Slippin’ on by on LSD

Jim and I were talking the other day about driving around our respective towns, and being forced to endure the madness of the drivers around us.

I used to think I paid attention to the rules of the road because I learned to drive in Chicago, where drivers are civilized. But now I wonder. Maybe it isn’t because I learned to drive in Chicago that makes me ever so cognizant of the right and wrong behaviors of automobile operators, but the fact that I learned to drive from Tom Cunningham.

I think anyone who knew dad would agree that driving was in his blood. He would just as easily and readily drive across the country as he would drive across the city. Driving is what he did for a living. Driving is something he would do just for the fun of it. I’m pretty sure the most devastating blow to him as his health deteriorated was when he wasn’t allowed to drive any more.

The first time I drove on actual streets (as opposed to driving around the parking lot at school in drivers ed class), it was a lovely late spring Sunday morning. After church and a forgettable breakfast, I got behind the wheel, dad got in the passenger seat, and off we went. I figured we’d drive around the neighborhood for a while. I could get used to turning and going along with the flow. Boy, was I in for a shock!

We headed east on Wilson Avenue, and watched as the neighborhood took a turn for the worse after crossing Clark Street. Uptown, in those days, was not the rehabbed yuppie haven it became many years after I left. It was not a place to be after dark. Still, on that bright, sunny spring morning, the winos and hookers were crashed wherever they crashed and all was right with the world.

“Ah,” I thought, “we’ll just head over to Sheridan and maybe head up towards Evanston.” Wrong. We passed Sheridan, and there isn’t a whole lot going on east of Sheridan. Some parking lots… and Lake Michigan. I mentally prepared myself for more parking lot maneuvers.

“Turn here,” dad said unexpectedly.

“What?! That’s Lake Shore Drive!”

A man of many words, he replied, “Yep.”

Freak out! Panic! Danger, danger, Will Robinson!

Yes, I freaked out all the way from Wilson down to just about Belmont. Then I started to relax. Why? Because dad wasn’t saying a thing. In his world, and especially in the world of driving, there was definitely a right way and a wrong way to do everything. Since he was relaxed and being in the groove, so to speak, I realized I was finally doing something right! I started to enjoy myself. By the time we got to the S-Curve (this was many years before it was straightened out), I knew that I, too, had been bitten by the driving bug.

But I also learned by osmosis over many years of being in the car with dad that you behave in a certain way when driving. You signal your intentions, whether it be turning or changing lanes. (That might have had something to do with Chicago police, too. At “quota time,” it wasn’t unusual for people to get tickets simply for not signally a lane change on one of the many expressways.) Know who has the right-of-way in every situation, and if you don’t have the right-of-way, gods damn it, you’d better not move. The only thing dad couldn’t drill into my head was the whole adherence to the speed limit thing. Oh, it’s not like he never exceeded the speed limit. But he wasn’t like mom.

My favorite story of mom’s lead foot is from one of our family vacations. We were driving across the Painted Desert. If you’ve ever been there, you know there isn’t a lot going on. (If you’ve never been there, you really should at least check it out. Incredible beauty.) So mom was driving along… la la la… and dad happens to look at the speedometer. Then, still all relaxed and calm, says, “Pat, do you know how fast you’re going?”

“Oh, only about 80.”

“No… try about 110.”

Yep, that’s my mom, and I have her lead foot. (Not that I’ve ever managed to get any of my cars to go that fast, but that’s because I have sucky cars. I did get my Caravan up to almost 100 on a trip up from Denver to have lunch with Warren in Cheyenne, though.)

But back to the whole point of this rambling. I get so annoyed when people cut me off in traffic… let’s not even get to the minutia of not signaling, they don’t even look to see if someone is in the lane they want to be in. Hey! Here I am! I get annoyed when people make a left turn in front of me… hello? I have the right-of-way, you know, and I don’t think I ought to have to slam on my brakes (Danger, danger, Will Robinson) because you’re an inconsiderate lout. I think what annoys me in general is that there are a lot of people who jump in their cars and then think they’ve suddenly become the only people on the planet.

I learned a lot from my dad. The single most important thing I learned, and what keeps my blood pressure from going through the roof, is this:

Follow the rules [of the road], and watch out for the other guy. Assume he’s an asshole. Because he probably is.

Ok, so my dad was a cynic. I never really wondered where I got that from.

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