This is one of my favorite pictures of Dad taken Winter '86 in front of our Toyota. It captures everything I love about him.
Dad taught me how to drive in this truck. Well, technically he finished teaching me what Mom had started. She wouldn't let me drive the Toyota -- it was the nicest vehicle we had ever owned and I was only 13. Instead Mom took me out in our old VW Bug. Its red paint was faded and dull and the engine sounded like a go-cart. It had no radio or, more importantly in the Texas heat, a working air conditioner so it wasn't exactly the finest piece of machinery. Perfect for letting a young kid get behind the wheel and give driving a shot. To complicate matters, the Bug was a stick shift and my brother David decided to tag along.
Four years my senior, David was both my protector and abuser, friend and enemy. But 90% of the time, he chose to be the latter of those two descriptions, so his presence meant I was under extra scrutiny and pressure. Mom was in the passenger seat and David sat in the back in the middle where he had room for his long legs and I could see his wry smirk and squinty brown eyes staring back any time I looked in the rear view mirror.
By 13, I had driven a go-cart, three wheeler, dirt bike, bare-backed bull, and steered our baby blue '66 Chevy down the busy Houston freeway on Dad's lap as he worked the peddles, but this was something wholly different. The Bug required the operation of a clutch and gear whilst steering and was bigger and faster than anything for which I had 100% control.
It was exhilarating.
For about five minutes.
Once I got us moving, there wasn't much to do except steer since we didn't exactly live in a place with stop signs and intersections. Mom was a horrible passenger. At every twist and turn on the winding dirt country road, she pressed against the dashboard with open palms and stiff arms as though I was hurtling us forward at 100 MPH headed toward an iceberg like the Titanic. Bracing for a collision any second, she screamed in varying degrees of seriousness, "SLOW DOWN!" "YOU'RE GOING TOO FAST!" "KAMBRI, I SAID SLOW DOWN!" The windows were rolled down which meant the breeze distorted her hearing aids so she shouted even louder than another frightened mother would. "I'M GOING TWENTY!" "WOULD YOU CALM DOWN?!" "YOU'RE MAKING ME NERVOUS!" I alternately shouted back.
David remained pretty amused in the back seat laughing, I imagine, at how ridiculous Mom was being and how white my knuckles were from gripping the wheel so tightly. When we finally approached a busier, faster road, Mom said, "Okay now I want you to stop and turn around," then showed me where "reverse" was on the gearshift. I slipped the Bug into reverse fairly easily, that wasn't my problem.
My problem was that I had turned the Bug toward the ditch on the roadside which meant we were facing downward into the ditch and to reverse meant going uphill. I would like to say that it was a steep drop but it wasn't. It was just tricky to master the exact timing of letting the clutch up with just enough pressure on the gas pedal to get over the hump. Anyone who has ever driven a stick knows that this is the hardest part for anyone to learn, but that didn't matter to me when I sent us lurching and stalled the Bug. I felt like an incompetent idiot. Mom reminded me how to re-start it which took its own effort and again I lurched us forward and backwards and stalled and revved too hard or revved too little or was too quick on the clutch or not quick enough. David's peals of laughter cut straight through the engine's loud whirs and the exasperated directions Mom was shouting over the noise. Finally too frustrated and seeing that I was never going to get it before getting us stuck in the ditch, Mom impatiently asked, "You want me to do it? Here, I'll just do it."
My face was so hot from the embarrassment and anger, I couldn't hear anything except my rapid heartbeat pounding my eardrums. I stomped around the car and got in the passenger seat with a big slam of my door and folded my arms tightly across my chest. Mom deftly got us out of the ditch as she tried to show me what she was doing with her feet. "See, this is how you do it. It's not so hard." I was too angry to look over and she drove us home in silence.
Dad was surprised to see us return home so quickly, "What's wrong?"
I signed a big, fierce, "Mom!" and launched into an animated, exaggerated account of how scared she was by bracing an imaginary dashboard and signing, "SLOW DOWN!" I stomped away as Dad couldn't help but chuckle since Mom had been his back seat driver since 1966. He knew exactly what I meant.
A few days later when Mom was too engrossed in a book to notice, Dad knocked on my bedroom door. "Come in," I yelled, but no one opened the door. I knew that meant it was Dad knocking. Since he couldn't hear my reply to his knock, he always took extra time before opening the door, careful not to invade my privacy. As he had dozens of times before he asked, "I going Webb's, you want Jack Crackers?" Reversing the word order of my favorite snack, Cracker Jacks.
"Yes, please. Thank you." I signed.
"O-K. You want drive?" He asked, with an impish grin.
"YES!" I leaped up, threw on my shoes and ran out of the trailer with Dad trailing behind me. I walked toward the Bug and waited for Dad to catch up but he was standing by the Toyota.
He swatted the air with a sour expression on his face indicating that he didn't want to use the Bug. He pointed at the Toyota and signed, "Better."
"Really?" I couldn't believe that he would trust me so much. I didn't know if it was a good idea. Dad could be pretty spontaneous which didn't always end well, but he said, "Come on, let's go."
I slid trepidatiously in the driver's seat and don't recall adjusting any seat or mirror, I just cranked it up and drove.
Dad was navigator and would sign various instructions about turning down this road or that. At one point he told me I was going too slow and another had me turn around on a bridge. He even making me drive into a ditch so I could practice getting myself out. Defensive driving, you might say from his own experience since he had wrecked every car we had ever owned by driving drunk and going too fast. The irony was lost on me. I was driving.
I loaded up on "Jack Crackers", he on cigarettes and beer, before I drove us home. I shut off the car and handed him his keys when he signed, "Don't tell Momma. Get mad. Secret."
Oops. Not a secret anymore. (Sorry, Mom, but Dad said not to tell!)