From age seventeen to twenty I was a licensed motorist. The only reason I didn’t obtain my Alaska driver’s license until I was seventeen is because I failed the driving test four times. I knew I couldn‘t see well, but I couldn’t see why I’d failed it so many times.
Woe was me. I was forced to take the school bus--that great vehicle of social change and equality fought for so dearly by my parents’ generation--through my junior year, one of a select few upperclassmen. What little social standing I'd managed in high school was frustrated by this shortcoming. By the outset of my senior year, I couldn’t bear the humiliation of riding the Cheese Wagon any longer, so I wangled rides from my skiing buddy and neighbor, Josh. I’d known Josh since we were little; we were great friends and partners on the debate team. Josh was a junior and much smarter than me, and a far superior debater.
And a better driver, it would seem.
Finally, a few days after graduation, I passed my driver’s test on the fifth attempt, thanks in large part to a doctor’s note stating I had 20/40 vision corrected, which, at the time, I did. Barely. Since DMV only cares about frontal vision, my nonexistent peripheries proved inconsequential and I squeaked by in my usual skin-of-the-teeth fashion. The fifth time was the charm, and South-central Alaskan roads became a lot less safe.
I was a shit driver anyway, habitually reckless: passing on the shoulder, driving over sidewalks, running red lights, riding asses, steering with my knees or elbows while lighting cigarettes and fumbling with the tape deck, carving carefree through the school zones and suburbs of my quiet, little town. Even with perfect vision I’d have been an unmitigated menace. It’s as though at some level of my consciousness I knew this shit wasn’t going to fly for long, so fuck it: drive like a maniac and enjoy the ride. My passengers felt differently, but they just needed to loosen up and have a bit of fun.
“Jesus Dave! Will you please slow down!?” the white-knuckled weenies would whine.
“Dave! The road forks--”
“Dave! You’re on the bike path!” and blah blah blah ad nauseam. It was distracting enough trying to driving with dying retinas without these endless interjections.
“Yeah, yeah, yeah…don’t worry about it,” laughing dismissively, groping for the cigarette lighter I’d just dropped on the floor, flipping the turn signal while popping in a Bad Religion cassette.
Days after I got my license, my little sister Katie and I drove my father's red 1984 Plymouth Horizon to the store for some ice cream after a wedding at our church. It was dusky, and our stretch of highway had no lights. We slalomed left and right, as though I was asleep, a petrified Katie riding shotgun.
“David! What are you doing!” she squealed, mostly afraid, but with a twinge of confused excitement.
“Don’t you worry, Kate! We’ll be there in a flash!” as we swayed to and fro down the bumpy two-lane highway.
When we got to the store we were approached by a couple who lived up Darby Road from us.
“Hi David! Hi Katie! Say, David, are you feeling alright?”
“Uh, yeah. Feeling fine,” feigning confusion at the question. “You?”
“Yeah, fine, thanks. Hey listen, we’ve been following you since you pulled out of Darby and you were swerving a lot on the way into town. We thought you might have had a few too many at the wedding.”
I hadn’t had any at the wedding, and I told them I was “just having a little difficulty seeing, but it’s no big deal.”
They swapped cautious looks while I assured them I’d be more careful. Katie and I got our ice cream and made it home fine that night, as I did many nights.
I devised useful tricks. If possible, I’d tail-gate so I could fixate upon the rear lights and follow like a come-along trailer until, to my dismay, they’d turn or take an exit I didn’t want. Failing that plan, if I could make out the white line on the side of the road, I’d hone in on it so I knew I was in a lane. If I couldn’t see the while line--if it was dark and raining or snowing--I’d tap the rumble strip over and over for an audio report of my whereabouts on the road.
Through familiar neighborhoods, I drove by sheer memory.
I got a lot more nervous on the highways and city streets.
“This is not good, Dave, this is not fucking good,” grumbling aloud, hands at ten and two, hunched over the wheel, wondering who I’d kill first.
This is really, really fucked, Dave! You can’t be doing this kind of shit! From now on you cannot be driving at night like this...
I was like a junkie or a gambler in a moment of clarity convincing himself to stop before his luck runs out.
Dark, two-lane highways in the rain were the stuff of nightmares. The lights of oncoming traffic blinding me even more with refracted light through pounding water in the inkiest of darkness. This light, fragmented a million times over, flashing phantasmal, gleaming shards all around me like demons from Hell.
Dave, you’re a stupid fuck! It’s raining, it’s dark shit and you can’t see shit! What the hell is the matter with you?
Once, after a Thanksgiving dinner with extended family, I drove the family car home, less than two minutes away. My father would be along shortly in his pick-up. It was icy and dark, but I wasn’t too worried since it was close and I could do it with my eyes shut.
I should have been worried, and my eyes may as well have been shut because I flew off the road, smashing the red Horizon into the light pole in a ditch at the end of Darby Road.
I refer to this mishap as my “Darby Crash.”
My father is a good man, but quick to anger and at times, terrifying. I love him dearly, but he was the most frightening man in the world when I was young and in trouble. My friends agreed and echoed my suspicion that he’d probably been a jailer in a Fujian prison or a drill sergeant in the Red Army before he met my mom.
He pulled his truck off the side of the road and flung open the door.
“What the hell happened here?”
My face shot groundward.
“I hit some ice… lost control…couldn’t turn…I--I don‘t know…”
I wanted to die. It wasn’t my first havoc on the highways, though it was the worst to date, and my father’s already thinning patience had become diaphanous. We dug the car out in the dark, since the streetlight was now kaput. We towed it from the ditch, my father swearing and simmering. A policeman arrived, on-duty and unable to enjoy Thanksgiving dinner with his family.
“This is gonna get worse before it gets better,” I signed silently.
“What’s happened here, gentlemen?”
My father continued to simmer, and I waved the Fifth. The officer accompanied us home to write a reckless driving ticket at our dining room table, with coffee and a plate of Thanksgiving leftovers. He sat across from me, so I was able to see the ticket when he handed it over. Had we been seated diagonally, he might have thought I was drunk, or ignoring him like my father’s bowl of potatoes.
On top of the ticket, I had to pay $350 to fix the light.
My father banged the front of the Plymouth back into shape, but the hood latch was irreparable, so he fastened it down with a neon green nylon tie strap. To me, it looked like a sporty green racing stripe along the length of the red hood.
I assured my father I’d be more careful with the family car in the future, and he assured me there’d be no opportunities one way or the other with the family car in the future.
But though quick to anger, he is also quick to forgive, and it wasn’t long before he entrusted me again with the keys.
“Just be bloody careful, Dave,” rubbing his eyes and thumping the kitchen table with his fingertips for emphasis. “You could kill yourself, or worse yet, someone else. Don’t go so damn fast on the roads, especially in the winter and especially at night. I know you go too fast. I've seen you. You will stop. Is that clear?"
He sighed, his gazed peering to nowhere.
"Son, you have got to compensate for your disability.”
“Yes sir, I will.”
But my assault on America’s highway system had only just begun.