Freedom ride

I watch -- and worry -- as my son enters adulthood behind the wheel of a car.

Published March 6, 2003 3:49PM (EST)

When his name is called, my 16-year-old disappears into the inner sanctum of the DMV. He's been anticipating this moment for years. So have I, but not with the same level of excitement. I daydream that the gray January skies will open, that the downpour will force the examiners to cancels road tests, that we can put this off for one more day.

I open a book, retrieved from the floor of our car: "The Worst-Case Scenario Survival Handbook," one of my son's quickly forgotten holiday gifts from several years ago. I skim the back cover. Perfect DMV reading: "The indispensable guide for surviving life's sudden turns for the worse." I skim the sections on maneuvering on top of a moving train, escaping killer bees, what to do if you're lost in the mountains in the dead of winter.

Eighty percent of surviving in the mountains depends on your reaction to fear, 10 percent on the quality of your gear, and 10 percent on knowing how to use the gear. Under the harsh fluorescent lighting, I imagine breaking branches from trees to hollow out a snow cave for shelter. I wonder how the stark winterscape affects your state of mind, how you ward off a sort of emotional hypothermia, an exaggerated loneliness that can lead to a frostbitten heart.

My own heart feels weighted down in the empty waiting room. I think about the aboriginal mother who wails and flails her fists at the sky when her son is taken from her. As the rite of passage, a boy is kidnapped and taken into the outback to fast and pray, and endure physical and emotional trials that mark his journey from childhood to adulthood. Back home, his mother publicly grieves over the "death" of her boy, who will return to the village as a man.

Thirty minutes have passed. The steel-framed door opens. My son walks through the waiting room ecstatic, triumphant, followed by a gray-uniformed DMV officer, looking remarkably blasé. I'm summoned into the official cloister where I watch the young driver align his feet with masking-taped footprints on the floor. He peers into the camera as the examiner tells him to stare straight ahead. More to the left. That's it.

The boxy camera/computer disgorges the license bearing my son's photo with "UNDER 18" emblazoned along the side. Under state law, my son the "provisional driver" can only operate a car weighing less than 26,001 pounds, with no more than 14 people in it, between the hours of 5 a.m. and 9 p.m. If he enjoys an unspectacular half a year behind the wheel, he'll then be elevated to the ranks of 24/7 driving privileges.

In Sierra Leone, one tribe ushers in manhood with a ceremony in which a young person's back is slashed in horizontal parallel lines resembling a pattern of teeth marks. This signifies that the boy has been consumed in order to give birth to the man. He emerges from the ceremony with a scarred back and a new social status.

Our American DMV ritual leaves no scars. Instead, it follows an orderly process of indoctrination: the six weeks of driver's ed; the subsequent trials of permit-driving, exposing the young person to the pain and embarrassment of driving with parents seated next to him for a year. Finally one must negotiate the bureaucratic thicket to emerge a licensed driver, a beginner adult.

On the way home, I offer unwanted driving tips. Hey, it's my last shot, I remind him. Avoid the California stop (rolling through a stop sign); slow down along country roads during dear-rutting season (which now lasts 11 months out of the year); let up on the accelerator when you round a corner. (I pray that he hasn't read the chapter in the survival handbook on making a fast 180-degree turn with your car.)

Six years ago, in a school parking lot at the ungodly hour of 5 a.m., I survived another rite of passage. Under the otherwise clear morning sky, a line of slick silver buses created their own whirling ecosystem of fog as they waited to take my son and his fifth grade class to Washington. A half-dozen watchful adults, armed with coffee mugs and clipboards, efficiently corralled children into a line. The billowing exhaust transformed the contours of the 10-year-olds -- hugging sleeping bags, backpacks and pillows (all carefully labeled) -- into a ragged formation that looked like a shifting mountain range.

Acting brave, I kissed my son and watched him disappear into the single-file line, which then evaporated behind the glossy dark windows of the bus. I waved, smiled, jumped up and down to keep warm, joined the other parents in this pre-dawn sendoff. I put on a good show. I'm not sure anyone spotted me for the imposter I truly was. Silently I hoped the bus drivers would have a last-minute change of heart and make a U-turn. I worried that a few hours into the trip my son would realize that I wasn't there. I calculated how long it would take me to drive up I-95 if he were to call collect, homesick.

The DMV afternoon seems headed for an anticlimactic close as gray January afternoons often do. Everyone descends on the house, the refrigerator, the mail, the answering machine. Rooms become noisy with schedules, reasons to go to Wal-Mart, appointments, reasons not to go to Wal-Mart, video requests, prescription refill reminders. In the midst of our end-of-day chaos, my son announces that he'd like to take the car out for awhile, to visit his friend.

I pull myself together enough to stand in the driveway and wave goodbye, an imposter once again, but fooling no one. After several admonitions to be careful -- really, really careful -- I watch him drive down the street too fast. As my heart thumps, I know I'm witness to something hardly measured by a well-executed left turn or understanding the etiquette of Yield. Though framed in steel and featuring FM presets, the American rite of passage is as powerful as any other.

When we talk cars, our vernacular zeros in not on steering or horsepower. We reduce tons of metal, miles of hose, gallons of fluids, and a universe of valves to its most basic component: "wheels." Simply wheels. Wheels mean power, movement, change. Big wheel, wheel and deal, at the wheel. Wheels represent independence. If you have wheels, you're halfway there, no matter where you're going.

I remember the wheels of the Washington-bound buses pulling out of the parking lot that morning, disappearing down Route 86. I remember my heart racing as it does as I watch my 16-year-old drive away. I remember the phone message later that day. "Watch the 6 o'clock news," a parent from the school phone tree urged on our answering machine. Before I could conjure up images of hijacked buses or missing fifth graders, she added, "You'll love it."

The reporter introduced the news story by reminding viewers that the government shutdown (it was 1995) had affected many groups, even children, like a group of fifth graders from North Carolina. The camera panned to my son and his friends marching in front of the White House, holding placards, chanting "Open Our Museums." A metropolitan police officer gently reminded them that they really did need a permit to protest, even if they were only 10 years old. The camera zoomed in on my son, earnest and poised, for a boy-on-the-street interview. He chastised Newt Gingrich and Bill Clinton. Because the politicians wouldn't compromise, he firmly told the viewing nation, "they've disabled our opportunity to visit the Smithsonian." He then slipped back into the line of chanting protesters. A made-for-TV American moment, my son the rabble-rouser, boldly and publicly cutting his teeth on our First Amendment. He could handle Washington without me.

In honor of our newly licensed driver, I cook a celebration dinner, checking the clock more times than I can count. I try to distract myself by recalling the handbook's instructions on how to wrestle an alligator. (Cover its eyes. This causes it to feel sedated and loosen its jaw muscles.) My son has been gone for 30 minutes when the phone rings. Not even attempting nonchalance, I pick up the receiver in the middle of the first ring. My son is calling from his friend's house. "Just checkin' in, Mom. Are you OK?"

By Elizabeth Woodman

Elizabeth Woodman is a book editor who lives in Hillsborough, North Carolina.

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