In the Driver's Seat

John McManamy Health Guide
  • In  a talk I used to give last year, I would joke: “I get road rage a lot and I don’t even drive.”

    No more.

    Yesterday, after 30 years, I”m finally back to being a licensed driver. The process was the most stressful event I can recall. More stressful, even, than the time I had to explain to Federal officials about the plutonium rods that airport security found on my carry-on luggage (okay, I just made that up).

    A brief history:

    1976: I move to New Zealand with my fiancee Her uncle is at the airport to pick us up. I hop in the passenger side of the car. It comes equipped with steering wheel and pedals and control panel. There is only a glove box on the driver’s side.

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    I never recover from the incident.

    New Zealanders drive on the left side of the road. They refuse to make an exception for me. Most of them display a total lack of understanding when I enter roundabouts on the side to which I am accustomed. Plus, speed limit signs are posted in kilograms, kilobytes, whatever.

    Soon, my wife is doing all the driving. I don’t bother to apply for a New Zealand license. I allow my two North American licenses to expire. It’s not like cars are important, anyway.

    Eleven years in New Zealand, five in Australia. By the time I return to the States, I have lost the will to get back behind the wheel.

    Years go by ...

    Then I move to Southern California. I’m in San Diego County, but that is a technicality. San Diego itself is 3,500 feet below us and 40 miles away. If I want to buy groceries or do my banking or fill a prescription, I need to drive 15 miles to a town called Alpine.

    Oops, I don’t drive.

    A month goes by. I purchase an old beater. It sits in the front of the house for 18 months.

    June this year. I finally complete the paperwork on the beater. I study for the written driver’s test and pass. I have my California learner’s permit. I get behind the wheel for the first time in decades. Nothing comes back. I’ve completely lost my driving reflexes. The road persists in moving to where the car doesn’t want to be.

    I make an appointment for my road test. July is the first available opening. My anxiety levels are through the roof. I have just met a wonderful woman who lives in San Diego. I NEED to pass this test.The inspector asks me to turn on my left signal. I turn on my right signal. It’s all downhill from there.


    I feel lower than a snake’s belly. I’m a loser, an idiot. The woman I just met is going to dump me for sure.

    We work it out. She will help me. I book another appointment for August.

    Two weeks later, I call her in a panic. I have just discovered DMV videos on YouTube. More than a hundred of them. Ten top reasons drivers fail the test. Something about forgetting that Burma is now called Myanmar. Automatic fail.

    I’m never going to pass this test!

    Yesterday. I’ve willed my heart down to merely 300 beats a minute. Turn left, the inspector instructs.

    What did he mean by that? I wonder.

    He’s scribbling in his clipboard.

    One turn and already I’ve given him something to write about! I’m doomed!

  • The test ends. The inspector tells me I have a tendency to overthink and panic.

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    He tells me I’ve passed.

    I passed! I can drive into town anytime I please! To see a certain wonderful woman!

    I refrain from hugging the inspector.

    Inside the DMV, a certain wonderful woman is waiting. We make eye contact. I hesitate, then break out into an end zone dance. Oh happy day!

    History lesson: Howard Hughes was an aviation pioneer, movie producer, inventor, entrepreneur, and ladies man. But, in the prime of life, he became reduced to nothing at the prospect of simply going out the door. He couldn’t do it. He never overcame it.

    The prospect of driving was one of those things that reduced me to nothing. Until a very short while ago, I never wanted to talk about it. Now I can joke about it.

Published On: August 15, 2008