Tuesday, August 20, 2013

It's Okay, I'm a Professional

Kids: don't try this at home.

I've been driving for a long time.

When I was eight years old, my father would take me to an empty parking lot (remember when stores were closed on Sundays?), sit me on his lap and let me handle the steering wheel while he controlled the accelerator and brake pedals.

As soon as I was old enough to reach the pedals and see over the dash board, I was allowed to drive the car with my father next to me, in the passenger seat.

My father was and remains a driving enthusiast, and in my youth I think he was subtly training me to be a race-car driver. As I became proficient with the car, he would have me drive faster, would teach me to anticipate changes in road conditions and traffic. He taught me how to take the apex of a curve, to brake, release, and accelerate so that little or no momentum was lost, that you could almost slingshot yourself around a corner.

As I got older, he taught me how to drive a manual transmission and perform all of those fast-paced manoeuvres while changing gears.

My father also taught me some tricks, like how to drive in reverse at high speeds, spin the nose around, shift into drive, and continue forward, in the same direction, in one fluid motion.

I've always had good hand-eye coordination, have always possessed quick reflexes. I think that has always come in handy when I've been behind the wheel.

Because my father sells cars for a living, I have had the opportunity to drive countless vehicles: literally, countless. I have no idea how many cars he brought home, whether they were demos from the dealership or cars that came onto the lot as trade-ins, only for him to buy them for himself.

We went through many cars and I was able to drive many, many of them.

And, because I have had so much experience behind the wheel of everything from a small, two-seater sports car to a large moving truck with manual transmission and no synchromesh, I feel confident about my driving skills.

Like, the time when I participated in a high-speed handoff with another car on a Quebec highway.

I used to own a 1985 Pontiac Sunbird, two-door hatchback. It was my first "fun" car, as it had a five-speed manual transmission and beefed-up suspension. It wasn't a particularly powerful car, but it really handled well.

My car had a cigarette lighter that had an image of a cigarette, with smoke pluming upwards. Because I liked to keep my car looking as pristine as possible, the image on the lighter was always positioned so that the smoke travelled upwards.

Except when Lori was in the car with me.

Lori enjoyed twisting the lighter so that the "smoke" fell downwards. She would be stealthy in her action, making her move when I was busy performing a shoulder check or while I was refuelling the car.

But I would always notice and would immediately correct the atrocity. And she would give the knob a twist at her next opportunity.

And so it would go.

One crisp winter weekend, Lori and I joined some friends for a ski weekend at Mont Tremblant, in the Laurentians. A half-dozen or so of us had rented a chalet in Ste-Jovite, a short drive from the slopes, and we each packed up our cars for the three-hour drive.

As we headed out, in a mini convoy, Lori started our trip with a twist of the cigarette lighter, knowing that it would drive me nuts. But what happened shortly after we headed out, one of the drivers indicated that he needed to stop for fuel. We all pulled in to wait.

I took the opportunity to remove the cigarette lighter from my car, and trade it with another driver, Steve, who had no icon on his lighter.

Problem solved. Lori could twist that knob to her heart's content: it made no difference to me.

I was almost willing to leave the lighters swapped forever, but Steve wanted his back at the end of the trip. You see, my lighter was grey with a white illustration; his was a solid black. And, while the black knob looked fine on my car's console, my grey knob stood out when surrounded by the black finish of my friend's dashboard.

He wanted to swap back on the return trip.

As we sped along Highway 50, Steve in the lead, he leaned his arm out of his window and motioned for me to pull up next to him. We were travelling at about 120 kph at the time.

Lori rolled her window down as we came alongside Steve's black Golf GTI.

"Swap," Steve yelled, holding up my lighter.

"Now?" I shouted back. I knew that as soon as we reached Ottawa, Steve would go off in his direction, towards his own home, and we might forget about swapping at a later time. It was best to do it while it was in our minds.

Lori was thinking that Steve would throw the lighter to her, and she would then throw his lighter through his open window, but I told her that that wouldn't work: the lighter would never make it across and would be lost down the highway.

She had to take my lighter from his hand and place his lighter in his hand.

I slowly moved my car toward his, keeping my eyes on the nose of his car. Steve kept his car in a straight line, his arm fully extended. His eyes on the road ahead.

Lori couldn't quite reach Steve's hand, seated in her position, so she removed her seatbelt and leaned partway out the window. In one swift motion, she plucked the lighter from Steve and sat back down.

Effortless.

Next, she took Steve's lighter and leaned out the window. Steve's hand was still outstretched, but this manoeuvre was going to take slightly more time. It is one thing to snatch something from someone's hand; it is something entirely different to put something in someone's hand and ensure they are holding it before you let go.

At 120 kph, Lori stretched between two moving vehicles and touched the lighter to Steve's hand, and held it until he had gripped it. To ensure he had it, Steve turned his head to look at his lighter in his hand.

And that's when his car moved towards mine.

Steve's right hand, which was gripping his steering wheel, moved in the direction toward where his eyes were looking. It wasn't a drastic turn, but it was a turn nonetheless.

But it was okay: I'm a professional.

My father taught me well. He taught me to never panic behind the wheel. He taught me to always anticipate, to think about the "what ifs" of driving.

What if Steve's car didn't stay straight? That thought occurred to me the moment we started putting our plan into motion. Throughout the exchange, my eyes stayed firmly locked on the nose of the GTI. When it moved, I moved.

I didn't panic. I stayed in control. I knew that Steve hadn't made a sharp turn. His car had just moved closer. But there was a real danger: if I had continued in a straight line, our cars would have touched. If I had jerked suddenly, there was the risk that Lori might have fallen out of the car (not a huge risk, as she was mostly inside the car).

I moved my car just as Lori let go of Steve's lighter. Steve corrected himself and moved back into his lane, on his original course. Lori fell back into her seat and quickly buckled up. I reduced my speed and fell back into line, behind Steve's car.

Back in Ottawa, one of our other friends who was in the convoy, who was driving behind Steve and me for the trip, later commented: "Holy shit, that was a ballsy move! Do you know how fast you were going? I thought you guys were going to hit each other. You are quick. What a save."

"It's okay," I said, "I'm a professional."

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