|My dad in his garden in front of The Back Forty.|
Dad transfigured the soggy bottom with his tiller into an extended garden spot, only to see the valleys between his neatly formed rows repeatedly fill with the next downpour on our South Mississippi home. He joked about growing rice, but he found some success cultivating Silver Queen corn and okra. The land rising to our house featured better drainage where he focused his gardening efforts, so periodically the Back Forty would return to its natural state when Dad stopped tilling and mowing it. Crawdads loved it. Pitcher plants, too.
It was here I learned to finesse the withered clutch and brake system of a very tired and cranky old Bug.
Beneath my feet, the floorboard featured a gaping hole that only Fred Flintstone could appreciate. Driving through puddles meant your feet got soaked. The stick for the windshield wiper had long ago broken off. Somebody figured out a small flat head screwdriver substituted nicely. The hand-cranked windows functioned well enough, thankfully, as the air conditioning was non-existent. By the time you got the thing properly ventilated, your feet appropriately positioned and the windshield free of debris, driving proved to be a comparatively simple endeavor.
Early in my tutelage, my dad would fold his six-foot-two-inch frame into the shotgun seat, his right arm braced in the passenger window and his left hand poking around for a toothpick or shoving his silver hair from his sweaty brow. He smelled of wintergreen Skoal and Old Spice and dispensed short, obvious commands, like “Ok, back it up, “or “Don’t hit the Pontiac.”
My dad taught biological sciences for a living at a community college. Teaching was as second-nature to him as whining was to us kids. He exuded the kind of calm most folks appreciate when their nerves are raw and learning a new skill, whether that was mastering the release of clutch and application of gas in a rustic car or skinning cats for dissection. His was the kind of patience I wish we could mass produce as a cure-all for anger and apathy and distribute as needed, an elixir of Quincy Long.
Driving lessons with Dad left me laughing hysterically. He feigned cardiac arrest, white-knuckled panic and bladder emergencies. Or maybe that was for real? Either way, over what seemed like days to me or probably a good hairy year to him, I learned to drive. I looped through evenly spaced azaleas, turned on a dime past the burn pile, skirted the perimeter without damaging the fence (much) and found liberty behind the wheel when we wildly ventured out on open road.
More years have passed than I care to count since those days lurching past the pampas grass with my Dad in stitches as we careened just shy of the wisteria and too close to the Longleaf pines. He let me have the wheel before either of us thought we were ready. I remember the closeness I shared with a father who never let me know just how awful I was doing, an essential condition when learning to drive, whether you’re behind the wheel of a broken old VW or piloting life itself.
I remember riding shotgun with Dad. Even if I had hit something, he would have still taken that seat beside me. What he taught me were not driving skills but riding out life skills—with patience, tolerance, laughter and love.