The heir apparent turned 15 in April meaning, among other things, he has attained the age at which the State of Florida assumes he is capable of learning to drive. Not for the first time, I am inclined to think the State of Florida is out of its sunshine-soaked mind.
Moreover, I have been advised/warned by a cousin whose counsel I value to put off as long as possible the moment when he is qualified to get behind the wheel without an adult chaperon. There, she says, lies the threshold of no return. “That's when everything changes. Once they can drive, they're not yours anymore.”
I kind of remember that being the way it worked when I was entrusted with the keys, too, so this becomes one of those generational rite-of-passage things. But just because it's traditional, it doesn't mean I have to look forward to it. Sometimes, being a conservative means leaning into tradition, but not necessarily celebrating it.
I mean, you lose the youngster you've spent years and countless hours nurturing, but get his insurance payment in exchange, the worst trade since the Cubs sent Lou Brock to the Cardinals for Ernie Broglio.
Still, his mother — who must be obeyed — wants him able to drive himself to school next year (while I stay apprised of the latest developments in crash-avoidance technology), so I, shamelessly, have offered a bribe: Finish the online course for a learner's permit certificate, I'll foot the bill for whatever hot video game he has his eye on.
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This is why, the other night on the eastern slope of the Blue Ridge Mountains, the boy with size-11 feet and his momma's big brown eyes is hunkered over his laptop in the center of the family room couch, a pillow tucked into his midsection. In this position he alternately grinds through material dads used to teach their mid-teen kids — more or less — and self-distracting himself.
He's well past the fundamentals now, and has steered resolutely, like an 18-wheeler climbing out of Asheville toward Cherokee, into more esoteric topics, and they test his patience.
“Why do I have to read this?” he grumbles. “It's about motorcycles. It's not like you're ever going to let me drive a motorcycle.”
His commentary goes on. “Shift-stick? No, it's stick-shift, idiot.” This is accompanied by tapping his fingernails against upper incisors not long released from coercion by orthodontic appliances: right thumb, right forefinger and so on to right pinky, then left thumb, left forefinger, etc.
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This click-click-click process repeats until he detects, over reading glasses pinching the bridge of the old man's nose, a fixed gaze of irritation. “What?” he says, knowing full well what; it's a game we play.
“Now I have to read something about large trucks? Really?” He plants his face in the pillow, muffling a groan, a response, apparently, inspired by a Burger King commercial featuring a dad subjected to romantic vampire movie night with his daughter-laden family.
“I'm not going to be driving large trucks. Commercial trucks?” The Burger King commercial returns.
Soon, the pillow becomes a hat with a single decisive peak in the center sloping into wings on either side. I start to mention he resembles the Flying Nun, then remember as part of the cohort born only months before the Y2K scare the reference would be lost.
It's not like we haven't been working on the lad's pop culture education. We have brought him up to speed on “Airplane,” “Blazing Saddles,” “Animal House,” “What's Up, Doc?” and a few other modern classics whose catch phrases flavor our household conversation. At last he knows why the correct reply to, “Surely you can't be serious” is “I am serious, and don't call me Shirley.”
Anyway, now he is on to pedestrians, whom he dismisses as a class: “Stupid joggers and roller-bladers. Stupid people walking their dogs.” I am thinking I will have to broadcast alerts on the day he is certified keys-worthy, a day that will come sooner for the authorities than it will for me.
And then this: One of the narrators of a video covering driving in adverse weather asks, “What would you say is the most important thing a driver can do to improve safety in winter driving?”
The answer is obvious, and the lad blurts it out: “Live in Florida!”
I believe, after all, the boy is going to be all right.