Driving lessons


My father's camioneta

When I recall that I learned to drive from my father, I consider myself very lucky to still be alive. I took driver’s ed at Divine Heart Seminary, but I only got to drive the minimum required hours. My father loved teaching everyone how to drive. The only one who ever refused to take lessons from him was my mother. She didn’t like him telling her what to do. Especially, since she knew his every bad–and dangerous–bad driving habits. My father had some very dangerous driving habits that he tried to teach everyone he taught. Including me! Since I was only sixteen, I had to follow his instructions carefully or risk never driving again. I had a permit and I wanted to drive!  

I was a very poor driver in driver’s ed. The first car I drove was a 1971 Pontiac Firebird with a manual transmission. We were all excited about driving a sports car! I stalled the engine every time I drove. The instructor told me I would be fine once we started driving the Chevy Caprice with an automatic transmission. Everyone was happy about the automatic transmission because the engine stalling stopped. Until I got behind the wheel. Somehow, I still managed to stall the engine! But that was the least of my worries. I didn’t know how to yield at yield signs, and from years of watching my father drive, I didn’t come to a complete stop at stop signs. I thought stopping was optional. My father never came to a complete stop at a stop sign. Now that I think of it, he never completely stopped at red lights either! Whenever the light turned red, he would slowly stop a couple car lengths from the intersection and slowly creep forward until the light turned green.  

I was surprised that my father wanted me to drive his brand new lime green 1971 Ford Maverick. He was so proud that he was teaching his oldest son how to drive!  I was even more surprised at some of the driving maneuvers de demanded of me! For example, he would tell me to take short cuts through alleys. When I came out of the other end, he wanted me to lay on the horn in case any car or pedestrian was at the mouth of the alley. He taught me about lane position when making right turns. If you make a right turn, my father told me, you have to get in the right lane. Then, when you get close to the intersection, you swing out wide to the left before you turn! I almost crashed the very first time I tried my father’s technique. My father always made his right turns like this. I’m surprised he didn’t have more accidents.  

He also told me to use a turn signal when changing lanes. But sometimes, it was better not to let the other drivers know your intentions. I’m not sure why. I never really understood his explanation. If you got to and intersection without any traffic controls and the other driver signalled you to proceed before him, my father told me to never go. He just wanted to crash into you. To this day, I always give the other driver the right of way.  

My father always had trouble staying in his lane. On the expressway, in the right lane, he would exit on the right if he didn’t focus on staying in his lane. Before I started driving, I thought staying in your lane was probably the most difficult driving feat possible. My father would make everyone be quiet whenever we approached exit ramps. In the picture of my father’s station wagon, you can see the result of his not staying in his lane. he was driving northbound on Damen Avenue at 47th Street. That was the site of the infamous Damen overpass in Back of the Yards. The left two lanes took you over the overpass. However, the right lane allowed drivers to veer right and avoid going on the overpass. Well, my father was in the right lane when the exit lane pulled him to the right. Unfortunately, he crashed into the concrete barrier dividing the lanes despite the flashing yellow warning light and warning sign. Luckily, he was alone while driving.  

He parked for about ten minutes to calm down from the trauma before he came home. I was the first one to see him and his fender damage. I was sorry I asked him what had happened. It took him about five minutes to explain this two-second traffic crash. Then, he told me to get in the car and he took me back to the scene of the accident. He did a reenactment of the accident. I was riding shotgun, not wearing a seatbelt because back then no one wore seatbelts because most cars didn’t have seatbelts. As he was showing me his path before the accident, he almost crashed into the concrete barrier again! That really shook him up and he had to pull over for a few minutes to calm down before we could drive home.I still have some of the driving habits that my father instilled in me. And that’s why I say that I’m lucky to be alive!  

Nova no va


Dr. D. and his faithful Chevy Nova

This picture was taken sometime in the 1980s. I’m not sure when. But that’s not important now. I only posted the picture because my 1976 Chevrolet Nova is behind me. Vito and his ever ubiquitous camera were also present that day in front of Jim’s house in the Gage Park neighborhood. Vito always annoyed me by always lugging around his camera and stopping everyone so he could take a picture. As I look through my box of old photographs, I see that I couldn’t have been too annoyed by his paparazzi ambitions because I seemed to gladly pose for many pictures. And, without my asking, Vito would give me some of those pictures.

Oh, wait! I meant to write about my car! My Chevy Nova. A car that didn’t sell well in Spanish-speaking countries because its name sounds too much like “No va,” or “It doesn’t run.” But that’s neither here nor there, either.

