I had survived the horrors of The Simulator and was ridiculously excited to finally learn how to drive a real car. When I was a little kid, my Aunt Margaret owned a very flashy yellow convertible. She loved to drive around town with the top down and a fancy scarf tied around her head that trailed behind her in the breeze. She was sure living the glamorous life, and I could picture myself doing the exact same thing on my first day of Driver’s Training. I could hardly wait for the final bell to ring at school so I could get behind the wheel of a car. I even wore a scarf to school that day. I was not deterred by the fact that it was January and the scarf was a thick knitted monstrosity that would not move in a hurricane. At sixteen, misguided fantasy trumped common sense on a regular basis.
When the bell rang, I shot out of my seat and took off at a dead run for the Driver’s Training room. Our Driver’s Ed teacher was a former military man who had a proven track record of remaining calm in the face of some of life’s worst dangers. That would change very soon. The kids all called our Driver’s Ed teacher “Pubatsch.” This was not his real name and it was never spoken to his face. It was a code name with an obscene translation that some of the older high school boys had come up with after they had failed driver’s training. It was generally accepted that students should never look Pubatsch in the eye or speak to him directly.
Before we set out on the road, we were divided up into groups of three. I was partnered with a mild mannered kid named Mike and a girl named Sue. She was the one from my Simulator class with the thick glasses who couldn’t see the screen. At this point, it still hadn’t dawned on me that I would not be the only person driving that afternoon. I pictured myself out on the open road, the breeze ruffling my hair and my scarf floating behind me as the other kids and Pubatsch stared in amazement at my motoring skills.
Pubatsch led the three of us out into the parking lot to a Chevy Vega with fake wood panel trim on the sides. There were huge signs on both the sides and the rear of the car that said “Caution! Student Driver.” This was not exactly the image I had in mind of what driving was going to be like. Caution was for losers.
Pubatsch directed Sue to get behind the wheel while Mike and I climbed into the back seat. He told us all to buckle up and jumped into the front passenger seat, glaring at his own seat belt and muttering “damn nuisance” without fastening the belt. He was holding a thick wooden ruler in his hand.
“Put the car in drive and get moving,” he snapped at Sue.
Sue stared out the windshield, frozen in place. Although she couldn’t see very well, she sure knew the rule about not making eye contact with Pubatsch.
“What the hell is wrong with you?” snapped Pubatsch. He smacked the ruler against the gear shift. “It’s right here. Now MOVE, MOVE, MOVE!”
The Chevy Vega is widely acknowledged to be one of the slowest cars ever manufactured, which was merciful in this situation. I could see the look of unmasked terror in Sue’s eyes as she reached toward the gear shift, careful to keep her fingers away from Pubatsch’s swinging ruler. We lurched out of the high school parking lot and were soon travelling at an impressive fifteen miles per hour down a side street.
Suddenly, Pubatsch decided that he had something important to tell us and instructed Sue to pull over and stop the car. Taking on a life of its own, Sue’s right foot slammed down onto the brake pedal and the Vega came to a violent stop, throwing Pubatsch into the dashboard of the car. He shook his head a few times to reposition his brain and then said, “Move it up a little.” Sue took her foot off the brake and we coasted for a few feet before she slammed on the brakes again.
“Dammit,” screamed Pubatsch, “I said to move it up! Hit the gas, girl!”
Sue tromped down on the gas pedal and the car shot forward. Pubatsch was getting tossed around like a rag doll in the front seat. He had slid so far down in his seat that most of his body was now on the floor of the car. We came to an abrupt stop when he pressed down on the secondary brake pedal on his side of the car with his bare hands and savagely shifted the car into park.
“We’re going to die, aren’t we?” whispered Mike.
“I think so,” I replied.
We all stared at our laps, waiting for what Pubatsch had to say. We expected a full blown tirade, but all he did was lean over to Sue and say, “If I’d drunk a glass of milk today, it would be buttermilk by now. Let’s switch drivers.” The man was obviously made of steel. He crooked his finger at me. I got out of the back and slid into the driver’s seat, carefully avoiding eye contact. It was show time. It was also pouring rain by this point and beginning to get dark.
