As a young girl, I spent many rides in the passenger seat of the ol’ Ford truck observing my mom or dad shift smoothly through the gears of the manual transmission. They’d occasionally offer an opportunity to shift to the next gear – warning that going over too far or waiting too long could mess up the system.
It wasn’t long before my brothers could drive the truck. In fact, they never really had to be taught how to drive; they were just suddenly flawless at working the clutch and shifting through the gears – no practice required.
The process hasn’t been that slick for me. Several attempts have been made, but I still haven’t mastered it – unless you enjoy abrupt stops and the sound of grinding gears.
Still, once I turned sixteen, I had the desire to purchase a manual transmission car. Sure, I didn’t know how to drive it, but I had heard from others that I’d catch on.
After days of continuously begging, my older brother, Ryan, and my dad agreed to go car shopping.
We picked out a five-speed Cavalier and took it out on a gravel road. My brother pulled over, glanced in the rear-view mirror and asked if I wanted to try.
“Umm… no,” I replied, knowing it probably wasn’t as easy as the family made it look.
“Come on,” my dad said, “it’s not difficult.”
The next ten minutes were spent repeatedly killing the engine. During this time, I was fed constant instruction from the pros:
“Let the clutch out SLOWER this time,” my brother would say, obviously frustrated.
“You’ve GOT to give it a little GAS!” my dad would impatiently instruct.
Finally, after far too many attempts to get the car rolling, we jolted forward and came to a sudden stop.
Wanting to avoid eye contact with both Ryan and Dad, I looked straight ahead and waited for the next instruction.
[Long, silent pause…]
“We’ll try at home in the truck,” Ryan said, climbing out of the car and waiting for me to unbuckle the much-needed seat belt.
As he promised, we took the truck out. Progress was made: I upgraded from a “buck and stall” to a shaking start. Shifting through the gears while already moving was a reminder of why a manual transmission was so desirable. It was just the “starting” rigmarole that got me.
Successfully starting from a complete stop several times in a row, the process seemed to click. Naturally, this meant I had to go back to a car lot for some more shopping.
Unaware of my severe lack of skill, the car salesman in town let me take a car for the evening. Overjoyed, I drove the car to my after school activities. However, once the activities had ended, I returned to a car with a dead battery.
Someone was nice enough to help me jump-start the Beretta, and I was on the road again.I made it exactly one block. Pulling up to a stop sign, the car stalled out, and, given the dead battery, would not start again. Again, another Good Samaritan lent a helping hand. Making another attempt at dashing home, I made it at least two miles.
Then I had to stop…
I lost track of how many people asked me whether I had jumper cables that night. Telling the story sure got old, but at least the guys who helped found humor in the situation. For me, the routine was about as much fun as changing a diaper and then smelling signs of it needing changing two minutes later.
Finally pulling into the driveway that night, the car stalled for the last time. Fuming, I walked up the driveway and stormed into the house. My parents got an earful of the tragic happenings of my evening. Needless to say, I didn’t end up buying the car.
This brings us to last summer. My dad had his 1980 Fiat Spider out of the garage and asked if anyone wanted to head to town. Figuring a little father-daughter time would do us good, I volunteered and took the co-pilot position.
“Don’t you want to drive?” Dad asked.
“Dad – don’t you remember…” I started to respond.
“Come on. Give it a try. I’ll help you out.”
Surprisingly, we were off to a good start. We made it nearly all the way to town without much of a threat made to our lives. I was slowly regaining confidence in my stick-shift driving skills when we approached a busy intersection.
I quickly defaulted to my old ways of jerking my clutch leg up as if I’d just stepped on a tack while applying no gas. Stalled out in the middle of the highway, my dad (bless his heart) didn’t panic. Trust me – I did enough panicking for the both of us.
My confidence shriveled, and I have not attempted it again since.
Needless to say, the path(s) taken to attempt learning the ropes have (literally) been a little rough, but I don’t plan on giving up.
I like to think of it this way – when I finally catch on, I will have had many more years of training than anyone else in my family.
Shootin’ the Wit is a weekly column about everyday life that should never, ever be taken too seriously.