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Chris Erskine / THE GUY CHRONICLES

The Pa and Ma School of Driver's Education

July 14, 1999|CHRIS ERSKINE

She spins around the Rose Bowl parking lot in her mother's white minivan, a car with the handling and sex appeal of a giant Tupperware container. Safe. Solid. Easy to wash. Tupperware.

"I like this car," my lovely and patient older daughter says.

"Me too," I say.

Just turned 16, my daughter hears the call of the concrete, the whistle of the automobile want ads. Not once has she spotted a vehicle she wouldn't love to marry. To her, there are no ugly cars.

"Look at that nice Ford Escort," she says, as we circle the Rose Bowl parking lot.

"Very nice," I say.

We have been coming to the Rose Bowl like this for months now, spending warm summer evenings practicing her turns and stops in the giant parking lot, which leaves plenty of margin for error.

"Two hands on the wheel," I tell her.

"OK, Dad," she says.

Mostly, she's got this two-hands thing down now. When she first got her permit, she'd occasionally dangle her left arm out the window, as if holding a beer or a cigarette, which is a fine way to drive if you happen to live in Alabama and have tattoos of naked women up and down your arm. But not for her. For her, it's two hands on the wheel.

"You never know when a tire's going to blow out," I tell her.

"You don't?" she asks.

"No, you don't," I say.

Round and round the Rose Bowl lot we go, which is empty except for all the other new drivers and their dads using the parking lot for practice. Five, six, eight of them, all stopping and starting, stopping and starting.

"Look, there's Marie!" my daughter yells, then screams and waves out the window to her friend Marie, who screams and waves back.

"Two hands," I say.

"I can't believe I saw Marie," she tells me.

The student drivers and their dads prowl the giant parking lot like U-boats, wary of the other student drivers, pulling up along the curbs, then pulling out again, always with the turn signal.

At some point, all the U-boats end up in one corner of the giant parking lot, a fleet of U-boats, gridlocked in the corner.

"Don't panic," I say.

"Should I back up?" my daughter asks anxiously.

"Let's see what the others do," I say.

Apparently, the other fathers are waiting too, because for a minute, we all sit there, expecting the other U-boats to make the first move. Finally, we all decide to back up at the same time.

"That was fun," my daughter says, when we're free of the others.

"I'll never forget it," I tell her.

Used to be, driving was taught in high schools, by football coaches who could barely fit into the mid-sized sedans--big men, 6 feet tall by 6 feet wide, without an ounce of fat on them.

"Both hands," they'd tell the driver, then look down to study some off-tackle slant in the playbook on their lap.

Now it's moms and dads who do the dirty work--big men and women without an ounce of fat on them--trying to sit calmly in the passenger seat while their children try to remember which pedal is the brake.

"OK, now put your foot over the brake," my wife says as they head toward a stop sign.

"Which one's the brake?" our daughter asks.

"Don't joke," her mother says sternly.

Like a lot of parents, her mother is a calm driving instructor, maintaining her composure no matter what.

"Slow down," she says as our daughter approaches a busy intersection. "Slow down. . . . Slow Down! . . . SLOW DOWN!!!"

"Chill, Mom," our daughter says when she finally slows down.

"Hey, look, there's Brittany!" she yells, waving out the window.

So when our older daughter has a choice, she prefers that her dad teach her to drive. Dads generally have a different approach to driver's ed. Dads just scream internally.

Last month, as my daughter approached her first freeway onramp, I developed a severe facial tic that eventually spread to my chest and abdomen.

And in the night, I wake up kicking at the bed sheets, looking for a brake pedal as we go speeding through an intersection in a giant white Tupperware container.

"Slow down. Slow Down! SLOW DOWN!!!" I scream in my dreams.

"It's OK," my wife says when she wakes me.

"That was close," I say.

"You can let go of my hair now," she says.

"Thanks," I say. "I think your hair saved my life."

"Then let go of it," she says.

"OK," I say.

Chris Erskine's column is published on Wednesdays. His e-mail address is chris.erskine@latimes.com.

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