This is embarrassing. Really dreadful. I know the car is going to buck again like a raging bull and shut off in a huff! It has done so already, three times in a row. Each time followed by laughter. From derisive giggles to roaring, fatuous hoots. I have always been good at learning new things, grasping them effortlessly and mastering them quickly; but my one-O-one in driving a motorcar is turning out to be an unforgiving exception, proving now to be my undoing.
I am not as good as I thought I was, but I am not going to let it unravel me. After all, I have spent enough time as a silent driver in many a motorcar, watching and storing in my mind every move the driver has made. Hell, I have even practiced in my imaginary car when I was a kid, sitting atop a pile of concrete blocks, with a choice, leaf-stripped branchlet of the aralia hedge, still attached, as my gearstick. And as I hurtled down the Norris road towards Heartease, my vocal cords would vibrate and reverberate, almost like a choir of engine sounds. Sounds modulated in sync with my every driving action – from the heavy, labored revving at the démarrage, through the changing of the gears and the acceleration, to the smooth hum once I got to my final cruising speed. As for the horn, that was a hoot, for I skillfully switched from engine rev to honking, signaling man, dog, car and donkey to get out of my way. And if they did not scoot out fast enough, I seamlessly transposed the honking into the squelching of brakes. Why, sometimes I even had to take evasive action, forcing me to come to a tire-screeching halt: “Eeerrrrks!” Driving as a kid surely did require quite a bit of mouth effort: lingual, labial and vocal, sharing the stage in concert.
The Morris Oxford had moved off smoothly from my gate in Norris just fifteen minutes earlier. There was nobody in sight except for my brother Skip. He was seated beside me, feeding me with instructions on how to get the wheels of the car turning. Brave guy. “Come off o’ di clutch easy,” he told me. “Squeeze di gas pedal slow slow, and take time release di ‘an’brake same time.” Wow! A trifecta of synchronized actions diligently completed, and off we went. Exhilaration! I was driving! Once in motion, shifting the gears was easy, save for the gritting getting into third, as I was too light on the clutch. Lucky for me, my first real driving experience was not with a dreaded, Russian-made Lada Niva, a dinosaur of an SUV that was popular at the time. Had it been, maybe I could have won the Mister Universe title twice-over, such was its muscle-building qualities…
I often imagine that the primary purpose of the Lada was to test my car-handling mettle once I became a fully-fledged driver. It elevated, or, rather, it sank gear-changing and steering-wheel turning down to a new, manhood-testing realm of driving. For they were feats not easily accomplished: They required quite a bit of effort, almost akin to doing gym work. If you were not strong enough, you would be caught up in an encounter with a defiant, unyielding clutch; rather than it depressing in response to the downward push of your left leg, you would, instead, find it resisting so powerful, that you had the sensation of your body being hoisted from your seat! Mr. Mitchell, my fourth form physics teacher at Morant Bay High, would have succeeded in getting a better pass rate had he crafted and delivered a lesson entitled: “Newton’s Third Law of Motion Extended: The Lada Experience”. Or, was the Lada around at that time? Too long ago to be sure…
Now that I had driven almost expertly to Easington, parked boasy in front of Miss Chung’s Chiny shop and was about to leave again, the car chose to start ridiculing me in front of my friends. My so-called friends. At one extreme, they can sometimes sprout wings and don halos: Take, for instance, occasions like when they surprise you by sharing, though maybe grudgingly, their watchman cartwheel dumplin’ with you when you get to the river lime late and the boat has already landed and almost fully left port. The watchman, you may know, has a cherished, pride-of-place position in any meal, albeit temporarily. As you eat, you keep pushing it aside, leaving it untouched in the corner of the butter pan for the delectable, last hurrah – an unheralded gastronomic climax. It is, therefore, not easy giving up your watchman, whose purpose is to produce that climax once devoured along with the last of the ackee and janga lying in wait for the final coupling. But, be careful, for these very same friends can lose their wings and the glow of their halos at times; and this is one such situation I am facing now – a grand dilemma – right in front of Miss Chung’s shop in Easington square.
