The Driver

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At 50-years-old, the author got her first drivers' license. The adventure was just beginning.

Last week, I drove right past “Road Work Ahead” signs, right past a man in an orange vest holding a STOP sign, past a whole lane of orange pylons to then face a long line of cars headed straight towards me on a one-lane road. I needed to back up. I am terrible at backing up. I can never remember which way to turn the wheel to make it go right or left. Therefore, I never park the car in a place that requires me to back up. But there was no choice last week. I HAD to back up. Luckily, the roadway was straight, so I managed to back up far enough so the long line of cars facing me could go past me.

Me driving Roy Ann Bement in my ’62 olds. Roy Anne is smiling because she has no idea what a bad driver I am.

My husband Ray never wanted me to learn to drive. He said I had all the instincts of a terrible driver. Perhaps he was correct: I am incredibly unobservant, I am dreadful at anything to do with spatial relations, and I panic easily.

For the first ten years of our marriage, he drove us everywhere. When we moved to California in 1969, we lived on a hill in San Mateo. I was 32 at the time. The grocery store was at the bottom of the hill.  Occasionally, I’d walk down and buy more than I planned, and it was difficult lugging a huge bag of stuff up the hill. Often a neighbor would notice me and offer me a ride up. One day a car stopped. It looked like my neighbor’s car, so I opened the door and hopped in. It was not my neighbor but a strange man offering me a ride up the hill. I was too embarrassed to admit I had made a mistake. I was terrified as he reached across me to shut the passenger door. I looked at the door to find the handle so I could make a quick getaway in case he was not an honorable person. Nothing on the door looked like a door handle. I was trapped. My heart pounded as he drove up the hill. Luckily, he was a good guy and dropped me off at my house. When Ray came home from work and heard this story, he took me to the DMV and got a “Rules of the Road” book. He was going to teach me to drive.

During our first lesson, Ray was the soul of patience. I saw a bicyclist coming toward me, still about three blocks away. I told Ray I was too nervous to keep going with the bicyclist coming. Ray gave me permission to stop. I did.

“It isn’t such a good idea to stop in the middle of an intersection, dear,” he said calmly.

The second lesson, Ray expected me to have made some progress. When I did several things wrong, he shouted at me, so I told him I wanted to take lessons from someone else. I called a driving school and paid for the lessons with money I earned as a lifeguard. Six weeks later, I took my driver’s test and passed it with a score of 73 points, three points higher than necessary.

“You really wanted to fail me, didn’t you?” I asked the examiner.

“I could easily have flunked you,” he answered, “I strongly suggest that you do LOT of practice, lady.”

I was elated.

Throughout my driving school program, Ray stayed home during each lesson, holding his breath and waiting to hear I had been in some horrible accident. Each time I returned home, I was greeted by a Ray as pale as a ghost.

After eight more weeks of lessons, I thought I had mastered the art of driving. I went home to impress Ray by taking him for a drive, only to realize I’d learned on an automatic car at the driving school while our own car had a standard transmission. Undaunted and still determined to test out my new skills, I drove Ray five blocks to the rec center. I made so many mistakes that both of us agreed that I should not be driving a car; at least, not his beloved car.

I begged for an old dented car as a Christmas gift. My husband agonized over what to do. Ray wanted me to drive a car that was safe, and viewed a used car as significantly less safe than a new vehicle. But buying a new car for me seemed a waste of money; in Ray’s eyes, such a car would be destroyed all too soon.  Finally, on Christmas, he surprised me with a diamond ring.  He said it was cheaper and safer than a car.

For the next twenty years, he drove me everywhere.

Two decades as a non-driver resulted in a complexity of problems. In order to cash checks, everyone asks for a driver’s license. Since I did not have one, I went to the Maryland DMV to get an “age of majority” card. It is a photo ID for the Marylanders without a driver’s license. I assumed these licenses were for people who are mentally challenged, have had bad accidents or whose licenses were revoked. Every time I had to show it, the vendor would stare at me, trying to guess what it was that defined me as a non-driver. It was embarrassing.

