Life’s Little Lessons

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That summer at the Murphy’s was the first time I drove a car. Even though I was only 15, I forged my mother’s signature and made myself a year older on the application so I could take summer school Driver’s Ed with Candy at her high school.

Taught by the football coach, our class would spend three hours a day that first week in a darkened classroom watching black and white footage of the aftermath of 1950’s car crashes. Pictures of ghoulishly grinning grills of rumpled Buick Roadmasters and the twisted torsos of tarp-covered victims. The plastic sheets covering the corpses were never quite large enough, always leaving a ghastly white hand sticking out or someone’s foot wearing only a sock. Everyone single one of us loved watching the fascinating films narrated by a deadly serious announcer.

The second week was full of boring lectures on the rules of the road. Who had the right of way and how to turn your wheels on a hill when you parked. Royal High School had these amazing driving simulators we got to use the third week. Long before video games were even found in arcades, let alone hooked up to the family T.V., these sit-in cubicles were equipped with a steering wheel, gas pedal and movie screen images that simulated how you turned or how hard you mashed on the pedal.  Fantastic fun.

When we showed up that fourth and final week, we were thrilled to find a dual steering wheel car parked near the classroom. The non-descript car was painted a dull tan but loudly labeled with large lettering on all four sides proclaiming for all the motoring public to get the hell out of the way- “STUDENT DRIVER.”

I was in the first group of three that got to climb into the car with Coach. The first guy who was allowed to sit behind the left steering wheel ferried us around the quiet neighborhood streets surrounding the school. The pimply kid nervously kept the speedometer steadfast at exactly 34 miles per hour as he navigated the car away from Simi and through the two lane back roads past the next town over of Thousand Oaks.

The girl next to me in the back seat took the driver’s seat next. “Take us down to the stop sign and then make a right,” Coach said. The girl’s hands kept clasping and unclasping the steering wheel, her foot sneaking to touch the brake pedal for no reason as she headed down Westlake Boulevard. We all jerked forward and back as we passed Westlake Village before Coach told her to pull over.

“You’re next,” he said turning to face me.

I slowly followed his directions for what seemed an eternity that took us into a rural area of hills that separated the valley from the Pacific Ocean. For some reason I have never been able to fathom, the Coach had guided this sedan of novice nervous drivers to the wicked stretch of road for miles around. Decker Canyon Road winds through the Santa Monica Mountains down to the Pacific Ocean at Highway One. I had been carsick on the winding stretch of road a million times as a kid.

Known as one of the deadliest stretches of road in California, the barely blacktopped road is nine miles of technical corners, decreasing radius sweeps and half mile straights. Rumor is the bass player from Iron Butterly committed suicide by driving his van off a cliff along its curving pavement.

decker-canyon

My mother, the perennial sunbather, used to drag all five of us kids out of bed daily each summer during the five years we all lived with Nana and BaaBaa in Simi Valley. We would all pile into her powder blue Ford Falcon with beach towels, tuna sandwiches and sand buckets, and then drive through the early morning fog of Decker Canyon to reach the beach.

All day as the bright sun burned off the fog; we would build sand castles and play in the ebb and flow of the ocean waves. Sometimes one of the younger kids would wander down the beach and Mom would realize when she called us over to eat lunch that one of us was missing. I would be left in charge as Mom went to the nearest lifeguard station to radio for a search. A tanned, blonde lifeguard would roar up in a four-wheel drive vehicle and Mom would climb in. They would drive down the beach and after a mile or so would find the missing member of our family.

My tuna sandwich would always taste a bit of grit from sand somehow always finding its way into even the tightest wrapped Saran Wrap. By late afternoon, everyone was browned just a little bit more with just a touch of red that would be cooled at home with a thin coating of Noxzema to relieve the sting. I am sure at least one of us is doomed to die of skin cancer in adulthood.

