“Baby, You Can Drive My Car” by Mark W. Harris
May 17, 2015 – First Parish of Watertown
Call to Worship – from Adam Gopnik
Knowing how to drive is part of knowing how to live.
Everyone has a role: we yield, scoot, slide, wave, nod, sigh, deny each other space and give each other license. The amazing thing is that, while it sometimes ends up in a horrible pileup, it doesn’t always end up in a horrible pileup. That’s civilization.
Reading – “How I Learned to Drive at Age 12 On a Police Car” by Allan Hobbs
I learned to drive at the young age of 12 on a 1965 Plymouth Fury 1 police interceptor. My grandpa was a small town cop, probably with lots of time on his hands, and he must have thought it was time I learned the basic skills of piloting a land yacht.
He was a “gruff” man with no sense of humor, but a soft spot for kids. He was intimidating so I did what I was told without question and I was sworn to secrecy. “Don’t tell your Mother” was always understood.
As a kid, I was always interested in driving. I would turn our living room sofa into a Ford Country Squire wagon by pulling the cushions off the couch and using them as the doors; adding bed pillows as the seats, and repurposing a large, expensive crystal ashtray as my steering wheel. I would insist on ‘driving’ my young sisters on their errands while they tried to watch Saturday morning cartoons.
However, my real challenge was my height. I had great difficulty reaching the pedals while staring wide eyed thru the large thin plastic steering wheel – at what was the largest hood scape you could ever imagine.
Full sized cars in the 1960s were really full sized cars – probably bigger than today’s Suburban – and the Fury seemed enormous from my perch behind the wheel. I was thankful for the large vertical Plymouth emblem sticking straight up at the end of the hood. I could aim that Fury at just about anything and center the big car in the middle of the road.
My first lesson involved a phone book and a pillow which made the difference between braking and hitting a tree. One thing to keep in mind is this Mopar had neither power steering, or power brakes – luxuries that town council must have decided were far too extravagant to put in a police car. This made for a real workout when it came to turning and stopping.
I remember my first lesson well, as I learned how to start the car without burning out the ‘bendix’ as my Grandpa called it, and not giving it too much gas as to flood it. Then I learned about the range of gears, and how to select a gear with my foot pressed firmly on the brake. I was probably standing up for this part. And then, very slowly I released the pressure on the brake (I remember my leg shaking) and the car began to coast very gently down the roadway.
I was driving, so to speak at 8 km/h, and wow what a rush that was! The road, I should point out, was the main route from the front gates through the town cemetery.
Very confidently I piloted the big Plymouth gently down and around the rolling hills, all the while mindful of Grandpa’s words “just don’t run over any of your relatives.”
Knowing how to drive is part of knowing how to live. I am sure I didn’t look at it that way when I learned how to drive at the age of 16. For me it was about freedom and fun, and independence. It was pushing the pedal and feeling the wind whoosh by, leaving all my worries behind as I took to the open road. It was being Jack Kerouac on the road, and getting your kicks on Rout 66. The anthem of my generation was Steppenwolf singing: “Get your motor runnin’ , Head out on the highway, Looking for adventure, In whatever comes our way.” Adam Gopnik tells us that knowing how to drive is knowing how to live. It is almost like that old bestseller by the UU minister Robert Fulghum, All I Really Need to Know I Learned (not) in Kindergarten, but instead, driving a Car. There it is before us, our whole lives spent in the car seat, the back seat, the drivers seat on a date, on vacation, on the way to work, on the way to school, the grocery store, the mall. Automobiles defined my parent’s generation, and ours.
One of the few pictures I have of my father shows a strong, proud, entrepreneur standing in front of his new gas station. It was on East Main St., in Orange, Massachusetts. I remember visiting there, and being entranced by the dinging of the pumps as each gallon gushed out of the hose, flowing into a hidden tank in the underbelly of these giant arks of cars – behemoths like Cadillacs, Buicks and Pontiacs, and of course Ford Country Squires. That’s the car we had to hold our family of six. As the baby, I sat between my parents, safe from the battles of older siblings, but not from Dad’s incessant haze of smoke. We were off on vacation with a loaded car of suitcases and coolers for a week at the shore. Southern New Hampshire was our destination, one of those beaches that would soon become famous for rowdy teenage activities, and where I would one day dance to the rhythm of Steppenwolf singing live that road song, “Born to be Wild.” It was Dad in the driver’s seat, and mom as co-pilot, both trying to keep it under control – mom through voice commands, and Dad with evil looks in the rearview, occasionally intermingled with threats of executions if it didn’t calm down. America taking to the road in cars was my family’s livelihood, only to be succeeded by another type of fuel delivered in retail oil trucks to heat people’s homes. Henry Ford once told the world, “I will build a car for the great multitude. It will be large enough for the family, but small enough for the individual to run and care for.” Ford predicted that every person could enjoy “the blessing of hours of pleasure in God’s great open spaces.” To my parents, he was right.
