I learned to drive before I could see over the wheel. I sat on my father’s lap and he let me steer to begin with and later, let me sit on a cushion and do it all. We started on the little side roads that were often not paved and I still have a real visceral love for a two-rut sand road that I can goose the gas and fishtail down. In the Florida of my growing up days there was the road, which was unpaved, and there was the hard road, which was paved.
Sometimes you would give directions like, go up the road ‘til you get to the hard road and then bear left. Or, turn right on the third road after you pass the hard road. I say that just to show that when a road was paved out in the country, it was a big deal.
My cousin Betty Ann and I practiced our driving in her mother’s driveway. They had a Morris Minor, a little car, and we could push it. So we would put it in neutral, and push it up the hill to the end of the driveway and then one of us would get in and “drive it” back down. I tell you, we were good.
Driving in the woods in sand is a real skill. It is so easy to get stuck and so hard to get out. This was before SUVs and four-wheel drive. You learn to feel through the steering wheel what is happening with each of your tires, to sense if they are grabbing or sliding and how to finesse the situation with a combination of foot on the gas, foot on the brake and delicate steering.
But that’s not where I started, fishtailing and gunning my engine. No, I started out just getting the car from point A to point B while my father or grandfather gave me pointers.
Like so many other things that would be off limits today like handling guns or machetes, driving was something you were expected to learn how to do from an early age. I started shooting about 9 or 10 and had my own machete then to hack through the swamp. Driving was just one more thing to learn.
When I was 12, I was already a pretty good driver but I did get stopped by the highway patrol. I was driving and my father was sitting next to me. We were probably on US 19 or US 301, I forget, they were all small roads then but suddenly there he was in back of us that big single red light on top was whirling around and I think my dad said shit or something like that.
I pulled over and the patrolman came up to the car. My father got out and walked around to meet him. They talked. I sat very still with both hands on the wheel. The patrolman came to my door and asked, “How old are you?” I told him, “12.” He said, “How are your grades, how are you doing in school?” And I said, “I make A’s and B’s.” He talked to my dad some more and came back. “Don’t drive on the hard road,” he said.
My dad pushed me over, took the wheel and said, “Thank you, sir,” and we drove away, no ticket.
Recently I was talking with cousin Betty who said kids were still driving around the sand roads out in the woods like they were some private NASCAR track. And I started to laugh, remembering what me and my friends used to do until she told me about how kids now drive with their lights off. And damned if two of them didn’t come to the same intersection at the same time in the dark and crashed their cars and those beautiful young people were killed.
I think to myself, how does that happen? One moment we humans are young and full of life and pushing the limits and then the stupidest of coincidences suddenly puts two of us at a crossroad in the woods on two sand roads, each of us flying joyfully through the night and then in a loud tearing of metal — nothing like the soft hiss of the sand road — we are gone.
Writer and photographer Sue Harrison is a fifth generation Floridian who left for many years but came back still calling it home.