When my son Isaac still counted years in single digits, he often rated days with superlatives. “This was the best day ever!” he’d exclaim.
The day he learned to drive his grandpa’s boat, for example, capped all other “best days” before it. It’s a heady joy to be behind the wheel, controlling the direction and speed of a motorized vehicle.
Isaac was a natural, using his visual-spatial prowess to navigate the boat over waves at just the right angle for minimum or maximum bounce, depending on what the passengers wanted. He could also gently dock the boat in its slip without banging the sides. Those accomplishments made him feel more grown up.
At 16, he no longer makes proclamations assessing his days, but one recent Friday could cap a lot of memorable days he’s had as a teen. He got his driver’s license.
It was a good day. After passing the driving test with point room to spare, he experienced a wonder I’ve never seen. No line at the Department of Licensing.
Usually, the DOL is a great place to people watch while you wait but the hard plastic chairs weren’t populated by an eclectic socio-economic cross section of Spokane Valley drivers. Everyone must have been at work or the lake because the plain room had more employees than patrons. After checking in, Isaac didn’t even have time to sit down before they called his number.
Then he experienced another miracle, a stroke of luck so good it made me wish Isaac was old enough to buy a lottery ticket. He took an excellent picture for his license. Unlike his permit picture, which captured him licking his lips, he’s sporting a smile on his driver’s license in an image good enough to frame and hang on the wall. It looks as if he’s thinking, “This is the best day ever!”
While he headed off on his first solo drive, I recalled how excited I was to get a driver’s license, a little card that feels like freedom, independence and adulthood. You can go further than ever before, without a parent saying, “slow down. Be careful.”
Of course, that also means figuring some things out on our own.
I remember panicking on one of my first solo drives because the car sluggishly lurched rather than drive down the road. Without a parent in the passenger seat to offer instruction, I pulled over and pondered what to do, eventually realizing the ride would be smoother after I released the parking brake.
Driving offers a lot of lessons. A few years later I learned that cars don’t drive very well when a tire is flat. Then I learned how to change a tire. When my clutch went out, I learned how to push start a car for a few days, until I could get it into a mechanic. Then I learned how to jump start a car.
From the time he first steered his grandpa’s boat, Isaac has been an excellent driver so I wasn’t worried when he took the car keys and left. But a string of memories from my young driving days made me hope his good luck would hold for many years to come. Beginning drivers could use a little luck as they gain experience.
I remembered when I accidently backed over a stop sign at about 20 miles an hour, for example, and the time I hit a parked car because I’d turned to keep my puppy from crawling into the front seat, not realizing I was turning the steering wheel at the same time.
I also remembered the adrenaline and relief of avoiding an accident after driving the wrong way on a one-way street or after running a red light with a car full of kids because I changed my mind about turning right at the last minute.
For all the times I drove too fast, too slow, too distracted or too sleep-deprived, I’m thankful the consequences weren’t worse than an expensive repair bill to replace an overheated engine head and busted water pump. Too many times they could have been worse.
Other family members have more harrowing stories, like the night Curtis’ friend fell asleep at the wheel and flipped their truck on the highway. Curtis was asleep in the truck bed and woke to see the vehicle land on his sleeping bag. The patrolman who saw the crash didn’t expect to find any survivors. That experience seared him with the importance of pulling over when sleepy.
We tell these stories, from the silly to the serious, because we hope our children won’t have to learn every lesson by experience.
We hope the lessons they learn behind the wheel are the kind that build independence and confidence. And we hope the memories they make behind the wheel are the kind that make them say, “This was the best day, ever!”