Wednesday, February 1, 2012

A Driving Lesson in Baghdad

May, 2004; the sky a soft blue with no hint of the usual yellow haze from blowing sand.  Sitting in a white, subcompact car under the Swords of Qadisyah in Baghdad...Wait.  Let me start at the true beginning to this story.

1989 or thereabouts.  Despite heavy pressure from my dad, I had been resisting learning how to drive from 16 to the ripe old age of 21.  I felt like the only teenager (and then not a teenager anymore) on the continent who had no interest in getting behind the wheel.  But one day a Hyundai Excel appeared parked along the sidewalk in front of my Little Italy apartment, a gift from dad.  The day had come.  I couldn't avoid it any longer.  I signed up for driving lessons from a chain-smoking 50-something woman who made me hold a super-size 7-Eleven cup in one hand while entering a highway at 60 mph.  I passed my exam the first time around despite mowing down the traffic cones while doing the parallel parking portion of the test.

For as long as I could remember, dad hammered away at us kids about the importance of learning how to drive a manual transmission - because we'd "be able to drive any car in an emergency."  But the thought of paying attention to steering, other drivers and the car's speed along with fooling around with a clutch and a stick-shift filled me with fear (I once drove - wondering why the engine sounded so strained - halfway from Cleveland to Columbus in third gear.)  But I learned and soon it was second nature.  And dad was right (as usual).  Knowing how to drive a stick got me my a good job at a commercial photographer's studio.

Now back to 2004, in Baghdad.  From the front seat of the car, I had a close-up view of the swords.  Impressive and menacing, it feels like inviting combat to simply walk under them.  They are a part of a large complex: a stadium, the sprawling Tomb of the Unknown Soldiers (we called it the Clam Shell) and a long, wide avenue for parading tanks and troops.  The swords, clutched in fists, rise 130 feet into the air.  The arms and hands were supposedly modeled after Saddam's own and the piles of helmets, cracked and battered, that tumble beneath the sabers are allegedly those of dead Iranian soldiers, some 5,000 of them.  Around the swords were acres of dull, hot gray surrounded by concrete barriers and razor wire, baked by the sun.  It was a place as empty and useless as only a site of marches and triumphant gatherings of the recently vanquished could be.  For a few years to come, at least, there would be no more parades.  Grass and weeds had already started breaking through the concrete.

Tomb of the Unknown Soldiers.
We'd chosen that place for its openness and emptiness.  No other cars.  No one was around.  I was in the driver's seat with a young man sitting next to me who knew how to drive, but he did not know how to drive a stick-shift.  Since all of the cars in the fleet of the ministry where I worked were standards, he'd found getting around the city at night (a questionable activity at best) difficult.  Since he was determined to drive alone outside of the Green Zone, it was at least prudent to know how to operate a car with a manual transmission.  Stalling one's car would be unwise.  I started out the lesson by pushing the clutch in, moving the stick into first gear, and then demonstrating how to release the clutch slowly until that magic sensation of resistance is reached and it is time to press the gas pedal - just so - until the car smoothly begins to move.  Words are one thing.  After a few more minutes of instruction, it was time for him to get behind the wheel.  Suddenly, I was nervous.  I felt what millions of parents have felt as they've relinquished the car to their inexperienced teenagers - chilled by that flash of eager cockiness in their eyes as they grab the keys.

He got behind the wheel and I told him to push the clutch in and out a few times, to get the feel of it.  And then he said he was ready.  He pressed in the clutch, moved the stick to first and - we hopped and lurched and stalled a few times and I understood my mother's unconscious reflex of pushing her foot onto the imaginary brake pedal on the passenger's side.  I was doing it myself along with a white-knuckled grip around the strap above the passenger side door.  He made a few loops beneath the swords, stopping now and then to start all over.  He got a little better, but not much.  He was far from ready for the open road, but I could see he'd grown impatient and was ready to go.  We switched seats so that I could drive us back to the parking lot. 

I knew that evening he would test out his new-found skill and again, I felt like a parent, watching her child throwing off the apron strings and heading into the unknown to learn and experience for himself.  He was on his own.  Not long afterwards and only a short time after I'd left Iraq, he was seriously injured in a car.  He wasn't driving and in fact, he was not even involved in a car accident.  It was something much worse.  Nevertheless, I couldn't help but think about our short lesson on that warm, bright day underneath the shining sabers and how that brief lesson might have added detrimentally to his confidence and feeling of security while driving outside of the Green Zone late at night. 


  1. I have no words...I just feel like crying...thanks for sharing this part of you. <3

  2. Wow, what a life you've led. An amazing story. It makes me realize how good it is that we cannot know the future. It is enough that his injury changes your memory of that warm, bright day.

    I, for one, have never gotten good at the manual transmission.

  3. Well, what do you know! You obviously had no trouble driving in the UK when you were here then! First time I ever drove an automatic was when I got to Canada, and then had to remember to drive on the other side of the road at the same time! Expect you had an initial problem with that fact too in the UK!

    Sad story though: wonder what made you bring it up for this post?

    Thanks for your post today on mine! When I get the pattern books, I'll see if they are worth posting! One can never tell, but admit to being very curious!

  4. Wonderful story. My parents bought me an inexpensive standard when I was still in high school and I had no clue how to drive it. I still remember being really upset and frustrated learning from my dad! Ironically I drove standards for the next 20 years until my recent vehicle which is automatic. If I ever need to drive a standard again it should be second nature!

    I am sorry to hear this gentleman passed away. Life is so precious.


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