Jeezas wep! Why is it that when no one was around, except Skip, everything had gone well upon leaving Norris? And now that the shoppers and stragglers and their sidekicks at this communal meeting point are milling around, my driving skills are showing how green I am! My shame tree is certainly trying to blossom! Surely, it must be due to the presence of the eponymous Mr. Murphy, showing that his law has teeth. “Peter, yu foot too heavy!” are the words I hear forcing their way through the laughter. Skip tells me to relax and not feel intimidated. His encouragement soaks in, and I calmly go through his expressed sequence of motions; I remember how effortlessly I had moved off from Norris and, within a few seconds, I find myself shifting from first to second, on to third, and then to fourth before we get towards Buryin’ Grung. Before long I am shifting down again to enter Easington Bridge, crossing over Yallahs River, on our way back to Norris.
So, Skip taught me how to drive a motorcar. Before that, he had taught me too, how to drive his Honda 50, and now that he had bought his first car, my dream of learning to drive was coming true. My father just never seemed to have had the time to teach me, although, for as long as I can remember, he always owned a car. I dimly remember the black Ford Prefect, one of the features of the silent movie of my infancy. Part of that memory is how mesmerized I was by the thin strip of metal and yellow light, ensconced in a slot between the windows on both sides of the car: My father could work magic and command them to suddenly flick up and stick out, and then make them go back down and in. I learned later that these were retractable semaphores called trafficators, whose purpose was to signal to other drivers his intention to turn left or right.
The image of the Plymouth, which came home after the Prefect, is more sharply etched in my mind, though. Perhaps because I had grown older by the time it put in its appearance. It was green, and it was ginormous. By then, trafficators were no longer fashionable, and had been modernized into glamorous, blinking light signals, positioned on both sides of the back and front ends of the trendy fishtail cars. Though these signals are standard up to today, I can clearly see them becoming totally obsolete sometime soon, to be replaced by ISP, aka Intuitive Signaling Perception. I have seen this evolution happening over the last few years as I drive on the highways of South Florida. And we are getting to that era rather quickly. Today, drivers switch lanes and pull in and out of traffic without any blinking lights; suffer those behind who are not vigilant, or are unfortunate enough to be too close… But, they, too, are evolving, not only becoming adept at ISP, but also at CCAP, i.e., Cognitive Collision Avoidance Preparedness. Both ISP and CCAI go hand in hand, and the last I heard is that they will soon gain official stature and written into the Florida road code.
Driving during the era of the big fishtail cars must have required my father to be multi-dexterous several times over. For, to be able to simultaneously manipulate all the twisting and clicking, and the turning and flipping and flicking, along with the clutching and gear shifting and braking, all of his limbs would have had to be fully functional. This constant gymnastics included the foot action needed to lower the headlight beam so as not to blind oncoming drivers at night. Foot action? Yes, and to be more precise, left-foot action: the lowering of the beam was activated by a swift click of the control, located on the floor to the left of the brake, with the left foot. On top of all that, he would have had to be mindful of keeping the car close enough to the edge of the narrow mountain roads to avoid brushing against the cars passing in the opposite direction, but far enough away to avoid tumbling over and down the treacherous ravines.
Once the Plymouth went into retirement under the huge breadfruit tree towards the gully, just before the latrine, the brand-spanking-new white Peugeot 404, seats covered in plastic and with a strong new-car smell, drove into the yard with my father at the wheel. KG746. Don’t ask me why, but I remember that license plate number to this day. That was the last car he owned, fully drivable as recently as 3 years ago, shortly after he went away on his final journey. It is still parked up at home in Norris, and I am sure that all it would need to hit the road again is a good battery and some sparkplugs.
I was always a relatively good kid: I wasn’t a bother to my parents, save for a few instances when moments of overindulgent frivolity would turn into acts of simple juvenile aberrance; however, the Peugeot, combined with the brashness of teenagerhood-bordering-on-adulthood, created the right lure for me to fall out of line a few times. Fish bait. And so, these are the reasons why I stole the Peugeot from the house on a few occasions. Oh, and two more reasons: Skip was a willing accomplice, and I needed to put a stop to the subtle and constant exhortation of my friends that, “My father couldn’t have a car an me naa drive it.” My pride was being shattered and I certainly had to mend it and defend it! So, though my father never put me around the steering wheel of his beloved Peugeot, I was forced to put myself there on a number of occasions, until he found a way to clip my wings.
