I Teach the Old Man to Drive. He Teaches Me to Swear.

Growing up on the Island in the 1950s, when the year-round population was mighty small, I knew everyone. I also knew 
that my father, Craig Kingsbury of Vineyard Haven, was 
different. The Island had more than its share of oddballs and eccentrics, but Dad, who died August 30, 2002, stood alone.

Our world was peopled with folks named One-Eyed Mike, Speed, Liver Lips, Banana Nose, Three-Fingered John, Dogmeat, Silk Sock Sam, Wimpy, Cocabola, Greasebelly, Floggy, and Steamboat John. We knew a brilliant English teacher – female – who lived, like 
Peggotty’s family, on a beached boat. We knew a man who once ate clams, shells and all, just to prove that he could do it. This impressive pantheon of the sometimes peculiar served as a colorful backdrop to my picaresque pa. He was the “top dog in the cat fight,” as he might have phrased it, and everyone had at least one story to tell about him.
Here’s one of mine:
It was 1964, a year after my father sold his third and last yoke of oxen. Bucky and Lion, strong and gentle, weighed close to half a ton apiece, and could haul just about anything. While they easily managed great loads of manure, seaweed, hay, firewood, and such, they were not suited to the work of a landscape gardener, which is what my father had become.
Dad had always worked hard – as crew on the Papoose or Southern Cross, fishing boats that went out on short trips from Vineyard Haven; slaughtering and butchering at other farms and for Cronig’s Market; building stone walls (he estimated he had built a mile of them in his eighty-nine years); scalloping; farming our thirty acres; hiring on as a day 
laborer; serving as shellfish warden – earning a wage at whatever opportunity presented 
itself that did not involve a dress code.
The small return and capricious nature of earning a living this way convinced him at fifty-two that working at his own full-time landscaping business would be a better idea. Steady pay for steady work. He knew every growing thing on the Island, could build a pond (he built at least four) or stone wall with equal ease, was gifted at propagating rare plants, and was comfortable with the rich. Sensitive to ecological and aesthetic demands, he designed the grounds around the homes of the very wealthy and very famous.
Wait. I get ahead of myself.
The first thing Dad bought was a hardy lawn mower. The next was a tough truck, a secondhand, battered 1952 white Ford that had a temperamental tailgate and a knobless gear shift with too much play. He didn’t seem to notice. Why would he? He had never driven a motor vehicle before, unless a fishing boat counted.
He needed driving lessons. I was his instructor by default. In a sense, we traded. I taught him to drive; he taught me to swear. At nineteen, I was a secret swearer, using profanity out of earshot of anyone who might take me to task about it. I was certain that I knew every swear and curse word ever invented. Spending time with Dad in that truck schooled me different. I had much to learn from the master.
I did know this: I didn’t know enough to teach anyone how to drive. The workings of a standard transmission were beyond me; this was confirmed on the day I took my driving test, which I barely passed. I treated the examiner from the Registry of Motor Vehicles to the ride of his life. My clutch foot shook 
uncontrollably, which made for some unsmooth moments: the poor man probably felt as if he had dismounted from a mechanical bull after the test (he did leap from the car with admirable alacrity for a man of his years, I noticed). My teeth felt loose for days, the bucking was so 
intense. (“Clutch control! Clutch 
control!” the man said, his voice rising in octaves until his commands came in high-pitched screams.) I was given my license on one condition – that I never drive a standard-shift car again. Ever.
I asked my father to let my brother teach him, my sister who was a whiz with standard transmissions, my boyfriend the mechanic.
“You’re the only one with the stomach for this. Besides, the rest of them don’t wake up on a Sunday ’till it’s 
Monday. Get in the truck.” The lessons began on a Sunday morning. Early. We needed the road to ourselves.
He made sure he had his learner’s permit along for the ride, but refused to wear shoes. “What manure-wit made up those rules?” he asked with a sneer. “Why, a man can feel these pedals a lot better with his bare feet than he can in a pair of them fershlugginer Florsheims!” My father seldom wore shoes. I didn’t 
argue. I just pointed out what the little book from the Registry said. “They can take that little book of theirs and stuff it up their benighted bungholes.” So much for the rule book.
I pointed out that the truck had an odd slant to it, as if we had run aground. “T’ain’t a damn thing wrong with it. Motor’s fine,” he said, filling his lower lip with a few generous tablespoons of Copenhagen snuff, his “chewtabacca” (it was a single word the way he said it).
I suggested that the snuff might not be a good idea, reminding him of the time he had spit snuff out of Great-Aunt Ina’s moving car and it had blown back through the open rear window, hitting his mother in the hat. “Hell, it gave the old lady something to talk about besides the seven jeezly warning signs of cancer.” My grandmother had memorized the list, and could recite it on request.
“That’s the clutch. Press it down with your left foot and I’ll show you the gears.”
He turned the key. The truck leaped forward and stalled.
“Turn the key off, Dad! I didn’t say to start the motor yet.”
“Great head of the church, we aren’t going far without the motor on, I know that much, Sis.”
“I just want you to understand the gears is all. You can start the motor later. Honest. Now, don’t do anything until I say so, okay?” I was trying to be nice, but my voice had an edge to it, a familiar shrill quality. I was beginning to sound like my mother. This did not bode well.
