For many in my high school, the ‘learning to drive’ piece (a teenage rite of passage) followed a logical progression:

  1. School offers free driving courses for those age 15.
  2. Parents refuse to sign permission slip until age 16
  3. Student takes/passes course.
  4. Student terrorizes parents who feel obligated to ‘take the kid driving’ to reinforce said skills. Parents spend each driving session screaming followed by unsupervised evening drinking sessions (i.e. the parents are unsupervised).
  5. Parents then refuse to allow teen driving until Age 18 or Away From Home (whichever occurs first.)

I digressed at #5 for various reasons:

  1. Factoid: Parental Unit car insurance skyrockets with teen drivers on the policy.
  2. The sole family car was too precious to entrust to even a moment of my haphazard, newfound abilities
  3. My parents put such emphasis on Possible Disasters that I determined that I in actually did NOT want to drive.
  4. Because we lived in San Francisco with great public transit and poor parking – actual driving was Not Necessary within the City limits.


At age 19 when I met Bill, I still had no meaningful driving experience. (Though I did hold a spotless driver’s license backed by NO experience. [They don’t care how far you’ve driven…. only that you got your license and NOTHING BAD HAPPENED since. I must’ve logged all of 5 miles tops in the 2 years I had my license, mostly an ID tool to prove I was Of Age when purchasing multiple Barneys.])

Bill decided he was going to Teach Me to Drive. Factor in the 3-4 year gap between the high school driving course and Bill’s epiphany and you get a sense of how proportionately the Knowledge of What Could Happen had had plenty of chances to evolve into an actual driving phobia on my part.

But, Teacher Bill let nothing get in his way. A Boston Teacher’s College dropout, he transferred his unrealized dreams onto me and Teaching Diane to Drive raced to the top of his radar as a Meaningful Pursuit even as it was plummeting down my Thermometer of Impending Doom into the ‘DangerDangerWillRobinson Zone’.

In true Bill fashion, however, Driving Miss Diane was not to be a boring endeavor. Two perfunctory spins around the huge, vacant and “totally boring” (according to Bill’s assessment: I was all right with that!) Lake Merced parking lot in San Francisco and it was time to debut my blossoming skills in The Real World.

So my very first Bill’s Driven Mad School of Driving lesson involved Black Ice.

Now keep in mind: there is NO black ice in San Francisco.  (Plenty of blacks – but NO black ice.)

You had to DRIVE to get to any black ice. A 80-mile trip to the  Sierra Mountains in April seemed to Bill to be the PERFECT place of choice for Teaching Me to Drive. And a big plus of having me begin at the top of a mountain was that ‘ALL I HAD TO DO’ was drive downhill. (Obviously I had demonstrated a rare talent for THIS piece already.)

No traffic, no parking lots, no city: just me, a curving downhill road – and black ice.

To be fair, Bill had no idea about the last part. It was a crisp, clear day after all (…and he generously drove up the mountain to set up the experience for me.) And to be equally fair – I had NO idea a driving lesson was the underlying motive for our ‘trip to the mountains’. (Silly me: I believed a big picture window and a mug of hot chocolate was the ultimate objective of the proposed mountain sojourn. It sure was tops on MY list of ‘things to do in the mountains.’, anyway.)

And also Bill had probably missed the telltale black ice spread over the cliff side (i.e. the other lane) of the mountain because of my continuous screaming on the way up (having discovered too early that the covert reason for the journey was Finally Teaching Me to Drive).

I can also attest to the fact that at age 19, I could no longer wiggle under the front seat to a quick backseat escape route (a fete that had served me well and frequently up to only a few years earlier. Sadly, it simply was no longer physically possible.)

The car was parked at the mountaintop parking lot. Breathtaking vistas all around us went unappreciated by Moi as I hyperventilated, peered nervously over the railing of the walkway, and did an instant calculation on how far it was to the bottom and how long an out-of-control car might take to reach impact. My high school science teacher would’ve been proud: all those old and (I had proclaimed) ‘totally unusable’ physics concepts came back to mind in a swam of genius: my old friend Velocity paired with Resistance, Mass, and other factors resulted in my final conclusion: DOOM.

I heard tourist cameras clicking behind me as I was dragged, screaming, into the driver’s seat, Keys to The Kingdom summarily plunked into my hand.

