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February 16, 2013

DODD: Hanging on for dear life

“Never lend your car to anyone to whom you have given birth.” — Erma Bombeck

I remember when we first brought home that adorable bundle of joy from the hospital and once we entered our home just standing there looking at each other and saying, “Now, what?”

Kim and I were as unprepared to be parents as anybody else who has never been one. On-the-job training doesn’t begin to describe the experience of raising a child from birth.

Some of the obligations as a parent are wonderful. Who can forget the joy of that first step or coaxing the first words from their tiny little mouths? It doesn’t take very long before you might have wished they would crawl around in silence until well past their teenage years. You know about what they say about getting what you wished for.

Then, of course, there are the unpleasant but necessary tasks such as potty training. How many “poop” videos and catchy songs can a grown person stand? When I couldn’t sleep, instead of counting sheep I often used to find myself lying in bed in the darkness singing, “Everybody has to potty, potty!”

All of this discussion has been just a precursor which leads me to write about what for me might have been the hardest task of fatherhood I have so far experienced. That, of course, is sitting in a car teaching your son or daughter to drive.  

A teenager getting a learner’s permit is the first of many days which call for you to openly lie to your children. You say things like, “You didn’t do too badly today.” And “You’re getting much better.”

In reality, I am surprised that upon occasion I didn’t pass out from fear or soil myself right there in the passenger seat. What you forget about your own personal experience when you were young but learn all over again when teaching a teenager to drive is that it is simply not an instinctual thing. The very basic driving skills can only be learned from behind the wheel.

When I took driver’s education I seem to remember an entire summer of classroom instruction and many weeks of behind-the-wheel, on-the-road, hands-on driving. Now you have an instructor who has your teenager for five hours of road driving and then it’s up to you. And the classroom instruction is a do-it-yourself over the Internet lesson plan.

I don’t enjoy driving myself nearly as much as I used to do. The roads are more crowded and there are many more people on them who think you can eat a meal, text, talk on the phone, do their makeup, watch their iPad and polish their nails between stop signs. The driving part seems to be getting in the way of the other dozen multitasks performed from a driver’s seat.

Add to that the drinking and drugged-out perpetrators who share your roadway. And for me lately I get to ride in a car with someone who is learning to have control of a 2,000 pound projectile. Don’t get me wrong. According to my son’s driver’s ed instructor, Cameron was above average during his five-hour-long road marathon.

I can only imagine how the strugglers did upon graduation.

I have to give my wife much credit for her contribution over the last few months. It was proportionately much more of her time spent in the car with our son than mine. Of course, she was much better suited for the task since she has been giving me driving instructions from the passenger seat now for 28 years.

On the other hand, I felt like Don Knotts on a high wire over Niagara Falls for much of that early phase. My stomach was in knots, my nerves frazzled and my heart rhythm kind of irregular as I wore a hole in the floor mat trying to apply my brakes every time I thought he was late doing so on the one that counted beneath his left foot. And that was when things went perfectly according to plan. The near-misses were almost nonsurvivable.

And all of that time I had to go by that old deodorant commercial slogan, “Never let them see you sweat.”

I don’t really know how we did it. I want to someday do a story with his driver’s ed instructor, who has been doing this activity for almost two decades. A stick of dynamite in a food processor wouldn’t shake this guy’s steely resolve.

The bottom line is that the boy seems to be OK and getting much better. There is still just a bit of tread left on the tennis shoe of my braking foot. Kim and I are still talking after several of our verbal interactions during some tense moments of co-teaching on family outings during our own version of “Survivor — Interstate Mile Marker 18.”

I am proud of him and proud of us. I do think the experience of teaching your children to drive does drive home the truth in one old American axiom: The family that prays together stays together.

— Lindon Dodd is a freelance writer that can be reached at lindon.dodd@hotmail.com

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