Many of us liberals might not resonate with the predominant role of the car in our lives. We know that gas guzzling has helped to ruin the environment, and so we have been quick to embrace hybrids, making a parking lot of Prius’ common at our congregations. We talk about more walking, more bicycles, and more use of public transportation, but we have to make it real in our lives. There is something about the convenience and the fear of wasting time that means we continue to embrace this auto loving lifestyle. The great Unitarian preacher Theodore Parker once said that ours is a religion which goes everywhere, but when it comes to spiritual sustenance we focus on experiences in nature, and not in the car. But I’ll wager each one of us spends a lot more time on the road than we do contemplating a flower.
Perhaps you think this is a guy’s obsession, but I am told there is quite an array of literature on women learning to drive. Think of women in Saudi Arabia who are not allowed to drive, where independence is denied and subservience demanded. Women not driving, as Adam Gopnik points out in a recent New Yorker article, means enforced passivity, helplessly sitting in place. Driving symbolizes a larger emancipation, and of course this is the teenage obsession, too.
For the generation, which preceded mine, the car often represented a gigantic icon to be worshipped and adored. It evoked speed and power. My brother, who is ten years older than I, spent all his waking hours working to afford a sleek Ford Starliner, with its space age design. Then after he purchased it, he spent all his waking hours washing and polishing it. When he wasn’t beautifying it, he was tuning it. He took it drag racing, unofficially with friends racing down county roads in a games of chicken, and officially at the flat stretches of the local airport, where lights counted down and engines roared while big engined vehicles smoked their way, literally and figuratively down the straightaway. It was a love affair.
William Faulkner once wrote “The American really loves nothing but his automobile: not his wife his child nor his country nor even his bank-account first. . . . Faulkner went on to say that the automobile had become a national sex symbol. One could see this in my brother’s adoration of the cars sleek lines, and most especially in how he would spend “all Sunday morning washing and polishing and waxing it because in doing that he [was] caressing” that which he loved and desired the most. How many men found a surrogate partner in that car?
Yet for most young men of my generation, there was little passion for fast, sleek cars. We just wanted transportation. The older generation wanted the cars, we wanted to change the world, and sway to the music, and so hippie vans with flowers painted on them and VW emblems ferried us to rock concerts and festivals. Sometimes those vans and cars became venues for seduction. Pleasant or not, while we may have learned to drive while seated in front, what went on in the back seat of cars at drive in movies or off road in isolated places like cemeteries was the stuff of teen age angst. Baby you can drive my car, the Beatles sang, as the narrator is given the opportunity to be the future star’s chauffeur. When he says his prospects for work are good”, she says, “I can show you a better time.”, but then he finds out she does not have a car. Apparently “‘Drive my car’ was an old blues euphemism for “sex”
Sex, power, and speed: what is the lesson here except be cautious, and indeed that is the first lesson for teaching a child to drive. As a child I sat for hours in the front of that Country Squire, and would pretend to steer that wheel and go all kinds of places. My life dream was to see the world, and one day I saw much of America. I always presumed my father was in control when he drove. I thought I was safe from harm, even in pre seat belt days when we careened around corners. Later I went through the registry application, and the driving test. Was I safe? Summer came, and I turned to my job with my father’s company, cleaning oil burners. Mostly my partner drove the van, as we went from house to house to give summer tune ups to boilers and furnaces. That is, until one day when I was asked to drive the company van. I had only driven cars before, and a long service van needs to be parked in a slightly different manner. My brother sent me for coffee, and as I pulled up to a free spot, it looked like I could just turn right in. I did, but then much to my embarrassed surprise, sideswiped a car innocently parked to my right. Crash. No one was hurt, but what would I tell my brother? I thought about the humiliation of this crash confession in front of all the guys at work. And what would my father do without a service van for a week or more?
In a previous sermon Andrea narrated the car crash that Dana and Asher had on their way to school one morning. Was it ice or speed, or merely losing control? We will never really know, but suddenly the car was airborne, and soon it was totaled, but no sons of mine were even scratched. A miracle of luck, something we have all known and seen when cars go flying off the highway in a 360 spin, and somehow remain unscathed. Dana was hysterical; traumatized for his own life, for the life of his brother, and for what he did to our car. We rushed to their side, and soon the initial trauma was over. But then I had to go say goodbye to my red jet. I told you before that cars for me had always been merely transportation, with no love extended or lost, but this was different. No car I owned had ever had so many miles on it. I had even photographed 100,000 on its odometer. We went to hand over the title. I sat in it once more, and said a solemn good bye. It was battered on every side. Here in stark reality, we stood in the car graveyard. It is perhaps why many young people want to wait to get their licenses, especially if they live in the city and have alternative transportation.
Adam Gopnik went for his license as an older adult. Unlike so many things, he says, driving isn’t really difficult; it’s just extremely dangerous. You are in possession of a two-ton weapon that you can point at anything you like, at any speed you can go, merely by touching a little pedal. Asher learned that this week in his very first driving lesson over at Mt Auburn Cemetery. He kept trying to touch the gas pedal, and the red jet’s replacement, the green jet, would lurch forward with a roar. We think driving a car is so normal. We assume everyone does it. Normal, we say, but really terrifying. First lesson then is that this is no pleasure cruise down the river to personal autonomy and independence. There is a lot at stake. This is your life, and you have one chance to live it.
