We began, as most do, with basics: studying the driver’s manual, learning road signs and rules.
In December, Alpha and Beta turned 16-years-old and in January, we started teaching them how to drive. First things: getting the driver’s seat position right (checking pedal reach), what the foot pedals are for, adjusting and using the rearview and side mirrors, learning what instruments to pay attention to, the gearshift and what the indicators mean. Then the practical application of using the accelerator–gas pedal, and brakes, how to steer and when to use turn and hazard signals. In February, they got their learners permits, and we began slow—very slow—behind the wheel maneuvering in an empty elementary school parking lot. Just low-speed straight ahead moving, with some turns and then parking (including reverse backing out of the spot, using the camera and proximity alarm as a guide but not a substitute for their own eyes and awareness).
That first morning, I did something that felt surreal, a kind of Rod Serling Twilight Zone Time Tunnel mashup: I turned down the music and told them: “No loud music while you drive. Okay?” And—since they are both loud, get lost in it, music lovers—I made them confirm they understood, look me in the eyes and acknowledge with: “Yes, Dad.”
Shit! I sounded like that old man (who might have been younger than I am now) hollering at a much younger me sitting in my ’65 Impala with speakers just a blasting and rattling (Bad Company’s Run With The Pack), about to pull out of the Piggly Wiggly parking lot onto Central Avenue: “Turn down that music boy… you’ll cause a wreck!” I’m still shaking my head at the realization I’d transformed into that old man (but I swear, just for that moment)!
From basic training, we’ve stepped up to the next level: early Saturday morning driving in an office park area not far from home. Large parking lots, a sprinkling of cars and a slow-speed light-traffic street that ran for a couple of miles from those offices to the golf course clubhouse (whose full parking lot we also maneuvered carefully through). Where we’ve been practicing also has three pedestrian crosswalks and two golf cart crossings. So, we went through what to do when approaching them—check both ways and if someone’s in the crosswalk or cart path—come to a stop. Then from there, back the way we came to drive to—through the trifecta of corner congestion: Starbucks, Walgreens and Burger King—and park at a Publix shopping center. This was more challenging, more risk, but still a safe progression to get them comfortable with the hands-on-the-wheel experience. And all done with just a few tense moments!
Last Saturday we had finished an hour and a half’s practice, and I was driving us home. But the learning doesn’t stop when I’m doing the driving. I talked to them about situations and scenarios to test what they’ve learned. Beta was riding shotgun as we approached the turn into Johns Creek, our community. As we pulled up to the intersection light and its crosswalk into Windsor Park, I posed a hypothetical to her:
“Say you’re driving down Hodges (the street we were on), you’re obeying all the rules and speed limit. The light’s green, and you’re not turning to go home, you’re going straight ahead, maybe headed to Salsa’s (a Mexican food place just up the road at Hodges and Beach). You come up on this….” I gestured through the windshield in front of us. “And suddenly there’s a baby in the crosswalk!” I had been pitching my voice a bit faster and louder as I spoke to her. “What do you do?”
Without hesitating, Beta replied, “I stop and wait.”
“Good,” I smiled and patted her on the arm. Looking over my shoulder, I nodded at Alpha in the backseat. “Right?” She nodded back and gave me a thumbs-up. I turned to Beta—and I don’t know where this thought came from, it was not premeditated… “What if it’s Baby Satan in the crosswalk?”
No answer from either one. I turned the music down—which had gone up when I got behind the wheel… I can adult and drive safely while loud(er) music plays—and looked over at Beta. She was a bit wide-eyed at the question and my tone—I’d used my sharp-edged demanding-Dad voice. “What do you do?” I pressed her. A deer-in-the-headlights look had formed on her face. I glanced at Alpha in the backseat who quickly turned her head as if intently studying something outside the window. The light went green, and I turned into our neighborhood. I repeated the question. “What do you do if it’s Baby Satan in the crosswalk?”
Beta remained quiet. I think she was still trying to figure out if I was setting some kind of verbal trap for her, she was calculating angles and target lines. Then Alpha piped up from the backseat. “You stop.”
I looked over my shoulder at her, “For Satan?” I made it seem as if I was astounded at her answer.
“It’s a baby!” Alpha now had a sharpness to her voice, too.
I shook my head and caught her eyes in the rearview mirror. “That will grow up and plague mankind, sow untold sorrow, cause people to kill, extinguish hope and faith, and torment millions of people.”
“It’s still a baby, Dad.” Beta was in it now, on Alpha’s side.
“What if he grows up and destroys the world?” I asked.
Alpha was leaning forward, toward me now, as far as the seatbelt would let her. It’s a baby… maybe it will grow up and be good.”
“It’s Satan!” I said, “It’ll grow up to create Hell on Earth!” Both were silent, and I continued, though in a quieter voice. “What if it grows up to destroy your family?”
Alpha wasn’t backing off. “When I stopped, I would get out of the car, look around to see if an adult—his parents—were around. And if no one was, I would take him and raise him to be good.”
I admired her compassion but didn’t let it show, again, faking a harsh, unbelieving tone. “So, you’d raise Baby Satan!” I wanted to press them to see how they’d handle these questions.
“If there wasn’t anyone else to do it.” Alpha crossed her arms and sat back.
We had reached a good –unplanned for—point, though I had not actually intended it that way. It was a juncture that almost everyone—every adult—comes to in life (to a larger or lesser degree of magnitude), sometimes several times: a moral and ethical dilemma. We had also reached our driveway.
Pressing the garage door opener, I looked at them catching their eye to make sure they were listening, “You see the type of thinking that comes from a situation like that?” We pulled in, got out, went inside the house where we poured glasses of ice tea and sat at the kitchen table. “Sometimes in life, we’re faced with doing what social norms (I had to explain what that meant) standard—even outdated—social conventions or ways of thinking, calls for. Which can be wrong… and instead, we have to choose to do what’s right. Though some may be affronted,” I looked at Alpha who did not flinch. “You still have to do what should be done.” Again—and I’m a firm believer in this—I looked them in the eyes to make sure they held steady with mine. “The point of what we just talked about, is to make you consider what should be done. Not just go with what a rule or regulation—or someone in authority tells you.” I finished my tea, rose from the table and set the empty glass in the sink. Knowing there would be more talk about this—what I wanted them to do was (is) a balancing act in many ways—and outcomes depended on how well Daphne and I had taught them about using judgment of right and wrong. I gave them each a hug. “I just want you to think for yourself and not always blindly follow what everyone, what anyone, expects. I want you to always try to determine what that right thing is, and do that.”
“Please allow me to introduce myself
I’m a man of wealth and taste
I’ve been around for a long, long year
Stole many a man’s soul to waste
And I was ’round when Jesus Christ
Had his moment of doubt and pain
Made damn sure that Pilate
Washed his hands and sealed his fate
Pleased to meet you
Hope you guess my name…”
–Rolling Stones, Sympathy for the Devil