Like most American teenagers, I couldn’t wait to get my license, especially since I was one of the last of my friends to turn 16. It seemed like it would never happen, that my birthday would never arrive or that I’d never pass the test when taken (an older sibling had taken it three times before passing).
But, finally, my turn had come. I had taken the driver’s course during my sophomore year and that summer, armed with my learner’s permit, I put in countless hours behind the wheel of a vehicle provided by the school with a very patient teacher who somehow didn’t have a problem putting his life in the hands of this nervous teenager. Then again, he also coached wrestling and football and therefore was a little intimidating, which also might explain why all Driver’s Ed teachers are plucked from the gym teacher/sports coach pool.
When I wasn’t with him, I was with my dad learning to drive stick in a 1965 Ford Mustang. It looked kinda like this one below, minus the paint job. Mine was all white with a fire engine red interior.The car was obviously awesome. My dad’s driving lessons weren’t so much. On our first lesson after a few laps around the large, empty parking lot of my high school, he instructed me to head into the heart of our little town. If I were to venture a guess, his logic was that scaring me sh*tless would force me to figure out the gears quickly. But the gears weren’t the hard part; it was the eight pound clutch that my shaky high school legs had a problem with.
Tears were shed (by me). Foul words were exchanged (between us). Many cigarettes were smoked (by him). Failure was not an option — for me or for him. Learning to drive that damn car was the bane of my existence throughout the summer of ’99. Passing my driver’s test three months later and rolling onto school grounds in the Mustang on the first day of my junior year were the rewards.
All of this is a long introduction to the point of my story, which is about the not-so-sexy, not-so-often talked about cousin of the American driver’s license: the American Automobile Association’s (AAA) card. I was awarded with my AAA membership and member’s card when I turned 16 and remained a proud member until I moved to China. For $53.00 a year, I was provided with the comfort of knowing that if I ever broke down, some heavy-set, bearded dude in a too small t-shirt and a big tow truck would come to my rescue in a timely manner and get my car and me to the closest garage.
When you drive an old car, it’s a comfort worth paying for, like the time my tail pipe fell off as I pulled out of the school parking lot, or the other time when I was fifty miles from home and my car inexplicably conked out. Then there were the times when AAA came to the rescue when it wasn’t a car that died, but my brain that had puttered out — nights in my twenties when I was driving a newer but slightly less cooler car and locked my keys in it or drained the battery by leaving the lights on. I thought my Chevy HHR was sweet in the way it resembled the bubbly build of old panel trucks. My friends argued it was just a dorky station wagon. One never tired of singing ZZ Top’s “Sharp Dressed Man” as she slipped into the passenger seat.
There was also that time I accidentally filled my mother’s SUV up with diesel and, upon realizing my mistake, decided to just keep my mouth shut. No one would ever know, I consoled myself as I shakily replaced the nozzle, screwed on the gas cap, slithered into the driver’s seat, and continued chatting to my mom as if nothing were wrong. The ruse lasted about a quarter-mile down the busy stretch of road we were on in beachy Delaware. A few violent shakes and loud CLUNK!THUNK!CLUNCKS! coming from deep beneath its hood sure got Mom’s attention. I almost had — at 25 years young — a heart attack when the car lost all power.
For those incidents and many more that I’m sure I’ve forgotten, I couldn’t imagine driving in the U.S. without the AAA safety net. But did I really need it? Why does America have it? I recently pondered these questions as I sat stranded on a Chinese roadside mere miles from the expat village looking over at my broken-down little scooter.
As I learned, getting rescued in China is pretty stress-free. A call was made to a local repair shop and twenty minutes later the mechanics and “tow truck” arrived. By the time the scooter was loaded, I flagged down a cab and headed home. The guys would’ve come sooner, but it was lunch time. As anyone who lives here knows, the Chinese take their lunch breaks seriously. As most Americans know, you’re lucky if AAA sends out a tow truck in under an hour. I picked up the scooter the next day and had to hide my surprise and delight when I was given the verbal bill: 25 RMB. A whopping $4.00 covered the tow and repair. Sure beats $53 a year!
Next week, we fly to New Zealand where we’ll spend three weeks conspicuously RV’ing our way through its North and South Islands. Our rental comes with roadside assistance courtesy of AA (this AA, not that AA). Let’s hope we won’t have to use it.
Photo credit: http://www.jucy.co.nz/vehicles/jucy-condo.aspx