NOTE: Today would have been my father’s birthday. This story is several years old but I didn’t have a blog when I wrote it and, even though my father passed away in 2001, it makes me Positively Happy to think of what a character he was.
The Driver’s License
Let’s start with a Southernism: license is plural in the vernacular of old-time Southerners. You don’t get “it,” you get “them.” Now that you know that, you also know where this story is set. Maybe that particular bit of information will help explain my driver’s license test – or maybe there really is no explaining it.
It could be that you’d have to know something about my father, Hunter, to grasp what I’m about to tell you. Daddy (another Southernism – we seldom grow up and call our fathers “Dad”) was a tinkerer of legendary proportions. He started driving and fooling around with cars while he was still in grade school. Family lore says he was driving the delivery truck for his grandfather’s grocery store when he was eight. He was souping cars up to run way too fast by the time he was in high school. He was involved in stock car racing long before NASCAR, probably when he was just helping NASCAR’s ancestors (moonshiners) outrun the revenuers. Years after the fact, my mother discovered that Daddy used to take vacation time, surreptitiously, and spend it helping his old friend, Cotton Owens, who built cars for the Dodge racing team in the seventies. Daddy could often diagnose the automotive woes of friends and acquaintances over the phone, either from a description of the problem or by hearing it. We knew we had to be quiet if he was talking cars on the phone and said, “Lemme listen to it.” He never stopped tinkering with his own cars or those of his friends. He often made dramatic improvements in performance or diagnosed problems no one else had been able to. This remarkable, nearly preternatural, skill came to be known as “Hunterizing.” Bear this in mind; it will come into play again later.
When it came time for me to take my driver’s test, chauffer duty fell to my father. Driving instruction had been my mother’s job because she was probably afraid that Daddy would teach us either to lead foot it, driving at speeds as close to Mach 1 as possible, or to engage in the sort of steaming verbal berating of all fellow drivers that would, years later, come to be known as road rage. I’ll add here that her efforts were far too little, too late. I’d grown up hearing such a constant barrage of vituperation emanating from Daddy while he drove that I thought the car wouldn’t run if you didn’t say SOB or a. hole with sufficient frequency.
Daddy decided that we should not have to suffer the indignity of waiting in line at the highway department of our thriving metropolis (population somewhat smaller than that of a mail order ant farm) so we drove over to a nearby small town (population smaller than that of a packet of mail order sea monkeys). His strategy proved effective and, once we’d arrived, I was almost immediately escorted out to my father’s car by a State Trooper.
Now, I had learned to drive in my mother’s car, a 1962 Dodge Dart that looked like an unnatural cross between a tank, a manta ray, and a space ship. Its horizontally projecting fins had proven wonderfully effective at preventing major damage done by student drivers as well as by Mama as she ultimately bounced her car off every single column in the Belk-Simpson department store parking garage. It had also never been fully Hunterized, having received only the minimal upgrades. Prior to the day of my driver’s test, I had never driven my father’s car and there was a damned fine reason for that.
Daddy’s 1966 Dodge Coronet had been fully Hunterized and beyond. He relished having young drivers in “hot rods” pull up to a light next to his sedate looking sedan and rev their engines. He would turn up the corner of his mouth in his characteristic sardonic near-sneer and, when the light changed, he would accelerate at head-snapping speed and, invariably, would leave the kids far behind to wonder incredulously at how some old geezer in some old heap could have so humiliated their Mustangs, Firebirds, Camaros and GTOs. It was rumored in my extended family that, in addition to the beefed up suspension, brakes, wheels and tires, Hunter’s car had an engine that his racing buddy had given him. That engine was said to be identical to the one that had won the Daytona 500, and the car that contained it, that beast, was the vehicle I found myself approaching to drive, for the first time, to take my driver’s test.
I tried to appear calm and blasé about the whole driving experience so that I would not communicate my fear to the trooper who, I believed, could smell fear with his finely honed senses. Holding my breath to stave off the incipient trembling in my hand, I reached to turn the key in the ignition. The car roared to life. I can imagine, now, that the sound of that ignition made the trooper cock his head and wonder about the promise of power that sound held. I knew nothing about driving such a creature as this, my father’s pride. All I knew was that the gas pedal was stiff, and it was stiff for a reason. I pressed it as gently as I could, knowing that there was a “catch” in its downward movement and, past that catch, you were likely accelerate very quickly to a speed approaching hyper drive.
Everything went reasonably well. I did not whiplash the trooper upon acceleration. I did not tear off down the road at a speed that would have ended in having my license revoked before I ever got it, and I did not go straight where the road did not, thereby ending up nose first in Twelve Mile Creek. Still, I reached new heights of budding panic when I was asked to do my three-point turn. The trooper directed me to a road I knew because it was on the way to my Uncle Carli’s house. It was quite narrow. It was not too menacing on one side but, on the other, it dropped precipitously down a bank past which was a heavily wooded area. This was the test right here, the real test. How would I be able to contain my panic while I shifted so many times between drive and reverse, trying not to go off the pavement on the safe side, or fall off the pavement on the dangerous side, all the while maintaining sufficiently light pressure on the gas pedal so as not to end up climbing one of the trees so inconsiderately placed on said dangerous side?
I don’t have a clear memory of that three point turn. I believe that it was lost in an adrenaline clouded fog. I do remember heading back to the Department of Motor Vehicles, not on pins and needles but more like swords and scythes, desperate to know if the close-mouthed trooper had passed me on my test.
We pulled into to parking lot and went silently into the building. The trooper spotted my father and made beeline for him. I, of course, believed he was going to berate Daddy for having the gall to think that he should let someone like me behind the wheel of a car. Instead, and to my surprise and delight, he said, “I’m going to pass your daughter, so she has some paperwork to do. Let’s you and me go outside and talk.” They left and I went to the counter to fill out the forms and have the first of what would become an increasingly humiliating series of driver’s license photos made and to lie about my weight. And then I sat and waited. And waited. And waited.
Finally, Daddy and the trooper returned, all smiles, and shook hands as Daddy said, “I’ll see you this weekend.” Daddy said later that he was going to come over and help the trooper out with his car a little bit. I didn’t discover until years later that Daddy and the trooper had gone drag racing and, of course, Daddy had won. I suppose that the trooper had sensed what sort of vehicle he was sitting in the passenger seat of and wanted some of that for himself. Daddy had let the trooper drive the car and revealed some its secrets, most notable of which was some sort of novel grinding of the cam shaft. It may be legend, but I seem to recall Daddy getting a phone call or two from some pretty famous stock car drivers of the time inquiring about that cam shaft. I like to imagine that the trooper got many years of chasing down surprised hot rodders and that his Hunterized patrol car remained with him for many years after his retirement.
My father died a few years ago. He was not an especially brave man when it came to sickness and suffering. But when it came to death, he faced it down and crossed over the threshold on his own terms, letting go gracefully and with dignity. And on the November night he died, the skies were wondrous with a meteor storm the like of which I had never seen in a lifetime of watching the yearly Leonid show. Truly, the display was so magnificent that it was nearly scary. I couldn’t help but expect the streaking meteors to hiss as they passed and explode as they hit; it was eerie that such an awesome sight could be utterly silent. And, as I stood there in grief and awe, I thought, “Oh, Lord. My daddy has only been dead an hour and, already, he’s Hunterized heaven.”