Long after rookie pilots in The Observer's day went to test for a driver's license, Junior, 18, finally took the plunge over the Christmas break and got his permit. It was quite an endeavor to get him to that point, four full years after he legally could have tested and received the same permit in the state of Arkansas. The Observer, like all our friends, was standing on the doorstep of the revenue office the morning we turned 14 with our nose pressed against the glass, repeatedly whispering "open, open, open," and again at 16. We had long assumed it would be the same for Junior, but 14 came and went, then 16, then 18, his dear Ma and Pa cajoling and arguing and haranguing him the whole way about the wide-open world full of asphalt and adventure, free to roam for those with a license to drive. Junior just wasn't having it, content to allow his unpaid chauffeurs to deliver and retrieve him on the rare occasions he was required to leave the house.
Parents talk, mostly to make sure their kid is no weirder than anybody else's, so we knew this resistance to driving is common among his generation. Based on our gathered, anecdotal study, it seems like lot of them just don't want to make the jump from passenger to driver, perhaps content to go places in their minds and screens than drive somewhere to see the real thing. Still, for The Observer — who personally owned three running cars on the day we turned 16, having seen the gleaming, oil-slick heart of the motorvators' pistons and crankshafts, the birdlike guts of their carburetors laid out on red grease rags, the mechanical ballet of their camshafts and timing chains, pushrods and rockers, intake and exhaust values, all moving as harmoniously as the spheres of the universe to send fuel and air to the tip of a sparkplug perfectly gapped to throw a divine blue spark and bring about The Big Bang — that kind of thinking just does not compute.
Still, a year from now, Junior will be in college. So his mother insisted, and the week after Christmas, off we went to the State Police Headquarters. There we stood in a snaking line filled with parents and their teenagers. Periodically, a woman with a badge behind the desk would bark at some newcomer with his phone out, pointing to the prominently posted signs saying there would be ABSOLUTELY NO CELL PHONE USE in that room. Other than the periodic warnings, we all stood there silently, waiting to be tested, the phone-addicted teens sweating bullets at their momentary withdrawal from the world of texting and Instagram and funny cat videos, adrift for an excruciating 15 minutes in the electronic dead zone.
Junior passed his test, of course, even though he'd stayed up until 3 a.m. the previous night and hadn't, as far as we could tell, studied a lick. He's good like that. The Observer, meanwhile, had plentiful doubts about his potential success, having taken an online driver's test the previous night and having failed — twice — even though we've been driving so long at this point we used to drag race Henry Ford. Shows what we know.
So, belatedly, Junior's Pa enters the new realm of anxiety known as The Student Driver. Driving is serious business, as John Milner tells young Carol in Gearheadism's holy text, "American Graffiti," just before (SPOILER!) Milner and his yellow deuce coupe get mowed down by a drunk driver. He was right. Young folks, for the most part, don't understand Serious Business. But you can't get to Carnegie Hall without practice, practice, practice, so now The Observer reluctantly gives up the wheel and heads for the passenger's seat. As someone who once knew that first excitement of seeing the road roll out before us, knowing that if we stuck to it long enough, we could go anywhere and be anyone, we find quite a bit of excitement mixed in with our trepidation. We're ready to see where Junior might go, and what he might do when he gets there.