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Miss Daisy at the Wheel

By Eulalia Benejam Cobb
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I was seven before I could tie my shoes, twelve before I learned to tell time, and almost twenty when I got my driver’s license. I can’t account for the first two delays, but the third one was partly due to my own MeToo story. When I turned eighteen my father, tired of chauffeuring me around, decided that it was time I learned to drive. Although he had the patience required to be my violin teacher, he knew his limits, and he signed me up for lessons at a driving school in Birmingham, Alabama.

It was late spring, and already sweltering. The air was heavy with the scent of magnolias, and the mockingbirds were in full cry. The instructor was a skinny, youngish guy wearing a crew-cut, t-shirt, and shorts, and when he saw me, his eyes lit up. “Why sure,” he drawled, “I’ll be happy to teach a pretty girl like you to drive.” (FYI, I was no Miss Alabama contestant. Just a healthy, well-nourished young woman.) He opened the driver’s door for me, “Just set right down, honey, and make yourself comfortable,” he grinned.

I sat behind the wheel, but was not comfortable. I was in a state of terror lest I cause the car to buck when I let out the clutch, as had happened during my father’s first and only attempt to teach me. Add to that the close proximity of my leering instructor and the sultriness of the afternoon, and all I knew was that I wanted run out of there, beg my father’s forgiveness, and possibly become a nun.

“How did your lesson go?” my father asked when he came to pick me up.

“It was terrible. I hated it! I’ll never learn,” I moaned. It didn’t even occur to me to tell him the real reason for my discomfiture. To us girls in the 1960s, sexual harassment was another of those annoyances that came with being female, like menstruation.

Gritting my teeth, the following week I went back for an encore: the heat, the instructor’s compliments (“That’s a real nice outfit you’re wearing!”), the bucking car. Then, miraculously, a reprieve: my parents decided to send me to Barcelona for the summer, albeit on the condition that I continue my driving lessons there.

This time the instructor was older and bigger than the Birmingham guy, and even more thrilled to have me in the tiny Fiat with him. It wasn’t as hot, though, and my clutching and shifting had improved a bit. But when the stares and the compliments progressed to pats on the arm, I cancelled the rest of my lessons, left the city, and spent the rest of the summer riding my bike on the dusty roads near my grandparents’ farm.

In Birmingham that fall, my father took me back to the driving school. My first instructor was gone, however, and the new teacher was a (to me) elderly gentleman who cared more about my driving than my looks and who, at the end of the first lesson, said reassuringly, “Don’t worry. You’ll make a fine little ol’ driver someday.” A couple of weeks later, having demonstrated my ability to parallel park on a hill, I got my license.

Unfortunately my father, having watched me maneuver a shopping cart in the A&P, concluded that I was still a danger behind the wheel, and sent me back for more lessons. The elderly instructor had the good grace not to laugh when he saw me coming.

But his prophecy was accurate. More than half a century later, not only am I a fine little ol’ driver; I am a fine little ol’ lady driver. For I drive like a little old lady, the way I imagine Miss Daisy (of Driving Miss Daisy) would have driven if she had been behind the wheel.

Gone are the days of shifting and double-clutching and parallel parking. Like the rest of the world, I now drive an automatic with a camera that shows me where I am when I back up, which is handy because I am no longer tall enough to see over the backseat. The car helpfully flashes lights at me if I’m about to make an imprudent lane change—not that I change lanes unless absolutely necessary. Left to myself, I pick a lane and remain faithful to it until I arrive at my destination. And the back-up camera gets little use, since I avoid parking anywhere I’ll have to back out of, even if it means having to skate over an icy parking lot to get to the store. As for parallel parking, one of Vermont’s many charms is that, with only 600k inhabitants in the state, there is hardly ever the need for it.

Safety first is my motto, and I feel safest if I’m going under 40mph, which means avoiding four-lane highways, of which there are blessedly few in this state. In fact, except during mud season, I’m happiest on a dirt road that, but for the occasional milk truck, is free of scary semis and people in a hurry, and winds calmly from woods to fields, offering views of pasturing cows, sheep, and the occasional alpaca.

My only fear on those dirt roads is of cyclists, of which there are way too many around here. I feel foolish following one up a hill at 5mph, scared to pass because I can’t see what’s coming at me in the opposite direction. And when I do pass one, I’m tormented by visions of his or her keeling over, like the Monty Python guy on the tricycle, right into my path.

Wee, sleeket, cowran, tim’rous beastie,/O, what a panic’s in thy breastie!, Robert Burns cooed to the field mouse whose nest he had upturned with his plow. Except for the sleek part, two centuries later the poem is a spot-on picture of me as I drive down the alarming roads of life.

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