October 2, 1959
I never did like Emerson’s poetry or his essays. Hence, I find it hard to believe that I keep leaning on one of his famous quotations: “Whoso would be a man must be a non-conformist.” I can’t understand it. Compare me to anybody else in the world, and you might think that I was overworking Emerson. As an example, I choose driving, that great American pastime that has helped shrink our country, both in time and in population.
I’m average in height and weight. I’ve got better-than-average intelligence. Although my hair is a porcupine and my face is a chimpanzee, I don’t look much worse than normal. I’m normal; my heart even beats regularly. But I’m not average.
It happened last year. I was taking driver’s education from Mr. Kern. Every lesson, as mean as could be, stole three pounds from me – and my instructor. I was the worst thing that could ever happen to a car. For example, it took me four weeks to learn the right turn. On the open highway, it took a month for me to get used to the sensation of driving over thirty miles per hour. I finally became brave enough (about as brave as an amoeba) to shoot the speedometer to fifty. Whenever this happened, “Thunder Road” came from the radio.
Then we came to parallel parking and backing up. I did about three hundred dollars worth of damage to the two poles which represented cars. It wasn’t my fault. The poles were only as long as the car, anyway. After I pulled out from between the poles, I checked to make sure that Mr. Kern was safe up a tree before I began to back up. Anyone who saw me back up – at least from the air – would swear that it looked like a “Zorro” advertisement.
I made a few more mistakes, like starting the car in drive with my foot on the accelerator. I won’t say I cut a corner – I could be taken literally. Maybe it was all because I was nervous. Whenever it came my turn to drive, Mr. Kern would stop at a store. He would come out with tiny, white tablets that looked like tranquilizer pills.
After eighteen long weeks, the test rolled around. I optimistically made up my mind that I wasn’t such a bad driver after all. Sure, I was expected to fail. But I promised myself that I would surprise everyone. I did.
I was either eighth or ninth in line. After the full moon had set and risen two times, my turn came. I assured myself I wasn’t scared. My arms agreed, although they were vibrating as fast as a hummingbird’s wings. I was as calm as a bullet about to be suddenly awakened as I walked across the street as loose as an abominable snowman. I paused for station identification. It was my turn, and I would show them. Everything was going perfectly. The door even opened when I pressed a little button.
As fearlessly as Pasternak in Russia, I stepped into the gas chamber. I (now an amoeba) decided to ignore the gorilla beside me in the front seat. I turned on the ignition; I kept it on thirty seconds for good measure. When it didn’t work, I tried it again and got results. I also got results when I spiked the accelerator. Then the radio came on. “Don’t Take Your Gun to Town, Son” was playing. When I finally collected about a third of my wits, I started rolling onto the road, being ever so cautious. I kept looking around to make sure there was nothing within five miles of me.
I wasn’t careful enough. There was something within five miles, and I hit it. I found out that it was a tyrannosaurus by the name of Pontiac or Oldsmobile. It was big enough as it was, but it didn’t have to be parked so far from the curb. After I hit him, I was told to back up. If the patrolman hadn’t used his part of the dual-brake, I would have backed into another car. I discovered that I had scratched the animal’s rear bumper with my rear right door. I couldn’t believe my ears when the patrolman said to come back the next day or Monday.
I had to live through twenty more tests before I could go home. I was as red as a sunburned apple. Everybody wanted to talk to me. One fellow tried to console me by saying that between us, we had a fifty average.
There’s an ending to this story. Thinking I needed more practice, I enrolled for a second semester. (After Mr. Kern revived, he immediately went ot work on a whole box of pills.) I began to improve gradually (very gradually). I passed the test. All I had to show for thirty-six weeks of driving was a forty-one average and a recored for the shortest test and lowest test score. Then someone had the nerve to tell me that Emerson did not mean “Whoso would be a non-conformist must be a man.”.