Driving Lessons

The question posed by my journaling app was simple: “Who taught you how to drive?”

My dad taught me to drive. What always stuck with me was not what he taught me, but how he handled my first car accident. I was headed to my first job, at the Hazlet movie theater on Rte 35 in the Kmart shopping center, on a Saturday or Sunday, probably around noon. I had to run by the Middletown theater, where my Uncle Tom was the manager, to pick up popcorn to get us started on a busy, rainy day.

I had to pass the Hazlet theater on my way to Middletown and, as I drove by, I looked left to see how much of a crowd was gathering already. When I looked back to the road, the car in front of me had come to a complete stop. Too late. Crrrrunch.

Having never been in a car accident before, I didn’t know how to gauge the damage. It didn’t feel that bad—which was helped by the fact I was driving my dad’s Mercedes 300D diesel 4-door sedan. It was as solid as an oak tree. When I walked to the front of the car, I was surprised—no, it was shock—to see the car in front was MESSED UP, and the Mercedes was looking worse for the wear, too.

My composure rattled, I left the scene of the accident and ran to the movie theater, all the way across the shopping center parking lot. I’ve never thought in 33 years how dumb, irresponsible, and reckless that was. Geez. And called my dad from the box office phone. After telling him, I said goodbye to my boss Sue and walked back across the parking lot, expecting some sort of ritual sacrifice of yours truly on the hood of the Mercedes when my dad arrived.

But when he got there, he wasn’t upset. Looking back as a dad to two young men, I get it. The car could be fixed; putting me back together wouldn’t have been as painless. But the realization that I would not be dying on this noon Saturday in Hazlet, N.J., was revelation.

That day was, in some ways, a sealed revelation. I’ve never crashed again, despite all the impairments—visual-, substance- and exhaustion-related—of the ensuing decades. Sometimes I feel overdue.

Over the years, I often thought my dad a stubborn and unforgiving man, who held grudges despite many opportunities to put them to rest. But that is not the whole story. There were times like this when he showed great patience and forgiveness—even when I’d trashed his most cherished symbol of having transformed from poor Irish kid in Mount Vernon, N.Y., to Guy Who Made It, who had a nice house and a nice family in the suburbs, who could afford a European luxury sedan. He did lots of very generous things—looking out for his nieces and nephews, serving on the board of a boarding school for at-risk teen girls, coaching a church basketball team despite not having any kids on the team.

It’s something I can remember and emulate with my own guys when things happen that they didn’t mean to happen. Some days you’re just glad that nobody got hurt.

One thought on “Driving Lessons

  1. I am still following your writing, Prof.. Sorry to be creepy on your site.

    Thank you for the formative year at Syracuse. Wish you all the best.

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