Gus didn’t know it yet, but how he drove a car and with whom was about to change – in ways he never expected.
“What a stupid idea!” Gus said.
Carol sighed, looked lovingly at her father, picked up her empty plates and put them in the dishwasher.
“Now dad,” she said sympathetically, “she’s only trying to help.”
“I don’t need no instructor telling me how to drive!” Gus said, glaring at her as he bit into his toast that Saturday morning in March.
Smiling warmly, Carol sat down across from him, remembering their trip to Walmart three days earlier. Gus had insisted on driving his car as he had done many times before. She didn’t mind because she knew how much he loved being behind the wheel. On the drive there, she noticed that her father turned his head less, barely enough to see the corner of his left side mirror and couldn’t turn it at all to the right. The week before he could turn his head just enough to see his right mirror, even though she always made sure there was nothing there if he wanted to make a turn. His neck was now so stiff, he needed an extra Ibuprofen in the morning. On top of this, she had to tell him to slow down when he zipped past a 30 km. sign at a robust 38.
Once home, she made an appointment with his doctor for the next day.
“Dad, I can’t drive with you anymore, not after what Dr. Evan’s told us,” she said sympathetically, patting his hand as she passed him another cappuccino. “Your arthritis is so bad in your neck that you can’t turn your head to see the side mirrors. And you need to wear your new glasses when you drive,” she continued, searching his face.
“My eyes are fine,” he barked. “It’s not my fault that guy on the bike came out of nowhere when I was turning left. I did swerve enough to miss him.”
“And almost hit a stop sign,” Carol exclaimed, caught herself, and took a deep breath, “Dr. Evan’s suggested I phone a driving school. Sally, the instructor, sounded very pleasant. Maybe she can point out some driving tips that can help you,” she continued, relaxing her jaw and exhaling softly as she held his hand.
Gus grunted and slurped his coffee, fixing his gaze on a meadowlark fluttering on a branch outside.
‘A driving instructor!’
‘Heck, by the time I was fourteen, I was driving a tractor on my parents farm, hauling hay for the cattle and cleaning manure from the stalls; in those days everyone was expected to help with the chores. .
By the time I was sixteen, I could drive a farm combine, three axle grain truck, and a Chevy truck with a stick shift. Back then we didn’t have to go on no road test. We just went to the town hall and bought a driver’s license for a buck.
I owned the first Thunderbird that came off the assembly line, a shiny red four door beauty with a V8 engine that would leave my buddies eating dust.
I spent my Saturdays polishing the chrome on it until it shone like a silver dollar.
Then I’d race up and down main street looking for chicks. I never had a problem filling the seat beside me with a pretty blonde or perky redhead.
Boy, they knew how to drive back then, by gum. None of these fancy shmancy lights that look like a Christmas tree, or multi-laned highways with a slow lane and a fast lane – in my day all lanes were fast lanes; and we didn’t have to worry about the police because there was only one cop in our dusty town of 1510 people; he lived in the next county and spent most of his time breaking up bar brawls.’
‘A women driving instructor? Why, in my day woman stayed at home, had a family and took care of the house.’
‘I’ll show her a thing or two!’
“What time is she coming?” he muttered, coming back to reality.
“Two o’clock dad, please give her a chance. Besides she is a professional driver,” Carol said, gently, squeezing his hand, then slowly releasing her grip as she leaned back studying his deeply creased eyes. The same eyes that had shone with pride on the day she got her driver’s license all those years ago. The same blue eyes that had a tear in the corner as he handed her the keys to her first car, a yellow VW beetle that sat in the driveway on her first day of college.
Gus curled his shoulders and dunked the corner of his toast into his half-eaten egg. He thought of that first day moving in with Carol and her husband, grateful to them for taking him in after his wife passed away and he didn’t have to go to Shady Tree Lodge down the road. Some spunk was left in him at eighty-six, and Gus hated the idea of giving up the one thing he was still able to enjoy.
“Don’t expect me to be nice to her!” he growled, munched on his toast, crumbs falling like confetti on his shirt.
At 1:45 pm, gripping his walker and standing in front of the living room window, his eyes squinted at the dark bare surface on the driveway where his car was usually parked. For a second his blood pressure elevated slightly, then he sadly remembered that his son-in-law had put it in the garage yesterday after he had gone down for his afternoon nap. His ’76 maroon Chevy Imperial, along with his car keys, both mysteriously gone from his life.
Five minutes later a grey car with a student driver sign pulled into the driveway, and parked in the same spot. A middle aged woman stepped out, walked briskly up the front steps and rang the bell.
The front door swung open so fast she jumped back and almost lost her footing. Gus stood there leaning on his walker, his brow wrinkled and his eyes narrowed, like a python stalking it’s prey.
“Are you the driving instructor?” he bellowed.
“Yes, my name is Sally. You must be Gus, glad to meet you,” she said as she smiled and extended her hand.
“What do I need besides my license?” Gus asked gruffly. He held on to his walker with his left hand as his right hand gripped her fingers before it fell to his side.
“Just your glasses and a cheque. You’ll be fine.”
“Got it. Lets go!”
Gus had maneuvered through the door and down the driveway before Sally caught up to him. He swung open the back door, folded his walker, tossed it on the seat, and settled in the driver’s seat.
“Boy, you sure move fast for someone with a walker,” she said, laughing nervously as she got into the passenger side and put the key in the ignition.
Gus ignored her and started to turn the key.
“Haven’t you forgotten something?”
“No, what?” asked Gus, looking perplexed.
“Well, you first need to adjust your seat, put on your seat belt, and fix your mirrors before you start the car.”
Gus turned the corners of his mouth downwards, did as he was told and reached for the key.
“I believe your daughter said you had new glasses. Do you have them with you?”
