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My hero, (the other) Chuck Norris

My stepdad is far from an action star, but he came through for me when it counted.

Gracia Lam

The roadside pines blurred as the car sped up, my hands nervously clutching the wheel. It was my first time driving on a highway, and I had unwittingly accelerated to 80 miles per hour. In the passenger seat, my stepfather, Chuck, cleared his throat. "Speed limit's 65," he observed mildly.

Too quickly, I slowed the car, earning an angry honk from the vehicle behind me. "Shoot," I muttered. Was I ever going to get this right?

"Just keep up with the flow of traffic," said my stepfather. "You'll be fine."

That's Chuck: unflappable. More important, he's not a blood relative. It was why I'd enlisted him in this, my third attempt to get a license. At 25, it was now or never. I was leaving for the Peace Corps in three months. I'd moved back home to assemble my gear — and to finally learn to drive.

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My mother and brother had tried to teach me, first in high school, then college. These lessons involved a lot of yelling about my inability to operate a stick shift, a skill my mother considers an essential Yankee virtue, right up there with thrift and self-reliance.

My stepfather doesn't yell. He shares a first and last name with a famous Hollywood action hero, but when faced with tough decisions, Chuck favors Consumer Reports over martial arts. And in just a few lessons, he had managed to demystify the manual transmission for me.

I unclenched my hands from the wheel, grateful for my stepdad's patience. I hadn't always been so appreciative. At 14, I was unimpressed by Mom's new boyfriend. Nine years her senior, Chuck seemed to belong to an older, stodgier generation. She swore he was a romantic, but my siblings and I scoffed at his birthday gift of a cutting board and a set of kitchen chairs. Unlike our mother, we didn't recognize the love behind these practical presents, the gifts of a man who noted what needed replacing and attended to it.

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It didn't occur to us that calm, methodical Chuck was exactly what our excitable mother needed. We accepted him grudgingly, wondering why she'd chosen someone so square. But Chuck, the father of three grown children, was no stranger to snarky teenagers. He never seemed irked by our churlishness or tried to take our father's place. And unlike our father, he stuck around. It was Chuck who gave me a tool kit when I moved into my first Boston apartment, who advised me to open an IRA, and who met me at the bus station when I came home for the holidays.

For weeks that spring, Chuck sat in the passenger seat every day while I practiced driving. It didn't come naturally, but he never scolded me for failing to use the turn signal or stopping abruptly. "You'll remember next time," he'd say gently. And I would.

I passed my driving test the day before I left for Peace Corps training. I wouldn't need a license for the next two years, but thanks to Chuck, I finally felt like a real adult. I was keeping up with the flow of traffic.

Five months later, in Morocco, I was standing in a crowd at the post office, down the street from the cinema, with its revolving selection of karate flicks. As I waited to mail a birthday present to my stepdad, I noticed a young man staring. He elbowed the guy next to him, pointing to the name on my parcel. "Chuck Norris!" he whispered excitedly.

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His friend glanced over, and his eyebrows shot up. They looked at me incredulously. I nodded. Yep, Chuck Norris. Not the hero they were envisioning, perhaps. But mine: the man who taught me to drive.

Kate Haas is a writer in Portland, Oregon. Send comments to connections@globe.com


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