Driving a Car at the Age of Four

I was four years old in 1981, and I loved to drive my parents’ car.

That probably needs a little clarification.

Let’s start with this: My dad, 24 years old, fresh out of Bible school, and operating with the fervor of an early apostle on the road out of Jerusalem, had recently become the pastor at a small church in Laredo. If you don’t know the place, Laredo is in Texas, squarely on the Mexican border. Neither my mom or dad spoke Spanish. I remember mostly dust, and lizards, and the two mobile homes that we lived in: the first felt tiny and blue and hot, and the second was tan, the color of the landscape, a double-wide…in other words, a mansion compared to the first.  

My dad had grown up Beachy Amish, which is one step removed from Amish, and he was 16 when he and all seven of his brothers and sisters found Jesus in a country church, a place called Victory Chapel, and they pretty quickly went from rebellious, stoic, nearly-Amish teenagers to speaking-in-tongues charismatic-Pentecostals, laughing their way into Holy Spirit fits and sprinting up and down the aisles of that new, exciting church. Nothing like the old. My dad’s early life as an almost Amish boy, and his teenage conversion, would leave him skeptical of anything rote for the rest of his life.

That kind of salvation is bound to give you whiplash. My dad decided to become a pastor, went to Missouri for two years of Bible college, and then pretty soon after that took his first pastoring position in the town of Laredo, Texas on the northern bank of the Rio Grande.

Laredo was nothing like Pennsylvania, where my parents had grown up and spent their entire childhood. Laredo was hot, for one. Ungodly hot. And dusty. And the grass there wasn’t soft like it was up north—it was more like tiny shards of cactus beaten into submission by the roasting sun.

While my parents would later go on to have more children, at the time it was me and my sister. She was two and a half years younger than me, with white-blonde hair and green eyes. The Spanish speakers in our church would reach out and touch her hair.

I have a dozen other memories from those Texas years, when we lived in Laredo and, later, Mesquite, but those memories are all somehow sharp, like scenes from a movie. There was the incident of the empty swimming pool. Lizards in the tub. The fire ant escapade. The road runner I saw from Dad’s motorcycle. Impetigo. My sister pooping in the baby pool. The uncooked pasta Christmas tree I made in kindergarten. Football with Dad in the trailer.

But one memory that stands above the rest is the fact that Dad would let me drive, and on a fairly regular basis (or at least that’s how I remember it).

We’d be on the way home from church at night. I was four years old, and this was long before the days of car seats. He’d move me over onto his lap so that I could steer the car. I don’t remember what kind of automobile it was, but I imagine it having one of those huge, bench seats all along the front. I remember a particular stretch of highway, sitting on Dad’s lap, the streetlights swimming by. It all felt new and wide, like the world was opening up.

Dad held his hands up. “Look,” he said. “You’re driving now.”

My parents were both so young at the time, in their early twenties, half the age I am now. They had left everything they had known to lead this tiny little church in a place where most people spoke a different language. They had two young children. I had that energy too, when I was in my twenties, and Maile and I moved to England to help start a business, but now the thought of such an adventure just makes me want to find a comfortable chair and take a nap.

We had an 8-track player in the car that I drove, and I mostly remember Dottie Rambo’s album Down by the Creek Bank.

On nights I didn’t drive, I fell asleep in the back seat, and one parent or another would carry me inside.

Even though my dad was a pastor back then, and his decision to move the family to Laredo was based on a strong belief in God, I don’t remember thinking very much about God when I was four. Which seems peculiar to me now, in mid-life, when much of my mental activity revolves around God, wondering about God’s existence, thinking about how nice it must be in heaven and then two seconds later wondering how it could even be true, praying and then wondering if I’m just talking to myself, thinking about all the stories I learned when I was a child. All that hope. But when I was little, back then, back in the beginning, I don’t remember thinking about God. It was mostly just me, my parents, my sister. That would change though.

Driving that car. I laugh to myself, thinking about that. Dad told me the other day it was a Toyota station wagon.

* * * * *

Not too many nights ago I carried our youngest daughter Poppy up to bed after getting home late. There is a particular weight to a sleeping child, the way they cling to you even in their slumber, the way they nestle their forehead deep into your neck, as if they’re trying to meld into your body.

I laid her down in her bed and she rolled over. I covered her with a blanket. Amazing that I know how to do this, how to carry a sleeping child, how to tuck them in, except it’s not so amazing when I remember that it was done for me, all those long years ago, when we lived in the far-off land of Laredo and I was getting my first experience behind the wheel.

I asked my mom if she had any pictures from those days in Laredo. This is me, almost five.