I will shortly be taking a long flight to visit someone in a land whose very fibre is defined by the motor car. Henry Ford is an icon, for his "everyone should be able to afford a motor car" vision, and transport planners throughout the land have continued to pay homage in their daily working lives. Massive intersections characterise the cityscape, and public transport is a dirty third cousin nobody talks about.
The person I will be visiting is a typical American when it comes to his car. Road trips are routine rather than occasional bonding events, and when listing his top three possessions, his car would be embroiled in a bitter battle against his computers for the blue ribbon.
On our trip, we will indulge in one Ten Hour Round Trip (I have discovered through our discussions, that this is the standard format for describing road trips) and several Two and a Half Hour Round Trips between our lodgings and civilisation. I am sure that he is looking forward to each of these sojourns with much enthusiasm, and I probably should have vocalised my trepidation with him privately before sharing it with the world.
For as long as I can remember, car trips with my father driving have terrified me. There is a family anecdote told only in selected company which tells of my two and a half year old brother going out alone in the car with my father one day. Upon returning home, my brother ran for his tricycle and rode gleefully around the dining room table chanting "Fucking women drivers! Fucking women drivers!" Such colourful speak is kept for masculine ears, I have discovered, and have never been treated to such commentary while out in the car.
The source of my fear as regards my father's driving is twofold: the speed at which we are approaching, and the eventual proximity of, the bumper in front. The jerking gear changes do not help, to be sure, nor the fact that four empty beer cans is not any conceivable reason to hand over the keys. Still, this indoctrination that (male driver) + (iron cage on wheels) = (imminent death) is not the only source of my amaxophobia.
I blame both my parents.
I always saw it as good fortune that my birthday and Christmas are six months apart: the next present-receiving occasion is never too far off. This happy circumstance, combined with my rather swift mastery of the mechanics of iron cages on wheels, came back to bite me on the butt.
I left school at the tender age of seventeen and a half. As the youngest of two children, my parents saw this occasion as signifying their freedom from the shackles of parenthood. "Job well done" they thought, and set about continuing their life adventure. There was one wee glitch: their youngest had still not fled the nest (not such a problem as they were about to flee it themselves), and the nest was in a somewhat isolated coastal town. In short, their youngest still needed fetching and carrying and this was not in line with their half-executed plan to move to another more isolated coastal town on the opposite side of the peninsula.
Bring on Christmas... and somewhat lean pickings under the tree for me. I was not unduly moved by this occurrence. Times were changing: I was now gainfully employed, albeit but two days a week; the folks had been through a few lean years and were now embarking on an new business direction so cash was not plentiful; and of course there was the whole "You are no longer a child. Welcome to a lifetime of functional Christmas presents. Time starts now".
It would be fair to say that I was happy with my lot, until a small yet bulky and slightly heavy package was passed my way. I unwrapped it to discover a slightly rusted set of keys. Tears welled. I was led to the garage, usually home to my mother's car, which now housed a Volkswagen Golf, four years younger than me, and previously belonging to a family friend. Tears overflowed, there is photographic evidence of this, it is not pretty.
Somewhere in my mind I was yet to connect the dots properly. I did not have any friends who had passed their driving test. I was still six months shy of my 18th birthday, the milestone which would enable me to take the test myself. It hadn't yet dawned on me that my parents were giving me not a gift, but a horrible choice of being stranded or indulging in a life of crime for the next six months. They broke my happy spell a few moments later when they ushered me off to the only shop open on Christmas morning, in search of something redundant, like chocolate. I could have walked, but was told to take my new toy for a spin.
I should describe the sleepy seaside town a little better. First of all, the town may be sleepy, but it was situated on the Main Road between Simon's Town and Cape Town. These two "towns" were the first of the Cape Colony, which would eventually become South Africa. Where it passes Glencairn, less than ten miles from Simon's Town, Main Road is still a single lane, but there are few intersections to slow down traffic.
Most significantly, however, motorists on the road have just successfully negotiated Traffic Cop Hell, the previous town where I endured a torturous school life during my formative years, during which my mother was equally tormented by the Gestapo attitude to speed control displayed by the local traffic police. The only people who really travel the Main Road south of Fish Hoek, the offending town, are locals, who know full well that the Simon's Town traffic police (within whose jurisdiction it lies) couldn't give a monkey's about how fast people drive in Glencairn.
All I recall from the trip is fear and relief. Fear before making it, fear precluding any memories of actually making it, and utter relief to be home. This is mostly all I recall of the six months leading up to my 18th birthday, during which I chose to avoid Fish Hoek like the plague both because of the horrible school memories and the utter terror the traffic police conjured up in me. If I somehow managed to go faster than 60kph, I would undoubtedly be stopped, which would reveal my lack of license and indescribable doom would result.
Instead, I cast my lot to mountain passes and motorways, neither the haven of manual speed control systems. Any speeding offences I could possibly manage would be conveyed via the mail to the registered owner of the vehicle, who was thankfully old enough to drive and in possession of a valid license.
My route choice did little to diminish the fear. I landed myself a cruisy second job, almost as cruisy as the first, and equally part-time. Unfortunately it was located three doors down from the school I'd just left, which I'd hated almost as much as the one I was at before. There was no way of avoiding driving past this school, where all the teachers knew me and knew my age.
My irrational fears were the worst though: I was convinced that every queue of traffic meant a roadblock. I was much more frightened of them than I was the time, years later, when I was actually stopped in a roadblock in possession of an illegal substance which the officers were searching my vehicle to detect. Somehow, though, I made it through.
Being finally in possession of my own license and my own vehicle did not ensure my liberation. I had teething problems with driving: watching the road too far ahead and not noticing when the light in front of me changed; not being able to judge when I was at the front of a parking space; little things like that. I could live with those.
The real problem was that I was older than all my friends, so I got my license first. It was suddenly legal for me to relieve their parents of the nasty responsibility of co-piloting their first steps in the iron cage of death. I aged a lot between the midpoints of my seventeenth and eighteenth years.
Leaving South Africa cast me free from the shackles of car-dominated society. In Sydney I spent six happy months only once stepping behind the wheel, when all of my passengers were too drunk to notice that I was sorely out of practise. When I returned to South Africa, it took me as long to brush up on my skills enough that I didn't fear for my life and the lives of those around me every time I turned the ignition. So I headed for London.
Living in London has liberated me from the car 364 days a year. On the 365th, I am generally pursuing the traditional London annual event of moving house. London traffic is not for the feint hearted. Believe me, for two years I was employed in the business of seeing to it that much more traffic than is safe is conveyed through intersections.
There are two types of London driver: the impatient local, and the foreigner who doesn't know where they're going. I fall into the latter category, and am amazed that my attempts at navigating the complex web of three-lane mini-roundabouts and staggered junctions have not led to minced metal.
And so, with all this in mind, I am shortly to set foot onto an aeroplane only to emerge to an impending hour-plus-change car trip with a man whose company I have shared for only three days. My behaviour during this car trip will inevitably impact on how we interact from that point onwards. I am not averse to a little jumping out of the suicide seat into the safer territory aft of the driver, and I've seen the effect such actions can have on a relationship.
I beg you, Kurt, drive slow, and selectively heed what Jim Morrison said.