Well, I finally did it. I never wanted or needed to. But a set of circumstances has forced me to learn to drive. That remark, coming from someone in the 20- to 40-year-old age bracket, might not raise an eyebrow. I, however, am a woman of a certain age -- very certain -- getting more certain all the time. I am not about to blow my newsroom image ( I worked at The Washington Post in the '60s and '70s) by disclosing just how certain, but I will never see the mid-fifties again.
How did I escape the favorite American pastime all those years? By spending the first 25 in New York City, another 20 in Washington, a few in Europe, and now Key West. If peer pressure puts most 16-year-olds behind the wheel, my peers were all riding the buses and subway. Just as some women lack the maternal instinct, some men and women get through life very nicely without driving. But there is one very big drawback to not possessing a driver's license. Life can be difficult without that necessary I.D. Nothing else is quite as acceptable. I've known people who obtain one, with no intention of ever driving, so that they can flash it when cashing a check.
About a month ago, while a friend was visiting us, my husband and I were discussing the necessity for me to overcome my prejudice against the common carrier. Our friend said, "Dagmar, I'll teach you to drive." I asked him why he would want to risk his life since he was so young and had many years ahead of him. He told me he had no intention of dying -- that, on the contrary, he would have me ready for the driver's test in about two weeks.
Michael had never taught anyone before, and I had never tried to learn, so it was the perfect combination of over-confidence and raw terror. I first obtained a learner's permit after passing the eye and written exams. The permit was not renewable, but it was good for six years. They want you to be sure you're ready.
I learned by the total immersion method -- sort of a driving school Berlitz style. My friend put me in the driver's seat immediately. If I say that it was all foreign territory, I do not exaggerate. A lifetime of sitting in the passenger seat does not prepare you for those first moments of panic when you realize that you are moving a big, dangerous object. And those cars coming toward you are like missiles aimed straight at your heart. Michael told me to drive defensively (is there any other way?) and to keep looking in all directions. The way I swivel my head would do justice to the possessed child in "The Exorcist."
In Europe, learners have an L plate on the back and front of their cars. I thought I should have one emblazoned in neon on my forehead. And a helpful bumper sticker would tell the world that I brake for everything.
I admit that in my secret heart I always felt I could drive quite easily if I really wanted to. It wasn't quite that simple, but neither was it as stressful as I had expected. Pretty soon I was buckling up and starting the car like a pro. We had only one close call. While attempting to park at a shopping mall, my foot slipped from the brake to the accelerator, and we almost had a close encounter with a storefront window. I immediately recouped and no harm was done, but I lost my nerve and decided never more. Michael, sensing this, telephoned that night to give me a pep talk and to tell me that we would go out again the next morning. Greater love hath no friend.
I took the driver's test on Dec. 15 -- and failed it. You were expecting instant success? Well, so was I. Apparently I did a couple of things less than perfectly, but was told that I could come back the next morning for a retake. I did, and as we returned to the station the examiner said the magic words: "Mrs. Miller, you have passed the test. Come inside for your license." Now, I've passed a lot of tests in my life, but that was the mountaintop.
While waiting for the license to be prepared, I spoke to a man whose wife was out taking her road test. Just as he was telling me that she'd been driving for 40 years in New York, she returned -- in a state of shock. She had failed the test. So much for experience. Incidentally, the wording under "Operator" on my license reads "Safe Driver." A friend snidely remarked, "What else could you possibly be at this point in your driving career?"
I've gone out in the car, alone, every day since then. I still do not have the feeling of insouciance I see in every callow youth who impatiently pulls around me (as I observe the legal speed limit).
But what began as an act of desperation might, just might, become enjoyable. I have, on occasion (usually after viewing an old Cary Grant-Grace Kelly film), imagined myself driving a convertible along the Grande Corniche on the French Riviera, my hair streaming behind me, destination unknown. The only place I can drive to from this island is Miami -- 150 miles away over the Overseas Highway. Well, my hair is too short to stream, and our prosaic sedan is no convertible, but when I gather sufficient courage to hit that highway, it will be my Grande Corniche.
Dagmar Miller already has put 800 miles on her Toyota.