Virtue & Mischief: Round the Bend, Part 1


Abby is beginning to drive. You’ve been warned, Darke County.

She and I started our practice sessions in the Greenville Municipal Pool’s parking lot.

Because I wasn’t sure what she already knew, I assumed she knew nothing. It was an assumption which proved quite prudent.

“Here’s the gas pedal,” I showed her. “It’s the one on the right.”

“Duh, dad. I know!”

“Okay, fine. This is the brake—the one on the left.”

She emitted an exasperated sigh.

“Alright, okay. Sorry. I just want to be as sure as possible that you’re not in over your head. I don’t anyone to get hurt. Let’s switch places and you take over.”

We traded spots and Abby sidled into the driver’s seat. She adjusted her rearview mirror. Wonderful.

After demonstrating for her how to make a left and a right turn signal (again, to her pregnant exasperation), we began session number one in earnest. “Okay. Pull forward, toward the entrance over there, and do a simple left hand turn and then head back in the opposite direction. I want you to get a feel for the car and how it turns, how it breaks, and all that.”

“Gotcha. She tried to pull the gear shifter into “D” but it wouldn’t move.

“Abby, first tip. You have to have your foot on the brake before you can shift from ‘Park’ into anything else.”

“Oh, okay.” She placed a foot on the brake pedal, shifted into “D” and lumbered forward at 5 miles an hour. Very good, I thought. I’ve got at least one cautious future driver. Thank you, Lord.

“Now, Abby, as we approach the end of the parking lot please come to a gentle stop, flick your left turn signal, and make a left hand turn. Got it?”

“Yeah, dad, I think I can handle that,” she said with a heavy dollop of sarcasm.

She sped up to 10 miles an hour and then lurched to a sudden stop that forced me into an unintentional Tim Swensen bobblehead imitation.

“Ooopsy! Sorry about that. Guess it’ll take me a while to get the hang of certain, you know, things.”

“It’s alright,” I assured her. “It takes a while to get the feel for the brakes and the gas. Don’t sweat it. Let’s just keep practicing,” I said as I picked up a couple of dental fillings off the floor mat. We drove a while longer, heaving forward, jerking to the left and right, Charlie and

Raymond Babbitt in their father’s 1949 Buick Roadmaster. After a couple more whiplash-inducing stops, I glanced down at Abby’s feet as she looked at me in silent apology.

“Abby, are you using your left foot?!”

“Well, yeah. I just figured, you know, based on where the pedals are that I was supposed to use my right on the gas and my left on the brake. Is that wrong?!”

“Let’s just say it explains a few things. Don’t use your left foot. Ever. If we had a manual transmission car, then you’d use it for the clutch, but—”

“What’s a clutch?”

“I think we’ve got our hands pretty full right now dealing with the car we’ve got. I’ll explain about manual transmission cars later. Maybe. You’ll enjoy learning about how I learned to drive on a 5-speed Volkswagen Dasher in the appropriately named ‘Hills and Dales’ section of West Lafayette. With your grandfather as my teacher. Good times! But for now, just concentrate on this: Use your right foot for BOTH the gas AND the brake. When you approach a stop, take your foot off the gas and try to apply the brake with your right foot in a nice, gentle way so you come to a smooth stop. It takes a while to get the hang of it, and there are times when you have to make a really hard and sudden stop, but when you can…try to make it nice and gradual and smooth. Much as I like him, I’d like to keep my visits to our chiropractor to a minimum.”

“Okay, dad. I’m really sorry. I’ll get this.”

“I know you will. You’re doing fine. Let’s keep going.”

Abby proceeded to develop the ability to drive nice, pleasant circles around the lot. She came to firm, disciplined stops. She timed the use of the turn signals well. She figured out how to turn the steering wheel smoothly. She was appropriately circumspect.

“Okay, Abigail, you’re ready to drive a little around the park. Let’s take the next step.”

She went white. “Are you sure? I mean, I think I need more practice. I’m scared.”

“We’ll take it very slowly, and I’m glad you’re scared. With us in it, this car weighs about two tons. It can move very fast, and the other cars are the same. Plus, you can’t control what other people do. But this is something you pretty much have to learn to do, and I want you to learn to do it as safely and as well as humanly possible. Now, pull up to the stop sign and take a right hand turn, please….”

In two weeks: “Round the Bend, Part 2”

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By Tim Swensen

Virtue & Mischief

Timothy Swensen is the author of the weekly column series Virtue and Mischief that is published every Tuesday in The Daily Advocate. He can be reached at [email protected]. Viewpoints expressed in the article are the work of the author. The Daily Advocate does not endorse these viewpoints or the independent activities of the author.

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