Me in my first handicapped accessible van
After my diving accident, it wasn’t long into my junior year of high school that, other than being in a wheelchair, life began to return back to normal. After a lot of work, and because of some great friends and wonderful family, I was back in the regular flow of my life living just like any other 16-year-old boy.
I was taking a full load at school. I was very socially involved in school. I elected junior class president, was going out on dates and was even back at the dances. I was attending basketball and football games; pretty much living with a full scholastic and social calendar.
One of the great contributors to this return to normalcy was the fact that I could drive. I had finally become licensed to drive with hand controls and my parents had helped me to get a handicap accessible van. I’d gone out and gotten licensed to drive with those hand controls, so I could actually use this van to give me all the freedom it promised. There was only one hitch. I couldn’t make left-hand turns.
I’m not exactly sure how a person gets licensed to drive without being able to make a left-hand turn, but I was 16 and the state was willing to provide me with a license, so I was off.
I did however have enough sense to know that it was going to be tricky only driving with right-hand turns. I would therefore coerce my brothers and sister to go with me to the church parking lot so I could practice doing figure eight filled left-hand turns. I had to take someone with me so that on the way to the church–or in the church’s parking lot, when I couldn’t pull off the left-hand turn, there was someone to throw the wheel keeping me from ending up inside the church while still inside my car.
The idea was that as soon as I knew I wasn’t going to get the wheel all the way over I’d ask for help. This didn’t always work exactly to plan. There were many times when on our way to the empty parking lot I’d realize that I wasn’t going to pull off the turn without enough time for the person with me to do anything about it.
I recall many a time when, with my sister as my copilot I would call out, “Help, help, help!” and she, working as quickly as she could to help get the wheel rotating to the left, would understandably be a little late on the draw. With the wheel not completely turned, we would end up off-roading through a ditch, crossing over someone’s backyard or through a makeshift fence made of stakes and chicken wire.
During those few months while I was learning to make my left hand turns, I needed to find a way to drive safely on my own. In order to do this I would map out every destination so that I could get there making only right-hand turns. In essence, I’d begin at my home and, right turn after right turn going around and circles that continued to grow in size until I reached my final destination. In order for this to work, everything had to come off perfectly. Roadwork and detour signs wouldn’t just slow me down, they would stop me altogether.
Even my best planning didn’t always fix everything. When I drove to high school the only way to get into the parking lot was to make a left hand turn. This meant I had to park along the street across from my school.
If there was a morning when the street was full,I would simply have to use my right hand turns to go around the block again hoping that when I returned a spot would be open. I would do this over and over until someone either moved, a spot freed up, or I ran out of gas and had to park.
In the middle of this adventure my life, there was a buzz beginning at school. The big Christmas formal was coming up, and everyone was waiting to see if they were going, and who they’re going with. It It was a girl ask guy dance and so as young men we waited with anticipation to see if we were going to be lucky enough to be asked.
Then, one day I got picked. My friend Susie Wilcox asked me to be her date. I was so excited.
This was my first formal dance, and this time I could drive. The only other dance I’ve ever attended was before I had my van and I and had to be lifted in and out of the car by my date. This time there was no lifting. I was so happy to be able to drive my date to the dance instead of having to have her throw me in and out of the car.
With anticipation and exhilaration at an all-time high I rushed to rent my tuxedo. I went into the shop knowing exactly the look I wanted. It was the 80’s and, working hard to be hip, I had the clerk fit me for a white tuxedo with a lavender tie and cummerbund (lavender so that my tie and cummerbund would match her dress). I opted against tails as, sitting in my chair, they looked more like mudflaps than tails.
I left the tuxedo shop and went directly to the florist to order the corsage. With tuxedo and corsage taken care of, all I had to do now was wait. It seemed like it took forever for the dance to finally arrive. But, like all things, the waiting eventually ended and it was time for me to go pick up Susie and go to the dance.
Since it was an “girl ask guy” dance, she was in charge of doing all the planning. Susie and her friend Shannon had decided to make it a double date, and together planned where we would eat and what we would do.
This was important information for me to procure. I knew where the dance was, that was public knowledge, so I was able to plan my way there in all right-hand turns. But, if I didn’t know where we were going to eat I wouldn’t have the same lead time to plan my route.
I was nervous to ask as I had decided to keep my “right turn only” information to myself. It didn’t seem very masculine to me at 16 to accept Susie’s invitation only to let her know that my driving wasn’t exactly perfect. I asked where dinner was going to be unsure if I would get response. At my high school it was en vogue to keep these kinds of things a secret or a surprise, so I wasn’t sure she was going to give up the goods at all.
To my joy and happiness she told me where dinner was going to be held. I got out my little map of Boise and planned out our journey. I figured out how to get everybody picked up, off to dinner, away to the dance and finally home never making a left hand turn.
On the night of the dance, I made my way to Susie’s house. I arrived, and her mother came out to get photos just like a good mother should. I presented Susie with her corsage. I opted for a wrist corsage versus one that pinned on. Without the use of my hands having her slide the corsage on her wrist seemed a lot safer than me pinning it on her chest. In fact, had I opted for the pin corsage I probably would’ve had to map out my way to the emergency room with right-hand turns as well.
