I decided to start my lessons, the cemetery was a venue I remember considering, but I felt there still were too many live folks working and visiting at Gethsemani that my young ladies might imperil.
So, for our lessons, I selected the American Mall parking lot, on Sundays, when the stores were closed. Lima’s first mall was closer to our house and less busy than the Lima Mall. Certainly, the most challenging aspect of those lessons was their attempts to master our 1986 Honda Accord manual transmission while driving up and down the lanes of the parking lot both off Elm Street on one side and Market Street on the other.
Their lessons were far more complicated than so many of their friends because of that manual transmission and the shifting, which required synchronization of the clutch and gas pedal. I remember there were many sudden stops and starts and many an abrupt stalling in the early stages. After each lesson, I’ll now admit to you what I never admitted to them, that my neck was pretty sore for the first couple days after many of our lessons.
Despite the difficulties, both Shannon and Katie, as I told them they would be, were quite proud after they mastered the shifting and certainly felt advanced compared to their friends who only could work with an automatic transmission.
Despite their now living as wonderfully successful adults and navigating the heavy traffic of Columbus in automatic-transmission cars, I have no doubt that, should the need ever arise for them to slide behind the wheel and go through the manual gears of the “H” of a stick shift, they would be able to execute the technique without much trouble.
At the ends of particularly good, didn’t-stall-once sessions, I allowed both of my ladies to drive home, knowing if we exited the lot on Market Street, the route home would consist of three rights interspersed by only one left. As any driver will tell you, it’s those lefts while driving that often cause the problems. Call those parts of their lessons a show of good faith, an early version of, “You’ve got this!”
I remember their eyes got wide the first time when I told them to take to the actual streets. I figured if I had confidence in them, they’d have confidence in themselves behind the wheel. Both handled their return drives flawlessly.
And, as both of my girls, I think, have discovered in navigating both their metaphorical and their literal roads in life, things just seem to go a whole lot smoother when you can keep those left-hand turns to a minimum.
I’d like to think a lot of the lessons I tried to teach Shannon and Katie took root and have served them well over time. The ones that came to mind when I read Michael Gartner’s beautiful nine-page nostalgic and funny remembrance were my times with a couple nearly 16-year-olds and their early herks and jerks up and down the rows of a mall parking lot still there but with no mall in its center during a time that seems the opposite of those inscriptions on the passenger side mirror of that gray Accord that they both later drove for many, many miles, the mirror that said, “Objects in mirror are closer than they appear.”
John Grindrod is a regular columnist for The Lima News, a freelance writer and editor and the author of two books. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.