Growing up in the Jamaican countryside, we had no fear of robberies or stick-ups, or other such acts of indiscretion; at nights, the only things we were scared of was the likelihood of being confronted by a rolling calf in the unlit streets, or being tapped on the shoulder by a duppy. Daytime, nothing to worry about at all, so my father would park the Peugeot in front of the house, leaving the key in the ignition. The only time he took it out was when he put the car in the garage for the night, signaling that his driving for the day was done. The first time I took the car, it was during broad daylight while he lay in the settee in the front room, fast asleep. Skip and I had hatched a plan without even thinking about it. It happened instinctively, and was well-oiled: I jumped into the driver’s seat and shifted the fingertip gear lever into neutral. My mother witnessed everything, and you could tell by the smirk on her face and the furtive looks she threw towards the house that she was willing us to go hurriedly and silently, lest my father woke up and thwarted the adventure.
So, Skip went in front of the car, lay his hands on the bonnet and pushed, while I silently reversed, skillfully, out of the yard. I had to be careful not to hit the gates, for I had to make almost a 90 degree turn to line up the car for the exit. In reverse. Once out, I straightened up, and he pushed the car for a few hundred yards, past the bridge that spanned Collier’s Spring. Having gotten out of earshot of the house, he ceased pushing and I braked, quickly bring the car to a stop. He quickly jumped in, I switched on the ignition, and off we went! When we returned home, we boldly drove back into the yard, under engine power, for we had already done our deed, so no use in hiding. My father never said a word. Just pretended like nothing had happened. Although he milled around, perhaps trying to see from a distance if we had put any dents into his beloved car.
On one other occasion, after having learnt the tricks of the trade, I took the car all by my lonesome. I needed to graduate to the next level of juvenile vehicular indiscretion so that I could really earn my wings. Just like a pilot having to fly solo to earn his. And, just in case my friends said the fact that Skip was with me on the first occasion did not count: So, with no Skip to provide substitute engine power, I had to rely on the real thing to make my getaway. By then, I was skilled at navigating the exit in reverse without having to worry about hitting the gate. It took me what seemed like only a few seconds to start the engine, get through the gate, and reach my cruising speed. I stopped by a friend, and he told me there was a get-together in Grants Pen, a small seaside community on the way to Kingston, just before you hit the climb through the hills to Eleven Miles. “Hop in, and let’s go.” Along the way I picked up a few more friends, and made it in good time to Grant’s Pen. There they had music and food and drinks and dominoes. And though I had a good time, it was somewhat mitigated by constant mind flashes on my father, wondering what the hell was going to happen once I got back home.
On the way back, I drove through Poorman’s Corner, and up through Heartease, instead of taking the Woodbourne route. This meant I had to go past my yard to drop off my friends and then get back home. Well, my father must have heard the purr of the engine before I reached the corner at Public Works, for when I swooshed past the gate I saw him rushing out of the yard into the street. When I finally got back home and parked nicely, he said nary a word. My mother told me he had not heard me drive out, and when he woke up (yes, those were the times when I tested Peugeot delinquency) and discovered the car missing, he almost popped a blood vessel! It is not surprising that after that he ceased leaving the key in the ignition when he parked!
I moved to Europe a few years later, and that was when I managed to buy my first car. I just could not afford one in Jamaica, as repaying my student’s loan after university and living on my own meant my funds were tight. Not even when the company I was working with offered to help me get a Lada at a discounted rate… My BMW 320i I bought in Brussels was royal blue. It was awesome, so awesome that I still think about it up to today.
Driving all over Western Europe during the years I lived there was a series of unique experiences, from the priorité à droite in Brussels, to the autobahns in Cologne, from parallel parking in the narrow canal streets of Amsterdam to exiting the ronds-points in Paris. Not to mention moving to London and returning to Brussels on vacation, and having to make the conscious switch from driving on the left to driving again on the right. Traffic in Bangalore in India, and in Cuzco in Peru, or in Port-au-Prince in Haiti? Each city has its own driving culture, and you just have to get acclimatized to be able to function accident-free on the roads. Wait until you hear some of these experiences I have had!