Never lend your car to anyone to whom you have given birth. ~Erma Bombeck
In 2003, a little known motion picture was released called “Hell’s Highway: The True Story of the Highway Safety Films. The movie chronicled the world of Richard Wayman, an Ohio accountant, any others who in the mid 1960’s had a ghoulish hobby of filming auto accidents . Wayman and a cadre of concerned citizens spent a decade tracking police and ambulance calls and were often first on the scene responders to film the devastating effects of unsafe driving. These films were then packaged and force-fed to teenagers hungry for learner’s permits in Driver’s Education classes across America.
In a rite of passage reminiscent of Malcolm McDowell’s shock therapy in “A Clockwork Orange”, high school freshman of the 70’s were subjected to highly graphic movies of car crashes, mangled bodies and twisted metal. The movies attempted to persuade us that the automobile was hardly a toy. It was in fact, a freaking vessel of destruction. Yet, leading up to that day, we savored the opportunity to view these gruesome montages of death.
Everyone’s older sibling has told us about the highway safety films of Driver’s Ed. As a 15 year old, we did not see many R rated movies. Ultra violence was an emerging form of art in the minds of directors like Peckenpaugh and Kubrick, not part of kid’s video games or cable TV. Graphic film was verboten – a forbidden fruit reserved for mature audiences only. The idea of seeing something in school that might fetch an “M” or even “X” rating was almost too good to be true.
The lights dimmed. The air was thick with adolescent anticipation. As teenaged boys restlessly joked with paper-tiger bravado, the girls squirmed and shifted in their seats as if they were about to dissect a frog in biology. This was serious stuff. You had to have a signed permission slip by your parents to attend class that day. The canister of film had been faithfully threaded through the projector by the AV geek and the opening credits of “Death on the Highway” fell ominously down the screen like the broken lines of a lonely country road. Within five minutes we had seen three horrific car wrecks. Someone whispered in the dark,“ my brother told me (the film) ‘Last Prom’ had a guy with a pipe all the way through his head.” Suddenly, Inez Williams leapt to her feet and moaned as she tried in vain to make it to the door. In a scene out of Red Asphalt, she stumbled and threw up all over Ron Zeck’s size 13 shoes. It all happened so quickly, just like the young man in the coupe who decided to try to outrun the Southern Pacific train and ended up looking like a Home Economics burnt chicken.
Films like “Wheels of Tragedy” and “Mechanized Death” tried to show us what the consequences of bad choices could be for the young driver of a 2000 lb car. However, we were too mesmerized by the site of brains, blood and guts to really register that those entrails could be ours if we chose to blindly pass an eighteen-wheeler on a two-lane highway in New Mexico. Publically, I mastered my nausea and reveled in the gore with the other guys. Privately, I decided when I did learn to drive I would avoid the Southwestern US and train tracks altogether.
Next to facial hair or the discovery of your father’s stash of Playboy magazines, the Learner’s Permit was the ultimate gift a 16 year old could receive on one’s birthday. It was official recognition of one’s accelerating journey into adulthood and into the freedom that only a motor vehicle could provide. It was a plane ticket to exotic places far from the supervision of parents whose principal job description was to ruin your life.
By 16, I was under the impression that the only difference between an Eastern bloc country and my household was the lack of bread lines. My father had become intolerable as we clashed on issues as prosaic as grades, bedtime, curfew and where I would be for the evening. My mother would linger, sweeping in like a cool breeze to gently clean up the debris of our emotional head on collisions.
Subscribing to the Bombeck School of Driver’s Education, Mom refused to accompany us as we sought to master the art of driving her Ford Pinto. This was years before it was revealed that the green, compact car was a rolling can of C4 explosive just waiting to fry us to cinders ‘lest we be rear-ended by another teen driver. My mother’s extra sensory perception told her that teaching any of her four son’s to drive would be her undoing. The responsibility for motor vehicle instruction fell to my father who dreaded the act of slipping into the passenger side of the car. My father was not wired to be a passenger. It was an unnatural act. He was master and commander and had been driving the family station wagon as well as exclusively piloting his work car – the sleek silver Ford Seville – for years. The act of turning over his keys to a 16-year-old male with acne offended him to his core.
The moment we entered his car, the tics and anxious behavior began. His signature sniffling was a strange byproduct of his anxious mind. He was disconcerted and disoriented by lack of control. He winced as I adjusted the rearview mirror, moving his driver’s seat back, adjusting its angle. It was as if I was putting on his clothes.
He immediately shouted out instructions and warnings. ” Turn on the indicator.”
” Watch the curb!” “Jesus, look out for that car.” ” Watch it! Wait, wait, wait. Now! Go! Go! Go!” This would all unfold within the ten-yard span of driveway leading from our two-car garage on to our empty spacious suburban street.
The journey was hell for both of us – the son, needing to follow instructions to earn the privilege to continue to learn and the father grudgingly allowing his progeny to operate his favorite child. The Seville was a coddled sibling that was washed with a chamois cloth the size of a postage stamp and waxed faithfully each Sunday for the long week’s journey that lay ahead. My mother was allowed to operate his car only in extreme emergencies. As a result, the pinto’s interior resembled a refugee camp while the Seville remained pure as the day it rolled of the assembly line in Flint.
The driving lesson always ended before its scheduled time of conclusion. ” Pull over, pull over.” My father would shout. ” You’re gonna get us killed”. ” “What?” I would yell. “I missed that dog by three feet.” We would return home and the door would slam twice as we retreated to our individual caves of self-pity. My mother looked up and grinned. This was one of the few times where she did not get the short end of the stick. She was content to be “ next of kin” in the event we did not return.
31 years later, I am 47 and a passenger, having relinquished the front seat of my car to my oldest child who has just obtained her learner’s permit. I am torn between wanting to play the new age mellow father who seems outwardly indifferent to her wide turns and near misses, and wanting to seize control of the vehicle and bark orders like a coxswain. She has clearly not seen “Highway of Blood “or “Signal 30”. She turns to me after five minutes of driving along a bucolic country road and says,
“let’s take the Parkway, dad. Just one exit.” I am torn. I don’t want to discourage her but she has hardly gained the experience to navigate a high-speed thoroughfare, let alone the Food Emporium parking lot. I weaken. If my wife were present, the idea would be dismissed out of hand. I struggle between the goodwill and experience we might share and the risk of being at the whim of a new driver.
“Well?” She asks. Just then I remember that my recent change of dentists has resulted in transitioning of my dental records. I think of “Wheels of Tragedy” and a flaming crash as we careen over the meridian into oncoming traffic. I think of the burnt chicken corpse and the potential for the US Postal Service losing my dental records. How will anyone identify me?
“ You know honey, let’s wait a bit to tackle the Merritt.” She seems momentarily disappointed but content to explore the blue roads that circle the east end of town.
Somewhere in the cosmos, Richard Wayman is smiling.