I sat in the driver's seat
of the ambulance, thinking
this was inevitable. Mike the Lieutenant was leaning over from
the passenger side, pointing out the various controls. I knew this
day would come. The ambulances are basically modified Freightliner
trucks, far larger than any vehicle I've ever driven, with rows of buttons
and lights controlling the sirens, lights, and radios. They have an automatic
transmission, which I haven't used in ten years, and a steering wheel
so enormous that it looks like it should be mounted in the pilot house
of a large ship. Since there's no direct rear view, the driver must use
an array of mirrors that sprout off the front end like feelers. This was
my first time in the driver's seat, and I would begin by pulling the unit
out of the garage bay. Camels and eyes of needles came to mind.
I have steadfastly resisted
the rescue squad's expectation that all members eventually move up to
become drivers. In part, this is because I like being in the back of the
ambulance more than I believe I'll enjoy driving it. The opportunity to
care for patients is, after all, why I joined the squad. And there is
another reason, a far more selfish one. In the back of the ambulance,
even the worst, most horrific mistake only has the potential to damage
one person, whereas a twitch behind the wheel of a speeding ambulance
can wipe out a schoolbus full of children. I do not anticipate ever making
such an error, but the numbers alone are ghastly enough that when I think
about driving the unit, I think: eek.
Most folks love driving the
ambulance, and need no incentive to start their training. It's not hard
to understand why. Sit up front just one time as we rocket out to a call,
siren screaming and cars falling to either side in a cascade of taillights;
pull around gridlocked cars into the oncoming lanes of Wisconsin Avenue,
the whirling red lights reflecting off the storefront windows, and you
can feel the lure. In the same way that my uniform makes me momentarily
different from other people, the driver exists outside of the rules while
on a call. The world pauses to let them pass.
Unfortunately, this bright
flashing power and automotivated adrenaline just don't appeal to me like
they should. Nonetheless, I understand that I will become a driver,
because that's what the squad requires me to do. For complicated staffing
reasons, it's even more important that I get driver status now that I'm
spending more time on the heavy rescue trucks. So I finally capitulated
and spent an hour with the Lieutenant going over the ambulance and then
creeping tentatively around the parking lot. Age sixteen all over again.
Afterwards, Mike asked if I wanted to take it out and drive around B-ville
No I thought. I feel
like I'm driving the space shuttle.
"Sure," I said with
feigned enthusiasm, trying to be a good do-bee. Sooner or later I was
going to have to drive the thing in the real world. I was never going
to feel any more ready than that moment, when I was merely frightened.
With Mike providing advice
from the copilot's seat, I crept out of the front entrance of the squad
and headed into the dark streets. There was no traffic, which allowed
me to focus exclusively on avoiding stationary objects. After a while,
I began to feel... not necessarily comfortable, but perhaps less than
"How was that?" Mike
asked as I returned to the squad building.
Maybe more like a greyhound
It only took me three attempts
to back into the ambulance bay.