Life’s milestones are clearly defined. To start things off there’s the brit or baby naming: then the b’nai mitzvah, which ushers in the tumultuous teen years; and then the climactic chuppah. But there’s a rite of passage that eclipses all others — the driver’s license test.
The State of Maryland conceded that my grandson, Naftali, could learn to drive. After passing the written exam, all he needed was 60 hours of practice accompanied by a licensed driver and he could be tested behind the wheel.
“Grandpa, how about riding with Naftali?” his father asked.
It was a Sunday in a near deserted industrial park with no traffic in sight. No problem, I thought. I climbed in, and away we went. The car swerved to avoid a fire hydrant, and swung into a right turn wide enough to encompass the entire width of the road.
His father could see the blood drain from my face, and he replaced me in the passenger seat. He went through a pilot-like checklist with an impatient Naftali, and then they took off.
My next ride with Naftali was a few months later. With several dozen-practice hours behind him, he drove from home to the neighborhood supermarket. There was no way to clear the streets of all moving traffic before we started, so I kept my remarks to a minimum to avoid distraction. Our pace was mercifully slow, and we pulled safely into the parking lot. However, backing out of the parking space later was another matter.
“No, not the rear view mirror,” I said with a note of alarm. “Look over your shoulder!” And thus he was able to avoid the woman pushing the shopping cart behind him.
That summer we all rode to visit my granddaughter at camp, and Naftali drove on the return trip home in highway traffic. This time his mother was in the co-pilot’s seat. He did well, but with added experience came increased impatience with the instructor. “Don’t tailgate, “ his mother said as he crept behind an 18-wheeler. “Stay in lane…Signal when you pass…Slow down, there are lights ahead…” Naftali was a model of tolerance.
The next few months as Naftali progressed toward the moment of truth, a new complication arose. His sister, Devorah, 15 months younger and fiercely competitive, became eligible for a drivers permit and was determined to learn. Their parents had to worry not only about two teenagers practicing on the family car, but also the effect on their auto insurance.
Now no excuse was acceptable. A visit to the grandchildren in Baltimore required a ride with a neophyte driver. “Don’t say anything until we get there,” Devorah insisted as she made too wide a turn. I choked back all comments. She did well until the bane of even experienced drivers — parallel parking — backing into the limited space, turning the wheel at the right moment in the right direction, all the while avoiding that sickening sound of scraping the parked car in front, then discovering a rear wheel on the curb, and then doing it all over again.
Undaunted, Devorah looked forward to the final test, but as she advanced Naftali became more reluctant to drive. He had accumulated the practice hours, but despite urging and cajoling wouldn’t schedule the test.
Fear of failure? You can take it again, Naftali. Most people don’t pass the first time anyway. With the permit expiration date looming, Naftali busied himself with other matters. High school graduation was close at hand. The driving test began to fade.
Then came a joyous phone call from Devorah. She passed the test on the first try. Nothing short of giving birth could equal the accomplishment. Meanwhile, for Naftali, mention of the driver’s test produced a shrug.
Even the State of Maryland seemed to be encouraging the would-be test takers. The State dropped the parallel parking requirement. “Now is the time, Naftali.” Instead he retreated to the kollel for some extra “learning.”
There’s good news and bad news when a teenager gets a driver’s license. The good news is you have another driver in the family. The bad news is you have another driver in the family.
“Abba, may I have the car tonight? and then “Abba, I need to use the car!”
And so it begins. The extra cost of car insurance becomes a minor concern compared to the thought of a 16-year-old driving around at night with friends.
Then six months as a licensed driver and a small fender bender later, Devorah advances what she considers a modest proposal.
“Grandpa, I need to have a car.”
There had been a hint of this at a Passover seder when I tried to ransom the Afikomen, but what had seemed to be a foolish fantasy now became a serious proposal.
“I’ll pay it back by driving kids to school for a fee so they won’t have to take the bus.”
I said even if I had the money, I don’t think a 16-year-old should have a car, and certainly not to chauffer children to school.
“And by the way,” I said smugly, “I didn’t own a car until I was 24 years old.”
Wrong response. Devorah was too polite to say I’m caught in a time warp, but rolling her eyes said it all.
Meanwhile, Naftali was either inspired by his sister or tired of being nagged. He scheduled the test. His parents could look forward to another spike in auto insurance, fierce competition for the family car, and doubling of concern about teenage nighttime driving. On the other hand there would usually be someone available to run an errand — by car.
Ed Silberfarb was a reporter for the Bergen Record in New Jersey, then the New York Herald Tribune where he was City Hall bureau chief. Later, he was a public information officer for the New York City Transit Authority and editor of one of its employee publications.