My Mean Dad: The Fantastic Driving Instructor

Student driver adjusts rear-view mirror

My father was a cruel, unkind man. I say “was,” because I haven’t had anything to do with him for decades, but the last I heard, he’s still alive. Of us four brothers, one after another decided “screw this guy,” and, each time, the next youngest would declare, “You monster! How can you be so awful to Dad!” Okay, your turn! The youngest brother tried hardest, and ended up changing his last name in disgust.

There were, needless to say, some mental illness issues with Dad, and that’s putting it quite mildly. Most of that stuff he had no control over. However, many people with mental illness struggles aren’t mean to their kids. I think it’s why all of us brothers tried maintaining a grownup relationship with him — to try and figure out what parts of his cruelty were due to illness, and what parts were “he’s just an asshole.” This turns out to be an unsolvable mystery.

A Horrible Teacher at Anything Else

Dad tried to get me into golf — it was sort of his dream as a kid to be a professional golfer. But with me, it just didn’t take. Believe me, I tried my prepubescent ass off. I read golf magazines, I practiced hitting little golf whiffle balls in the backyard. I was just annoyed by real golf. It’s too frustrating. The thing doesn’t go where you want it to. And if I want to walk around for hours chasing some shit in the trees, well, there’s free nature trails for that. (I was reasonably decent at putting.) Dad was hugely critical of every bad swing.

Even baseball “catch-and-throw with the old man” was terrible! If I made a bad throw he couldn’t reach, he’d intone horribly, “Go pick it up.” (I should note, here, that he never hit us kids, so far as I know. His used more of a menacing, give and withdraw approval approach.) And forget about underhand-toss batting practice. Miss a pitch, get yelled at. Fun! At least pros get paid for this.

So I Got A Car

At age 13, 14, or so, I got whomped on my bicycle by a car running a red light. I saw pictures later; the car was absolutely thrashed. Hood, windshield, roof, totally mangled. And I didn’t have one bone broken!

I got some pretty severe road rash, though. That’s when you skid on pavement for 20 feet. That shit’ll rip the hell outta your skin. It’s not life-threatening, but they do have to clean the asphalt bits out of your skin at the hospital. They use, essentially, a surgical Brillo pad. Does that hurt on bleeding, grated-off skin? Take. A. Guess. (Oh, I do have one asphalt bit still embedded in that leg. It’s not coming out until the worms get to it.)

I screamed my lungs out. Yet, they have to do it. At one point, they brought in a doctor from another part of the hospital. He yelled, “I’ve got a guy who got stabbed! You need to quiet down!” So I did. Pretty awful, though.

After this, the car driver’s insurance company sent a person over to our house to offer a “pain and suffering” settlement. And, being a teenage idiot, I took the first offer: $1300 or so. Now, of course, I’d say “add some zeroes.” But I didn’t know.

However, it was enough money for me to, a few years later, buy a car! What kid doesn’t want a car! Okay, they can smash you on your bike, but cars are awesome!

The car was a broke-ass old VW Bug; bright orange, with a heating system that had essentially one setting, “on.” It took forever to warm up inside, then got so hot you would have to strategically crack open the windows. Yet, it still worked. Good enough for me.

VW Bug
Some random bright orange VW bug

Dad the Great Driving Teacher

Then, though, having bought a car, I needed to learn how to drive it. Mom, who was kind, had never driven a car. (Dad knew that allowing her to get a license would mean she could get a job and flee the marriage, which is precisely what happened later.) So it’d have to be Dad. I figured it would be hell.

Surprise! He was an outstanding driving instructor. The Bug was a stick shift, which is a really tricky thing to learn. At the start, I couldn’t even get it into first gear. (Cars have gears; computer brains mostly shift them now; before that, shifting was a challenge.) Dad was, astonishingly, super-patient. “You’re getting better! Just a little bit less on the clutch, a little bit more on the gas, you can do it.”

Blew my mind. Where’d this guy been my entire damn life?

Years later, when my youngest brother was dealing with Dad, well, he didn’t have a license. And I told him, “Get Dad to teach you. He’s a monster at most things but he’s a really nice driving instructor.” The brother wouldn’t go there. I don’t fault him for one second. He’s 34 now, and I think he’s still never gotten a driver’s license.

