Saturday, January 20, 2018

In The Clutch


Dad taught me how to drive a stick. Or at least he set out to. I'm not sure the entire learning process was completed on his watch. I got my learner's permit a few minutes after I became old enough to qualify, and learned to drive on his 1968 Volvo. It was his first automatic car, so all I had to do was locate what I needed on the PRNDL and then try to keep everything between the road stripes. Later he picked up an authentic VW camper with a stick shift and decided I should learn to drive that too. It's hard to understand why a man would sign up for such a chore, but he believed strongly that people should be taught things. I don't remember driving it through the city but at some point he headed me to a freeway on-ramp and told me to go go go.

That part was really noisy. There's nothing natural about using a clutch. There's a fine ballet involved between the clutch and the gas pedal and you just have to keep whacketing away at it until they agree to a proper pas de deux. There was a tremendous racket as I chugged down the ramp, the sound of years being ground off my father's life, and finally I staggered into traffic at a lurchy 30mph, lucked into fourth gear as cars careened around me, and everything settled down. I can only imagine that my father thought the freeway was a good place to practice shifting because you only had to do it once. At any rate, this was the new Beltway around Washington, D.C., and I'm not at all sure how many loops I did before Dad came to, but eventually we got back off again. I can't remember how we got home.

The time it all finally clicked was freshman year in college when I got a ride from a friend and I asked if I could try driving the stick. He said okay. There was no good reason for him to do that except he wanted to get into my pants. That transmission squawked holy hell for a few rocky miles and then I kind of got the hang of it, and we negotiated the rest of the deal later.

All of which comes to mind because I recently read that the clutch is one of the things that is likely to disappear altogether in the not too distant future. You mention manual transmission these days and people think it's what happens when you sneeze into your hands. And I've been surprised to learn that most kids nowadays have no idea how to operate a clutch. They don't have to know, of course.

The spiffy new truck.
Unless they want to borrow our truck. We're on our second truck now, a ratty 1986 Ford, and it's popular in our neighborhood because if you want to make a dump run or haul in a couple yards of cow poop you don't want to mess up your own sweet ride. This still seems spiffy enough to us. Our first truck was a heroic and massively ugly 1969 International Harvester with power nothing. It was hell to steer, and it wasn't that easy to shift, either. There was nothing tight about the gearshift. You'd start it in second, unless you were trying to pull a house off its foundation, and by the time you were farting around in the massive neutral territory trying to find fourth, there was always a chance you'd find reverse first. So trepidation was a constant companion. This meant you might veer into the oncoming lane a bit while you were shifting, but it wasn't too dangerous, because anyone seeing this truck headed their way was already as far over as he could get. No one was going to win a jousting match with our Cornbinder.

But now I live in a brave new world in which I must beg store clerks to talk slower, and ask mere children how to operate my whizbangs and disentangle my interwebs. I feel like an aged immigrant fresh off the tuna boat, gaping at skyscrapers in dread. So I'm kind of chuffed about the manual transmission thing. Sure, you can borrow my truck to get that sofa you saw on craigslist. You can drive a stick, right?

Oh, watch that fresh young face crumple in embarrassment!

Aww, that's okay. I'll drive you. Hop in. And I start 'er up, and stomp that clutch, and ease 'er into gear and say Okay, where to, Cupcake?

Oh yes. I'm going to call them Cupcake.

41 comments:

  1. I bought my first car in 1974 and it was an automatic, but a complete piece of junk. Two years later I moved up to a VW bus with a 4 speed. Other than the first one I didn't have an automatic transmission vehicle again until the late 90s when I needed to be pulling a horse trailer. I miss having something more to do than just wiggle my foot and stay between the lines.

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    1. That's where your cell phone comes in handy.

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  2. Hahahaha! Great Saturday starter. I tell those youngsters, "I can't listen as fast as you are talking." But I can still drive a stick.

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    1. "I can't listen as fast as you're talking." Do you ever find yourself in a conversation with your mind a million miles away and no idea what the other person's even talking about? I am lacking focus.

      But I can drive a stick.

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  3. I never learned to drive a stick. My husband insists that they are more "fun" to drive, and has a Miata with a stick. When he got his truck, he had to get an automatic so we could both drive it. I just can't fathom why someone would want to drive something more difficult, when the whole shifting nonsense can be done automatically. This coming from a woman who cans her own vegetables, even though it's easier to buy them, and makes her own yogurt, even though one can buy that, too. *Shakes head* All I can say is that I am made out of contradictions....

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    1. I guess now the automatics shift even more efficiently than a person can, but of course efficiency isn't necessarily what your husband was after when he says it's more FUN to drive a stick.

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  4. Dad insisted that I learn to drive a stick shift, too. And change the oil and pack a wheel bearing and re-build a clutch. And now I can't do any of those things because the cars these days are full of computer thingies.
    And I was having such fun!

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    1. Remember when you used to be able to crawl all the way inside the sucker when you opened the hood? And by "you" I mean you, not me.

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  5. I'm sticking with my stick shift until they pry it from my cold dead hands! Which I suppose won't be all that long - now that I think about it. Anyway - in the meantime - it makes driving fun!

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    1. Not only do I not find driving all that fun--I can see a day coming that the whole steering wheel will need to be pried from my hands. I'm not really all there.