I was too polite to give them the finger but thought about it when I turned around to see those cameras pointing at ME (…undoubtedly some German is back home viewing his video album and going: “Jah, and this attraction holds yet another example of American Insanity. She had to be dragged, screaming, from the beautiful mountaintop vista point….”)

Bill was a patient teacher. Up to a point. Keys in ignition: check. Seatbelts on: check. My protests that “the key won’t work for me” and “my seatbelt is BROKEN”: countered. With that, the car was started and glided out of the parking lot. As if on its own. (….in actuality it WAS on its own, as my eyes closed themselves for the first few feet until the brain kicked in and decided seeing was actually better than ‘not’, given my driver’s seat position in the matter.)

The first few minutes went well. I gave it enough gas to increase the speed to a whopping 2 MPH. I successfully navigated the first curve without even scraping the railing (…I was apparently WELL distant from it because I was ‘HUGGING THE CENTER LINE’. Hey: no oncoming traffic = License to Hug. Wasn’t that what the center line was all about, after all? To stay as far away from the dropoff edge as possible?? And furthermore: why did the Railing Crew run out of said before the top of the mountain?)

The challenge came at the second curve. Now, when you’re a newbie behind the Wheel of Doom, you don’t want to hear a gulp and  “uh oh…” from The Peanut Gallery next to you.

“WHAT!” I screamed, having finally relaxed an iota when nothing had blown up upon ignition.

“…black ice.” Bill confirmed, peering out the windshield at the impending layer of doom ahead (which, being from California, I couldn’t even SEE. Being from Back East, he had that Black Ice Instinct going strong…). “DO NOT BRAKE!” he admonished me immediately as my foot instinctively hovered above the brake pedal like a vacuum about to descend upon its dirt victim.

Herein lay a conundrum. Now, when Bill says “DO NOT”, my immediate instinct is TO DO. (This had served me quite well over the years and had even become a theme in our marriage.) But in his newfound Teacher capacity, I had been instructed to obey to the letter without thinking or argument: something that was definitely against my nature. I believe a document agreement had even been signed and initialed “here, here and here”, to that effect before I could embark on my driving lessons at Bill’s Driving School.

Bill continued his argument as the car picked up a little speed (thank goodness I was only going like 4MPH by then – which actually seemed like a WHOLE LOT).

“DO.NOT.BRAKE.” He threatened. “Just drive carefully. If you brake, you will SKID and we will go over the railing and be killed.”

It seemed a great moment to begin the argument “And I couldn’t just learn to drive in the San Francisco empty parking lot like everyone else I know BECAUSE??….it was ‘too booring’??”

But Bill, intent on Black Ice, refused to be engaged. The car picked up speed. My foot, which has a mind of its own, continued to hover, uncertain, over the brake pedal whilst my hands deftly turned the wheel ‘round waay too many curves (which appeared to have doubled since the ride up).

We rode over several patches of black ice on the way down. Between patches we could brake. I relied on Bill to tell me ‘when’ and ‘how much’. (And WHERE – because my eyes also functioned independently and insisted on at least partially – occasionally fully – closing on their own.) And my mouth, curiously, insisted on screaming all the way down the mountain at decibels that likely deafened the German tourists back up at the parking lot (I am certain they were videotaping the entire endeavor, but I have yet to locate it on YouTube under “Crazy American Girl”…)

We DID (evidently) reach the bottom safely. I pulled into the parking lot, turned off the engine, and handed the keys back to the Peanut Gallery, who was properly pale and shaking. I expected a sincere ‘thank you’ at minimum. For my expert driving. For not hitting the brake. For the vocal enthusiasm I had injected into the entire experience all the way down the mountain.

Instead, I got an admiring:


(Dude!!!!  Just don’t expect it to happen again!)

I did again slip behind the wheel, if not reluctantly, and eventually learned to drive. Bill was my teacher, with the Patience of Job.

But, I also insisted on adding a Rider to his portion of our Driver Training Contract.

To Wit:

“I, Bill, acknowledge that future lessons will only be conducted in San Francisco, with guarantees of No Black Ice, and furthermore I will NEVER AGAIN require Diane to OBEY ME WITHOUT QUESTION in any form, shape or fashion.”

It was duly signed by both parties and initialed here, here and here.

Perhaps it was the adventure element that inspired Bill, however. Shortly after that contract addendum he took me out driving again, blindfolding me till we got to the next place to practice.

Lombard Street.


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