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Confessions of a Late-Life Driver

Confessions of a Late Life Driver

by Marsi Buckmelter 

When I was a month shy of my thirtieth birthday, my husband decided that not having a driver's license was a lousy thing for me to have in common with our three-month-old son.

The same brown eyes — yes. A fair complexion and practically opposable big toes — you bet. An "outie" bellybutton — hey, why not? But no driver's license? My husband had a point: At the rate I was going, our son had a good chance of getting his driver's license before I did.  

The thought of driving a car had always made my stomach lurch. When people found out that I was a non-driver and asked why, I glibly joked that I was a lethal weapon behind the wheel, tacitly suggesting that I could drive but simply chose not to. The truth is, I was absolutely phobic about driving.

When I was eleven, one of my uncles offered to let me drive an electric golf cart. All in all, it would have been a good experience, had I not mistaken the power pedal for the brake and nearly smashed into a brick wall. Badly shaken and certain that I posed a huge threat to society, I didn't attempt driving again until I was a 29-year-old wife, mother, and graduate student. 

"Look at them, Steve. They're babies," I whispered to my husband as we waited to confirm my driving clinic reservations. I looked at my fellow student drivers, lanky teens full of enthusiasm for the weekend ahead. One boy, literally half my age, had a mohawk and lazed against the front door of his monster truck. A sticker on the back window warned, "Fear This." I thought, I do. Oh God, I do.

I marveled at the confidence and excitement that these kids had for learning to drive. For them, it meant dates, after-school jobs, and road trips. Freedom. Emancipation. Adulthood. For me, it meant overcoming more than fifteen years of fearing that I'd get the pedals mixed up and kill myself.

After dividing into two groups, we began our day by warming up on a circular course strewn with orange pylons. Around and around the course we drove at 10 mph, avoiding cones and shielding our eyes from the rising sun. My group's collective talent for maneuvering between cones at extremely low speeds quickly became evident to our instructors, who presented us with increasingly challenging courses.  

Our group spent the rest of the afternoon tooling around on the skid pad to master inclement-weather driving skills.  

"Look at where you want to go," our instructors reminded us, "and steer in that direction." 

Tara, a young driver, had her own spin on that bit of advice: "Look at your driving instructor standing ten feet in front of your car and steer in that direction."

One second James, the instructor, was standing tall, pointing her toward a parking place, and the next he was kissing the pavement.

The student drivers stopped their cars, the driving instructors ran to James, Tara instantly burst into tears, and I quietly thanked God for not making me be the one who almost killed our instructor. 

James was only slightly hurt. I mean, sure, he gimped around a lot the rest of the afternoon and winced every time he swung himself in and out of my passenger seat, but I must say that for a man who narrowly escaped filing the ultimate workers' compensation claim, James handled his injuries with aplomb. Tara remained borderline hysterical until her parents came to take her home.  

I was feeling pretty cocky the next morning when my husband dropped me off at driving school. I sat in my little Mitsubishi before the lessons began, smugly surveying all the other students fidgeting in their cars and checking themselves out in the rearview mirror, and thought, Man ... I could kick all of your asses on the SAT if I wanted to.

I spotted Tara the Terror. She sat glumly in her parents' suppository-shaped minivan, looking like she'd rather have been at home scrubbing toilets. Tara's sour mood aside, the morning held the same excitement as the day before. We were fine-tuning our skills in preparation of the afternoon's "parents' recital," a humiliating event that involved negotiating a tricky slalom course in front of our parents — or in my case, my husband and infant child.  
Particularly nerve-wracking was the part where our parents — or in my case, my husband and infant child — had to get into our cars with us as we showed off our amazing new driving skills.

I was so nervous that my recital was more like Mr. Toad's Wild Ride. I blazed through a red light when I should have changed lanes to catch the green light, accelerated and turned when I should have braked and turned, and plowed through an orange pylon or two. Despite these major infractions, which would have earned me a date in traffic court in the real world, I was still proclaimed a "much-improved driver." 

It's been more than two years since my driving school adventures, and I'm now a seasoned driver. Occasionally, I wonder about my fellow students, particularly Tara the Terror. I wonder, did she pass her driving test? Is she more confident on the road? Has she killed her first pedestrian yet? 

As a driver, it pleases me to report that I must be doing something right because I haven't been ticketed, arrested, flipped off, shot at, or driven off the road for my minor offenses. Driving has opened my world up to the possibilities of dates, after-school jobs, and road trips...all of which would all be extremely exciting if I weren't already in possession of a husband, a career and a passport.  

Nevertheless, I feel like I'm sixteen years old again - or how I should have felt when I was sixteen, cruising down the narrow country lanes of my hometown with the windows open and the GoGo's singing at the tops of their lungs about having the beat.

For the first time in my life, I finally feel like I've got the beat, too.