Flashing her a glance from the corner of his eye, he groaned and put on the glasses,
“Now can we go?”
He started the car, put it in drive and lurched forward, stopping short of the garage door.
“Got a little excited,” he said sheepishly.
“That’s alright, no harm done,” said Sally, slowly lifting her foot off the brake pedal.
He put the car in reverse and backed out of the driveway, swinging it around to the right.
Sally watched him put it in drive, keeping her left hand on her left knee, inches from the gears and steering wheel, with her right foot hovering over her brake.
She told him to drive straight ahead and at the next intersection make a right-hand turn.
“But I always go to the left into town,” Gus protested.
“ I just want to keep you on the side streets until you get used to the car and me sitting beside you,”
she said patiently.
“How long will that take?”
“As long as it takes,” she said kindly.
For the next half hour Gus drove around the residential area close to home, following directions with a sour disposition and a lead foot.
“WHY do I have to drive so slow?”
“The speed limit is maximum 50 km depending on the conditions. Some of the them are parked cars, narrow roads, weather and playground zones, one of which you are driving through,” Sally answered.
“But there are no kids around,” he exclaimed, rolling his eyes.
“No, but you slow to 30 km when the playground zone is in effect. Do you know the times?”
“Heck no!” said Gus. “I just look for the kids, then slow down if I think they’re going to run out in front of me.”
“Well, you need to know the days and times. Monday to Friday, 8:30 am to one hour after sunset.”
“Do you know when your school zone is effect? She asked.”
“Ah, no,” he replied, beads of sweat forming on his forehead.
Sally explained the times, and other rules of the road, all the while keeping an eagle eye on his driving.
After a couple more turns with one minor incident where Gus got a little too close to a parked car, they entered a busier residential street and came up to a red light.
Gus slammed on the brakes, lurched forward then back in his seat.
“ I’m not used to this car, by gum,” wiping his brow with his sleeve.
“Just press gently on the brakes and try not to stop over the pedestrian crosswalk.”
“Where’s THAT?” trying to crane his neck over the hood, knocking his glasses off at the same time. “ I always stop up close to the intersection so I can see the traffic better.”
“You’re supposed to stop further back to leave room for the pedestrians,” said Sally as she picked up his glasses and calmly gave them back to him.
“But there are no people around. Are you sure you know what you are doing?” he said, frowning.
“Yes, I do. Please watch the lights. They’re about to change to green.”
“I know that!”
When the light changed, Gus stepped hard on the pedal and sped through the intersection, barely stopping in time to avoid hitting the car in front of him.
He could feel his brake go soft and looked down, puzzled.
“I stepped on mine to slow us down,” Sally said, never taking her eyes off the road and traffic.
“Ah,’ moaned Gus. ‘HE…RE we go again.”
An hour flew by and Gus finally pulled into his driveway.
“So, whadya think?” he asked, giving Sally a sour look from the corner of his eye.
“Well, you do need some work, but I think we can manage. Same time next week?”
Gus turned his head slightly, made a large circle with his mouth, “ You mean you’ll drive with me again?”
“Yes, I’ll take you driving for as long as you want Gus.”
Old Gus’s glasses began to steam up and he swallowed hard, glancing shyly at Sally. His eyes went soft and his thoughts drifted to the past, full of happy memories and fun times.
“I used to love driving my family to the cabin on the weekends. We’d all pile in our old Studebaker station wagon full of kids, dogs and my mother-in-law, stopping for ice cream along the way. For summer holidays we’d take road trips across the country in our motor home,” he said, his bottom lip quivering.
“I taught all three of my children how to drive. When the kids left home, my wife and I used to take Sunday drives together, stopping for dinner along the way; we never missed a Sunday. Those were the good days,” he said wistfully.
Sally smiled softly, “ I think I understand how hard it is to lose your independence. My husband has muscular dystrophy and he needs help with almost everything now. A caregiver comes in while I work, and some days can still be a challenge, but we manage. He never got used to someone doing everything for him. He’s my whole life.”
When they reached home, Gus pushed his walker through the door and gave his daughter a big hug. “Sorry for being such a grump,” he said, for the second time that day.
Spring gives way to glorious summer. Tuesday morning, Gus was up early, ironed his best shirt, ate an early lunch and washed the dishes, all the while humming to himself.
After a quick nap, at 1:45 pm, he leaned on his walker at the top of the driveway, and with patient eyes he searched the quiet residential street for a familiar sight. His eyes lit up when he saw a grey sedan pull in with the sign on top.
“Hi Gus, how are you?” a soft voice said as he settled into the driver’s seat. “Which route do you want today, past the seniors center or down by the river?”
“Hi Sally, the river route please. Maybe we’ll see some geese or a meadowlark on the way,” Gus grinned, as he fastened his seat belt, adjusted his mirrors, gently turned on the ignition, and popped the gear into reverse, “Ok, Sally?”
“Yes, Gus, all clear. Gently release your brake and roll backwards.”
At the bottom of the driveway, Gus waited until a car went by, put it in drive and off they went, laughing and chatting away. They both knew the route so well they could do it blindfolded, well, almost – a few blocks in his neighborhood, a turn onto the road close to the river where he used to take his daughter fishing, a pleasant drive on the pebbled road, eyeing a meadowlark flutter over the hood. No traffic lights – a stop sign at an intersection- a pause for traffic to clear while Sally gave an extra check, nod her approval, gently stepping on the gas all the while smiling to himself.
As the first part of their journey ended, his favourite café was waiting, and a warm, frothy cappuccino. Then the joy of driving the same route home again. Gus had his two perks in one, his weekly thrill of sitting behind the wheel and going to his favourite cafe….well, maybe three- maybe the best of all – a chance to chat with a new friend.
‘Let’s go, Sally!’