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Yankee Doodle Goes to Town, Driving on the Left

May 03, 1987|BOB O'SULLIVAN | O'Sullivan is a Canoga Park free-lance writer

The approach to Gatwick was a panorama of thunderheads and shafts of sunlight playing on the dozens of different greens of the fields of Southern England. I half expected to see Spitfires ducking in and out of the cloud-filled English skies.

Or maybe Heathcliff and Kathy running hand in hand through the rain-swept fields below, or a golden coach rolling down the muddy roads, full of Henry VIII.

It's not unusual to start a vacation full of fantasies, but neither my wife, Joyce, nor I had imagined the adventure we would be having on a simple little drive from the airport into the city, on our plenty of time to get used to the idea of driving in the British Isles. We had an English friend visiting us when the idea first came up.

"You're concerned about driving on the left?" he had asked. "Nothing to it. Piece of cake."

"Do you have any trouble driving here, Tom?" I asked, meaning the United States.

"Not a bit," he said. Then after a pensive moment, "Actually, I mean I don't think I would. I've never tried, you see. But you'll have no trouble. Find it smashing."

"Smashing?"

"Figure of speech. Means 'piece of cake.' "

'Have We a License?'

Checking through customs at Gatwick and collecting our luggage we headed for the car rental desk. It was staffed by a beautiful young woman wearing a tag that said her name was Pam. I told her our car had been ordered as part of a C.I.E. Tour, gave her my passport and a car rental voucher from my wallet, which I left on the counter.

"Have we a license to operate a motor vehicle?"

I had obtained an International Driver's License from my auto club. I was searching my pockets for it when Pam picked up my wallet and flipped it open.

"Thought I saw that," she said. "You've a California driver's license. If you can drive in California, you can drive anywhere."

While I was trying to figure out whether I'd been complimented or insulted, Pam finished the paper work and directed us to the U-Drive pick-up station.

The man at the pick-up station gave me a packet of maps, instructions and assorted other reading matter, escorted us to a little silver compact and even helped load the luggage. He then handed me the keys and held the right side door open while I walked around the car and climbed in on the passenger side.

"Wife going to drive, is she, sir?" As I retraced my steps and got behind the wheel the man assured me I'd "get the hang of it, driving on the proper side, inside of 20 squares" (whatever they were).

He did not tell me there was a subway strike in the United Kingdom or that there was also a railroad strike or that the general population was all over the streets with anything and everything with wheels. He just said "good luck" and walked away.

That the steering wheel was on the wrong side I could accept, but finding the gearshift on the wrong side of the steering column was a jolt. And the other controls being without labels was equally unsettling. Turning the key, however, did start the engine.

Shifting the turn-indicator into second, I pressed the gas pedal and let out the clutch. Since this had no effect at all, I overcompensated by racing the engine even more. When the rental agent turned I smiled and waved.

"Just checking," I yelled, then showed my teeth to my wife in what I hoped would pass for another smile.

"It never hurts to check," she said, staring dead ahead.

Turning on the lights (to warn other drivers) by pulling out a knob with a picture of a shower head on it, I shifted very carefully into low gear with my left hand and drove out of Gatwick and onto the motorway.

Six-Lane Freeway

It was a beautiful six-lane freeway with a sign indicating we were headed toward London. Glancing down, I was horrified to find we were going 80 kilometers an hour. Not realizing it translated into 49 miles an hour, Joyce and I were both looking around for the inevitable (in California) traffic cop to find we were being passed by everyone on the road as if we were parked. Most of them were hooting at us. (Hooting is the English equivalent of honking. English people do not have horns on their cars, they have hooters.)

Adjusting our speed to that of the other cars took the little compact up to 130 kilometers an hour and though I was much too busy converting right side driving to wrong side driving to concern myself with conversion tables, I later found that 130 kilometers roughly equals 80 miles an hour.

"You're drifting," my wife said. I was almost hypnotically drawn to the right lane. Right in America, wrong in England.

After raising four children, I had decided that I had said "close the door" so many times, it should be carved on my tombstone.

"Here lies O'Sullivan, beloved husband and father. Close the door." On that motorway a new image formed in my mind.

"You're drifting!"

"Thank you, dear." Another image: "Here lies O'Sullivan, beloved husband and father. He drifted."

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