Pubatsch told me to make a right turn at the end of the street. He was tapping his ruler against his left thigh, probably keeping time with whatever marching song was stuck in his head from his days in the trenches. The road I turned onto had a very steep ditch along the side. From the corner of my eye, I could see Pubatsch squirming in his seat, his head swiveling to gauge the distance between the Vega and the ditch. I was more concerned with avoiding the cars in the opposite lane of traffic, along with being on high alert for the series of projectiles that had plagued me in The Simulator. I knew that at any moment a toddler or some small animal could be catapulted into the path of the Vega and I did not intend to be caught off guard during my first Driver’s Training lesson. I felt the right wheels of the Vega slide off the side of the road at the same time that Pubatsch’s huge hairy arm shot out and jerked the steering wheel violently to the left. The car veered into the opposite lane. I thought I heard screams from the back seat, but they were muffled by my own wails as Pubatsch’s ruler slammed down on my knuckles. What is it with these people? I thought. First typing school and now this. If things kept going this way, I was going to have to spend my birthday money on a pair of stainless steel gloves.
Pubatsch jerked the wheel back to the right and hit the brake. The fuel indicator light came on. “We’re going to run out of gas,” I sobbed. This was just exactly the kind of thing that happened to Mr. Perfect in The Simulator. Driving really was a nightmare. Although we had been on the road for what seemed like hours, I later realized that by this point we were only a few blocks away from the high school parking lot.
“Take over, Mike,” said Pubatsch. “We’re going to the gas station.”
Mike was frozen in the back seat, trembling uncontrollably. I jumped out of the driver’s seat and ran around the back of the car and gave him a savage push. “Get out of the car,” I snapped. “It’s your turn.”
“I can’t,” said Mike, shaking his head from side to side.
“MOVE, MOVE, MOVE!” shouted Pubatsch. Mike jumped out of the car and scurried around to the driver’s seat, eyes fixed on the ground.
“Why do you kids keep staring down like that?” said Pubatsch. “Every group of kids I teach is like this. Is there something wrong with your hormones?”
No one would answer him.
Mike drove us to the gas station very, very slowly. We pulled up at the pump and Pubatsch jumped out to pump the gas, then went inside to pay. While he was talking to the attendant, another car pulled in behind the Vega. Pubatsch gestured through the window for Mike to drive forward a few feet to allow the other car to get to the gas pump. Mike was staring straight ahead and didn’t see this crucial hand signal.
“Pubatsch said to take the car out on the road and drive, Mike,” I said.
“What?” he squeaked.
Sue and I managed to convince him that, since he was a boy, Pubatsch wanted him to take the wheel on his own. He started to slowly move the car forward and put his turn signal on to head out onto the street. Sue and I were watching Pubatsch through the side window of the Vega. He looked out just as Mike was turning onto Main Street and charged out of the gas station and started chasing the car. Mike seemed to be pretty happy until he looked in the rearview mirror and saw Pubatsch running at full speed behind the Vega, his arms pinwheeling as he attempted to grab the rear bumper. I was pretty sure he would jump on top of the car like Spider-Man if he got close enough. Mike slammed on the brakes and put the car in park. Pubatsch opened the door, shoved Mike out of the driver’s seat, and backed the car up into the gas station parking lot. He turned off the engine. I noticed his hands were shaking slightly. Pubatsch turned to Mike and said, “What the hell did you think you were doing there?”
The three of us were crammed together in the back seat of the car. “They told me you wanted us to go out and drive without you,” Mike muttered sullenly.
I would like to describe the expression on Pubatsch’s face at that moment, but words fail me. He had probably seen live combat. He may have even killed people in the past. That day, however, he was a broken man. With a catch in his throat, he said, “That’ll teach you to listen to a bunch of women, Mike.” He paused for a moment, and then said, “I think this is enough for today. Let’s head back to the school. Sue, take the wheel.”
The elementary school had let out and we were soon following a school bus. When we reached a set of railroad tracks, the bus hurtled over them without even slowing down. Pubatsch informed us that, when crossing railroad tracks, a bus should always stop and open the door before proceeding. When we reached the railroad tracks, Sue stopped the Vega right in the middle of the tracks and opened the driver’s side door. Then she looked Pubatsch straight in the eye and smiled.
Miraculously, we all passed Driver’s Training that year, with varying degrees of skill. I also learned some valuable life lessons in the process.
There is very little in life that is more terrifying than being a passenger in a car with a driver that has no clue as to what they are doing. The terror is equally real when you’re the one who doesn’t have a clue.
Objects in the rearview mirror really are closer than they seem, especially when the object is a grown man in a state of blind panic.
Anything can be used as a weapon. I am uncomfortable around rulers to this day.
Individuals who embark on a career teaching young people how to drive are among the most fearless human beings on the planet. They deserve our utmost respect. Just don’t look them in the eye.