Our daughter is but a few days away from joining the ranks of legal drivers in the Commonwealth of Virginia.
In preparation (as well as to decrease, however slightly, a father’s angst), I’ve done my best to offer whatever advice and warnings I can. Don’t speed. Don’t text. Don’t pick up hitchhikers. Always do your best to avoid hitting dogs and rabbits and raccoons, but don’t worry about squirrels. We have no deal with the squirrels. You get the idea.
Driving around with her has sharpened my own view of driving, most of which has drifted into the realm of instinct over the years. I’m paying more attention what I’m doing on the road through the filter of “I need to tell the little girl this” or “I need to make the the little girl knows that.” The list has gotten so long as to be somewhat unwieldy. There’s nothing like one of your kids getting a driver’s license to make you realize how dangerous driving can be.
I came across one of those Need To Tell Her This things a few days back along a stretch of road known around here as Brands Flats.
Long straightaways and gentle curves and a 55 mph speed limit which is all but impossible to obey. Coming around one of those curves, I managed to catch a glint of early sun off a windshield hidden among the median’s thick trees. I braked (that instinct thing) and held my breath. Good thing I was doing under sixty, or ol’ Smokey would’ve had me.
What I did next was what I’ve always done, what my daddy taught me to do and what was taught him: I went on around the next curve and flashed my lights at the three vehicles coming the other way.
That’s when things got a little wonky.
The first car was a purple hatchback driven by a young lady who promptly offered me a middle finger.
The country boy in the jacked-up F-150 behind her flashed his lights right back at me.
And the third, an ancient man driving an even more ancient Dodge truck, only gawped in confusion.
I’m not going to sit here and say I hoped each and every one of their names ended up in Smokey’s ticket book.
Don’t mind if it’s implied, though.
Granted, I’ve always been a little behind the times. But when did flashing your lights to let someone know a speed trap is waiting up ahead stop being a thing? Or is it still a thing, and i’d just run upon a few grouchy and dim-witted folks down in Brands Flats?
I figured I’d ask around. Turns out I’m in the minority of people who still do this. The reasons why varied from laziness (“I ain’t got time to go flashing my lights at everybody”) to fear (“You know that’s how you get shot at, right?) to outright orneriness (“I figure if the bastards is speeding, he deserves himself a ticket”).
The younger drivers I asked even turned my question back on me, wanting to know why they should bother flashing their lights at all. Don’t people need consequences for their actions? Don’t speeding tickets help pay for our roads and schools and help that policeman keep his job? Aren’t I in some way circumventing the law by helping those breaking it avoid punishment?
My answer to each was the same, however confusing to them it was. Why was I taught to flash my lights? For the same reason I was taught to pull over for a funeral procession and remove my hat until all those cars went by. The same reason I was taught to get into the left lane when anybody’s coming off an on ramp:
Because that’s what you do.
A simplistic answer, maybe. But also a telling one. I remember a time when That’s What You Do was answer enough. It spoke to something much deeper than the act itself, straight the meaning beneath it. Our society was filled with That’s What You Do’s. Those words helped hold things together.
The sad thing, the terrible thing, is I don’t see much of that anymore. Blame politics or Twitter or the onslaught of a 24/7 news cycle. Blame a culture where people demand they not be defined but go around defining everyone else. Whatever it is, we’re just not getting along. We don’t see others as very much like ourselves, all holding on to the same fears and needs and wants, all getting out of bed each morning for the same reasons—to do our jobs, play our parts, and feed our families. It isn’t We now, only Us and Them.
I think I’m going to start a new list for my daughter. My son, too. A That’s What You Do list. Not just for driving, but for living.
It isn’t a matter of them learning anything, either. All my kids have to do is remember that in the end we’re all in this together for good or ill. We’re to watch out for each other and help each other and be ready to offer a hand when needed.
Forget Conservative or Progressive.
Never mind religious or atheist.