Accidents are something most of us don’t think about, and assume it won’t be us if one occurs. Some of you know my entire ministerial career was defined long ago when a sixteen-year-old drunk driver killed four people from my congregation in Palmer on Christmas Eve. It was horrible. It was a realization that disaster always lurks nearby. We think, there but for the grace of God go I. When I began to write this sermon. I thought of an obscure poem called “Car Crash” by Allen Ginsburg. I don’t even like Ginsburg, but it was stuck in my brain. The poem begins: “Snow-blizzard sowing, ice-powder drifts on stone fenced, gardens near grey woods. Yellow hump-backed snow plough, rocking giant tires round, the road, red light flashing, iron insect brain.” Who’s left watching, or even remembers the car crash . . . “ Recalls of vehicles are always in the news, and the grim reality is that manufacturers who make vehicles know that people will be killed. Despite our inclination to say it is the car or the road or even the other guy, there is always the personal human factor. We drivers sometimes imagine it is the vehicles’ fault when we crash. Remember when I drove that van for my Dad? I made the mistake.
And that is why we impart lessons to our children when we teach them to drive. When Dana wanted to learn to drive, Andrea said to me, this is your job. Now it is Asher’s turn, and we are at it again. I like to go to Mt. Auburn Cemetery for these early lessons. You can be on a road, but not a real road, “being careful not to run over any relatives.” There are cars there, but they only travel at five miles an hour or less. You can learn to stay to the right and steer and brake, and even maneuver a bit. It is a place to start. And in that first lesson, we learn to pay attention. You can’t sleep or dream, or text or be looking at who you’re talking to. I say, You must see at all times where you are, and keep looking in your side mirrors, your rearview mirror, at the other side of the road, or the edge of the road, at pedestrians, at anything that comes your way. Pay attention to where you are in space. Thus you will respect others and their space, you will keep to where you should be, and you will notice everything. Even Asher who usually does not comment on his natural surroundings noticed the flowering beauty of Mt. Auburn, and said, “hey, this place is nice.”
The third lesson after “Be Careful” and “Pay Attention,”, is Teach the wisdom you have. How often do we say I don’t need anybody showing me how? But it helps when someone does. You can’t say, do as I say, and not as I do, as you push the pedal to eighty.. I said to Asher the other day, take your time. Be patient. Don’t get angry. We don’t need more road rage at a traffic jam. They happen. And there is nothing you can do. That’s a life lesson. Sometimes there is nothing you can do but wait. So you stop when you need to stop, and go when its time to go. You look both ways. You don’t rush or cut off. Asher said, you mean it is like “slow but steady wins the race?” And I said, yes, that’s it.. Sometimes in life you need to speed up a little, and sometimes you need to slow down. Do what the moment demands, and go with the flow. You are part of a larger stream, and working with others helps make it flow smoothly. Take your time. Pay attention. Be careful.
It is probably obvious from the foregoing that one should not worship idols. The cars we own should not define us. The road is not about you, and where you are going, but it is about how well you move in relationship with others. Sometime we let our vehicles be tools for the assertion of how important we are. They represent power or success to some. But the greater question of life must be how do you move on this road? Do you wave and nod? Do you let others through? Do you follow the rules that everyone is supposed to follow? Will you give others space? Will you notice them? Will you be part of the community of the road?
And now we come to the final lesson, which is the greatest rite of passage of them all. Yes, it is about freedom from home, and heading out on the highway. Every day that my child drives is an anxious moment for this parent, that he might crash again. And so the true test of being the parental driving instructor is to let go. Help them on their way. Encourage them to be on their own. Kick them out the door, and say baby, you can do this. In the end life is scary, and you can crash, but I want to give them the freedom I sought for myself. Drive that car baby. In Mythologies, Roland Barthes wrote,“I think that cars today are almost the exact equivalent of the great Gothic cathedrals; I mean the supreme creation of an era, conceived with passion by unknown artists, and consumed in image if not in usage by a whole population which appropriates them as a purely magical object.” Well, they are not really so magical, even if we sometimes give them a lot of power, but teaching someone, especially a loved one, how to drive one, is evocative of everything we need to do to make a better life for all. Share the road. Respect others who are on the road with you. Follow the rules, even UUs, and when the time comes, let the children go on the highway of life..
Closing Words – from East of Eden by John Steinbeck
“The little engine roared and then stopped. Adam sat back for a moment, limp but proud, before he got out.
The postmaster looked out between the bars of his golden grill. “I see you’ve got one of the damn things,” he said.
“Have to keep up with the times,” said Adam.
“I predict there’ll come a time when you can’t find a horse, Mr. Trask.”
They’ll change the face of the countryside. They get their clatter into everything,” the postmaster went on.