Truth Is Stranger Than Fiction
Updated: Sep 8, 2021
My oldest son does not want to drive. He’s seventeen. To this attitude, I cannot relate.
When I was not yet fifteen I thoroughly researched what was required for obtaining my license, and this was in the eighties. I couldn’t just Google this information, because Google didn’t exist. I had in-person conversations with teachers wearing concerned faces because they knew me too well. I picked up a folded pamphlet from the office at my high school describing how to contact the DMV and I dialed their seven-digit phone number on my grandparent’s beige rotary dial telephone to get the details. I quickly cleaned up my act so that my grandparents would sign their permission. I drank alcohol non-stop and ditched school with new friends throughout my freshman year, but the desire to drive, to drive away from my family and my childhood, motivated me to demonstrate my bad behavior had all been just “a phase.”
At my school, students were divided by their birthdays during sophomore year. You had to be at least 15 ½ by the time Driver's Ed. class began so you could obtain your learner’s permit and get behind the wheel of a car. Having a summer birthday meant I had to suffer through the entire first semester while nearly all of my friends took the class, filling me in on what to expect. When the second semester finally arrived, I paid astute attention in class like never before. Everything I currently know about the laws of physics, which isn’t much, I learned from that mandatory Driver’s Education class. The law of inertia, that an object in motion stays in motion, centrifugal force. Um, that’s about all.
I rode in a car with “Student Driver” stickers plastered all over the sides, while a fellow student named Cookie, like the snack, nearly plowed into a group of children crossing the street in a residential neighborhood. She had trouble remembering which pedal down there was the brake and which the accelerator because she couldn’t keep straight her left from right.
“Heidi,” she had whispered loudly at me, spitting a little in my hair, as we sat in the backseat waiting for our turns. “Which foot do you use for the brake?”
“You use your right foot for everything, Cookie,” I responded quietly. She was pretty and popular, and I didn’t want to be mean. “But the left pedal is the brake.”
“That doesn’t make sense!” she hissed. I sighed. The instructor had his own brake on the passenger side of the car and that is how the children were spared.
I began officially driving a motor vehicle in 1985, the day I turned sixteen, and passed my driver’s exam. I’m pretty sure I proceeded to get drunk and drive and ditch school all over again. Only now I was behind the wheel of a car and giving rides to my friends.
It is miraculous we all survived.
But I was a confused kid whose very existence had been contorted into a fiction. I still believed wholeheartedly, and unquestioningly, at this stage in my life that my father had died in Vietnam. Never considering why no one in my family had met him, why there were no photos. Underneath the mythology was my acting out. There must have been some part of me that knew there were holes in the narrative. And so I drove, and drove, attempting to drive away from my angst.
This shameful behavior is maybe why, when I really cleaned up my act, grew up, truly matured, only drank occasionally and never if driving, got married, and had children who were approaching their teenaged years, I was worried. I read articles on the topic of teen drivers. I must have managed to convince my son that because the frontal lobe does not fully develop until your early twenties, teenagers should not be driving cars. It’s a crazy idea. That frontal lobe will prevent an otherwise intelligent person from making solid, rational, well-thought-out decisions while operating a huge piece of potentially dangerous machinery. Therefore, teens should not be granted driver’s licenses. They should not drive, or at least not alone. They need to warm up to the process, rehearse for when they’re on their own. Teens should get lots of practice.
My son turned sixteen last year and the milestone birthday was lost in a haze of quarantine, mandatory masks, and shelter-in-place orders. When I turned sixteen my grandfather had given me a used Mazda GLC, which my high school boyfriend accurately predicted would make it so I had a sudden multitude of friends. My son didn’t want anything in particular for his birthday, so I think I gave him $40. His sixteenth birthday passed without any mention of a car. So I raised the topic a few days later. Or at least the topic of driving. Getting his license. I recognized my son was different from me. He didn’t drink, didn’t ditch school. He was eons more mature than I had been at his same age. Also, he has always known his own origin story - there have never been any secrets or stories that were not holding up to scrutiny. He had nothing to rebel against.
“Why would I want to do that?” he responded, about getting his permit.
“So that you can drive?” I suggested. Gently.
“I don’t need to drive,” he said as if I was being very silly. His logic was that his oldest stepbrother was still in high school with him and drove him to school each day that he woke up at his dad’s house. Back when school was in-person.
