ON FATHER’S DAY, A TRIBUTE TO MY DRIVING FORCEBy Dave Wielenga
[Editor's note: This story first appeared in the Press-Telegram on June 16, 1994, when I was writing a weekly column about driving, called The Road Worrier. Seventeen years later, my father is 81 and no longer a truck driver---although he stopped only a few years ago ... and still makes an annual exception every December, when he delivers Christmas trees to Farmers & Merchants bank branches and County Supervisor Don Knabe's house to raise money for the Los Cerritos YMCA. Whether holding a steering wheel or the TV remote, he remains my life's driving force.]
Most of what I know about my dad I learned because of driving. That’s not as pathetic as it sounds because I know a lot about driving—and my dad taught me most of it.
My dad, Jack Wielenga, is a teamster, retired a few years from a career pulling milk tankers from dairies to creameries across Southern California. My mom expected retirement to keep him home more, but he’s been unwilling to give up trucking completely. He still works part time, hauling orange peel for King Kelly Marmalade Co. and transporting raw milk for California Milk Producers. To say that driving has been his life is neither trivial nor cliche. It’s simply true. He’s been doing it nearly every day for almost 50 years.
Everybody has conduits that connect them to the rest of the world. My dad uses windshields and mirrors, steering wheels and gearboxes, the gas, the brake and the clutch. He uses blinkers, most of the time.
From a perch in a noisy cab above an ever-unfolding highway, from the front seat of a yellow pickup pulling a trailer on long vacations, from behind the wheel of the family car making quick trips around town, my dad has observed and absorbed the nature of the world and the humans who inhabit it. He has collected information, developed theories, honed philosophies, spewed opinions. Lots of opinions.
A drive with my dad usually includes a running commentary about the basic nature of the automotive transportation system and the stunning inability of most drivers to comprehend it. Or, if they happen to get it right, to do it right.
My dad often makes value judgements about people according to how they drive, the same way somebody else might interpret handshakes, eye contact, smiles or posture. Actually, my dad does that, too. But he is certain that he can best detect people’s general awareness, self confidence, competence and courtesy according to where they place their hands on the steering wheel, how tightly they grip it, the steadiness of their foot on the accelerator, the freedom with which they allow their eyes to roam and their heads to turn, how they react in traffic.
This used to irritate me. Now I tend to agree with him. Now I tend to make those judgements, too.
Perhaps that’s because my driving—and what it says about my character—is one of the things my dad likes most about me.
I’ve suspected it as long as I can remember, since he handed maps to the kids on family vacations and made frequent use of his captive navigators, asking us for directions and distances, about topography and points of interest, getting us to estimate our time of arrival.
I’ve sensed it since I was 10 years old, when my dad began to let me start the car in the driveway.
I’ve realized it since the night he picked me up from a Cub Scouts meeting, parked the car across the street from our house and let me steer it, herking and jerking, into the driveway.
I’ve known it since I took driver training, and my dad was anxious to sign for my learner’s permit and happy to let me drive on family outings. My mom wasn’t quite so happy, especially since she had to ride next to me while he sat in the back seat. My dad insisted he could give me better advice from that perspective. “I can tell what he’s thinking by watching the back of his head,” he would say—and still rues the requirement that cars have head rests, which obscure his study of other drivers’ heads. ”If I have to grab the steering wheel, it’s probably too late, anyway.”
I’ve believed it since my 16th birthday, the day I got my driver’s license, when my dad let me take the car—alone—to go shopping, and a couple of days later allowed me to drive my friends to a football game.
I acknowledge it every time I write the Road Worrier column, which is inspired by the interest in driving I derived from my dad.
My dad and I haven’t always communicated well. We always said a lot to each other, often loudly and self righteously, but not much seemed to get through.
An exception has always been when we’ve talked about driving. Here, our perspectives have always seemed to merge—and merging is the maneuver that tests most of the skills and attitudes my dad holds dearest, in driving and in life. He knows we all share the same road. He believes we can share it peacefully.
“The idea is to keep everybody moving at a steady speed,” my dad has always said. “Everybody is responsible, to themselves and everybody else, to make that happen. Make sure you’re up to speed when you move into traffic. Make room for others when they try to move in. The idea is to flow.”
My dad, a very down-to-earth guy, has always said this last part with a heaven-on-earth tone, as if having a vision, softly extending the word “flohhhhh” and making a slow, sweeping gesture with his open hand.
But it never takes much to shatter his spiritual spell—an unnecessary flash of brake lights, someone sitting a few seconds at a just-turned-green signal, a too-late lane change. My dad, who not-so-secretly believes he would make a good, mostly benevolent dictator, has little tolerance for such people.
“Yay-hoos!” he calls them, always derisively, sometimes quite loudly. “They cause the accidents, but they’ll never get a ticket!”
My dad concedes the need for traffic laws but doesn’t believe they do much to address the real issues of the road, which he insists can only be solved by individual application of common sense.
“The idea is to get the big picture, realize your part in it,” he’s always said, “and let it roll.”
It used to irritate me when he said that. Now I understand. And if I ever forget what my dad means—about anything, ever—all I’ve got to do is go for a drive. I’m never more certain I’m seeing the world through my dad’s eyes than when I’m behind a steering wheel and looking down a road.