Crashing the car the day after I got my learner’s permit seems pretty much par for the course, given my history with planes, trains, and automobiles. But it also makes a fantastically funny story, and great reassuring anecdote for people who are learning to drive. Because, really, it’s pretty hard to top that, you know? Like, really, if you’re nervous about learning how to drive, it’s okay. Someone has probably had more humiliating experiences than you.
Like a lot of people who grew up in rural areas, I had my fair share of driving farm vehicles and friends’ cars before I was anywhere near the age to drive legally. When I went to the DMV to take the test to get my permit, it was pretty pro forma.
A series of questions like: “When it’s raining, should you...A. Slow down and turn on your lights. B. Speed up. C. Drag race?” The hardest part was the vision test, in which it was determined that yes, I really did need glasses to see.
I arrived home triumphantly waving my permit and my father agreed that lessons would officially start. He had a gently aging Honda Civic that was 10 years old at the time. He was a little nervous about letting me drive a manual, but I assured him I could totally do it.
So we drove around the neighborhood a few times, and I did okay. I certainly kept the car on a straight line and there was some crunching of gears, but nothing unreasonable for a relatively new driver.
I think my performance gave my father a sense of false confidence, because the next day, he decided we should try driving to Santa Rosa. The drive is about two hours1, which isn’t really a big deal, but part of that is over Highway 128, a notoriously windy, curvy road that sees a few accidents every year from people who can’t keep their cars on the road2.
Amazingly, I did okay on 128. My father let me drive the whole way and things went well. I never stalled, although I had to pull over numerous times to let people pass. My father felt like I was starting to master the art of handling the clutch while staying attentive to the road and, you know, steering, so when we pulled up at a gas station in Cloverdale, the town right before the freeway starts, he asked if I wanted to try driving on the freeway when we started up again.
“Sure,” I said, a little nervously.
I duly got in my seat and doublechecked all the mirrors and things and my father settled in his and we exchanged a glance. I could do this. I’d just driven 128, for Pete’s sake, the freeway should be a cakewalk. He nodded at me and I shifted and gently pressed the gas, and away we started to go.
In retrospect, I think we both just kind of froze, which is why what happened next...happened. To exit the gas station, you had to turn left, and then right again to get onto the road that would lead to the onramp. Instead of going left, I went straight. And kept going straight. And kept going.
“I kept thinking you were going to turn any second now,” my father said later, “but then you didn’t, and it was too late for me to grab the wheel.”
The Honda crunched directly into a retaining wall. Luckily I’d been going all of three miles an hour so it wasn’t exactly a catastrophic accident, but my father and I sat there in silence for a moment, listening to the ticking of the engine.
“Why didn’t you turn?”
“I...don’t know,” I said.
We both got out of the car to survey the damage. The wall was quite low, merely intended to prevent cars from driving into the neighboring lot, but the front end of the car was hung up on it, so my father had to carefully reverse so we could see. Everyone in the gas station watched with avid interest, but no one moved; they could see that nothing had been badly damaged other than my dignity, and probably felt it was best not to get involved.
The right front of the vehicle hung down, giving the Honda a sort of lopsided grin. That grin would persist for years, along with a gentle, inquiring squeaking noise from that section of the car which we made a point never to mention, until my father sold the car in 2009. My father stuck his head underneath and nothing really seemed to be the matter, so he quietly got into the driver’s seat, and I got into the passenger seat, and we drove the rest of the way to Santa Rosa in silence.
We parked at the store we’d been planning to go to and my father turned to me.
“I think,” he said, “that someone else should teach you how to drive.”
1. I happen to know this very well because I’m working on a draft of this post at the car dealership in Santa Rosa while my car gets a repair.
2. No really, it’s a pretty notorious road. And let me tell you, as someone who regularly takes that road at 80 when unencumbered by annoyingly slow tourists, if there are cars behind you on any road wanting to go faster than you, please pull over.