Conquering fear behind the wheel

I’ve always been fascinated by cars and driving. Luckily, I came of age when muscle cars ruled the roads. Back in the early 1970s, our school parking lot was filled with fabulous cars — powerful Ford Mustangs, fast Dodge Chargers and yacht-long Rivieras.

For me, the real thrill was sitting behind a skinny steering wheel, my hand on a rumbling floor stick shift and then gunning a powerful engine.

Because I begged him constantly, my dad taught me how to drive when I was 13. I remember bucking down the street in our old Ford, trying to ease the clutch while praying I wouldn’t hit any of the garbage cans on the road side.

When we’d take long road trips, I sat in the front seat where my dad dispensed tips about how to judge distances, how to keep a steady speed and how to safely pass another vehicle.

On the day I turned 15, the legal age to drive back then, I was the first one in line at the driver’s license bureau and elated when I walked out with my license.

My parents let me have my dad’s beat-up Pontiac Executive, and I drove everywhere, including to school every day. The highlight of my early driving days was when I learned to master the big curve near the governor’s mansion on Interstate 110 without tapping my brakes.

Everything was going well until three friends and I were returning from a high school marching camp at LSU. A week in the Louisiana summer sun had practically melted us, but we’d survived and were glad to be off our feet, heading home in the Pontiac.

I still wasn’t good at reading freeway signs, and instead of taking the exit to north Baton Rouge, I accidentally took the exit for the old Mississippi River Bridge, the one obstacle I said I’d never tackle.

Built in the 1940s, the structure was steep with narrow lanes and no shoulder. For someone who’d never driven over a bridge, the prospect of driving over it was terrifying.

My friends were screaming as we headed for the old bridge, and I broke out in a cold sweat. I gripped the steering wheel, my heart pounding, and we slowly ascended the monster.

I held my breath going up and exhaled at the top. But then I realized I had to come right back over it to get back on the right road. Somehow we managed to do both safely, and I’ve avoided that bridge for years.

I’d sit in bumper-to-bumper traffic for an hour on the new bridge just to avoid having to drive on those narrow lanes high above the Mississippi.

Recently, I needed to drive over the old bridge to go to my sister’s house.

Approaching the bridge, I tried to calm my beating heart by reminding myself that terrifying trip was over 40 years ago, and I’ve driven over hundreds of bridges since then.

Approaching the giant orange monster, my stomach tightened and I gripped the steering wheel.

Just like so many years ago, I held my breath on the way up and breathed a sigh of relief and triumph when I crossed into West Baton Rouge Parish.

Conquering fears isn’t easy. Sometimes all it takes is holding our breath and taking a step. Or, in my case, a trip over the river.

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