Driving lesson

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"If you ever see a frog on top of a telephone pole, you know he did not get there by himself." --David 'Doc' Cooke, 'The Mayor' of the Pentagon.


His name was Mister Coggins and he hailed from Tennessee. That's all I know -- that's all I ever WANTED to know. I never learned his first name over the six weeks we spent together, neither in the crude and outdated driving simulators owned by Washington & Lee High School back then, nor in the underpowered Chevrolet Cavalier four-door sedans me and three other unlucky students (so we thought) found ourselves in as he taught us how to drive.


Coggins had a reputation as the toughest, orneriest instructor in W&L's summer driver education program. And it was a well-deserved one, I found. After one afternoon piloting those ugly Cavaliers around the school's parking lot, we hit the streets -- including Interstate 66, which cuts through Arlington County like a knife. You had to get that gasping V4 sedan up to 55 mph by the time you reached the top of that long entrance ramp hill, or he'd give you 'tew points' to add to your score. If you totaled 21 points, you flunked the day's drive -- and had to come back over the weekend.


Flunking a drive with him was easy: Rolling stop for a right turn on red? Automatic 21 points. Did you put on your seatbelt the minute you sat down in the car? If you forgot, automatic 21 -- you don't even get to turn the key in the ignition. The man was merciless and I HATED him for it -- you had to park the non-power steering car all by yourself, know where ALL the controls were (radio buttons included) by touch, follow all posted speed limit and roadway signs to the letter. Can't find the defroster controls while driving? Two or five point fine, depending on how he was feeling.


And that accent -- LORD, how I DETESTED that accent. Can't came out 'Cain't,' what came out 'whut' and you came out 'yew.' "Whut in the HECK were yew THINKIN!!!' Mister Coggins barked at me one day when I failed to notice the speed limit drop from 45 mph to 25 mph. "Cain't yew unnerstand LIL' KIDS may be runnin' around these heah streets??!!"


We envied our peers, whose teachers gently coached them through everything -- even helped them park their cars at the end of the day. We, instead, got the original Tennessee Drill Sergeant and fumed in our misery. Towards the end of our stay under his tutaledge, he turned it up several notches: For example, we had to walk around the car for a quick visual inspection (especially the tires), get in and buckle our seat belts, adjust our mirrors, plus check all blind spots and behind the vehicle BEFORE turning the vehicle on IN THAT ORDER or he'd flunk us -- condemning us to a Saturday spent with HIM and other unfortunates.


Yeah, Mister Coggins was a piece of work.


I just wish I could thank him.


Sure, he rode us hard and snapped at us and made us follow what we THOUGHT were stupid rules ... and then I started driving on my own, and found out the truth. Good driving is all about developing good instincts -- ones that aren't innate, that must be rigorously pounded into one's skull until they become automatic. I can't sit in a car without a seat belt on to this day because I begin to feel physically uncomfortable without it -- like an itch I can't scratch.


Mister Coggins also worked incessently to make sure we checked the side mirrors and rear view every couple of minutes as we drove -- and dinged us with points if we didn't. That taught us to focus on what was going on around the ENTIRE vehicle as it moved, not just what was in front of us. And he made us do all the work -- to learn the hard way, so we could do it on our own when he wouldn't be there. My only regret is that Arlington county went to automatic transmissions for its driver's ed cars the year I joined his class -- and my manual shifting ability to this day stinks as a result. I am sure he would've straightened that out.


Yeah, it's been over 22 years since my last class with Mister Coggins, but his lessons remain firmly ingrained. I guess I am kinda like that frog on the telephone pole, in a way, because I wouldn't be the kind of driver I am today without the help of Mister Coggins. That's fer dang sure.

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