My delay in blogging can be blamed on last week’s vacation to Spain, where it was good right up until it became food-poisoned. But that’s a story for a different day.
The day before last, I felt fifteen again. I took a driving lesson in the heart of Southwest England – cider country – and screwed up in a million little ways. After nearly 18 years of driving on my own, you’d think I’d have it down by now. But no. It’s surprising how humbling it is to revisit the rules, even if they’re damned Redcoat rules.
When I recounted my adventures to my husband, he laughed at the irony of it all. Not only did I recently renew my Stateside driver’s license from Florida (thank you, Flight School) to Virginia (thank you, parents), I actually drove my own car to my first driving lesson. Think about that ridiculousness.
My instructor was a good sport. He knows I’m an American driving in England, and a pilot to boot, who just needs to tick the right boxes to pass the road test in order to get an official pink (yes, pink) UK drivers license. Due to EU and Commonwealth laws, I can’t just transfer my US license and be done with it. Nope. If I were a citizen of Zimbabwe, sure. Canada? Yep. South Africa? You betcha. But no Yanks allowed, even those of us that claim Residence in Great Britain. Instead, they squeeze the dollars out of me until I run out of greenbacks. They claim it’s for the good of the country. It was the same story for my visa process. It’s been nothing but legal bribery, if you ask me, and the costs just keep rising.
But back to kicking tires and lighting fires.
The bouncy little car I called mine for an hour was a Yaris (remember those?) that took me all of two minutes to figure out before I was jetting around town. Apparently, too sporty. My instructor had to suppress the urge to giggle at my get up and go, even though I thought I was holding back. I guess he’s used to timid new drivers who can’t quite figure out the gears and the clutch and the park–, er, hand brake. I had that down. While driving my very own Mrs. Clio, I learned to finally engage my left hand in some stopping-at-roundabouts-use-the-hand-brake action. Turns out, it takes a while to break into (or out of) a habit. That was what my first lesson was all about, and it’s hard to figure out what habits you need to change when it’s you doing them.
I forgot about all those niggling little rules you should follow. And after going solo for over half my life, I have also developed lazy patterns. For instance, I don’t use my mirrors as much as I should. Perhaps it’s because I’ve learned to assimilate all sorts of minute details when I drive, assembling all those bits of information into my brain to tell my hands and feet when it’s safe to switch lanes or turn or brake. Training as a helicopter driver didn’t help in that regard, either. I’m not sure if flight school made me a better driver or worse, but I do know it felt like a cakewalk, this simple 2D maneuvering on the road instead of intense 3D formation flying in the air above Texas. And planes don’t have rear-view mirrors.
But test examiners want to see concerted effort from their students, being extra obvious about looking in mirrors, craning your head around to see into blind spots, and taking things nice and easy. I may have done them, but I certainly didn’t pause long enough in each scan pattern point. Even my hand placement was wrong: too low. That habit I picked up from flying. Three points of contact while doing anything (climbing, piloting, driving) is the most stable base, a triangle, so that’s what I do with my hands. Fingers around the steering wheel, elbows on the window ledge or center arm rest, body tight. Triangle. I think this habit won’t fix itself in the one or two remaining lessons I have, so let’s hope it’s just a minor hit on my test.
And then there’s the clutch. I can’t say if it’s a personal thing or affects all Americans (the few of us who actually know how to drive stick), but I sure like to stoof in the clutch a lot. Maybe it’s because the first car I drove was a 1986 Chevy Nova – not the cool kind – and I was always worried it would stall out. Maybe it’s because I like coasting a bit before shifting. Maybe it’s because I don’t like to hear the engine whine. Whatever it is, I ride the clutch. My instructor kept pointing it out – “What is your foot doing on the clutch already? Get it off.” – and I kept having to sheepishly steer clear of my favorite pedal. Why is it that this of all things is what I have to work on? It’s almost as effortless as breathing for me; I just push in the clutch when I push in the clutch. It was like learning how to use the foot pedals on a helicopter after training with them on airplanes. It’s not the same, kiddos.
It was a good lesson. But, I must harness my inner new learner and take everything at half the pace. Sure, I know how to drive. I’m completely ambidextrous, able to drive a manual on both sides of the road, shifting with either hand, navigating roundabouts and British GPS ladies and speed cameras, but I still have work to do. I must learn how to pass this test and woe is me if I mess it up. Imagine that, an attack helicopter pilot driving to her driving test and failing. And then driving home. Here’s your slice of humble pie.