I grew up in the country but not on a farm so when I turned 16 I had never sat behind the wheel of a tractor, let alone an automobile – not even on my Dad’s lap to steer the last mile home.
My lack of driving experience was compounded by the fact that I was a shy (yes, I really was shy) and introverted kid, and cautious about trying anything new, especially something as daring as driving a car. But all of my 16-year-old classmates were getting their permits and learning to drive so to avoid the appearance of being a total wimp I knew I had to at least give it a try.
I must have read the learners permit manual from cover to cover a thousand times, and to my own pleasant surprise passed the exam the very first try. As it turned out, this would prove to be the easy part.
Dad, brave soul that he was, promised to teach me how to drive. Wisely, for my first lesson, he chose the most remote road he could think of, the narrow gravel road that lead to the county dump; and to help ensure against any risk of fatalities he scheduled the lesson for early on a Sunday morning.
I hardly slept the night before, not because of the long awaited excitement most 16 year olds experience in anticipation of getting behind the wheel for the first time, but because of the almost uncontrollable pee-my-pants fear that came over me as I lay in bed thinking about the next day’s driving lesson. After several urgent trips to the bathroom with failed attempts to relieve this fear, I finally dozed off only to dream about driving off the side of the old open-sided wooden bridge that stood just before the entrance to the county dump.
Morning arrived and before I had time to think about it we were on our way. As Dad pulled the car to the side of the road he said, “Well, boy, are you ready to give it a try?” I knew he meant no harm in calling me “boy,” but as he placed the keys in my trembling hand and opened the door to go around to the passenger side while I slid into the driver’s seat, I felt more like a 6-year-old boy about to mount his first training wheels bicycle than a young man of 16 about to experience the thrill of driving for the first time.
Dad was a Ford man and owned another make of vehicle only one or two times in his life. This was one of those times. Apparently he had gotten a good buy on a 1957 Plymouth Fury. It was five years old but ran well, and with its push button automatic transmission one would have thought it to be a perfect vehicle for learning to drive.
“Just push the drive button in and press gently on the gas,” Dad said. I did as instructed but nothing happened. “You actually have to press down on the pedal,” he advised. Automatic transmissions aren’t supposed to do spinouts, but somehow I managed to stomp on the pedal and sent gravel flying in the air as we slid sideways and started down the road.
“That’s it,” Dad said with an upbeat tone, while clinging to the dash with both hands. I let off the gas and slowed down but had gone no more than a quarter mile when a garbage truck, having made an early morning run, came around the corner from the direction of the dump. Cornfields stood tall on both sides of the narrow road making it appear as though Moses had just parted the Red Sea for this behemoth 10 ton truck to pass to the other side.
Dad, seeing there was scarcely room for the garbage truck to pass by, reached for the wheel to pull us to the right, but I was way ahead of him. I had jerked the wheel so far to the right that we were already plowing a deep furrow through the cornfield when the garbage truck went roaring by. Meanwhile, Dad was shouting, “Floor it boy or we’ll get stuck in this cornfield,” so I floored it and held tightly to the steering wheel as we blindly mowed our way through the stalks of corn.
When we emerged from the cornfield we were back on the gravel road around the corner from where the garbage truck had come, and headed straight for the open sided wooden bridge at the entrance to the dump. By now my foot seemed glued to the pedal, and Dad’s mouth was apparently glued shut with fear because he didn’t say a word as the car flew up the road toward the bridge with corn stalks clinging to its sides and blowing in the breeze like giant streamers.
As you might expect opossums can be found in abundance at a county dump and, as I reached the edge of the bridge, right there smack dab in the middle sat the fattest opossum I have ever seen, even to this day. I had but two choices – make that opossum a hood ornament or drive off the side of the bridge, a choice which I knew from my dream the night before was not a good idea.
Somehow I managed to safely stop the car right in the middle of the bridge, not two inches from that opossum’s nose. I honked the horn to scare him away, but instead of running off or playing dead he climbed right up onto the hood of the car and sat down in the middle of the windshield staring at us.
We both got out of the car and tried to shoo the opossum off the hood of the car but he was having none of it. Dad even tried poking him with a large stick but the opossum just responded by flashing his yellow teeth and squealing like a giant rat. Exasperated, Dad muttered something about wishing he had brought his gun, then paused and said, “Ok Mr. Opossum, I’ve got a plan for you.”
At this point my driving lesson was over so Dad took the wheel and we drove home with the opossum clinging to the wiper blades and glaring at us through the windshield the whole way. When we arrived home the opossum was half dazed from the ride, and before it had time to even think about jumping off the car Dad got his gun and shot it dead, right there on the hood of the car.
That night Dad and I had a good time telling the rest of the family about my first driving lesson as we all enjoyed a big pot of Mom’s delicious opossum stew – she said it was too old and tough to fry up like chicken, but it sure made good stew.
George Brown is a freelance writer. He lives in Jackson Township.