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For 15-year-olds, this is The Summer

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(This column, more or less, first ran 20 years ago. Not much has changed.)

Across the United States, for thousands of 15-year-olds, this is The Summer, The Summer of driver's education.

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When I learned to drive a car, like most farm boys, I had already taken farm tractors past many of the emergency edge-of-control maneuvers that one could reasonably expect from most autos. And parallel parking? Parallel parking was simple after you had half-destroyed a corn crib backing a four-wheel tongued wagon into it with a tractor with no power steering.

We didn't have driver's ed back then. That was invented when everyone left the farm, moved to the city, and bought automatic transmission cars and computer games. Driver's ed itself was specially invented to torture young adolescents whose parents had mixed emotions about them driving, and really well-formed emotions about not teaching their kids themselves. Unfortunately, torture being what it is, the teacher must be tortured too. Raise a new K-12 bond issue. Pay them extra. Sacrifice their sanity, not yours. No price is too high.

So we put three grim-faced nondriver adolescents in a car along with one grim-faced instructor, and hope for the best, the best, that is, considering that the two riding in back get to watch the driver make stupid blunders, horrified that their turn is coming. Like I said, torture. They'd like to giggle, and carry on and act out, get some enjoyment out of this process, but the whole delayed-reward aspect of all this -- and we don't think they can set a goal? -- outweighs misbehaving.

There is nothing more humiliating than flunking driver's ed.

The hapless instructor, in this name of efficiency, knows the weight of responsibility for three souls, three poor young souls, should some hormonally overloaded foot come crashing down on the accelerator pedal and paralyze itself there, instead of the brake. Dual controls be damned. All he has is a twin brake, no steering wheel. We can take pictures of the back side of Mars but we cannot give him a steering wheel? The poor young souls in the back seat must wonder if this isn't a conspiracy to rid society of all of them at once. They think about their nasty treatment of their parents and promise themselves that they'll act nicer if they survive their inept peer who is now behind the wheel, apparently unable to tell right from left.

I wonder what the instructor thinks when he pulls up to today's batch at the curb, and all three close encounters with his sanity have purple spikey hair, lips full of common hardware like bolts and such, and pants either so tight they cannot move, or so loose that they could move inside them.

And their eyes look funny. What have they been doing while they were waiting?

How is it that a teen-ager who can take a Nintendo game into the eleventy-third level of celestial invasion cannot take his or hand off the starter key without hearing the starter grind itself to death for 30 seconds while the motor is running?

Do teen-age boys wearing those huge high-top unlaced tennis shoes ever have their feet become entangled amidst the brake and accelerator?

And finally, will the glaze ever leave the instructor's eyes?

Marriages become tighter this time of year, as husband and wife abandon the habit of back-seat-driving one another to defend against their new expert in driving.

"Dad? Aren't you following that car too closely?"

I reply: "Normally, you'd be correct; however, the lower altitude density of the air this time of year factored into stopping distance allows it."

Silence from mom, who is biting her back-seat lip.

"Mom? Aren't you supposed to come to a complete stop at a stop sign?"

This was a tough one. Mom was momentarily speechless, which one doesn't see often. We've been running these farm-to-market stop signs so long because of zero traffic that we don't even realize it.

"Normally," I reply, "you'd be correct. Never take the road surface for granted. A full stop where that road crew spilled oil back there could cause the little-known oil spiral of death."

I looked at Mom, who pretty much had to agree, something she never did with my driving.

When the classroom part of this ends and our teen-age driver takes the wheel, I'm going to:

1. Widen the garage doors.

2. Find an insurance company crazy enough to cover us.

3. Take out a loan to pay the crazy insurance company.

4. Add psychological counseling to my health insurance.

5. Recommend driver's ed instructors for the purple heart.

6. And finally, tell you all about it.

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