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  6. I was taught manual labor as a child which left me yearning to do things the hard way. My boyfriend taught me to drive an on-the-column stick in his brand new truck. (Read into that whatever you'd like.) The highway we took wasn't free and at the toll plaza, I popped that clutch for a good 5 minutes trying to get into first gear while cars lined up behind us. He would not let me quit, and happily drivers were far more patient back then, so not a soul gave into the urge to lay on their horn for the entire time that truck was jumping along 10 feet at a time. There was something sissy about a stick on the column and when I owned standards, they always had 5 on the floor.

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    1. I don't think I've seen the column shifters since the mid-sixties or so. They're definitely not as sexy.

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    2. Ah, but column shift AND bench seats led to a population increase!

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  7. I think that stick-shifts are still pretty popular in Europe, but I haven't gone there recently enough to speak with any authority.
    I think that the death knell of the stick shift in the US came when someone starting pointing out that new automatic transmissions are now more efficient than manual transmissions. AAaarrgh!

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    1. I guess they are. I only buy a car every thirteen years or so, so I missed my chance at an automatic until 2007, when I bought my little red car. I'm not going back.

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  8. I gave my oldest her first driving lesson when she was 12, in a VW Wesphalia, maybe a '72 on one of the dirt roads between sisters and bend, back in 76. It didn't go well amd is a uneasy subject at thanksgiving dinners.

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  9. Being basically lazy, I drive an automatic. But here's the thing - my left foot'operates' an invisible clutch while my right is ready to do that pas de deux.And it would be better if we all learned to drive stick (manual, they call it here).

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    1. You're just adding needed percussion.

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    2. And don't most of us operate the brake pedal from the passenger seat?

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  10. My son was so inept at learning to drive my '76 Volvo sedan stick shift that I went and converted it to an automatic transmission for him. Then he went out and totaled it 6 months later (nobody was hurt - hey, it was a Volvo). Your post inspired me to make a list of all the cars and trucks I have owned in the past 50 years. 26 vehicles total and each one with great stories to remember. 18 had manual transmissions, although 3 of the last 4 have been automatics. I see a trend. I think it's called "getting old".

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  11. Way back in the dinosaur ages I actually had a few driving lessons and learned to drive a manual, I think it was three lessons and then he moved away with the company he was working for and no one else was available to teach me after that, so mum talked me into a small motorbike because you could learn on your own, which I did. I rode that thing for several years until hubby convinced me to sell it because he needed money, then he got p***ed off when I didn't get enough cash for it. Which is totally irrelevant so I'll stop now.

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    1. Oh no, by all means, carry on! How do you know what your point is going to be until you get there? Half of my blog posts are written that way, and then I just go clip out the irrelevant bits.

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    2. if I hadn't been seven months pregnant I wouldn't have agreed to sell the bike and if I'd known he was desperate for cash to pay off debts that had nothing to do with me, I would still have that bike today.

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  12. Brilliant post! Not so much 'senior moment', more 'senior momentum'.

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  13. I drove stick until my knees started to wear out.

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    1. I wouldn't have thought of it as being all that active, but heck, even three hours driving an automatic on the highway with no cruise control makes my leg ache.

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  14. I was so bad at learning to drive that neither of my parents would teach me. It had something to do with bad depth perception and my lack of skill with a stick shift. My first girlfriend had a beautiful new red Maverick with a stick shift; she taught me the finer points of very useful skills like popping the clutch. Sometimes, though, I killed it. It was the latter that got me into trouble on my first driver's license test. Passed it on the second try. Now my mom asks me to drive her car. Clearly she's forgotten my past. And she has an automatic. My depth perception still sucks.

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    1. I kinda think the thing that really worried our parents about our driving was our lack of Death Perception.

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  15. When I was a kid, my mechanic father always had several old vehicles around, so I learned (around age 8) to drive two standards (what we call them) - a VW bug and a Jeep - around the field next door. Never got out of first, but it gave me the gist of how to do it. Had to sit on a four-inch car parts catalogue to see out the windshield. Good times.

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    1. And then could you reach the pedals? I actually have trouble reaching the pedals on our truck.

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    2. Yes, but only by sitting on the very edge of the seat. Don't do that in your truck! Remember, I was driving in a field, in first gear!

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  16. My first car was a truck with four sticks.

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  17. Oh my, the memories - clutches, learning to drive a stick (parents took shifts; it was just too much tension), and VW camper vans! Read this to my husband and we both laughed in appreciation.

    I grew up in a VW family. Later in life, my husband and I had an off-white, checkered curtain 71 VW camper van that moved with us to Washington, DC in the mid-80s. We quickly learned we were going to die if we continued to putt-putt along at its maximum speed of 50mph. The van was retired (until we moved to slower moving Marietta, OH in the early 90s). So, in the D.C. area we dodged the traffic in on our standard, diesel (Isuzu engine! Chevette but mostly used the bus/metro system. We have a beatup standard truck now that goes from fields to roads to the dump and a new-ish automatic Forester. Good combination it seems. I always contended that shifting gave greater control, required a degree of mindfulness, and was more FUN. Thanks for sharing your memories and triggering mine. Kim in PA

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    1. It's a wonder we didn't run into each other. BAM! I mean, me being around D.C., and my sister went to college in Marietta so we went there too.

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    2. I suspect that would have been a humor-filled pleasure. Kim

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  18. I learned to drive using a stick (my father did not believe in automatic transmissions). We actually had a VW bus very similar to the one in the picture, but it didn't have any of the camping fixings. We just took a seat out & spread out on the floor. That thing was so underpowered that I used to have to take running jumps to get it to go up a hill. I remember one time in particular where I had to try three times - it made it part way up the hill & then stalled out & rolled back down. It was most likely operator error - I was 16 and of course I THOUGHT I knew what I was doing...

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