That meant getting a driver’s license. Which meant learning to drive.
Which meant learning to drive the vehicles my parent’s owned.
Dually or Van?
Parked in our driveway was a dual-wheel Clydesdale of a truck that had, in its former life, been a flatbed hay-hauling workhorse. Dad painstakingly and lovingly sculpted that behemoth into a very useful vehicle with a bed that contained the dual wheels within it, not jutting out like most trucks with four back tires. It was brown and big and serious.
Then there was the VW van. Classic. Red, with a skiff of white along the roofline, it was like driving a putt-putt car. Lots of room for all us kids, cold in the winter, probably got great mileage. The heater on it was pretty much useless in the snowy below-zero temperatures we had all winter long, so Dad had installed a small gas heater that vented to the outside, just behind the driver’s seat. Clever, that Dad of mine.
The Sweet Spot
Both vehicles had one thing in common. A stick shift, also known as a manual transmission. That meant understanding the workings of the combustible engine just enough to know when to push in the clutch with my left foot as I eased up on the gas with my right foot, wrangled the long shaft into the mystically correct position for the next gear up or down, and miraculously moved forward. Reverse, ironically, was the easiest gear to find. Finding the sweet spot of the gear I needed was usually an exercise in frustration.
Add in that we lived in the foothills, so that nearly every road was at an incline and learning to drive was adventurous, to say the least.
The Ins and Outs and Ups and Downs
Geared so low, I had to start that truck out out in second gear, even on hills. Memorizing the position of the gears, what pattern they lay in was not easy. Then manipulating that long stick into place to actually be in a gear was another trick. The truck required less finesse than the van. In fact, it almost needed a kick, like a horse to get it to settle into the correct gear. I sat at more than one intersection, engaged in a fight with that stick shift, often nearly in tears.
The van seemed easier to get the stick into place, but required more gas and quicker left foot action to get the clutch to engage. I was more confident driving that van. More certain of being able to get to where I was going without killing the engine, without grinding the gears, without embarrassment. It was a much easier car to drive. Sometimes too easy.
Not long after getting my license I was bringing a couple of “Icee” slushes home from the Seven-eleven when one tipped over on the floor. (No cup holders back then.) I leaned over to pick up the spilled cup, while the van was still in motion. Not a smart move, ever.
When I looked up a mailbox was coming at me. I swerved, just clipping the mailbox pole and ended up, luckily, settling the two-thousand pound hunk of metal I was driving into a bushy fir-tree, thick to the ground with soft branches and needles. I had knocked the mailbox off the pole. I got out, set the miraculously undamaged box on top of the pole, checked for damage to the van, and seeing none, drove home. I was lucky. Never told anyone about that. Until now.
I’m pretty sure the statute of limitations has passed by now
After that I was a fully engaged, eyes-on-the-road-at-all-times driver. Careful, aware of the scary amount of weight and potential destruction I sat perched on.
Since those two vehicles, I haven’t had the chance to drive many other manual transmissions. It’s a skill that’s extremely handy. I can drive either automatic or manual and I’m proud of it. Relatively few people know how to do that anymore.
There’s something very freeing, controlling the rate and timing of the gears shifting in a car you’re driving. It’s a race-car kind of sensation. The sense of control, speed, and power is exhilarating. That car sound little kids make when they play with their toy trucks is the sound of a car shifting gears. RRRRRRRRRR….rrrrrrr….RRRrrrrr. That’s the sound you’ll hear on a race track.
To a sixteen-year-old driver that’s the sound of freedom.