Beads of sweat had formed on my father’s forehead like condensation.  He removed a cloth handkerchief from his breast pocket to blot the moisture – taking extreme care to keep his eyes focused straight ahead.  It was 45 degrees outside, but inside this car, it was a pressure cooker.

My Dad had decided to teach me how to drive – no Driving School class for his precocious daughter – and now that he’d staked his claim to this part of my life, he couldn’t back out when the going got tough.

I turned 16 on December 3, 1972, when cars were land yachts – especially the Lincoln Continentals my Dad updated every three years to keep up with showboating technology.  I learned later that these vehicles had a tendency to lull the driver into a trance-like state while couching down the open road; no noise, and a smooth bounce like Mom rocking the cradle.  But for now, I was just figuring out the difference between the brake and accelerator and there was nothing lulling about that.  Especially for the guy in the passenger seat, my Dad, whose whole body was acutely concentrated.

Minutes before, Dad had been behind the wheel, driving us from home to the parking lot of corporate giant PepsiCo.  On Sundays, the lot was an open expanse of asphalt, free of distracting traffic, pedestrians and other nonsense that could impede the process of teaching me how to drive.  I had to understand the mechanics first, Dad said, and then I could go on to bigger and better things. Like roads.

So here we were, and here was Dad’s handkerchief, emerging once again from his pocket. What had I done this time to make him perspire?  Had I mishandled the wheel?  Doubtful, since I’d been crewing for years on our sailboat and Dad considered me an exemplary course-holding helmsman.  Had I pushed the envelope of the space-time continuum in a hot-rodding attempt to get from Lot 1 to Lot 7 at mach speed?  Also doubtful, since I’d been ordered to crawl like a centipede on terrain so boring a speed bump would jazz up the situation.

Dad’s nervousness, I concluded, could only stem from his anticipation of my going on-road.  As an architect, he was trained to consider the physics of objects at motion and at rest in a myriad of situations.  Right now, I was convinced, he was considering this object, his car, controlled by me and in motion down the center of Main Street in Port Chester, NY where we must ultimately end up.  That was probably messing up his head a bit.

That, along with the fact that I was not getting any younger.

Though signs of my advancing age had been apparent for months, maybe even years, learning to drive represented the abrupt end of childhood.  I was finally taking control of, if not my destiny, than at least my destination, which to a teen was one and the same.  This inevitable severing of apron strings had not been easy on my Dad, who had been looking for any excuse to keep me close for as long as possible. Aside from the curves that had replaced the boyish lines of my body, Dad had witnessed other, less physiological, signs of maturation.  My hardly concealed plot to escape home, for example.  He had seen me pouring over Frommer’s “Let’s Go, USA” with an intensity that surpassed even my assiduous approach towards schoolwork. I highlighted maps and attraction opening and closing times and the names of charming road joints in bright yellow.  I left pages about my fantasy cross-country itinerary strewn about the house.   I was itching to hit the road – figuratively speaking.  My only obstacle was knowing how to drive – and so, most likely, Dad now felt as if he was contributing to my getaway.

By the time we got to Main Street, the handkerchief was no longer sufficient and Dad had brought forth the Big Gun – his inhaler.  An asthmatic, Dad kept this medication at hand, but only used it in times of great stress.  I wasn’t sure whether to feel guilty or pissed off.  How could he have such little faith in me?  I later learned that his faith came exponentially with my experience, and today I had none.  Zipola.

Being a good driver is all in the timing – coordinating vision, foot and hand movements to propel a ton of steel down a road.  All this while anticipating the moves of others who are doing the same thing at sometimes-unpredictable rates of speed.

If you have a good teacher, you learn to deal effectively with things coming at you when you least expect it: a car door suddenly opening up into the street, a pedestrian stepping from the curb without looking, or a phone call at two in the morning informing you that while celebrating his 53rd birthday at the Metropolitan Opera your father stopped breathing and died hours later in a New York City hospital.

If you have a good teacher – and I had the best – you learn that a car is not just a means of conveyance.  It is a means of raising a responsible, resourceful, and anticipatory child.  And, most importantly and especially for this father and daughter, it was a way to prove trust.  Because, despite his dampened handkerchief and asthma inhaler, that day, my father had enough faith in me to sit in the passenger seat while I began my own journey through life.