Flying By the Seat of My Pajamas

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“You’re fine,” she said as we rolled up to the stop sign, “just don’t stop right on top of the railroad tracks.”

Easier said than done. Mom made driving a stick shift look so easy, fun even. I certainly wasn’t having fun, and I doubt she was having much of a good time, either.

I didn’t exactly “stop” the car on the railroad tracks. I killed it. So there we sat, seemingly stuck on the tracks, hoping a train hauling carrots or potatoes or some other load didn’t come barreling through. That’s probably what Mom was hoping anyway. I was too mindful of our audience across the street. A handful of farm workers, enjoying a cold one (or two, or three), huddled in the shade outside the doors of the country store. They were sweaty and dirty and happy to be done with their day in the hot fields. And now they were taking in the driver-in-training side show.

Mom may have been thinking about death by train…I was already dying of embarrassment.

In her typically un-ruffle-able manner, she talked me through restarting the car and, after a couple of attempts, we were off again to negotiate the quiet, dusty roads through the farmlands outside of town.

Mom was the calmest of my parents when it came to driving lessons. She had taken over after Daddy overreacted (my word, not his) after what he considered a close call with a fence post during a five-point turn. It really wasn’t close, I was just trying to impress him with a smooth stop. I saw the post, I knew I needed to stop, and I had every intention of doing just that. I just preferred smooth over fast. Evidently, sometimes fast is more important, at least to a nervous dad.

The session with Mom ended well enough, no harm no foul, but that certainly didn’t define it as success. Not for me, anyway. Mom was unfazed but I was still feeling discouraged. Today I grin at the desperation of it all, but that day I wondered, “Will I ever learn to drive that damned stick shift?”

After the driver-in-training finished her homework, it was time for the long, insufferable process of leaving the day behind and going to sleep. As an adult I would almost never face insomnia, but as a child and a teenager, sleep never came easy. Digital clocks weren’t around yet, so each night I spent an eternity watching the big block numbers on my clock slide, slide, slide until they finally flipped down, revealing the next number, representing just one more minute I would lay there, staring.

Something strange happened that night. My dreams were filled with a certain, confident 15-year-old driving a certain ’79 Toyota hatchback like a pro. I was a natural! No more herky-jerky shifting, and definitely no stalling. Just a nice cruise through town then some cutting loose along the country roads. The next time I slid into Mom’s car, I WAS the person from my dream, easing from one gear to the next with a smooth touch, never looking back again at the clumsy girl behind the wheel.

They say studying before bed time helps the brain work through problems and even prepare itself for a test or assignment. I always believed I mastered the stick shift in my sleep, and I believe I reaped nocturnal benefits other times, too…most often following cram sessions for finals in high school and, later, college. Looking back, I suppose it is an interesting coincidence that the “magical sleeps” always followed intense studying or practicing or otherwise preparing for whatever test was to come. Maybe the prep work itself was the key to success? No, I still believe. I believe in the magic of an enlightening or empowering or liberating…or sweet…dream.

Good night.

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