I accepted this position. The stepbrother was responsible. He’d grown up the oldest of four boys, and this qualified him as more mature than most of his peers. His frontal lobe was still not fully developed, but he displayed no evidence of this.
Then time went on, my son turned seventeen, and I wondered about how he would get to community college after graduating from high school next year. His stepbrother was busy himself. He could no longer chauffeur him.
I decided to change my tactics and explained to my son that driving is a life skill he must acquire, practice, and develop. Maybe he will choose not to drive much as an adult (work from home, live near mass transit). But he needed to learn to drive and he needed a license.
As we emerged from pandemic times, creeping foggily into 2021, I scheduled my son an appointment at our local DMV in Beaverton to take the test for his learner’s permit. Then some conflict or another got in the way and I needed to change the date. This proved to be nearly impossible; it was impossible online. I waited on hold with the DMV for an hour before reaching a live human person who politely assisted me and scheduled my son for his appointment in Sherwood today. I didn’t even know where Sherwood was, but I had friends who’d driven their teens to Albany, and Eugene and I knew those locations to be ridiculously far. Google maps told me it was a 33-minute drive. It turned out to be closer to 45.
As we drove there my son vaguely threatened to fail the test on purpose. I reminded him of my one-hour hold session. He was only joking. Mainly.
When we arrived, he kicked into a more serious mode, and he passed the test rather quickly and easily. We ventured forward to the glass window. Probably just plexiglass for COVID, not bulletproof glass for active shooters, I guessed. His birth certificate was handed through the hole in the plexiglass, to verify his identity. His W-2 from his part-time job (ended by COVID) to verify his address, also handed through the hole. I had already given those things to the first clerk when I paid $5 for the opportunity for him to take the test. And now I had to show these items again to another person. Inefficient, but no big deal.
“Oh, and I have his Social Security number now. I had missed reading that was needed on the website, and the first guy told me when we paid our money… His dad has texted a photo of it to me,” I started to show him the picture and the man waved it away.
“Write the number on here,” the employee handed me a yellow sticky note. I took a pen from the “clean” container and wrote the number carefully.
He entered it, tapping the numbers out on his keyboard, then handed me back the sticky note, then asked for it again. Then handed it back again, then asked for it back again.
“Can I see the photo of his card? You said you have that?” he said.
“Yes,” I opened my phone for him and slid my hand under the plexiglass, feeling very official at having the photograph. I was so glad that his dad had immediately texted it to me. The card showed my son’s signature in a younger scrawl. I have no memory of asking him to sign the card but I’m guessing he was maybe eight based on the curve of his letters, the weight of his pen.
The man held my phone, he squinted, he compared it to the sticky note before saying, “There is already someone else with that number.”
What? No. What?
I work at a bank, and my heightened sense of Social Security numbers being sacrosanct kicked in, and I said, “No, I sure hope not.”
“Just making sure I didn’t miss-key any of the numbers,” he said as he rechecked again, squinting as he looked at his computer screen. He hadn’t.
His supervisor was summoned, there were a few words tossed into the air casually about “overriding” but the higher authority pointed out more than once, referencing the screen I could not see, that the other “customer” had provided verification. Somehow I seriously doubted that. Since they didn’t ask for verification from me, just numbers on a sticky note. So of course it had been acceptable for that other “customer” because there was no conflict. With another number.
“So his identity has been stolen?” I inquired accusingly, eyes wide, eyebrows raised. My voice was crisp and brittle.
“We don’t know that,” he countered, with a forced chuckle, a little defensively as if it was he being accused of the theft.
I thought more about this whole process and found I agreed. This was probably an honest mistake. A miss-key of a number on the other “customer.”
I was advised to contact the Social Security Administration, to see if there was an error, that perhaps they’d given the same number to more than one person.
“They don’t do that,” I said emphatically. But I could see the man behind the plexiglass had already made up his mind. It didn’t matter that my son had passed the test, that we’d provided proof of identity and address, that I’d waited on the phone for an hour for this appointment, or that we’d shuffled around the DMV office obediently, wearing our masks. He was not going to give my son his learner’s permit because of a previous DMV error. But he also wasn’t going to admit to that.
As my son and I drove away from Sherwood, we laughed at the odd and unexpected turn of our outing. I praised him for succeeding at his part of the process, for passing the test. Because, by the end of the day, through no fault of his own, my son accomplished precisely what he had hoped for. He still could not legally drive a car.
He didn’t want to drive anyway. And still doesn’t.