On the road of life, it can be unsettling when young passengers become drivers

SATURDAY'S HERO

February 03, 1996|By ROB KASPER

WE WERE sitting in rush hour traffic on Mount Royal Avenue this week when my 15-year-old son spotted the dual exhaust pipes on a car stopped in the left turn lane. "Dual pipes," he announced, "are so cool."

It is happening, I told myself. The kid is developing an eye for automobiles. It is no coincidence that this phase of life is kicking in as his 16th birthday, the legal driving age in Maryland, moves closer. Just typing that sentence makes my palms sweat.

I had hoped that the kid's interest in cars would extend to matters of car maintenance. When to rotate the tires. How to check the oil. How to remove hamburger wrappers from underneath the seats. What to do when a fuse blows. Maybe later.

For now, when we ride around town, we only have eyes for style. We smile when we see dual exhaust pipes. We shake our heads with disapproval at bad paint jobs and ugly colors. He makes plans for what he says is going to be his first car, A Volkswagen "Beetle," dark blue with dual pipes, and a super sound system.

I do not tell the kid that the way I see things unfolding "his car" is going be big, blue and white, and have steel wheels. It is called a Light Rail Car. It is run by the Mass Transit Administration, and $1.25 will take him wherever he wants to go.

I let him dream about how sweet life will be when he takes to the roadways. Parents of kids who are already driving tell me that I am dreaming as well. They tell me that parents can map out all kinds of strategies for "how things are going to be," when their kids are old enough to drive. But gradually they learn to accept that they don't wield the control they once did. They tell me that rather than following steps out-lined in a manual, being a parent of a teen-age driver is something you learn on the job.

In anticipation of the dark day when my kid gets behind the wheel, I have been watching families with freshly minted drivers. I look at their cars. Often I see dents, scratches, broken mirrors.

They remind me of my first traffic accident, eons ago. I was 17. Brimming with the false confidence of someone who had been driving one whole year, I was wheeling through a parking lot when the car in front of me stopped. I "kissed" the other car's rear end, breaking its tail light, and smashing my headlight. This happened in a small Midwestern city in the 1960s when nobody sued, or claimed whiplash. My dad paid to fix the other guy's tail light. All was forgotten, at least legally.

Psychically, I took several hits. One big blow was the fact that I had damaged the one "cool" thing my family owned, a jet black 1964 Ford Galaxy with a red interior and a swing-away steering wheel. Another blow was the fact that someone as "with-it" as I was, could actually make a mistake. A mistake that my old "out-of-it" parents had warned me against.

These were among the many thoughts that coursed through my mind the other night as my son and I waited for the traffic light on Mount Royal Avenue. At one point I felt the urge to dump tons of safety facts on him. To tell him the importance of checking his tire pressure, his mirrors, his gauges, his fluid levels, his stopping distance, his seat belt.

At another point, I indulged myself by comparing notes with my kid on convertibles we considered stylish. We agreed that a nearby Chrysler looked clunky with its top up. We disagreed over the egg-shaped look of a Saab 900 convertible. I liked it, he didn't.

Later I saw a new Jaguar convertible. The driver was talking on a cellular telephone and wasn't paying attention to the road. I thought of passing along to my son one of my ideas for how to clean up America's roadways. Namely, if you can drive better than the person behind the wheel of a cool car, then you are entitled to claim the cool car. I decided that I would tell the kid this idea later, about 20 years later.

While waiting at the stoplight, I checked the odometer. The car has about 80,000 miles on it. I had noticed the car, a 1989 model, was losing some of its zip. I had wondered if I should get a new car with more oomph. The other night as I looked across the front seat and envisioned the day when my son would be sitting behind the wheel, I answered my question. I'll keep the old car, and get new brakes.

A howl of delight interrupted my reverie. The kid has just felt the heater under the front seat warm his backside.

"Heated seats," the kid said. "I can't wait to drive this car."

I can.

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