We were rolling down the driveway at last. It seemed like an hour later, but was perhaps no more than fifteen minutes. He had almost run us into the duck’s bathtub; luckily the Muscovy population had retreated early on, having been blessed with more brain matter than I thought. The driveway was less than a hundred feet long, and Dad was working the gearshift hard, grinding his way into third. I told him he should be in first gear, since we were moving so slowly.
“Hellfire and horse turds, how fast do you want me to go? This is the driveway. Besides, I want to get the shifting part over with as fast’s I can. It’s a bitch.”
At the end of the driveway – oh, 
horrors – a procession of bicyclists.
“Dad, wait for them to go by.”
It was a long line of cyclists, and he was getting impatient.
“Holy jumped-up Jesus on the cross! Who gave this collection of idiots bikes? Looks to me like they’d be a danger to themselves with jump ropes.”
“They can hear you, Dad. Your window’s open.”
“The goddamned window’d better be open, or this truck’ll look like a spittoon before long.” (Despite his best intentions, all his trucks over the years looked and smelled like spittoons.) “Have they emptied out some booby hatch? Where in pluperfect hell is this parade of demented dungwits coming from?”
As they came abreast of the truck, saw and heard my father, the bikers put on a remarkable burst of speed and sailed down the road, their legs pumping like pistons, looking as possessed as Tour de France competitors.
The last of the cyclists hurried past, and we were on the open road.
Dad refused to drive much faster than a team of oxen would travel. We were moving along at considerably less than twenty miles per hour, but he was in third gear. The motor was sounding funny, but it was hard to hear much over the horns. I looked out the back window and saw what looked like a gangster’s funeral procession. It seemed miles long, but it wasn’t its length that was so impressive. It was the spirited way in which the drivers signed for us to speed up or pull over. A clenched fist was the nicest gesture. Some of these people must have been heading to an early ferry and didn’t want to miss the boat.
I gently suggested that maybe it was time to pick up speed. I did not mention the fuming mob of motorists behind us, their mouths frothing up.
“Don’t want to go too fast. That squirrel looked fresh.” Road kill. The old man was studying highway casualties with the discerning eye of a chef.
“Dad, you aren’t grocery shopping. This is driving school. Let’s speed up.”
He accelerated to twenty miles an hour. A few lifetimes later he made his first real turn. “Hard a-starboard,” he growled and threw himself into pulling the steering wheel to the right, grimacing as if it were a sea scalloper and not a pickup truck he was maneuvering.
We stalled at the bottom of the hill halfway through the turn.
“By the son of the great whore of Babylon, what fornicating spawn of the devil, what fiendish bastard, ever devised this infernal torment?” (He didn’t like the gear shift.) He was learning. So was I.
Some time later we arrived at the State Forest, where I planned to teach him reverse gear and parallel parking in the firebreaks. My patience was about exhausted, and I thought his vocabulary was too. Wrong. He’d been saving up.
“They should be baptized in the water made by a thousand diseased cats!” (Referencing a flaw in the design, and designers, of the turn signal.)
“Will every demon that ever bloated the hides of the Gadarene swine come forth and infest the rotten liver of the soulless bastard who constructed this godforsaken machine!” (A stall.)
“May the wolves of the forest bury, in the foulest pit of Gehenna, the ferret-witted moron who put these pedals so close together!” (When Dad wore shoes, he wore a size thirteen.)
“I curse the descendants of the feckless yahoos who built this truck! Worthless blatherskites, may they ride an assembly line into hell, where the rats from the River Styx will make nests for their young in their hair!” (The windshield wipers had started up unexpectedly.)
“A quart of cat squirt and hot tar –”
“Dad, I think we’re on the runway!”
We had somehow gotten off the firebreak and were, indeed, on the grass that leads up to a runway. I could see the buildings up ahead, the metal lights along the edges of the field wavering in the sun. There was a small plane in the air above us. Its wheels were down.
“Turn around, Dad. The plane wants to land.”
“Pish on him. We were here first.”
“It doesn’t work that way, Dad!” I screeched. Now I really sounded like my mother. The shrillness. The hysteria.
The truck was barely moving, so I didn’t have to tell him to slow down. I bailed out and ran for the trees. He kept going. Would he be the first driver in history to have his learner’s permit revoked by the Federal Aviation Administration? He had earned notoriety back in the 1930s by being the first man ever arrested for driving an ox cart drunk, so he wasn’t shy about breaking new ground.
I watched him bump along the runway. Saw snuff juice and his fist appear at alternating intervals from his window. The fist was directed at the plane buzzing above him. I was sorry to miss what must have been a masterful flow of colorful and creative imprecation. Looking like a large and angry hornet, the plane looped and dove in the air above the truck.
Short of the paved runway, the truck stopped. The old man used his reverse gear, backed up perfectly, turned, and came bumping back. When he approached my tree, I ran for the truck. I jumped in and took the slowest getaway ride in the history of crime.
It was a twenty-minute trip home from the State Forest, which we managed in a little more than an hour (that squirrel was fresh, and we had to stop). No flashing blue lights appeared in the rear-view mirror, and the phone was not ringing when we got home.             “How’d the old man do?” they all wanted to know.
“He’s a natural,” I said.