Friday, May 05, 2006

The Driving Lesson: Never trust a brother

By Elaine Shein

A lovely ivy plant and card signed by my fellow staff greeting me this morning at work.

A great surprise: someone obviously had leaked that it was my birthday.

Or perhaps they thought an ivy would survive better than my fledgling bean plant that hasn’t yet sprouted (see my blog on Ag Fest).

It was exactly three years ago that I first walked into the Capital Press office here in Salem: I had a job interview on my birthday. I thought of it as a sign of fate: if I got the job, it was a wonderful birthday present that was meant to be. If I didn’t get the job … well, who cares about the significance of birthdays anyway?

I always wondered later whether the job was offered to me because of a guilt complex by the company: “Well, after all, it IS her birthday. Gosh, if we don’t offer her the job, who knows what the long-term effects will be. Why, she might switch careers, maybe consider the nurse or teacher career her father always urged her to consider! How could we ever subject poor patients and kids to such suffering?”

At times like this I think back of other significant birthdays in my life. Such as when I turned 16, on my parents’ farm. Where I lived, this was the day you could go take the test to gain your drivers’ license. For someone on the farm, this is a big step in life. Freedom, responsibility, a sign of coming of age.

It also meant not needing to rely on my older brother any more as a chaperone. My brother Gordon was not the best driving instructor. The first time he taught me to drive a car in the middle of a dusty field, he didn’t bother to explain the part about brakes. I was quite furious about that, but I learned quickly that throwing the gears suddenly into reverse was just as effective.

When he tried to teach me how to drive a motorbike, he was equally helpful. There was little teaching on clutches, brakes and gears, which I have learned are valuable for a driving lesson.

Gordon was behind me on the bike, snickering to himself at how wise he was as an instructor. At least until the part of when I popped the wheelie (clutch out too fast), knocked him backwards off the bike (too much acceleration while on one wheel), and slid his nice bike into some shrubs (well, how else was I to stop without knowing where the brake exists on a bike?)

But I digress.

The day I turned 16, I proudly took my drivers’ exam. My brother went with me to the big city 45 miles away, quite assured that I would never pass and probably need two or three trips to the examiner like he did before I would find success.

I felt my older brother was a better instructor than my father. Dad was a typical prairie farmer who had adapted to city driving with a typical farmer attitude. HE had the half-ton truck, few others on the city streets did: so why should HE need to signal and shoulder-check before HE changed lanes? He just ignored those two steps, swerved into the lane, and let others figure out how to avoid our truck. Thus, by default, I thought my brother may be a safer instructor. He taught me signal lights and shoulder checking before brakes, but that was just a minor detail.

The test went well. There was only one problem. At one point the examiner got me to get out of the half-ton truck after I had done what I had believed to be a successful parallel-park along a curb.

“See anything wrong?” he asked, tapping a pen impatiently against his clipboard.

I stared at the truck tires on the passenger side. The front one was two inches from the curb. The back one was at least two feet from the curb.

“Nope,” I said innocently. He growled. I winced. He took off marks.

However, the rest of the test was flawless. My brother came to greet the examiner and me at the end of the test. “Don’t worry,” he said, patting my shoulder, “no one gets their license the first time.” He turned to the examiner. “So how bad did she do?”

“She passed.” The examiner gave me my papers and walked away, leaving my brother stunned beside me. We rambled home over dusty roads in silence, 45 miles of him muttering “B…But I thought I … how could she …? Was he blind? How much did you pay him?”

When I got home, I proudly showed my parents my license and declared I was looking forward to being able to now drive trucks, grain trucks, tractors, anything else that needed to be driven. Why, by the next day after my birthday, I could do anything!

Next thing I knew, Dad had decided no more time need be wasted. Why wait until tomorrow?

I spent the rest of my 16th birthday out in the fields picking stones, picking roots, picking whatever Dad needed picking. Always good to have another driver around. I might have picked some fights with my brothers, who also grumbled about why did I suggest anything to do with fields that day.

I soon learned another rule that came with this freedom of growing older: my father always said he didn’t set curfews for us kids, but that the truck needed to be home by midnight. It ended up being a good rule.

Kept us honest, kept the truck safe, and kept us home way before any of our friends could get into trouble. And kept us with enough energy to do the farm chores that needed to be done early the next day, birthday or no birthday.

Perhaps the work ethics I learned so many years ago influenced me to where I am today here in Oregon.

Or perhaps I am here today so I can nurture a few beans and now an ivy to grow, rather than seek revenge on my brother by offering to help teach his kids to drive.

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