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Shotgun

June 17, 2007

by HP

After several attempts at taking my life in vehicular suicide, I am still quite alive.  I’ve never actually wanted to kill myself.  Simply, the dark of night and the motion of a car put me to sleep, especially when I am the one driving.

You might that that such behavior would convince my high school friends that I shouldn’t drive on long road trips.  However, this logical conclusion was always overpowered by the fact that my father owned a van and I was the only teen he trusted to drive it.  Three times we climbed up into this behemoth (dubbed “the studmobile”) in the summer after my senior year in high school.  Three times I would hover on the edge of consciousness during the long journey home.  The sleep came gradually.  It would begin with a nod, then much blinking, a yawn or two, and suddenly I would find myself sitting bolt upright, awakened by a nudge, comment, or scream from the passenger side.

I had my own way of dealing with this problem.  I would buy a big gulp of some alien, sugar-charged, chemically enhanced, beverage-like substance in the hopes that the subtle mix of sugar and caffeine (with a hint of water) would augment my driving endurance.  I would sit with my jump-juice tucked safely between my legs, staring at the cars in front of me.  My system was basic.  When I began to hallucinate, I would sip enough cola to restore reality.  I’ve seen a Beetle become a barking dog, taillights mutate into stalking eyes, and once the entire northbound half of I-95, including three cars, coiled up into a cobra, like in Aladdin.  Wisely, I didn’t tell the passengers about my own trip until we were already home.

Surprisingly enough, my friends didn’t consider my personal, chemical vigilance enough to avoid a fiery wreck.  They too had a system.  Alway, to my right, was the “shotgun.”  This person’s job was to keep me awake and aware that I was the one driving.  They did this by talking incessantly and trying to keep me involved in the conversation.  If I went too log without attempting some form of communication, they would turn to check on my position.  Head up and eyes straight indicated that all was well.  Chin to chest induced the afore-mentioned screaming.  In spire of the occasional “John!”, I always took comfort from knowing that somebody was watching where I was going and was helping me get there.

Usually, we drove down to Disney World.  We went, I think, to kill off our childhood.  Here, as children, we had wandered, attached to our parents.  The flashy colors, the smiling dancers, and the kitschy optimism of it all enchanted our preadolescent hearts.  For me, nothing was more exciting than the “20,000 Leagues under the Sea” ride.  We actually went under water and, although I knew they were fake, the giant squid arms scared the you-know-what out of me.  I could have ridden it twenty times in a row, if my parents had let me and if the line didn’t mean an hour wait.

Now, as “young adults,” we returned to mock the health insincerity of the place.  In this Mecca of good feeling, little satisfied our cynical appetite.  The “20,000 Leagues” ride fell under my particular derision.  The plastic fish were held up by thin metal rods, which protruded out of the pool’s floor.  Even though we were 20,000 leagues under the sea, the water’s surface was always clearly visible, about a foot above our portholes.  “Who do they think they’re fooling?” we laughed.  The omnipresent commercialism ($2 for a Mickey Mouse ice cream bar?!?) disgusted us, yet we paid to see more.

I received a letter this morning that took me back to a place I had nearly forgotten in my cynicism.  I once live in Armenia.  Armenia is desert, mountain, stone, and not much else.  The people there have no money, but there isn’t anything to buy.  The bodies of their buildings are pink stone, cut from the mountains that surround them.  On the swept summer streets, people would gather around ice-cream vendors and shade trees, muttering away the days.

My companion and I were walking in a park on P-day, searching for something to do.  Then we found it.  Bumper car rides, only a quarter.  We rode at least eight times each.  We took pictures in mid-collision.  We chased each other, prodded each other, and attempted to injure each other.  Soon, two little children joined us, adding their laughter to the high-pitched whir of the motors.  An afternoon spent in harmless destruction continued.

A few days later, my companion and I were walking home from an appointment when we saw a car that initially looked as if it had no driver.  The Mercedes-Benz seem to simply cruise along of its own volition.  As it passed us, we saw a seven-year-old driving, peeking up between the steering wheel and the dash.  He was smiling, comfortable in the knowledge that he was in control.  We found more comfort in his father’s presence beside him.

When my father wanted to talk to me, he always took me for a drive.  He’d say something like, “Son, I need to go to Walmart to buy some duct tape and coat hangers.  Why don’t you come with me?”  This translated into “Son, you did something stupid and I want to explain this fact to you.”  In the car, he was the driver and I was the passive listener.  Around the time we made it up the hill by our house, he would begin to explain what I had done wrong.  Sometimes, I hadn’t done anything wrong, but he was worried about my financial future or how I treated my Mom.  Anyway, he’d start to simply explain how he saw the situation and what was wrong with it.  Then he’d look at me over the gear shift and ask what I thought about it.  He rarely imposed his will on me.  He usually just offered an alternative.  I appreciated these motorside chats more for the inevitable fast-food with which they concluded than for the opportunity to get to know my Dad.  This changed when I began to drive.

My first experience driving was a genuine nightmare.  First of all, I learned on an automatic.  Nothing incredibly scary there, I just wished I could get learning to drive a stick-shift over with.  The above-mentioned van constituted a bigger problem (literally).  The other cars were too “nice” (code for easily smashed) for my first erratic driving lessons.  Instead, I was placed in the front left corner of a creature that was easily the size of forty of me, depending on how you staked us.  One the very day that I received my permit, my father drafted me into making the drive home.  I drove with the speed and caution of a 90-year-old.  When we eventually rounded the curve on the top of the hill by my house, I thought that the worse was over.  Then, within sight of my house, the most traumatic car accident of my life happened.  There was a T-intersection on the top of that hill where anothter street dead-ended into the one I was driving along.  An unidentified kid, with freckles and wild red hair, was riding a bicycle toward the intersection, headed straight for the dead end.  He was talking to the boy on a skateboard that he was pulling along behind him and carelessly disregarded the stop sign that he should have obeyed.  Instead, he very slowly pulled out in front of me.  I, along with two tons of car, panicked.  I swerved out of the way and didn’t hit him; he hit me.  He ran into the passenger door of the van and his face splatted up against the door’s window.  I can still picture him there.  He cheek and forehead were smooth against the glass and his nose was pinched over to the side.  His face was pressed up against the window as if he was looking for something that had fallen just inside the door.  He was fine and quickly rode away.  I was so shaken that I couldn’t see straight and I refused to drive the 75 yars to our house.  Dad quietly complied with my decision, drove us home, and spent the rest of the day assuring me that I had done well and would drive again.

With time and I came to enjoy driving and the car-bound discussions with my father.  I even occasionally responded to his questions.  By the time I drove to Disney World, I had come to love the studmobile and its ability to intimidate smaller cars out of my way.  I became the drive and Dad enjoyed the opportunity to read in the car.  He rarely looked up to make sure I wasn’t crashing into anyone and his quiet confidence gave mine quite a boost.

Too often, life is a bumper car ride, only the destruction is real.  One kareems from experience to experience and never really seems to maintain control.  Sometimes someone may fall asleep at the wheel and lose track of their destination.  It is possibly to lose sight of the road entirely.

To our great benefit, we all have someone riding shotgun.  He sees the road clearly and can get us a telephone book to sit on.  He nudges us when we are lulled into unconsciousness.  He consoles us when we mess-up and gives us second chances.  He has sit-down chats with us to find out how we see things.  He, too, is our Father.

I wrote this several years ago for a school assignment.  I still like it.  Happy Fathers Day! 

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