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New driver gives lesson in close calls

MY MOST exciting moment last weekend occurred in a mall parking lot. Last Sunday I ventured into the narrow, spiraling parking structure that sits on the northwest side of the Towson Town Mall.

Maneuvering through this building has always been a challenge for me, and I have been driving since shortly after the invention of rubber tires. But this time I was not the one behind the wheel, negotiating those tight turns, navigating the maze, looking for a place to park the car without losing a side-view mirror. This time I was in the front passenger seat, and our soon-to-be-16-year-old son, now armed with a learner's permit, was doing the driving. The kid was doing fine. I was sweating bullets.

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My side of the car came ohhhhhhhhhhh-so-close to the rear ends of parked cars - how close? I could read the license tag numbers, the small ones on the stickers on the right-hand corner of the plates. You think of many things at a moment like this. You think of the telephone number of your car insurance agent. You wonder what the chances are that one of those "parked" cars will suddenly move back 6 inches. You question the wisdom of taking a rookie driver into a paint-scraping environment. All those thoughts flashed through my head, plus two more: "Remember the Boumi Temple bridge" and "I wish we were driving the tank."

The incident at the Boumi Temple bridge happened about four years ago when our first-born, the current rookie's older brother, was about to be let loose on the roads. Heeding the advice of parents who had already traveled the teach-the-kid-to-drive route, I had taken my older son to the Boumi Temple parking lot on North Charles Street. The temple and its sylvan spaces have since been transformed into a bustling addition to Loyola College. But at the time, it was a good place for a kid to lurch and learn.

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Things were going as well as could be expected - these sessions are always bumpy, both physically and emotionally - until it came time to leave. To get to the Charles Street exit we had to drive down a lane and cross over a bridge. It was a stone bridge, about two cars wide.

As we neared the bridge, a car approached from the opposite direction. Concerned about hitting the oncoming car, my son steered our car over to the right, and came breathtakingly close to the wall of the bridge. How close? I recall being able to see the sand and pebbles in the mortar that held the stones together. I braced myself, preparing for months of taking my meals through a straw. But somehow, some way, the car missed the wall. Life rolled on, and the kid eventually went off to college.

That is pretty much what happened last weekend in Towson. My younger son and I emerged from the parking structure without hitting objects, stationary or moving. My breathing returned to normal as soon as we hit the "wide-open" spaces of the Baltimore Beltway.

I reminded myself that this kid has the makings of a good driver. He has taken classes; he has good instincts and good reflexes. But even the second time around, my stomach sometimes churns when my kid takes the wheel.

That is why I prefer that the beginner drive our "tank," not our "good car."

The tank is not really a military vehicle. It is a 1993 Ford Taurus station wagon. The "good" car is a 4-year-old Toyota Avalon sedan. In family life, everything is relative.

The tank has been through the wars. It has been clobbered by a flying road sign. It has been in many tight spots and has the paint scrapes to prove it. It has been hit, gently, by another family's beginning driver.

The tank is in ideal shape to be driven by a teen-ager. The teen-ager, of course, does not agree with this view. He thinks the tank is old, clunky and not stylish. It doesn't even have a CD player. How can it possibly move down the road?

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One morning this week, I heard the sound of tank-metal meeting other metal. I looked out the back window to the parking pad behind our house. My wife had been in a hurry to get somewhere and our trash can had been sitting in her path. The lid took a severe hit. The tank and my wife rolled on like nothing had happened.

Later that night, recounting the incident, I told our beginner that a big part of learning how to drive, or of learning anything, is knowing when not to imitate your parents.


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