With everyone in the car, we were off and on our way casually driving to dinner. About 5 miles down the road we came to an overpass that crossed over the interstate. Just as we started down the other side of the overpass Susie turned to me and asked me to get in the left-hand turn lane at the upcoming light. I knew the intersection was there, but since I couldn’t make a left hand turn was planning on going through the light and continuing on down the road.
I told her that she was mistaken as turning left wouldn’t get us to the restaurant where we were to eat dinner. She smiled and told me I was the one who was mistaken. She continued to inform me that original instructions were a ruse to keep me off of our dinners real location. She said it was her “big surprise.” I remember thinking that both the words big and surprise were an understatement, and that her efforts to surprise me had definitely paid off.
I began wrestling with myself wondering what I should do. I didn’t want to tell her I couldn’t make the turn, but I didn’t want to be unsafe either. We finally arrived at the light, and I pulled into the left-hand turn lane. I thought if I was very careful and conscientious then I could pull this left-hand turn off, leaving me free from explaining my unique driving situation, and keep my manhood intact.
The light turned green, and the row of cars I was behind began making their left turn on-ramping to the interstate.
I positioned myself the best I could, and as I entered the intersection the wheel was actually turning to the left. I was sure that my confidence and care had paid off as I watched my hand pulling the wheel to the left. I was paying attention to the laws my instructor had taught me to keep what he taught me to drive, and I was paying attention to the laws of the road I’d learned during my driving test. The only laws I’d forgotten to remember were the laws of physics.
In retrospect, these are laws that really should have been the easiest to remember. I had learned these laws as a little boy.
Growing up in my family, whenever my mom had the five of us in her station wagon we paid special attention to these laws in a little game we used to call “Corners.” Whenever she would make a left-hand turn we would do everything in our power to see if we couldn’t shove whoever was sitting on the far right of the seat into the door paneling. The secret was that we knew, in addition to our own pushing, we had the momentum created in the turn.
This was a secret I forgot that day and halfway through the intersection I began to feel that momentum pulling me to the right.
Now normally, I’d have been wearing my seatbelt. But, when I put my tuxedo on that night it was apparent that either the tuxedo was too tight (or my chest was too large) for me to be able to have all the movement I needed to make right or left hand turns. So, my 16 year old mind hypothesized that I’d be better off without the belt. This too ended up a costly error.
Without the help of my belt, the farther we went into the intersection the more the momentum pulled. This, coupled with my inability to get the steering wheel to turn caused me to fall over the side of my chair and into Susie’s lap.
Instant runway van! Without anyone manning the steering wheel the van crossed the two lanes of traffic going our direction and into the traffic going the opposite direction.
Somehow we made it across all lanes unscathed. Thinking quickly on her feet, Susie threw my body back up into an upright position. As I worked to get my bearings, I looked out the front window and scared to death saw that we were heading straight into a green pole.
Susie grabbed the steering wheel and threw it to the left, turning the van just enough that we cleared the pole without a scratch. I then was able to put my hand on the break and stop us in the middle of a field that was in between the on-ramp and the freeway.
Susie and I looked at each other with a look of shock, fear, disbelief, fright and thankfulness all wrapped up in one. It took everything we had just to try and catch our breath. The couple we were double dating with was sitting in the backseat. when I turned to look at them, they had a completely different reaction. Smiling, laughing and slapping their knees they looked like they just been through a ride at Disneyland with such excitement that you’d think they wanted to do the whole thing over again.
I turned to Susie and said, “I think you should know, I can’t make left-hand turns.” Without saying a word, she returned a look that said, “Oh really!” I told her that it would probably be a good idea if she told me where we were going to dinner so I could map it out in right-hand turns. Since we both felt the evening had plenty of surprise, she agreed and we were off.
The moral to the story, is always, always, Choose the Right.
All kidding aside the thing that got me in so much trouble that night was an unwillingness to do what I knew to be correct and a prideful desire to impress others by doing something I knew in my heart to be wrong.
I had so many opportunities to do the right thing. I could’ve told Susie when she asked me on a date. I could’ve told her when I picked her up. I could’ve told her at the top of the overpass when she told me we were changing the location for dinner.
I could’ve gotten out of the left-hand turn lane, or even asked for a little help. But, I didn’t and my decision to keep my pride and give up what I knew was right could have had very serious consequences.
Every day each of us is put in the same situation. Every day we have countless opportunities to decide if we’ll do what’s wrong or we’ll do what’s right. Knowing what’s wrong and what’s right isn’t the hard part. There’s something inside of each of us that tells us that. We’ve all been in situations where are doing something we shouldn’t, and no matter how hard we try to shut out that voice, we can’t. We know it’s wrong but our pride keeps us moving forward.
If are not careful those times when we “Choose the Wrong”, will come with serious consequences. You may not do yourself bodily injury, but you may end up emotionally injured, or find that you’ve hurt another.
On the other hand, when we “Choose the Right” we keep ourselves safe. No one anywhere, anytime has ever regretted the decision they made, or the way they felt when they did what they knew was right. It may cost us some of our foolish pride, but that’s okay, we’ve all got plenty of that.
Choose the Right. It may not always be the popular thing, and it may not be the easy thing, but it will always be the “right” thing. And everyone knows it’s good to be right.