Monday, May 21, 2001

In My Life

Teen's driving dreams come 'crashing' down

By Dan Corbett

        Dan Corbett is a junior at Middletown Christian School. He's class chaplain and a member of the track team. He lives in Maineville with his Mom and sister, Nora. He regularly pursues his PacMan and pinball passions at the West Chester home of his dad, Karl.

        When you sit down to read the morning paper, you are barraged with many highly debated issues. One is the peril of teen driving. Commonly, mom flirts with cardiac arrest at home because junior has taken the car to the store for some milk. The buzz is merited, given the high rate of juvenile accidents and fatalities.

        My driving career began in the summer of 1999 in a musty civic building's basement with a hard-nosed driving teacher named Helen. I made some new friends as we spent the mandated 24 hours there, filling out crossword puzzles pertaining to driving and watching videos featuring thousands of exploding cars.

        After six months of these videos, driving with my parents, and the relentless advice from every adult I came into contact with, I was ready to get my license.

        One day in March of 2000, I woke up ready to throw myself into the sea of road rage and squealing tires. My dad and I arrived at the Bureau of Motor Vehicles, one of those places that is like a little taste of hell.

        Not only was the number I pulled 30 spots behind what they were calling, but during the wait, my dad and I sat in a stuffy room with a collection of odd strangers.

        Finally, my name was called. I fumbled up to the counter where I was met by a pair of cold gray eyes. “Fourty-seven,” I said coolly, handing the tall, lanky instructor my laminated number.

        “Go start your car, please,” he said as he smiled, knowing he was holding my future in his hands.

        I started the car, he climbed in, and I awaited his instructions. He told me to turn right, I signaled early and made my way onto a commercial road. We wound through a residential area.

        Left turn. Right turn. Right turn. Stop. It was basically a circle and a few seconds into it, I was relaxed and hardly noticed those steely eyes peeking from above his sunglasses.

        “Congratulations,” he said, giving me an earnest grin. I had done it. Now, my chariot awaited me.

        My chariot was a 1991 Oldsmobile Cutlass complete with an eight-track tape player.

        That's right — eight-track! The man I purchased the car from was in one word: eccentric. He had ripped out the factory stereo and installed an eight-track. He had also affixed silk flowers and other decorations to the interior and exterior of the Cutlass. But it was mine, it was cheap, it was a “chick magnet.”

        For nearly a month, I traveled (perhaps a little too quicky) without incident. That record had to be broken. After school one day, I had slipped out to finish filing my paperwork for my job at Paramount's Kings Island. I was traveling what was once a lightly used one-lane road that had now become stomping grounds for all the suburbanites and their SUVs.

        I made a stop and prepared to turn left down the hill. One of those infamous SUVs came charging up the hill and struck my mighty Cutlass.

        It brought to mind Mark McGwire hitting a Wiffle ball. I got out to make sure the woman driving was OK. She was; barely a scratch on her Suburban. My friend Eric's father, Keith, deemed the Oldsmobile's remnants “drivable.” The tow truck arrived as I hopped into Keith's truck to go home. So in the next month, my father and I became experts on bodywork.

        Now my dad and I doing anything with cars was like turning a 2-year-old loose to make an ice sculpture, but by a miracle, two trips to the salvage yard and countless hammer injuries later, my baby emerged roadworthy.

        After watching even more car explosions at Car Teens, I vowed to God and country to have more respect for driving, life, and even Barry Manilow music as I picked up the keys again.

        Several months later, I was dragged through another vehicular travesty. I had finally hosed all of the LaRosa's Recipe pizza sauce off my body and clocked out from my job at PKI. I was in my typical “end of a 12-hour day stupor” when I backed out of my parking space in search of some well-earned rest. I pulled slowly onto a stretch that led out of the parking lot when I was violently thrashed by a “good ol' boy” on his way to pick up his daughter. This was not just a “fender-bender.” My baby was dead.

        I got out to make sure he was OK. (I knew the drill). He was an ex-Marine with a bad sense of humor. I was a 16-year-old boy wearing PKI garb and standing in front of what used to be a '91 Cutlass. The scene was utter chaos: 12:30 a.m. There I stood, on the verge of tears as all the guests made their exodus to their vehicles.

        A few young men joined the scene shouting expletives in my defense claiming the other driver was going too fast. In defending himself to the park police, GI Joe degraded my driving, my character and worse — my taste in cars.

        As I watched the remains of my Cutlass being swept up by a groundskeeper, armed with a push broom and dustpan, Eric's dad arrived. He gave me a hug and shed his insight once more: “Pitch it,” he said coolly.

        About a month later, I purchased a reliable '88 Mercury Sable from a friend of mine for a hard bargain of $200.

        My advice to teen drivers: Take it slow.

        Tell us your story

        In My Life is about recent significant moments — big and small — in people's lives. Readers are invited to submit columns, which become the property of the Enquirer.
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