I’m heading home to spend time with family in Pennsylvania, taking a couple of days to get there, enjoying the ride and the sights along the way. In Maryland, I visited the graves of Edgar Allan Poe in Baltimore and F. Scott Fitzgerald in Rockville. I nearly hit a deer just outside of Winchester, Virginia, and now I’m meandering through West Virginia, heading north for Pennsylvania. I’m at the end of my second day on the road and it’s gotten too cold for riding but I’ll tough it out until the sun goes down. Then, I’ll have to get a room for the night.
I’m sitting at a red light—the only red light—in a small town in West Virginia. I often think of my Aunt Jan when I ride through this part of the state as she lived most of her adult life here and spoke with a southern twang that we kids always got a kick out of. She passed away about a year and a half ago, but memories of her make me smile.
The place I grew up in Pennsylvania was also a one-traffic-light town and my mind goes back to a night I was sitting at that single light as a fifteen-year-old boy with a learner’s permit. My mom was in the passenger’s seat and Aunt Jan was in the back. It is hard to look cool cruising with your mother and your aunt, but they had errands to run, offered to let me drive, and I needed all the practice I could get.
We had a Dodge Charger. It was a stick shift and I loved driving it, but I still had problems taking off. We came to that stoplight and damn if it didn’t turn red just as I got to it. To make matters worse, there was a group of tough guys—all older than me—hanging out at the corner gas station. I was pretending not to notice them and silently praying I could take off without any problems.
The light turned green and I stalled right in the middle of the intersection. As if on cue, the guys at the gas station started cheering and clapping and laughing. My face was on fire. In a panic, I started the car and stalled again, which really got them going. This was a fifteen-year-old boy’s nightmare. Before the light turned red again, I managed to jerk and grind my way out of the interaction and down Main Street. As soon as we got out of town, I pulled off. “Forget it,” I said, dramatically jumping out of the vehicle. “I hate this car. I’ll never be able to drive it.”
Once my mom and Jan realized that I was not getting behind the wheel again, Jan took over and I climbed in back, sulking, hating myself. Of course, Mom and Jan told me I was being ridiculous and the only way to learn a thing was to do it and failing at it was just part of the process. But that was all lost on me. I wasn’t listening. I was convinced I was a loser, my life sucked, and I would forever walk under a cloud of shame.
By the time the errands were completed and we got back to town, it was dark. “Take the side streets,” I said from the backseat. Jan ignored me. She drove right down Main Street and stopped at the red light again. The guys were still there and started hooting and hollering as soon as they saw the Charger. “Encore!” one of them shouted. “Encore!”
If I could have crawled under the seat and died, I would have. Jan egged them on by revving the engine.
“Come on, Aunt Jan!” I pleaded. “Don’t!”
She looked at me in the rearview mirror, all smiles, and said in her southern drawl, “Honey, them old boys can’t see in here at night. They don’t know it’s your fat, old Aunt Jan behind the wheel. They think it’s you.”
The light turned green and Jan peeled out, squealing the tires the whole way through the intersection. That was the very last thing those guys were expecting. They all stood there, stupefied, mouths agape, as we roared out of town.
Jan and Mom were laughing and doing a little hooting and hollering themselves at that point and I couldn’t help joining in. When we were out of town, Jan pulled over and still giggling said to me, “Next time, it’s gonna be you behind the wheel. So get your little ass up here and learn how to drive this thing!”
That’s been a long time ago, but every now and then, when I come to a lone stoplight in my travels like I did today, I remember my Aunt Jan, grin from ear to ear, and…lay a little rubber.