It was winter. I know this because when I think back to that day, I see the sleeves of my shearling winter coat reaching up to brace myself against the front seat of my father’s Volkswagen Beetle. As a young teen discovering fashion, that coat was everything to me. It had been a Christmas gift and was exactly what I wanted. Each time I put it on I treated it with the respect due all garments sewn together from the skin of living creatures.
All my father’s Christmas gifts were not from him. They were from Santa. The to and from name tag pasted on the wrapping was proof. At least 100 Santa heads printed on the foil paper caressed the large coat box that looked too pretty to unwrap sitting underneath the tree.
“Go ahead.” He said. “Open it.” I obeyed and after I carefully unwrapped the foil paper covering the large coat box, I ripped off the box top, swiped over the tissue paper, and there it was. What else could I do but put it on, twirl around the room like a dancing queen and fall into Santa’s arms for a hug.
We were traveling slowly down Franklin Avenue, under the speed limit, because my father always drove under the speed limit. It seemed like he was never in a hurry, it seemed like he didn’t have anything to prove when he was behind the wheel of his car and it seemed like he would rather be doing anything else but driving but did so out of what he might have considered an evil necessity of living in the suburbs. Driving in front of the many motorists beeping their horns at him out of their own frustration, some of them made the bold move to pass around him even when a double yellow line was present, often saluting with their middle finger in the most unfriendly of ways. If he could have told them the truth about himself he would have, but passing motorists typically do not stop to discuss each other’s attributes. The truth was, just as those that dance well are born with a natural rhythm, the same could be said of good drivers. Fact was, my father would be the first to admit he was not the most proficient driver and instead of seeking additional driver education he dealt with his inability as he saw fit; by being extra cautious for his safety, for our safety and for the safety of others. For him that meant driving well under the speed and unfortunately was not his worst bad driving habit.
I can’t say why, but he also did not abide by the rule of turning on his blinker 100 feet before a turn, dangerously turning on his blinker as he was already in a turn as if the wheel and the blinker were meant to only move simultaneously. Perhaps his first car had broken blinkers or no blinkers at all? It is quite possible, since he began driving in the late 1940′s. I never bothered to ask him that question. Perhaps the first car he drove was made back in the days when signaling a turn was done by putting an arm out the window, straight out for a left, up for a right. Years before I learned to drive it was easy to recognize his bad driving habits and I consistently called him out to no avail. How could I not with all the people beeping at us from behind? After a while I gave up pointing out the obvious because if there was one thing I learned about my father, as with most people, change did not come easily.
On that day, apparently one guy behind us must have been in an extra hurry or perhaps he was just angry in general about his job or his wife or something else he could not put his finger on and this driver in front of him, my father, going so slow, neglecting to put his blinker on until he was at the entrance of the shopping center pushed this poor guy off a cliff. With our car windows closed, I could sense this guy’s rant as he held his hand down on his horn with no release as my father continued on like the cartoon character Mr. Magoo. I braced myself against the front seat with my shearling covered arms more out of embarrassment than anything else, not assuming I would need to stabilize myself from an imminent pending attack. This had happened before. At least this guy didn’t attempt to hit us with his car, but I did notice out of my peripheral vision, he parked in a space closeby to us, quickly jumping out of his car enraged. He was coming for us and my father was clueless, as clueless as he was about the blinker rule.
“Dad. Dad. The guy that was behind us beeping is really really mad and I think he’s gonna wanna fight you. Don’t get out of the car.” But by the time I had gotten the words out, Mr. Magoo had already stepped out of the car. Why oh why wasn’t he as slow getting out of the car as he was when pressing the gas pedal? My sister and I stayed in the car observantly sensing the danger in a way that my father apparently didn’t understand. It wasn’t as if he was a stupid man. Quite the contrary. He was a brilliant man, holding a Juris Doctorate degree and I wondered in that moment if my father knew how to mentally step out of the courtroom, or physically pick his nose up out of his law journals, since clearly he never took time out of his busy life to study Street Smarts 101.
The guy shoved my father up against our car, not exactly menacingly, more like a “Hey asshole” hard tap on the shoulder, “What the hell is wrong with you,” type shove, thank god. Scarier than the shove was the loud shouting he let loose on my father and if you ask me the punishment didn’t exactly fit the crime, or was I just being protective? Screaming at my father, the diatribe appeared as an antidote for this guy, as if the boulder he carried on his back came tumbling down into his arms, his hands, and into his mighty tongue. My father stood still, with his arms in a position of surrender repeating, “I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m sorry,” with eyes half shut expecting a punch in the nose, portraying a voice of calm that sounded like a rhythmic lullaby, one intentionally meant to calm the beast, yet my father’s tone was also commanding like the voice of a good parent after reluctantly having to scold their child explaining “this hurts me as much as it hurts you.” I watched in amazement as the angry stranger became quiet with a look of surprise on his face when he realized my father was not going to fight back. He began to relax, to piggyback off my father’s energy and his expression went from a hardened scowl to the beginnings of a smile in what could have been 60 seconds.
My father continued speaking. “My daughter’s tell me all the time I should go back to driving school. I am really sorry. I’m just no good at driving, am I? I really didn’t mean to mess up your day. Can you forgive me? Please? Can I buy you a cup of coffee to make it up to you?”
A full blown smile was taking hold of this guy when he said. “You want to buy me a cup of coffee after I practically assaulted you? Who are you? I didn’t know people like you existed?”
And I wanted to say to this guy, “I did.” But I knew better. After the initial confrontation my father’s left hand moved down and back towards the car window signaling us to remain in the car and we continued to do so with the doors locked as he left us sitting there venturing off into the deli in the presence of witnesses to buy this angry guy a cup of coffee. In a short amount of time my sister and I watched as the two men came back out together looking like old friends and shook hands, not a quick shake, one that goes on with amicable words and two hands and then they embraced, that quick embrace that I have seen most men do where nothing in the front of the body touches, and only one arm reaches around the back with a pat, reminding themselves and any potential observers they are after all still men.
My father taught me on that day what to do and what not to do by his example. He taught me although he may have been uncircumspect when it came to the rules of the road, he was a very kind hearted, humble, honorable man; not as if I didn’t already know this to be true.
Glaringly, on that day he taught me it was possible to diffuse an angry potentially dangerous situation, perhaps even inspiring an angry person into enlightenment; who knows, but he also taught me to avoid being in that situation in the first place by relying on instinct and awareness, by keen observation.
On that day I would also establish my own personal decree to be executed at a later date:
“Don’t forget to pay extra close attention in a couple of years when entering into driver’s ed and don’t forget to put that education into practical application when behind the wheel of a car. Respect the rules of the road at all times, safety first, and if Daddy offers to help teach you how to drive, respectfully decline, tell him you appreciate the offer, but you prefer he meet you at the mall to shop for winter coats.”