I bought this shiny, black car, brand new in 1976. But by the time I returned from California with it, it was no longer new nor shiny. I’ll explain why in a moment. Remind me to tell you in case I forget. This Chevy Nova and I were in a relationship for more than thirteen years! This is perhaps the only object with which I developed a personal relationship, if that’s at all possible. I still have fond memories of this special car. Oh, yes, I called my car Felicia! Don’t tell me you never named your car!

Anyway, I had only owned one car before this one. A brand new 1975 Pontiac Firebird that was very sporty and flashy, red exterior with white interior that was extremely difficult to keep clean. But it wasn’t very practical because it only seated four and the trunk was very small. I think some of the girls I met only liked me for my car. I think this car deserves a separate post, so you’ll have to look for it.

So back to my Nova, which actually ran very well despite its name in Spanish. I special ordered the car so I could get all the options I wanted. Of course, I couldn’t afford very many at that time, so I deliberated carefully and prioritized my wish list. Number 1 on the list? You better sit down before I tell you. Okay, are you ready? An AM/FM Stereo Sound System with an 8-track player! No other option would matter as long as my new car had an 8-track player. I still get shivers down my back recalling driving that car down the open road with my 8-track player blasting! I mean, who wouldn’t? I must have had about fifty albums on 8-track that I listened to while I slept and now I could listen to them while I drove, too!

Everyone was shocked when I bought my Chevy Nova because I went from racing around in a flashy Firebird to driving a mundane family sedan. I never regretted the change because my Nova was more practical and more reliable than my Firebird. Sure it wasn’t as fast as my Firebird, but thanks to my Nova, I’m still alive today. I probably would have killed myself in a fiery car wreck because I felt like I had super powers behind the wheel of my red sports car! Fast cars produce fast drivers. I had a few close calls.

When I drove my four-door Chevy Nova family sedan, I actually became a much safer driver. I suppose it’s like the difference between wearing running shoes and high heels, not that I ever wore or wanted to wear high heels. I became more responsible in my personal life, too. But that could have been just because I was maturing, even though I resisted.

When I was transferred to 29 Palms, California, from Marine Corps boot camp, I drove my Nova back to the base and I was the envy of all my colleagues because I had a car. They did kid me that I was driving an old man’s car, but they always wanted me to take them on weekend trips to such exotic places as Arizona, Mexico, and Disneyland. They didn’t car what they looked like driving in my car. A car is a car!

In the Mojave Desert, my Felicia was subjected to extreme heat and sun. Once it was so hot and sunny that I burned my fingers by touching the ignition switch that was subjected to the scorching sun. From then on, I kept a towel over the steering wheel and ignition. The sun also made the black paint fade a little. We were warned at orientation about the extreme heat. In fact, they told us that if our cars had air conditioning we should remove the fan belts that connected it to the engine because the car would overheat and stall if you used the air conditioning. A few skeptical Marines didn’t heed the warning and sure enough they stalled in the middle of the desert! We were also told to carry plastic gallon jugs of water in case we got stranded in the desert. We were also warned about all the poisonous creatures of the desert. There were scorpions, rattlesnakes, tarantulas, Black Widows, and a lot of other poisonous creatures that preferred to be undisturbed by human beings. In the morning, we would always shake out our boots to make sure nothing had moved in overnight because scorpions like to sleep in combat boots. We were told that if we were bitten by a Black Widow, the only way we would survive would be if we fell into a helicopter just as were bitten and immediately taken to the hospital. Needless to say, I never looked for pets in the desert.

I once drove through a sandstorm and a flash flood that occurred unexpectedly and simultaneously. People warned me that the weather was about to turn for the worst, but I didn’t listen. I drove out on a nice sunny afternoon because I didn’t believe the weather forecast. Suddenly, as I’m driving back to the base, the sky darkened and rain started pouring down on me and my Felicia. Soon the rain stopped, but the sky remained dark and a fifty-mph crosswind blew sand across the desert and into my car. I could barely see, but I felt I would be safer if I tried to drive out of the storm. So, I continued driving without putting my foot on the gas pedal. I idled forward at about five mph. I couldn’t see the road, but at least there were no other cars on the road. I could feel when I started hitting the shoulder of the road and I would edge my way back into my lane.

