When I turned 16, my dad and brothers went card shopping. That’s card with a D. Not “car.”
It was a momentous enough occasion that I got not one, but TWO birthday cards. The first one said something along the lines of “In honor of your 16th birthday, here’s the car keys and 50 bucks. Have a good time.” On the inside, it said, “Just kidding HA HA HA HA”
The second card was your typical boring, sappy “My little girl just turned 16” kind of card.
My sixteenth birthday came and went.
So did my 17th.
And my 18th.
The only reason I felt compelled to learn to drive when I was 18 was because one day, I was sitting in the passenger seat of a vehicle when the vehicle started to roll slowly forward. No one was sitting in the driver’s seat, so I had to figure out how to get the dang thing stopped. And I had no clue which pedal was the brake and which was the gas.
Long story short, I did get it stopped, but I was completely freaked out and I was convinced that I needed to learn how to drive.
So I got a learner’s permit. I aced the test. It was awesome. They didn’t even let me answer the last few questions because I had gotten all of them right.
Shortly after that, my dad took me to an empty parking lot in our little red Ford Maverick.
The old Ford had no padding on the seats.
It was a good 10 years older than me.
It squeaked every time it went over a bump — or when you turned the wheel.
And it was a stick.
Dad wanted me to learn to drive a stick because he was convinced that once I tried an automatic, I’d never go back to a stick.
He was right.
At any rate, my first task as a new driver was to drive in a large figure-8 pattern, and not kill the engine in the process. It was pretty simple. I got the hang of the stick shift really quickly, with the exception of parallel parking and stopping and starting on a hill.
After driving in figure-8 patterns for a while, we decided to call it a day. And my new task was to drive home — without killing the engine. And, of course, without killing anybody. Or hitting anything.
It helped that home was a straight shot from the empty parking lot, roughly 6 blocks away in a residential area (no traffic) and only one intersection that you’d be likely to find other cars.
For several months, I drove that awful, squeaky little Ford with no padding on the seat through Fargo traffic. I drove around the mall, where the traffic is crazy. I drove on the back roads. I drove up and down Broadway and 13th Avenue South. I drove down 12th Avenue North, and one fateful day, the light at the top of the hill turned red, just as I was approaching the bottom of the hill. Somehow, I managed to keep it running and keep it from rolling backwards. And I nearly got a standing ovation from my little brothers in the back seat when we were safely through the intersection.
After I’d learned the ins and outs of driving a stick, the neighbor decided that it was time for me to advance to bigger and better things. (This is a great example of how “it takes a village.”) He let me drive his automatic. And he didn’t make me take the back roads.
My dad was freaking out in the back seat.
I was having the time of my life.
And the neighbor was alternating between laughing at Dad and instructing me.
We managed to get where we were going. No one died. No damage was done.
And after that experience, I refused to drive the squeaky old Ford with no padding on the seats.
The next step up was a big old boat of a car. The boys and I called it the Banana Boat because it was yellow and it was enormous. I attempted to take the road test to get my actual license in that car, and it did not go well, considering that the parallel parking space was just inches longer than the car. It didn’t help that I got the Wicked Witch of the DOT for the test. She was gorgeous, with curly brown hair and the greenest green eyes you could ever imagine. But she was as spiteful as she was beautiful. And I failed. Because the car was too big for the parallel parking spot.
I tried again a few weeks later and this time, I got a different test person. She asked why I didn’t pass the first time and I said it was the parallel parking and the car was too big for the space. She said that she intended to pass me because it’s not my fault the car is too big.
I did pass that time. I think I might have cried — I was that nervous about the whole thing.
Later that afternoon, I decided to go shopping. All by myself.
I got in the car, fastened the seatbelt, put the car in reverse — and promptly backed into a tree.
Fortunately, I like to use hyperbole, so I didn’t actually back into the tree. That part was slightly exaggerated. The corner of the front bumper scraped the side of the tree, tearing off a big chunk of bark.
A few years later, the tree had to be euthanized because it had been overtaken by Dutch Elm disease.
And that, my friends, is the baddest bad thing I’ve ever done.