Ayden, NC – I recently celebrated the 40th anniversary of licensed automobile driving.
You'll recall why this was a big deal. We're a driven society in more ways than one, and getting your hands on a steering wheel might be a more significant turning point in life than a first love or first legal drink.
My learner's permit was one of those old-school, mechanically printed paper documents, not the hyper-secure, hologrammed wonder you get nowadays. It arrived a day or two before my 16th birthday. My first driving lesson came a few days later. My father wheeled his 1970 Mercury Grand Marquis around the corner, pointed it up a hilly street and switched seats with me. It was my father's manner to tell you to do something without explaining how, then to gripe about your flawed execution. To me, that big hill said Accelerate. So I floored it. The mighty Merc's four-twenty-nine cubic inch V-Eight roared in appreciation, no doubt delighted someone was finally tasking it properly. I swear the car wiggled its trunk first. Of course, I pulled my foot back immediately, but we were already halfway up the hill. "Ampersand, Number Sign, Percent, Asterisk," my Dad commented. "You've got a lead foot already."
As it turned out, he was wrong. This is where I challenge fate by noting that I have never, in 40 years, been cited for a moving violation. Maybe it was the old Merc's leap up Roswin Drive, or my Dad's response to it, but I've always been a cautious driver. I drive about five miles per hour over the speed limit on most highways, weather permitting, and that counts for caution in our motor-mad society.
But back to 1971: It was the summer of Rod Stewart's "Maggie May," and the last I would spend listening to transistor radios with the kids I grew up with in my Pittsburgh neighborhood, because now I had wheels. So it became the swan song of my childhood, and it reminds me how certain songs become signposts. Appropriately, music has always soundtracked my wheeled adventures. The first time I drove alone, I went - where else? - to a mall, where I bought "L.A. Woman" and "Who's Next," still two of my favorite albums.
It is remarkable how little my musical tastes, and my driving, have changed. For one thing, I've almost always driven with music on, from the FM band in the family sedan to mix tapes, CDs and iPods. And I've never stopped moving. I went away for college and have lived in seven states - North Carolina twice. I know this is far from universal experience: Many learn to drive and go nowhere. And it's hardly edifying to note that a driver's license is a rite of passage. In my case, though, it did not change me so much as propel me -- however carefully. As The Who put it, "going mobile."