I can honestly say that the visibility was zero. When I looked out the windshield, I only saw sand hitting the glass. I couldn’t even see my hood or my headlights shining on the sand. But at that point, I thought my best chance for survival was to drive out of the storm by going to a higher elevation. When I finally reached the drive riverbed with the warning sign about flash floods, I knew I would make it home. However, the dry riverbed was now a raging river of about eight inches deep and six feet across. Against my better judgment, I decide to drive across. In Chicago, I had driven through standing water that deep before and my car didn’t stall. The whole secret was to go slowly enough not to splash water on the engine and its electrical components.

Eventually, I made it back to 29 Palms, or you wouldn’t be reading this post, where it was sunny and dry. I inspected my car for damage. My poor baby! The car’s paint job had been sandblasted by the storm. Ditto for all the windows.

I always remember my driving adventures in my Chevy Nova fondly!

00000.0


My Pontiac Vibe

Or perhaps I should write 77777. You’re probably wondering what the heck I’m talking about, right? Okay, just pretend that you are.

Okay, if you insist, I’ll tell you. I was driving to school today when I suddenly looked at the odometer and read 77777. My car’s only three years old and I’ve already put on 77,777 miles (My 2005 Pontiac Vibe doesn’t display tenths of miles). And I don’t consider myself a heavy driver.  I seem to spend more time reading books than driving. So how did I manage to drive so many miles? I really don’t know. However, I stopped the car immediately and took a poor-quality picture–as is characteristic of my photography skills–of the odometer to mark this blessed occasion.

Actually, I’m not so sure what so special about 77777. All those sevens mean nothing to me! Really! But when I saw them, I immediately thought of 00000.0 (I’ll bet you thought I forgot about the title of this blog post!) from when I was in the Marines and my Marine friends with whom I lived in the barracks insisted that I drive my 1976 Chevy Nova with them in it (and a keg of beer, of course–talk about an open container of alcohol in vehicle!) until the odometer turned over to 00000.0. They constantly checked my odometer because they wanted to be with me for the blessed event when I drove past 99,999.9 miles. I really didn’t see what the big deal was about driving so many miles. I had bought the car new and I was the only owner. I had driven it to California and back a few times by that time in 1979.

There’s something that I like about driving. Is it the solitude? Is it the time that I have to myself that allows me to reflect about past transgressions and allows me the opportunity to reflect on how to better myself and the world? Of course not! I just love driving–and fast! Nothing feels better than driving on the open road in the middle of nowhere, such as upper Michigan or the Mojave Desert, with the pedal to the metal and not a worry in the world because I won’t see another vehicle for miles! Anyway, I’m with my Marine friends and a keg of beer with our names on it (To my sons and students who may be reading this: Remember this if FICTION! Please see the disclaimer in the right margin!!) in the car going about a hundred miles per hour because they want me to hurry up and hit 100,000.0 miles! In their excitement, one spilled a beer in the front seat, another drank too much and puked on the exterior side of my rear door. Luckily, we were driving in the Mojave Desert, my car had no air conditioning, and it was 120 degrees out. I’m glad he had time to stick his head out the window. It was so hot outside that his vomit dried almost instantly. However, I had to pull him back in when he felt so bad about vomiting that he tried to clean up the mess and almost fell out of the car.

This was also a memorable trip because as I was driving I thought I heard an airplane engine. When I looked in the rearview mirror, I saw that a small airplane was actually closing in on my Chevy Nova. This really happened to me! The plane buzzed us about three times. Actually, it was quite funny. Then came the much-anticipated moment. The odometer read 99,999.9. I slowed the car down to practically a crawl. There were six heads crowding over the odometer. It felt like a slow-motion special effect as we watched the odometer slowly–ever so slowly–turn to all zeros. The cheering in the car was deafening. They insisted that I stop the car so we could christen it. They poured our precious beer over the hood, the roof, and the trunk, and I was about to complain until I noticed that it was washing the puke off my car door. My friends were drunk with pride–and a little beer (it was a small keg)–over my car’s accomplishment.

I still miss that car. I owned it and drove it for thirteen years. It had 163,000 miles on it and it still didn’t burn any oil. The battery lasted about six years because I always added tap water even though I was told to add only distilled water. When I was stationed in the Mojave Desert, I thought any water was better than no water. I planned to keep the car another two or three years, but someone ran a red light and broadsided me. Alack and alas! My Chevy Nova was no more! The car was totaled! It was only about $1500 worth of damage, but that was much more than the car was worth. Of course, in my personal opinion, the car was priceless because it was so dependable. I really miss my Chevy Nova!

I christen thee, Chevy no va ningún lado sin su dueño.