Driving Lessons

April 27th is Tell-a-Story Day. It is also what would have been my Pop’s 70th birthday. Time for another story with him.

This year will be about driving lessons. I’m visiting family back in Manitoba next month, and we’ll be spending a few days “at the lake”, which is local lingo for staying in a cottage or cabin on or near one of the bazillion lakes in Manitoba and southwestern Ontario. This reminded me of a time when I was about 13, and Pop decided to teach me to drive.

We were spending some time at my uncle’s cottage near Victoria Beach. The cabin was a work in progress, not so much rustic as unfinished. Gas lanterns, chemical toilet, water in a blue jug on the counter. From what I recall, the beach was walking distance, as we spent most days wandering the shore, including the sandy beach and the rocky shores.

Every few days, a trip to the store was required, if for no other reason than kid-distraction. The road from the cottage area to any kind of store was a long, straight gravel road, with steep, deep ditches on either side – a typical rural Manitoba road. And one day, Pop had me drive.

I don’t recall the impetus for this, but there I was, behind the wheel of a standard transmission car – a Porsche no less. Navigating the shorter roads around the cottage was tricky, as I kept jerking and stalling. I’ll always remember his advice at this point: “one goal as a driver is to minimize the discomfort to the passengers.” In other words, “stop bouncing us around!” Once out on the main road, things were a bit easier gear-wise.

But not driving-wise. I found it hard to stay straight on the gravel, as it felt like moving through mushy sand, not to mention it was noisy and rough. And as I tried to find a smoother, firmer spot, I put one wheel over the edge, on the right. Like a slow-motion nightmare, I felt the car being pulled closer and closer to the ditch, with no idea how to correct it. Within seconds, we slipped over the edge into the deep ditch. No one was hurt – I hadn’t been going that fast, and the ditch was thick with grass and bullrushes so deep that, when we looked back from the edge of the road, the car was nearly invisible. My dad’s main message: “No matter what happens, I was driving.”

The rest of that day was long, hot and embarrassing. Pre-cell phone days meant waiting by the side of the road for another car to pass, and then getting a ride to the nearest phone to call a tow truck. The car was extracted from the weeds completely unscathed, and we piled back in (with my dad driving now, and us three kids in the passenger seat sans belt) and spent the rest of the day back at the cabin, with my dad teasing me relentlessly – complete with his famous cackle – about my lousy driving skills. I have a hazy recollection that my grandma (his mom) was there also, laughing along despite her considerable disapproval of both his recklessness and my complicity with it.

It was just a few years later that I would get my drivers license, one of the first of my group of friends to do so. And several years later, when I learned to drive a standard, his admonition to keep the passengers comfortable would come back to me each time I missed a gear or jerked into a higher gear. Thankfully, I’m now a much better driver than I was a 13.

A sidebar to this story (and a contributing factor to its delayed publication). I asked my sister if she remembered this incident. She did, but remembered it differently – different car, and instead of me driving, my dad was driving with my sister on his lap (another infamous habit of 70s parenting). Since she was only ~7-8 at the time, I decided that my memory was more reliable than hers, so I’m sticking with my version. This is the fallibility of childhood memories, coloured as they can be by emotions and age. She and I often compare stories about growing up, and find many differences subtle and significant. Ultimately though, the memories are mine, and perhaps should be as factual as they are meaningful, the stuff of legend rather than history.

This contemporary article is a relevant reference for the fallibility of memory.

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