He would keep an unseen, steady hand on the steering wheel as the seven-year-old in his lap alternated between touching the pedals and looking out the windshield. The boy would ask to drive wherever they went. He would acquiesce to every third or fourth request. And when he did, the boy was on top of the world.
The rest of the time the boy would sit in the backseat and pretend his father was Mario Andretti, and the other cars his competitors. Every stop for gas or at a store was a pit stop. On his knees in the backseat, looking out the rear window, the boy would announce the race play-by-play, keeping an eye on the second place car.
"Don't let him pass you, Daddy!"
Almost overnight, seven turned fourteen, and one day he let the boy drive his old baby blue Chevrolet truck around their backyard. It was a stick with no power steering and the boy didn't know how to get it out of first gear. The ride was bumpy, but the boy was on top of the world.
Some days he would take the family car out to the new four-lane that was still under construction, and let the boy drive the stretches of blacktop from one barricade to the next. Slowly but surely, he could see the boy improving.
Then came fifteen and it was time. The two of them climbed into the family car. And as the boy cautiously pulled onto the two-lane road in front of their house, he sat in the passenger seat, offering advice. Telling the boy to line up the hood ornament with the edge of the road. Cautioning him if he got across the center line or too close to the mailboxes.
The boy was a bundle of nerves, not wanting to make a mistake, forever seeking his father's approval. His hands were shaking slightly as he concentrated only on keeping it between the lines. It seemed the hardest thing for the boy to learn was to use his right foot for both the gas and brake pedals. That one would take a little while.
Meanwhile, sitting in the passenger's seat, he would press his foot into the floorboard time and again in search of a brake pedal that wasn't there. Somewhere amidst the pride and nervousness he felt, he thought about how they would only go thru this once. This rite of passage.
The boy would learn to drive, and then he'd be one step closer to being a man, to college, to marriage, to moving away, to real life. It took all he had sometimes not to reach over and grab the wheel.
Miles passed and almost without notice, the advice and words of caution grew less frequent. Full of pride, he looked over at the boy, smiled and said, "That's it, son. You're driving!"
Palms drenched with sweat and eyes never leaving the road, I was on top of the world.
"He'd say a little slower son, you're doing just fine. Just a dirt road with trash on each side, but I was Mario Andretti when Daddy let me drive..."