Eyes wide open: When fathers hand the keys to their sons

By Jayson Jacoby October 08, 2010 10:51 am

I tend to get awfully drowsy during long road trips, but last weekend I discovered a sure cure for this annoying and potentially dangerous affliction.

Surrender the driver’s seat to a 15-year-old.

It’s a more effective tactic than propping your eyelids open with toothpicks.

Less painful too, I expect.

Although I’ve always tried, in my dealings with toothpicks, to keep the little implements as far away as possible from my eyes.

The 15-year-old, in this instance, is my son, Alexander.

And I need to emphasize here that my state of acute wakefulness, which persisted while he was guiding the car, in no way reflects on Alexander’s ability.

For a fledgling driver he’s pretty good.

(He is, in fact, endeavoring to obtain his license today, which is his 16th birthday.)

Alexander drove for about 250 miles of our trip to and from my parents’ home in Salem — roughly a third of the round-trip distance — and not once did I feel is necessary to grab the steering wheel.

Or to assume the crash position that flight attendants talk about.

Although once, while Alexander was driving straight at the westering sun between Redmond and Sisters, I reached over to flip down the visor and I barked my funny bone on an aluminum water bottle propped in the cupholder.

The blow made my hand go numb for several minutes, which wasn’t very humorous.

Anyway, Alexander, though quite competent for his age, is necessarily short on experience.

This means that, at almost any time he could be confronted with a driving situation which he’s never handled.

An off-camber downhill curve combined with logging truck edging across the double-yellow and a nasty crosswind, for instance.

Which is not the sort of predicament that lulls to sleep the helpless person riding in the passenger seat.

(Although you might close your eyes until you think the danger’s past.)

I let Alexander drive the first leg of the trip, from Baker City to Austin Junction.

This isn’t the ideal route for a budding driver, what with all the corners and a pair of formidable mountain passes.

I balanced against those negatives the relative scarcity of traffic early on a Friday afternoon, at least as compared with the freeway. It was the day before the opening of deer season, but I figured the onslaught of pickup trucks and trailers that marks that unofficial holiday would hold off til evening.

Alexander handled the challenging terrain with aplomb.

As he seems to thrive in silence — from me, anyway; he doesn’t mind music — I confined my comments to a couple of mild suggestions that he slow a bit before certain twisty sections that can surprise the unwary.

I also had him pull over twice to let impatient drivers pass.

From what I remember of my early career as a driver — and the memories are decidedly dim — it was the tailgaters that bothered me most. I never felt comfortable, or confident, when there was a car looming in the rear-view mirror — not even when I was driving right at the speed limit.

We swapped seats at Austin Junction. I drove on to Prineville. I had planned to let Alexander drive a ways from there, but he’s a glutton for Arctic Circle milkshakes. Rather than wait for him to finish his messy treat I drove for a few more miles toward Redmond until he had downed the last slurp.

(The other option — letting him sip while driving — was of course no option at all.)

Alexander took over near the OSU Experimental Station, navigated the confusing route through Redmond and the thick traffic of downtown Sisters, then climbed the east slope of the Cascades to Santiam Pass.

We stopped there so I could go for a short hike on the Pacific Crest Trail. It was coming on dark when I finished, so I drove the rest of the way to Salem. Descending the long western side of the mountains, with deer hunters’ headlights making you squint almost constantly, challenges even a veteran driver. I didn’t want to subject Alexander to that ordeal.

It was a good day.

But also the sort of day that vexes a parent with ambivalence.

I was of course pleased to watch Alexander begin to master one of the rites of adulthood.

And yet I also felt a twinge of sadness. Or maybe more than a twinge.

There are many such rites, but none, it seems to me, conveys the symbolic power of the drivers license, with its inherent mobility. When your child has one of those he or she can, at least in theory, go anywhere.

Without you, preferably.

This feeling recurred the next day, though with a twist.

My dad and I drove from Salem to Eugene to watch a football game.

Since my parents are a one-car couple these days, we took my Buick.

To avoid the game day gantlet on I-5, we plotted a circuitous route through the bucolic farm country east of the freeway.

It was a pleasant drive. My dad, who was born and grew up in Lebanon, which we skirted, told me about shooting rats with his uncle at the dump, and about the rattlesnakes that sometimes took shelter from the summer sun on the basement steps at his cousins’ house.

But what I was wondering mainly as we went along was how my dad felt, at age 65, to sit in the passenger seat beside his son, who just turned 40, on a journey by car.

Was his experience comparable at all to mine from the day before?

Does any of that confusing mixture of emotions that so unsettled me, as I watched Alexander, linger, even after more than 20 years have passed?

I didn’t ask my dad either of those questions.

Although perhaps, about at least one matter, I didn’t need to ask.

I noticed, throughout our drive to Eugene and back, one particular thing which my dad, so far as I could tell, never did.

Close his eyes.

Jayson Jacoby is editor of the Baker City Herald.