Way to open road is full of obstacles

Tuesday, May 10, 2005

Deep within the social levels of a high school, there is one elite society that most teenagers have already entered by their sophomore year.

But for those of us with birthdays late in the school year, we can only gaze longingly at those in it, as they flaunt their freedom.

At the age of 15, I've become painfully aware of the days counting down to my sweet 16th, when I will, at last, be revered and respected. On that day, I will become a licensed driver.

I do have my permit, but it's actually more of a humiliation device than it is a help. A permit explicitly requires that a legal parent or guardian be in the car at all times. So, like any other 15-year-old, when I got my permit, I immediately climbed into the car, ready to feel powerful and in control.

That feeling lasted about 30 seconds before my mother climbed in and began instructing.

"OK, seat belt. OK, go. No, no, you're jerking the wheel. ... Good, now coast to the stop sign. Start braking. Brake! BRAKE! CLAIRE!"

At this time my mother starts pounding imaginary brake pedals on the floor, grabbing the arms of her seat and bracing for a crash as her eyes swell until they look like they might pop out of their sockets.

The first time this happened, I became so alarmed by her reaction, I tried to administer CPR. She wasn't amused and lunged for the wheel, ordering me out of the driver's seat. So much for trying to help.

If I thought my mother would get used to my driving and calm down, I was mistaken. I've learned to ignore her ballistic attacks for the most part.

My father, on the other hand, is much calmer. He doesn't say much, although I have the suspicion that he might be praying the whole trip. He leans back and breathes deeply, only making noises as I crack the wheel around, flipping switches on the dashboard in an attempt to use the turn signal.

Obviously, I need all the help I can get from my car. Alas, 1987 "Rhonda Honda" was purchased as a 17-year-old "practice car" for my siblings and me with the idea that if one of us were to crash her, we'd be doing the world a favor.

During the winter, her temperament worsened. As we turned on the car, the engine would start revving itself, and the RPM meter would fly all the way to eight and then back again, then to four or nine in a matter of seconds. We would bet on how excited she might get -- all while still in neutral.

Rhonda also would die unexpectedly. One second, she'd be purring along. The next, she'd sputter and die, and we'd have to rush to kill the engine, pump the gas pedal and attempt to revive her before anyone ran into us from behind.

These occurrences became more and more frequent, until the day she stopped altogether. We were forced to leave her on the side of the road. The next morning, we set out to retrieve her and finally take her to her resting place in the car dealership.

Once we reached her, however, she seemed to know what we had in mind. Before anyone laid a hand on her, her emergency lights began flashing on and off, and strange noises came from under the hood. Petting her, we thanked her for the 175,000-plus miles she covered, and we explained that the junkyard was an excellent retirement home.

Now we kids drive a Bentley -- practically.

OK, so it's not quite there, but with only 51,000 miles on her, we're in the lap of luxury. My parents still cringe and shriek, but only for one more month. Then I will attain the truly cool, key-wielding status most of my friends already have.

Claire Bira is a sophomore at Notre Dame Regional High School.

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