I was over fifty years old when Ray was hospitalized with what everyone thought was a heart attack. I had to beg various friends to drive me to the hospital and then wait while I visited with Ray. Luckily he was back home in only a couple of days. It was at that point I called our daughter, Carola, and asked her to teach me to drive the coming summer when we would be conducting bird research together in North Dakota. Ray knew nothing of our plans.

Soon after we arrived in Solen, North Dakota, Carola got me the  state “Rules of the Road.” I studied this manual surreptitiously behind my novels, so Ray would not realize what I was up to.  When I was ready, Carola and I drove to Bismarck to take the test. The folks at the DMV asked for my ID. I gave them my Maryland Age of Majority card.

My daughter, Carola, buying the car she used to patiently teach me to drive.

After passing the written test, I was given a learner’s permit to drive in North Dakota. I asked for my Maryland ID back and was told that they’d send it to Maryland and inform them I had moved to ND! I knew then that I simply had to get my driver’s license that summer. One morning we had the mist nets set up; it would be a while before any bird flew in, so while we waited, Carola suggested we have a driving lesson. I declined, saying I didn’t feel up to it that day. She urged me; I refused.

“Come on, mom; just get in the pickup and we’ll drive for five minutes every day for a week. If you still hate it after that, I’ll stop bugging you.”

It was exactly the right thing to say. From that day on, we drove about five minutes a day. Carola was incredibly patient and kind. One day as we were moving from one site to another, I saw Ray’s car coming towards us; I could see him waving. I panicked, “It’s Dad!  What should I do?”

“Keep driving, Mom, don’t stop, don’t stop….”

Ray had seen a strange bird and wanted to ask Carola about it. He was shocked when he noticed it was I, not Carola who was driving. I wanted to run away from home. I loved Ray, but he was scary when he got angry.

That evening, I quietly entered our home. Instead of the usual warm and tender greeting, he sat in his chair reading, saying nothing. I put away my birding equipment and began to make supper.

Ray was the most law-abiding person I’ve ever met, having never sped a single mile above the limit in his whole life. (To this day whenever I drive a tiny bit over the limit, I’d “hear” what he used to say to me: “The speed limit sign is NOT a suggestion, Katherine, it’s the law.”)

“It is illegal to drive without a learner’s permit,” he said.

“I have my learner’s permit!” I showed him.

“You got that fraudulently, Katherine.  You need to live in ND for 90 days before you can apply for a learner’s permit.”

“Ray, we live here in ND every summer for 60 days. If you add up all the days we spend here…”

“NINETY CONSECUTIVE DAYS!”

I practiced driving all summer. Just before returning to Maryland, I borrowed our neighbor’s car and passed the driving test in Fort Yates, ND, the county seat of Standing Rock Indian Reservation. Because I learned in rural North Dakota, I drive well on gravel. I can avoid rocks in the road and wandering cattle. I know to grind the rattler into the pavement by applying my brakes if he is basking in the warmth of the road, because just running over the snake does it no harm. There are hardly ever other cars on the road, so I learned not to use my rear view mirror.

Main St. of Solen, North Dakota, the town where I finally learned to drive and to kill a rattle snake by grinding it into the ground.

Here in Maryland today, I don’t know how people can read road signs and keep their eyes on the road at the same time. I need my 2nd husband to drive me to any new place so the next day I can drive there myself without having to read signs and try to find where it is. I don’t know how to merge. I am still not comfortable driving farther than six miles from home.

Not long ago, on the afternoon of a Navy football game, I was on Rowe Boulevard. I needed to turn left on Taylor Ave., but a policeman stopped all traffic going there and insisted we stay straight; the sign ordered me to Route 50. I burst into tears. I tried to tell the policeman, “I can’t drive on Rt. 50. I don’t know how to merge.” But no, there was no time. I had to follow a whole row of cars, sobbing, driving to my doom, my heart racing. Then suddenly I saw a sign for Bestgate Road!  WOW, I know Bestgate, I’ve driven there before!  I didn’t have to go to Rt. 50. I wasn’t about to die!

That was probably the scariest four minutes I ever experienced in my life.

Katherine Haas lives in Annapolis and gets to and from a handful of her favorite places just fine. 

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