Yesterday I turned 41. Not much to report — I don’t think it’s possible to have a more boring birthday than the one I had yesterday, mostly because I’ve been fighting off some weird head cold. After a long day at work for both of us, and a muggy walk home (just once I’d love to have a birthday in a non-schweddy climate), I canceled the dinner reservation, and we ordered pizza and watched House Hunters. Suzanne Whang on your birthday — that’s so whrong. (By the way, did you know Suzanne Whang does wildly inappropriate stand-up comedy? I know! It’s so … shocking. The House Hunters nerd!)
Nevertheless, I entered the day’s events into an old notebook-journal where many years ago (college, it seems) I wrote down my recollections of every birthday I could remember. Ages 1-3 are long erased from my mental hard drive, but I do remember some details about #4 (a drum set!) and was able to patch together #’s 5-7. At #8 and #9, the memories really kick in. So, every year, I add to the list and describe what I did, who was there. Someday, when my steel trap mind has turned into an old SOS pad, I’ll be glad I did.
I realized something while entering the non-events of #41 and reading back over the years:
It’s been 25 years since I got my driver’s license.
That would have been #16, in August 1984. It was the summer I worked at the church (I was in charge of typing up, laying out, and Xeroxing 1,200 copies of the church bulletin! My news career goes way, way back, people) and went to Putnam City every day for my driver’s ed class — my daring dalliance with public schooling! It was the summer I listened to “Purple Rain” all the time.
My birthday was on a Sunday that year, which irritated the crap out of me, because it caused me to wait one more day for a driver’s license. I went on a church youth group water-skiing trip that Sunday — life imitates John Hughes, because everyone forgot to wish me happy birthday. In a church group. (Really. WTF.) Oh, and guess what my mother got me? A microwave oven. For our kitchen.
The next morning, Aug. 13, a family friend took me to the Oklahoma State Highway Patrol office where driving tests were administered — my mother was out of town at a conference. I don’t remember much about the test itself. My examiner was a highway patrolman. He barely grunted a word.
What I do remember is my very first trip in a car BY MYSELF. I can tell you almost every detail. It was several hours after the test. I was at home. I was out of shaving cream and contact lens solution. I realized: I can go get some.
It was evening outside. I got in my mother’s Ford Escort wagon and backed out of the driveway. I can tell you what was on the radio: “Missing You” by John Waite. I drove down our street, turned right, turned right again on Rockwell and drove myself to the Venture. (Which was sort of the Wal-Mart of the day.) It seemed almost surreal to be doing it myself, without a licensed driver along. Then I went to Sound Warehouse to look at records. Then I drove down Northwest Expressway to MacArthur and then back to 63rd St., then stopped at 7-Eleven for a Slurpee (Icy Drink to you Okies; see sign above door — it’s a long story why OKC didn’t have “Slurpees”), then back up to Rockwell.
It was maybe four or five miles total.
I can count maybe three or four times in my life where I’ve felt anything like the calm but euphoric freedom I felt that night.
I didn’t always drive mom’s Escort. My car — or, the car I called mine — was still at the Maaco, getting the paint job my mother and I had saved up for. My car in high school was a 1970 VW bug, which had been owned by my grandfather, who sold it to my mother. The Bug had then been driven by a family friend of ours for several years. It sat in the garage for a while too. It was light blue. I had it painted kelly green — pretty close to the picture here. (This one isn’t mine — I found it online.) I also went to Soundtrak (holla, Okies! Whatever happened to Linda Soundtrak?) and got a cassette deck with am/fm. That car was hilarious. The floor was rusting out. Neither the gas gauge nor the odometer worked, even though my grandfather tried replacing the cable twice — I just had to use what became a highly developed intuition for knowing when I was getting close to Empty. In the late fall, my grandfather would crawl under the car and switch on the heat. In the spring, after our first 75-degree day, he’d crawl under there and switch off the heat. There was no defrost, no A/C, no window-wiper fluid squirter.
That was I how I rolled.