We were always have a bucket or two of wet sand to lug back to the car, each bucket holding a small population of sand crabs. As Mom navigated the twists and turns of Decker Canyon on the way home, always at the fastest possible speed without tipping off the roadway the hugged the hillside just above the steep canyon. “Sandra, slow down,” Nana screamed at Mom once when she had gone with us for a winter picnic on the shore, “Sandra, slow down. You’re driving on two wheels!”

The late afternoon heat and swaying car would mix with the smell of dying crabs and sea smell and with five kids who were all prone to getting car sick even under the smoothest conditions; one of us would invariably throw up. “Put your head out the window,” Mom would scream, turning back to look at us rather than the ever winding road ahead of us. I guess it never dawned on her to keep a trash bag in the car for just such common occasions, so the back seat of the Ford was stained with vomit, the paint on the car doors below each window discolored by the stain of stomach acid.

And now here I was facing this canyon road from my childhood as the driver’s ed car picked up speed as I slowly started down the patched and pot marked pavement. My mind filled with images what might happen if I zigged when I meant to zag, I could imagine the plain sedan sliding down the steep side of the deep chasm, gaining speed as it bounced over boulders before busting into flames. I think I held my breath the entire painful 15 minutes it took me to maneuver the nightmare nine miles.

“Pull over here,” Coach told me before we reached the busy Pacific Coast Highway 500 yards ahead. Thankfully, he took over from there and drove us down Highway 1 to turn back down one of the less curvy canyon roads back to our school.

 

Candy was waiting for me on the curb of the school parking lot as we piled out of the tan teaching car. Coach handed each in my group a green signed permission slip proclaiming to the State of California that they should now allow us to secure a state-issued learner’s permit.

When Candy and I got home with our coveted green slips that afternoon, Mr. Murphy agreed to our plaintive pleading to let us show him our newly acquired driving skills in the yellow family Falcon. All the Murphy kids squeezed into the car and Mr. Murphy drove us to the empty elementary school parking lot at the edge of neighborhood.

falcon

“You’re company, so you get to go first,” Mr. Murphy smiled to me, “But I’m not getting in that car with you until I see how you do.”

Only Mr. Murphy got out for me to take his place in the driver’s seat, allowing the rest of the kids to go along for the possibly wild ride. With Candy in the passenger seat beside me for moral support or to grab the wheel if necessary, I put the car into Drive and circled the lot of the school like an expert. The Coach’s instructions echoed in my head as I circled around and around. “Take your foot off the gas and onto the brake as you curve.”

After a few more circles, Mr. Murphy finally motioned for me to pull over next to him and I skillfully slowed to a stop right at his side. “Okay,” he said, climbing in beside Candy in the front passenger side of the bench seat. “Go around one more time and then we’ll take her out onto the street.”

Perhaps Mr. Murphy’s presence in the car made me nervous. I did fine on the straightaway of the parking lot, but as I turned to arc past the fenced enclosure of bicycle racks my mind confused the two pedals at my feet. Instead of lightly touching the brake pedal as the car took the curve, I mashed down hard on the accelerator. The Falcon flew fast as we headed straight instead of turning. The front wheels jumped the foot high curb and plowed right into the chain link fence, bending the metal links along the curved lines of the Ford’s front profile.

I don’t remember getting out of the car or turning over the wheel to Candy’s dad. Mr. Murphy put the Falcon in reverse to back it up.  The car fell off the curb and clunked back onto the pavement. I was shocked to see that the wire fence kept its newly bent shape in the outline of the car’s hood. I waited for Mr. Murphy to berate me like he did to his own kids when they messed up even ten percent of what I had just done. Especially because the Ford was the family’s only form of transportation with no money in their budget for collision insurance, let along repairs. Maybe the jug of Thunderbird wine he had half polished off by then had mellowed Mr. Murphy.

“I wonder if I’ll need to get the front end aligned,” he said softly as we drove home. Thankfully the car stayed on a straight line when he took both hands off the wheel as we drove down the street because the trailer on the side yard of the house was almost full enough to be taken to the dump.

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