A while back, me and Mrs James were shopping for a used car, and the dealer was trying to pawn off some really terrible lemons. As dealers will do. I pointed at one and said, “what’s the problem with this thing? For the years and mileage, it’s hugely underpriced.”

The dealer replied, “Oh, it’s a stick. And nobody knows how to drive a stick anymore.” Well, I do! Thanks, Dad!

Mt Hood
Mt Hood

Stick Shift On A Cliff

The minute after I passed my driver’s license test at 16, I asked Dad, “Can I drive the car?” His response was “You’re licensed to do so, of course you can.”

We took the whole family in that little Bug to various Oregon scenic places. Ocean, desert, whole bit. Also Mount Hood.

If you don’t know Mount Hood, it’s a quite pretty mountain maybe 75 minutes outside Portland. It has an old, elegant ski lodge, built with New Deal funding way back when. If you’ve seen the movie The Shining, you’ve seen that lodge and mountain. (The story’s placed in Colorado, and the interiors are a studio set wherever, but the lodge and mountain are Oregon.)

Well, the parking lot (back then, at least) had spots with no barrier right on a cliff. Not much of a cliff, 20 feet or so, and more of a very steep hill. (This is what it looks like.) Still, don’t want to drop a car over it with your parents and kid brothers inside.

And I thoroughly panicked. I couldn’t get the damn Bug into reverse. Every time I thought I had, it was actually in neutral. So I’d ease off the brake and clutch, push on the gas pedal, and the car would just inch forward towards the cliff. Slam the brake, try it again. A few more inches in the wrong direction.

At this point, Mom and my brothers were screaming bloody murder. But Dad? Completely calm. “You can do it, son.” And, right! We did not drive off a cliff at a Stephen King movie location! Yaaay!

Dad Stole My Car

Mom booted Dad’s butt to the pavement when I was 17. Happiest moment in my life to that point. I was walking home from the school bus stop, saw the reflections of police lights, and fantasized, “Oh, wow! What if that was Dad?!” Just a dream. Then, it was real.

He was handcuffed and being put in the cop car. Screaming, “You can’t take my first-born son away from me!” Maybe not, asshole; but they can sure take you away from me.

Anyhoo, that VW Bug was bought in Dad’s name, to lower insurance costs. And, once the whole divorce mess settled out, he grabbed it. Nothing I could do.

I was ticked off at this for a few years. “Dude, that’s my car! I didn’t see you in no hospital room getting ripped-up skin scoured with a Brillo pad!” But, after a while, I let it slide. The guy has enough problems. And at least he was no longer one of mine.

Dad’s Explosive Visitation

One time, though, when I was home from college, he drove the Bug over. (Mom was very careful about visitation; it was only allowed when she could keep an eye on things.) Dad came in and started chatting with my kid brothers. The Bug starts beeping its horn. I turn to Dad, ask him, “Since when has this car started spontaneously honking its horn? Did you leave the keys in the steering wheel?”

He hadn’t. It was just a terrible electrical glitch with the car battery.[1] This led to the whole car catching on fire, almost immediately afterward. There was a huge ball of flame — the entire vehicle burned hard. (No, metal won’t burn at those temperatures, but seats and carpets sure will!)

Firefighters came and immediately threw flame retardant on it. This impressed me, as I wouldn’t have gone near the thing. Believe me, the entire apartment complex emptied out to watch that fire. It was the best show since Mount St Helens exploded.

Well, that’s good ol’ Dad. Car thief and car blower-upper. Terrible sports teacher. Excellent driving teacher.

Last I heard, he was in a Southern Oregon hemp commune signing over Post Office retirement checks to super-liberals so he can tell their kids how Satanic super-liberals are. He’s utterly insensible, so those kids have no clue what he’s rambling about. And this is, certainly, for the best.


[1] Editor’s note: this is one of the many struggles in the excellent film, Little Miss Sunshine.

First image cropped from Student Driver Adjusts Rear-View Mirror by State Farm under CC BY 2.0. Second image cropped from VW Käfer-Käfer 1302 with 1303 backlights-orange-3 by Markus Marzi under CC BY-SA 2.0. Third image cropped from Mt Hood by ArtTower under Pixabay license.

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About James Fillmore

I am a spy for MI-6 who recklessly sleeps with innumerable gorgeous partners, drinks like a madman, ruins expensive company equipment, and I get away with all of this because I save the world on a consistent basis. As my cover, I am a poor person living in Minnesota.

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