June 13, 2010

A Case of Driver’s Ed Rage


A friend of mine who lives in the Pacific Northwest is finally taking driver’s ed. He survived quite happily for several decades without a driver’s license. At lot of that time he was in New York, where learning how to drive is hardly near the top on anyone’s list of priorities (even if they own a car). But out there things are different, and it became evident that he was going to have to learn how to drive a car. That meant driver’s ed classes. He wasn’t exactly thrilled with the idea. The worst thing about the whole proposition, he told me, is that he’s found himself taking these classes with a bunch of sixteen year-olds.

            I can sympathize with that. I wasn’t thrilled about taking driver’s ed, either. Even though I was sixteen at the time, I still hated the idea of sitting in a classroom with a bunch of sixteen year-olds (most of whom, it seems, had been driving since they were twelve). Where I was and when I was, however, it was simply as much a matter of course as the Cub Scouts and catechism classes. The summer after you turned sixteen, you took driver’s ed, and that was that.

            Thing is, I never cared about cars. I loved motorcycles. I had a couple of mini-bikes when I was younger and always dreamed of owning a Harley. If I wanted a bike, I needed a regular driver’s license first. But by the time I reached sixteen it already seemed such a distant and unreachable goal that it wasn’t even an issue anymore.

            I was perfectly happy riding buses around town, but it didn’t matter. My eyes were already on the downslide at that point, but that didn’t matter either. It never occurred to me, or anyone around me, that I wouldn’t take driver’s ed and get my license. So I did.

            Although I may not have cared one way or another about getting a license, there was one thing that attracted me to the classes: highway safety films. My sister had taken driver’s ed five years before me, and I couldn’t wait for her to get back from class every day so she could tell me more tales of severed limbs, smashed faces, and splattered brains on dashboards—all up there on the screen. I’d seen plenty of gory horror films, sure, but these just sounded so much better.

            Okay, maybe I was a disturbed child, but I needed to see those films. Those films were the sole reason I looked forward to spending three weeks of my summer back at school.

            So in order to get to the bloody highway safety films I had to take driver’s ed, and taking driver’s ed meant I had to deal with the instructor, Mr. VanderMullen. Mr. VanderMullen was a pear-shaped retiree with a set of bad dentures, a lot of time on his hands, and a lot of stories to tell (well, at least four stories). He didn’t do much instructing, really. He handed out the Rules of the Road booklet on the first day of class, and we were pretty much on our own with that. For the next three weeks, five days a week, three hours a day, he told stories. They were driving stories, to be fair—but they were all stories about the insane and horrific accidents he’d been in.

            He didn’t tell these stories to scare us straight or educate us—he just thought they were really really funny stories. And yes, they were great stories about strange objects falling off overpasses onto his car and the many assorted animals he’d run over in his travels (“Man, I sure killed the hell outta that porker!” I remember him guffawing once). At least they were funny the first time he told them. Come the fifth or sixth retelling, they started to lose some of their luster.

            It only took a few classes of this before I began to wonder what it was, exactly, that qualified this man to teach driver’s ed. Except maybe that he’d survived all these accidents with only minor brain damage. In one way, I guess it could be considered educational—namely that we should learn how not to drive like Mr. VanderMullen.

            When he wasn’t telling us car accident stories, he would explain the fantasy safety features he thought should be standard on all cars. Most of them involved rubber. He thought that every car on the road should be wrapped in a six-inch layer of rubber, top to bottom (except for the windows, I’m presuming). This, see, would put an end to car crashes. I mean, if two cars collided, they’d just bounce off one another, see? American highways would become gigantic bumper car tracks, and everyone would travel safely and happily.

            He went on for hours about the rubber idea. Day after day, it was run over a farm animal, then on to the rubber. He even drew diagrams on the chalkboard of these rubber-swathed cars of his.

            I never took many notes in that class.

            Finally, in the middle of the second week, Mr. VanderMullen announced that we were going to see a film, and warned us that it was going to be pretty rough and disturbing. Suddenly I perked up from my numbed stupor. All those mind-boggling lectures were suddenly worthwhile, given that they had finally led up to This Moment. This was the only part of the whole obligatory ordeal that mattered. We all moved over to the next classroom, where we crammed ourselves in around another class. There was a tangible electricity in the air—I wasn’t the only one who had heard stories about Red Asphalt and Hell’s Highway—these films had reached urban legend status.

            Someone pulled down the screen and someone else killed the lights. The other driver’s ed instructor flicked on the projector, and I sat up straight in my seat, not wanting to miss a thing—not a drop of blood on a tire rim, not a driblet of brain on a front seat cover.

            And what did I see?

            Crash-test dummies.

            I wanted to stand up and yell, “Are you fuckin’ kidding me? Goddamn crash-test dummies flopping around?”

            And instead of a face torn open on a shattered windshield, there was some guy in a lab coat rubbing a grapefruit on a shattered windshield to illustrate the effects.

            What the hell was this? I waited five years and sat through that retard’s lectures for this?

            As it happened, I soon learned, we were the very first class that got to see the new generation of driver’s ed films, without all that unnecessary gore and mayhem. I guess with the changing attitudes and the increasingly sensitive and delicate youngsters of the day, some people thought the films were too disturbing, for some godforsaken reason. Whoever those people were, I thought, they needed to be smacked.

            I quickly lost what little enthusiasm I’d had at the beginning of these classes. Worse, I had another week and a half of this shit to sit through—an Alzheimer’s case talking about dead pigs and rubber cars, then off to the other room for more crash-test dummies.

            I eventually did get my license, and after that I drove exactly three times—twice nearly causing accidents far worse than anything VanderMullen saw, and once clutching the wheel and screaming until the person in the passenger seat forced me to pull over.

            These days I take the train.


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