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May 17-23, 2006

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Car Culture

Passing It On

By Novella Carpenter


THERE IS something about this time of year—graduation parties, butterflies hatching out of their chrysalides, the first swim in the lake—that sparks a feeling of rebirth and transformation. Tomorrow I will be going to—and taking part in—a coming-of-age ceremony of a sort: a truck driving test. Sure, it's not the same as watching a baby lamb being born, but it is a transformation nonetheless. It is especially important to me because I am the one who taught my friend Margaret how to drive the 33,000-pound box truck.

Margaret is around my age and a dyed-in-the-wool badass. She is a welder and a carpenter, and she rides one of those big, tall bicycles that she welded herself. She had driven a truck once before, in the desert at Burning Man, which doesn't really count. But she wanted to learn, and I had the knowledge, so off we went.

As REVers may remember, it was last year around this time that I was studying my driver's manual, parallel parking a big rig and freaking out about my truck driving test. Just as my mentor at the time, a fella named Bill, taught me, now it was my chance to pass on my knowledge.

The first thing, as any parent who has taught their 16-year-old how to drive knows, is to go to a safe place where no collisions can take place. For some parents, this means a farm or an abandoned airstrip. For us, it meant a weird industrial area where a building used to be. There, among the graffiti and broken glass, we learned first gear through fifth gear and reverse. Not having safety cones, I set up fake stages for parallel parking with abandoned shopping carts and discarded tires. Margaret learned the delicate art of backing around a corner. The truck died more times than a Grand Theft Auto avatar.

We met like this once a week for a month, and only then did we venture into traffic. Right before we did this, I had to instruct Margaret in the proper behavior while driving a rig. No. 1: Wear one of those puffy trucker's hats. Even though they are passé according to hipster style hounds, one needs a bad hat in order to drive properly. No. 2: Chew gum. Loudly. No. 3: You must show the truck who's boss. Really shove that thing into gear. This is part of the whole art of trucking. I mean, we're in a really big vehicle, so of course we can't treat the thing like a Cabriolet. No. 4: Drive tall. Be assertive, I kept telling Margaret. And she did.

We trucked through the city streets, did right-hand turns without taking out telephone poles, left-hands without killing someone. Lane changes, merging, down-grade shifting, highway driving and underpass calculating. I'm proud to say I never once did that "Step on the brakes" pantomime that my mom did when I learned how to drive a car. I don't believe I yelled once, except to say, "Rev it, rev it!" to prevent killing the engine.

Oh, it wasn't all roses and sunshine. There was the time when she thought the truck was in reverse and rolled into a wall, shattering the right headlight. Or the heart-stopping situation of pulling over at the onramp to get the truck into proper gear. Accidents will happen, Elvis Costello sang. As long as no one died at my pupil's hands, I was fine with accidents; they indicate experience.

But toward the end of our weeks-long training session, there passed a moment when I found myself relaxing and thinking, oh, Margaret knows what she's doing, I don't need to keep checking the mirrors and reaching over to put the truck in the proper gear. At that moment, the power migrated in a way that I could feel viscerally. She seemed bolstered, I felt less strong, but peaceful.

I'll probably never have kids, but it's during these times that I understand why people want to have babies. Teaching someone something is a great opportunity; it made me feel like a better person, part of a larger community, an old sage full of wisdom.

She'd better pass, or I'm going to kill her.


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Novella Carpenter is a women not only obsessed with cars, but with protecting the environment. Her weekly column balances these two polar-opposite loves while providing handy tips and car-related news items.