Reflections of a Southern Yankee: Drive

Just a dirt road

With trash on each side

But I was Mario Andretti

When daddy let me drive

                        -Alan Jackson

They say driving is an art form. If that’s the case, there are a lot of Jackson Pollocks behind the wheel these days. Just yesterday morning on my daily run past Baptist hospital, I saw a crosswalk signal that had been absolutely obliterated laying in the street. “How does that even happen?” I asked myself as I shook my head and continued on my run. Honestly, there could only be three possible explanations: Someone was driving while impaired, looking at the phone or had a medical emergency. I’m sure I’ll never know.

As someone who travels almost half the year for work, I Uber a great deal. The past few times, the driver was in a Tesla. Now, don’t get me wrong, they’re super cool cars (but I’ll never own one). What amazes me the most about them is the fact that literally everything in that vehicle is controlled by a touch screen computer right there on the dashboard. Other than the brake, accelerator pedal and steering wheel, the driver controls every aspect of that car with that screen. It got me thinking just how much things have changed in the 50 years I’ve been around. To think these cars will soon be driving themselves (some already are) is not only a bit frightening but is also somewhat sad. In the same way that I’ve never known what it’s like to have to go to the front of a car to turn a crank to start it, there are people today who don’t know what it’s like to turn a key or to push in the clutch while you shift gears with your right hand and drive with your left. Are we purposefully being made lazier? I’ll let you be the judge of that.

Growing up in upstate New York, my grandfather drove a simple car – something like a Ford Escort. As an infant/toddler, I sat on my grandmother’s lap whenever we went somewhere (car seats just weren’t popular yet). I don’t know if it even had seat belts to be honest.

When I was adopted, the night I met my new father, I climbed up into a green International Scout. If you aren’t familiar, it’s basically like someone took a Jeep and bred it with a Bronco. Over the next few years, I sat on my father’s lap and steered that vehicle with no power steering (another thing many people of today will never know about) down the gravel road we lived off of until we hit the pavement. Whenever we drove to our property on the other side of the county, I drove the last couple of miles or so, while on his lap. Not many years later, I was in the high school parking lot with my father beside me patiently teaching me how to let off the clutch while, at the same time, giving it some gas. I made a lot of grinding sounds in that old Scout, but I eventually became quite proficient in driving a standard vehicle (another dying art form).

Out at our farm, we bought our first tractor – an old Oliver. As with the Scout, I started out on my old man’s lap as we drove through the fields. The beautiful sound of that Diesel engine was music to our ears as the sun shone down on a boy and his father on their tractor. It wasn’t long before I was in the seat of that tractor by myself – left foot on the clutch, right foot on the brake. Shift into first gear, slowly let off the clutch and off I went. I spent hours on that tractor bush hogging in those fields feeling like a million bucks. To be an eight- or nine-year-old boy driving a tractor – now that was living!

We had another vehicle that stayed out on that farm. We only used it as a work vehicle for carrying firewood and such. This old Gray Chevy pickup had something I’d never seen (or heard) with which I loved to play. The vehicle had once been used on a farm with cattle. It had a device that looked kind of like a lever. When one pushed the lever, a horn that sounded like the mooing of a cow blew. It was the greatest thing as a young boy to drive that truck around the farm, mooing. (We were entertained in much simpler ways back then).  

When I turned 18, using money I had saved over the years and with a little help from my grandmother, I purchased my very first vehicle. It was anything but glamorous, but it was mine and I loved it – an old diesel burgundy station wagon with wooden sides. Let’s just say I wasn’t picking up many chicks with it, but I didn’t care. I had wheels, and more importantly, a little more freedom. I know that not many people had a first car that had to be plugged in during the winter so that it would start the next morning. That car was something special.  

Over the past 32 years, I’ve owned a standard Celica, a standard Camry (the last standard vehicle I ever owned), a Jeep Cherokee, a minivan (ugh), a Highlander (which my oldest son still drives), several more Camrys and a Lexus. Knock on wood, I’ve only been in one accident. A jerk passed a school bus on a double line and hit me head on. Fortunately, I hadn’t been going fast but I’ve never wanted to hurt another human being in my life more than I wanted to hurt that guy.

Today, driving is so different. Everywhere I go, all I see are people with their heads down looking at their phones instead of paying attention to the road. It’s extremely nerve wracking and infuriating. The sheer number of accidents and road signs that I see destroyed by distracted drivers is unnerving to say the least. Sometimes, I wish I had that DeLorean, so I could go back in time, sit on my dad’s lap again and just steer that old green Scout off into the sunset.


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