Teaching Jan How to Drive

Just when it seems like the Wolves have turned a corner, they suffer a heartbreaking loss. It reminds me of teaching Jan how to drive.

When Ying asked me to teach her sister how to drive, I countered that her husband should do the honor. But putting a man in the uneasy position of critiquing his wife’s driving was ill-advised, as opposed to the much easier task of overcoming a language barrier while explaining the importance of checking your blind spot. I didn’t speak a word of Chinese and Jan was still learning body parts. “I have two feet. I have two hands. I have a head.”

We started in the parking lot of the Holiday Inn on the north end of Mt. Rushmore Road or Eighth Street depending on whether you are a tourist or a cruiser, generally high school kids mixed with the occasional GI who is too young for nightclubs. With the side mirror angled toward the road so she could see the stripes in relationship to the car (a trick borrowed from my dad who taught me how to drive and the extent of my bag of tricks as a driving instructor), for more than two hours Jan drove a rusty Volare Station Wagon from one end of the lot to the other. No one got hurt. It was a good day.

Jan steadily improved as we ditched her regular English workbooks for the South Dakota driver’s manual. Eventually we progressed to traffic while I gradually made my way out of Jan’s lap and firmly into the passenger’s seat where I could not reach the brakes. When it came time, Jan handled the freeway just fine and the practice runs to the DMV were becoming tedious; she had turned a corner and was ready for the road test. Great. Ying’s husband could stop with his daily harangues and I could stop imagining my bloody demise; it would have been an ironic fate after having survived my senior year of high school screwing off in that beloved heap.

The night before Jan was to take her test we took the wagon for a final run. What happened next is difficult to describe. Just as Jan’s driving was becoming effortless, she had suddenly and completely lost her sense of the car. She was clipping curbs and swinging into wild and overly broad turns that scared the hell out of me. In what I recognized to be a game of chicken, we hiccupped down the road in herky-jerky spurts, barely stopping in time to avoid collisions and pissing off everyone in our path, teenagers, GIs, old ladies. Everyone.

Jan would certainly face another berating from her brother-in-law who apparently learned how to drive on his lunch break while blindfolded and handcuffed to a monkey, and I was doomed to a career as a driving instructor, the end of which could only be marked by a license with Jan’s picture on it. Defeated and at a loss for what to do next, we had no words sitting in the parking lot of the Colonial House, the last restaurant heading south out of town before everything becomes a tourist attraction or a billboard for one. From a distance, I might have been ten playing Charlie’s Angels with my sister Amy. There we are in the driveway under the basketball hoop where we live in Shell housing that’s just inside the main gate at Ellsworth Air Force Base. The side-by-side duplexes of Shell have long been dozed. This time, this time a heated chase will not bring to the morning a blaring radio, the swishing of wipers nor blinking lights that will startle our dad as he sets off to work. This time it’s just Jan and me.

I’d look at Jan. She’d look at me. We’d both look straight ahead reaching eons beyond the windshield as if the answer might have wandered off into the ponderosa pines. I couldn’t figure it out. I’d look at Jan and she’d look at me. We’d both looked straight ahead… An eternity ticked by before a hint of inspiration rose up from deep inside her gut, filled her chest, and washed the residue of a bad day from Jan’s face.

“You change the seat?” She said.

The seat?

I don’t know why or how or why I didn’t notice it, but the seat was moved all the way back. Jan could barely reach the pedals! She could barely see over the dashboard!

The next day Jan took my car for her road test while I stayed behind to pray in the waiting room of the DMV. Jan returned a short while later to tell me that my prayers had been answered.

Coach Rambis, you change the seat?

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