I was thumbing through the pages of the Road Safety Authority of Ireland magazine as I waited nervously in the tiny waiting room. Suddenly the door in the wall opposite me opened.
“Enter!” an unseen voice bellowed.
I stood, hesitated, and slowly walked through the door to my fate. A tiny bead of sweat began to form just below my hairline at the top of my spine.
A few weeks before I had completed my mandatory twelve Essential Driver Training (EDT) lessons with Sean of Sean’s Perfectly Adequate School of Motoring. Each week I would meet Sean in the car park at Manor West and drive around the streets of Tralee for an hour. The entire time Sean would provide a running commentary on my driving skills or, more often, my abysmal lack of driving skills.
“Jaysus, Jim,” he would shout, “that’s a Class II fault! Three of those on the test and ye’ll have an Automatic Fail!”
“Wait! What did I do?” I’d ask, my voice just this side of a squeak.
“Sure, didn’t you put on your indicator to pull to the curb before you were halfway past the road on the left?”
Now I must say, in defense of Sean’s teaching skills, he had made me the master of the roundabout. I glided smoothly through each of the thousands of roundabouts in Tralee, checking my right side, left side, and center mirrors, indicating right or left as needed, and down-shifting and up-shifting to maintain my appropriate speed all while threading the steering wheel through my hands and never, ever, crossing them over.
But there were other maneuvers I could not master.
“Turn left at the junction.”
I immediately flick my left indicator and begin to brake.
“Class I fault,” Sean says. “Jaysus, Jim, it’s center mirror first, then the indicator, and then the brake. When ye hear my voice look at the mirror.”
“Mirror, indicator, brake,” I mutter. At the next junction, I do it wrong again.
“Jaysus,” Sean sighs.
“Jaysus,” I berate myself. “Mirror, indicator, brake. How hard is it?”
“Would ye pull to the curb here and we’ll just try the three-point turnabout?”
The “three-point turnabout” consists of pulling up to the left-hand curb of a busy road, putting on the right indicator, looking over your shoulders at all of your blind spots and checking each of your mirrors repeatedly, and then steering the car to the right across traffic as far as you can go. You then reverse across the left lane of traffic, twisting in your seat while checking blind spots, repeating this back and forth across traffic until you are going on the opposite direction. You then put on your left indicator and pull to the curb opposite of where you started. All the while traffic backs up in both directions as the other drivers laugh at the omadhaun turning around in the middle of the road.
During this entire maneuver, Sean is shouting “Jaysus, don’t bump the curb! Class III fault! Automatic fail!! Watch the foot path! Check your blind spots”
“Sean,” I say, when I’m safely parked at the curb, “you know I will never do that in real life.”
“But ye will on the real exam, so.”
So it goes for twelve lessons. Now at last I have my EDT Certification from Sean and I can schedule my driver examination.
That’s when I learn that the waiting time for the test is about 22 weeks.
“Sure, just keep pestering them every day. There might be a cancellation,” advises Sean.
And there is. After hounding the schedulers every day for three weeks they finally give in. I’m scheduled the following Tuesday.
On one of our long walks the week before the test, I finally bare my soul to Sara.
“I’m a nervous wreck,” I say. “I’m really worried I might fail the driver exam.”
“Jimmy,” she explains patiently, “I’m sure they won’t fail you. They don’t want to fail an American. It wouldn’t look good. Right, Lucy?”
That evening Sara is looking intently at her iPad.
“Jaysus,” she says. “I’m looking online. Only 62% pass the driver test the first time! Maybe you better schedule an extra lesson with Sean.”
I don’t sleep well that night.
The Monday before my exam Sean and I meet one last time. We traverse roundabouts. We make left and right turns at junctions. We back around corners. And we make the three-point turnabout.
All the while Sean shouts, “Class II fault! Class III fault! Jaysus, automatic fail!”
My confidence is not restored.
The exam is scheduled for 9:30 the next morning. I arrive in Tralee at eight and practice by myself. I ace the roundabouts. I back around corners. I do the turnabout. Mirror, indicator, brake I tell myself. And then I drive to the examiner’s office and walk into the waiting room. The door opens at precisely 9:30.
The examiner sits at his desk. I haven’t seen a haircut that close to the head since my drill sergeant in basic training at Fort Dix, New Jersey in 1971.
“License!” he demands.
I hand over my Learner’s Permit.
“What does this sign mean? What does this hatched line mean? How close can you park to a crosswalk?” The questions come fast and furious. I stutter through the answers. The single bead of sweat on my neck is joined by some friends and begins to gain momentum.
“To the car!” he commands.
We walk out to my car. A small stream is forming between my shoulder blades. We get in the car.
“Turn left out of the car park!”
“Turn right at the next junction!”
My back is wet. Mirror, indicator, brake. Wait two full seconds at the stop sign.
“Pull to the curb after the next junction!”
I wait until I am just past the middle of the intersecting road and then “Mirror, indicator, brake” and glide to the curb.
Right indicator. Check all the blind spots. Mirrors. Pull to the opposite curb. Stop. Check mirrors and blind spots. Reverse. Repeat. Reverse. Repeat. Left indicator. Pull to the curb. Perfect.
“Third exit on the roundabout!”
Mirror. Right indicator. Brake. Second gear. Right mirror. Just past the second exit switch to left indicator. Left mirror. Exit. Third gear. Perfect.
This goes on for forty minutes. The flood on my back starts to recede. The examiner begins to chat. We make small talk.
“Just don’t crash,” I think.
I pull back into the office car park.
“Any tips you can give me?” I ask.
“Ah sure, ye’re grand. Come get your license.”
“Thank you, Jaysus! …And Sean,” I whisper.