The question was asked the other day what kind of driver my father was and my immediate answer was that he was a terrible driver. As often, with immediate answers in particular, the simple answer is just the simple answer, far from the best one. My father was never in any kind of traffic accident, that I can recall, not even a fender bender. Statistically, and in the most important single category of driving– getting around without killing anyone– that makes him a pretty good driver.
Of course, like everything else in life, the real story is in the stories. My father favored powerful cars, eight cylinder engines when he could get them, usually Buicks (though the first car I remember was a large, bulbous Pontiac, pale orange and off-white, like a creamsicle– they called it the Lox Box). He drove powerful six cylinder Cadillacs in his later years. He liked being able to quickly accelerate away from danger. This also gave him the ability, at will, to floor the accelerator and lurch quickly into another lane to infuriate a driver there, sometimes a long line of drivers.
“He never was in an accident, but there were crashes all around him on the highways,” my sister would say, recalling his Magoo-like obliviousness to the screams of road rage and middle fingers jerked in the air from the windows of the cars around him. This was particularly pronounced in south Florida, where road rage is considered obligatory by many drivers (he also gave them fits in the Boston area whenever he was there).
Florida highways have that combustible mix of cautious old people, fearful of their diminished reflexes, driving too slowly, and younger people, pumped up and in a hurry to drive 80 mph whenever possible, even in heavy traffic. My father liked to drive at a decent speed, he certainly wasn’t a tortoise on the interstate, but he had his own ideas on how fast to drive.
My father, gunning his powerful American gas guzzler, would gravitate to the fast lane where he would drive at around the speed limit, or fifteen to twenty miles an hour below the speed of the traffic. This caused friction on the road, though it did not seem to concern my father greatly.
Sometimes his driving defied explanation. My sister reminded me of this the other day, when she urged me to add a few details.
“He would sometimes brake in the middle of a long straight away for no apparent reason. I remember him doing that several times driving north on Lyons Road. I could never figure out what caused him to jam on the brakes with a clean and clear road ahead of him, no lights or other cars in sight. Once, I remember him trying to drive straight ahead in a right turn only lane that merged directly onto I-95. I think we all almost lost our lives with that one. He couldn’t understand all the honking and yelling that his poor decision caused.”
There was also his tendency to apply a twitchy, lead foot to the brake pedal. I suppose it was a style thing, as much as anything else. He apparently liked lurching to a jerky stop. That must have been it, otherwise he would have learned to gradually apply the brakes to decelerate smoothly at traffic lights, stop signs, to avoid rear-ending the car directly in front of him. He’d often accelerate towards a traffic light that was turning yellow, the better to come to a sickening last minute stop when it turned red. He would pump the brakes many times while slowing down, which caused a wave of nausea to travel through his passengers.
A joke comes to mind: I want to die quietly in my sleep like my grandfather, not screaming in terror like the passengers in his car.
When my father was driving terror was not usually a problem, though you could wince from time to time when a screaming maniac would drive by, face twisted into a savage mask, narrowly missing the side of the car. The real danger of driving with my father was nausea.
My sister has the best story to illustrate this. My father was driving with my sister and her young son, our father’s beloved grandson. The boy was maybe three or four and he sat in the back. A man of few words to this day, at twenty (and his habit of choosing only the words that need to be said has made him an excellent poet), my nephew was a quiet boy.
My father apparently didn’t have the air-conditioner on high enough in the back so the back seat was stuffy in the Florida heat. His young grandson, uncharacteristically, complained a few times about the oppressive heat back there and also about the bumpy ride. “Grandpa…” he implored, more than once when his grandfather jerked the big car to a sickening stop.
The combination of the nauseating driving and the airless heat in the back of the car eventually got to the boy. When my father finally stopped the car, his grandson threw his door open and vomited on the pavement. Once again, the boy of few words spoke eloquently for all of us passengers in my father’s car.