Parenting teenagers definitely comes with some challenges. Not the least of these is teaching them how to drive. At a party we hosted over the holidays last year, the father of one of my daughter’s teenage friends made the comment that learning to drive was pretty easy. You just got behind the wheel of the car and used your common sense. Times have obviously changed from the days when I learned how to drive.
When I was in high school, Driver’s Training was a mandatory part of the curriculum. Adults in this era were understandably nervous about allowing immature, highly distractible young people behind the wheel of a two ton killing machine. Most of our fathers had been in World War II or the Korean War and had no desire to relive the terrors of active combat in their own driveways. So before we were ever allowed to get behind the wheel of a real vehicle, we were first required to endure twelve days of training in “The Simulator.”
Each semester, a long trailer was delivered to the high school parking lot under cover of darkness. Inside the trailer were two long rows of video consoles, complete with gas pedals, brake pedals, steering wheels and large screens. The Simulator was obviously an early prototype for Grand Theft Auto and Twisted Metal. Even though the upperclassmen had tried to poison our minds, telling us that The Simulator was a horrendous experience, we were beside ourselves with excitement. We would get to kill things with pretend cars and we would get a grade for it!
Mr. Dobchuk was our Simulator instructor. He was a thin, nervous man who spoke in a rapid high-pitched voice that none of us could understand. In retrospect, I now realize that Mr. Dobchuk was in an ongoing state of blind panic. I’m sure he realized that we would all be going out on the road shortly after we were finished with The Simulator and was terrified to the very core of his being. It would be a few more years before Xanax hit the market, so for the time being Mr. Dobchuk was on his own.
Our first lesson featured a movie that was designed to teach us the fundamentals of preparing your car for the treacherous journey out of the driveway. The hero of our story was a man we called Mr. Perfect.
Mr. Perfect was a businessman. He lived in a businessman’s house on a quiet suburban street. As the scene opened, Mr. Perfect skipped down his front steps towards his car, blissfully unaware of the horrors that awaited him during his commute to the office. Mr. Perfect circled his car, carefully inspecting each door to ensure it was properly closed. He then tested his trunk by gently tugging on the latch. All systems go. Mr. Perfect entered his car and confidently started the engine. But wait! The engine! Was it still there? Mr. Perfect jumped back out of his car and popped the hood to double check.
I heard a couple of boys a few rows back say, “This movie would be a lot better if we could smoke some pot.” They started tugging on the windows of the trailer to see if they could get them open.
Mr. Dobchuk was seated in the first row. He didn’t seem to be paying any attention to either the movie or his students. In fact, he was slumped sideways in the console chair, both arms wrapped around his head.
The action was heating up on screen. Mr. Perfect had turned his attention to his glove compartment and was repeatedly opening and closing the little door to double check that the light came on.
“It’s important to make sure everything works in your car before you go out on the road,” chittered Mr. Dobchuk into his armpit. Or at least that’s what we thought he said.
Mr. Perfect switched his headlights on and off rapidly and tested his turn signals. The film had been running for fifteen minutes at this point and Mr. Perfect still hadn’t made it out of the driveway.
“This guy’s never gonna make it to work,” screamed the boys in the back. They had succeeded in opening the window of the trailer and were waving their hands in the air to disperse the clouds of pungent smoke.
Suddenly, Mr. Perfect pounded on the horn of his car and shifted into reverse. A few kids screamed. From this point forward, the perspective of the film shifted to the back of Mr. Perfect’s head. Although there were no other cars to be seen, Mr. Perfect launched into a series of frantic hand gestures before pulling out onto the street.
“Here we go,” wailed Mr. Dobchuk mournfully.
Mr. Perfect has been driving for about two blocks when the hood of his car suddenly flew up. An unflappable man, Mr. Perfect simply hunched over in his seat so that he could see the road in the gap between the hood and the engine. Suddenly, Mr. Perfect’s car hit an ice slick and went into a wild spin.
“Wait a minute,” said a girl with very thick glasses as she squinted at the screen. “Wasn’t it summer just a minute ago when he was in his driveway?”
“Never mind that!” shrieked Mr. Dobchuk. “This is THE SIMULATOR! Pay attention!”
Mr. Perfect expertly cut the wheel in the direction of the skid and slid off the side of the road, the right wheels of his car dipping into a ditch. Although we could not see his face, it was obvious from the steely outline of the back of his head that Mr. Perfect would not succumb to panic. He continued to drive calmly, with the hood of his car blocking the windshield, until he was able to maneuver his vehicle out of the ditch. By this point, Mr. Perfect had reached the crest of a steep hill when his brakes suddenly failed. Through a masterful combination of hand gestures and tugs on his vehicle’s emergency brake, Mr. Perfect succeeded in slowing his car down and coasted down the hill.
“Freakin’ awesome, dude!” yelled the boys in the back of the trailer. “He’s like Han Solo in the Millenium freakin’ Falcon.”
“Shut up and watch the movie,” screamed Mr. Dobchuk. “I’ll drop your grade if you don’t be quiet.”
“Mr. Dobchuk, they’re smoking marijuana back there,” said the girl with the thick glasses.
“I don’t want to hear about it. Now pay attention.”
As Mr. Perfect neared the bottom of the hill, a Mack truck suddenly appeared behind his car, lost control and started honking furiously. Ducking his head out of the driver’s side window and gesturing furiously, Mr. Perfect pulled his car into the opposite lane of traffic as the truck barreled past him on the right, then pulled back into the proper lane. After a few more blocks, he spotted a convenience store on the side of the road. Thrusting his left arm out of the window of his car, Mr. Perfect pointed at the convenience store and turned into the parking lot, jumped out and calmly closed the hood and trotted inside. Several seconds later, he emerged, smiling and holding a banana. Fade to black.
Mr. Dobchuk untangled his arms and legs and stood at the front of The Simulator. He was trembling slightly. “Now kids,” he said, “I hope you understood everything you saw today. Driving is serious business. Anything can happen. You have to be prepared to react at a moment’s notice.”
“This is wicked bud,” said one of the boys in the back to the other. “I hope Mr. Dobchuk gives us popcorn the next time we see a movie. Can we eat popcorn when we’re driving, Mr. Dobchuk?”
“No you cannot eat popcorn when you’re driving! If that man in the movie was eating popcorn, he would have been dead. Did you hear me? Dead!” Mr. Dobchuk punched wildly at the air to emphasize his point.
The girl with the thick glasses started waving her hand in the air. “Can we watch the movie again, Mr. Dobchuk? I’m not sure I could see everything.”
Mr. Dobchuk choked slightly. “The screen was eighteen inches away from your face. Do you think you need your eyes checked?”
“I’ve had these glasses since sixth grade. I can see just fine.” Twelve days later, my life would be forever changed as a passenger in a Driver’s Training car driven by this girl.
Common sense indeed.