SLACKJAW by JIM KNIPFEL
June 9, 2013

The Driving Instructor

 

It was a bright and humid July afternoon. I was sixteen and had never developed much of a tolerance for the Wisconsin summer. We didn’t have air conditioning, my room was stifling, and I was soaked with sweat. This was the least of my concerns, though. At three, just a couple of hours away, I had to head down to the high school where I was set to begin the first of three days of the dreaded “on-road” leg of driver’s ed. Unlike most teenagers, getting my license wasn’t all that important to me. In fact the whole idea made me queasy. It was necessary, yes, but I was too terrified by the prospect of being given control over a two thousand pound hot metal killing machine, and knew I likely wouldn’t be driving much anyway.

            The classroom instruction had been a waste of time, lorded over by a senile old gentleman who regaled us for two weeks with endless tales of all the accidents he’d been in. This was the extent of his teaching. He’d run into lampposts and overpasses, slammed into other cars (both moving and stationary) and run over every kind of animal the state of Wisconsin had to offer. I’m not really sure how this qualified him to teach driver’s ed, but there he was, and I was stuck with him for two weeks. Worse still, by the time I hit driver’s ed, all those classic bloody driver’s ed films I’d heard about from my sister (the kind with real scenes of splattered brains and severed limbs) had been shelved in favor of milder, bloodless footage of crash test dummies and what a broken windshield could do to a grapefruit. Driver safety films were the only thing I was looking forward to in all this, and they’d even ripped that away from me.

            The on-range instruction, the second leg of the month-long course, had been a disaster too, overseen by a fat industrial arts teacher with a tiny head and a squeaky voice. Eight cars, each with two students, slowly followed a clearly-marked course around a parking lot while Baby Huey (as he was known) sat off to the side with a microphone and transmitter, sending whiny and snide instructions through each car radio. When he wasn’t offering abusive instruction (and sometimes when he was) he was eating Cheez Doodles out of a giant bag and rubbing the orange dust all over his bright blue pants. Every time my car slowly cruised past him, instead of paying attention to the orange traffic cones delineating the course, my eyes drifted to the growing orange smears on his pants. I couldn’t help myself.

            By the time the on-road instruction rolled around I had absolutely no fucking idea what I was doing, yet I was about to be stuck behind the wheel of an actual car and thrust out into the real world of highways, speeders, drunks, angry hunters, and psychopathic truckers. There were a lotta drunks and psycho truckers around Green Bay. I was going to die, that’s all there was to it, and I was going to die for something as stupid as trying to get a driver’s license I didn’t even want.

            I had two things working for me, I rationalized. First, given the two instructors I’d had up to that point, the on-road instructor couldn’t possibly be any worse. In fact I’d heard stories about wonderful on-road instructors, mellow, rational, friendly types who didn’t yell or whine and sometimes even took their students out to lunch. Second, my friend Steve was beginning his on-road training that morning and would be out a few hours before I had to leave. He promised to give me a call when it was over and lay out exactly what happened. The instructors would be different, sure, but at least I’d have some general idea of what I was in for.

            As expected, the phone rang about one.

            “Oh, my god,” Steve said when I picked up the phone.

            “What? What happened?”

            “Oh my god,” he repeated. He sounded like someone had beaten him with a rubber hose.

            “Would you tell me what the hell happened?”

            This was not what I was hoping to hear.

            “It was HORRIBLE. He weighed 400 pounds, and he kept leaning over into the driver’s seat to grab the wheel, and when he did the skin of his arm, oh god, it kept rubbing against my arm and it was like naugahyde. And he kept screaming ‘You’re hesitating! You’re hesitating!’ . . . ”

            I made Steve stop, take a deep breath, and start from the very beginning.

            “Okay, so I get there, and all the instructors are there by the cars and they have clipboards. You have to find out which one you’re scheduled to go with, so you can’t just pick one or anything like that. But the second I saw this guy—just this big . . . blob, I knew I’d have to ride with him, right? Who else would I end up with? And another student comes along too, so one of you drives for an hour, then you switch places.”

            “Who was the other one?”

            “I didn’t know him. Some rat-faced kid who’d already been driving for five years. So I went first to get it out of the way, but this guy . . . god, I’ve never been so tense in all my life . . . ”

            He was talking quickly, both exhausted and traumatized. It was almost like he was a soldier just home from the war trying to describe a particularly ugly battle. It sounds overly dramatic, but for people like Steve and me at that time and at that age that’s exactly what these scenes were like. In any case it wasn’t helping to squash my own dread any.

            “ . . . he smelled bad—you know that smell that really obese people get? And he was all sweaty and kept sucking his teeth. And he turned the air-conditioning on full blast so I was freezing. Then he just kept exploding, ‘You’re hesitating!’ and grabbing at the wheel when I was trying to get on the highway, and that scared the hell out of me.”

            “The highway?”

            “Oh god and he just kept sliding over into my seat and grabbing at the wheel. I was sure he was going to have a heart attack, but I just didn’t want him touching me.”

            As he laid out the horrors he’d faced, I tried to fight off the cold nausea rising in my guts by looking at the situation positively. If Steve ended up with this guy, then maybe some hope still remained. I certainly wouldn’t end up with the same instructor, right? They must rotate people around for this. And whoever I ended up with couldn’t possibly be this bad. I mean, I’m sure I’d still die, but at least I wouldn’t be weeping when I did.

            “Oh, but I guess there was one funny thing about it all.”

            “Yeah?”

            “When it was all over and we drove back to the school, he looked at his clipboard, then showed it to me and pointed at a name and said, ‘Hey, how d’you pronounce that, you think? Nip...fel?’”

 

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