“Vamonos,” he said.

I turned left at his insistence, pulled up over a shady on ramp. On ramp? What was an on ramp? I thought. Suddenly, there in front of me was the Santa Monica Freeway, the Autobahn of Southern California, Death’s Highway. I crawled to a stop, saliva dripping from the corners of my mouth.

“Drive,” he said. “Vamonos.”

Fear of automobiles is in my DNA. My mother never drove a car. As a family, we never owned one. As a Navy officer, my father had no use for cars and hated them.

I guess I inherited my father’s fear, and grew up without one. We were a bus community, who needed one?

In high school, of course, this became a problem.

It’s kind of embarrassing to take a girl to the movies on the bus. Expensive too — you have to pay her fare. So I made a practice of selecting close friends who had access to family cars.

This is not as bad as it sounds. Rosemary DeBranco, she of the one thousand and one pastel Angora sweaters and simple strand of pearls, always had the back seat, where moonlight became her and went with her hair.

I proceeded to grow up in large major cities with great public transportation. No problem. No one in Manhattan had a car. Dating was a subway thing. No problem.

When she, who had her license early on, and I got married and moved to Los Angeles, things got stickier. We bought a cheap white car of suspicious origin. I’m not sure what make it was.

When she inevitably grew weary of driving me from studio to studio for auditions and jobs, she insisted on teaching me to drive.

First day out in the San Fernando Valley, with myself behind the wheel, feeling exhilarated, I cruised down a side street. I got confused. I hit the wrong pedal.

“Stop,” she said. I hit the pedal. Wrong pedal.

In desperation, I ran over a curb and broke a small tree in half. An entire Mexican family of about 12 siblings rushed out. I had killed their tree. My semi Spanish-speaking wife explained to them that I was a beginner.

They seemed unimpressed until the father spotted my St. Genesius medal. With the mixture of her Spanish and my brazen display of faith, the situation was resolved. But that was the deal breaker.

We bought a new car and she, who now feared for her safety and that of her children, insisted I get professional help. This was the Southern California School of Driving.

For weeks before my first lesson, I would sit in the very back seat of the bus and mimic the moves of the driver, left turn, right turn, etc. I was 43 years old and playing “driver” like a child.

The morning of my first lesson, I could not eat or drink lest I throw up in my instructor’s lap.

At 9 a.m. he arrived, a courtly Mexican gentleman named Jesus. A comforting sign. He was patient and polite, smiling and gentle. He seemed stunned at first that a healthy man of my years had never driven, but assured me that he had taught much older.

He put me behind the wheel, and off we went, cruising down a busy La Cienega Boulevard. With his encouragement, I executed perfect lane changes, gave proper signals. I felt so secure.

“Take your next left,” he said.

I saw the big green and white sign that I had seen many times before, but now it was personal. HOLLYWOOD FREEWAY.

“That’s the freeway,” I said.

“Good,” he smiled, “You know how to read, that’s a good sign.”

“I’m not ready for the freeway … am I?”

“We’ll soon know.”

I paused at the edge of a rushing blur of cars all of which seemed to be going 800 mph.

“What are you waiting for?” he asked.

“A break.”

“There are no breaks,” he laughed. “Vamonos.”


“Drive,” he said, and then he made the sign of the cross.

There we were, flying through the smog, both laughing and screaming “Vamonos.”

At last, I was a driver, excited, a bilingual new middle-aged driver. Thank you, Jesus, both of you.

J.P. Devine is a Waterville writer.

Facebook comments

filed under:

Augusta and Waterville news

Get news and events from your towns in your inbox every Friday.

  • This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.