I don’t know how to drive a stick shift car.
There are people in this world who are utterly appalled by this fact. I’m not sure why. Apparently not knowing how to drive a stick shift car is tantamount to being the sort of person who would use “tantamount” in a conversation.
And yet I seem to be able to transport myself and my family across this great nation of ours without too much psychological harm and most of that attributable to other causes. (You want to take years off your life? Try to get into and out of a traffic circle [excuse me: “rotary”] in Boston sometime.) I live in the midwest, where people think nothing of driving two hours each way to have dinner or go see a movie. I am fully highway-compatible.
Just not in a stick shift.
It’s not like I haven’t tried. Twice in my life, people near and dear to me have vowed that they would teach me this skill – they would take me out on the public streets and erase this shameful gap in my skill set.
The first was my dad. I was in high school at the time, and the rest of my family was going away for a few days. I didn’t want to go – at some point in your life you reach a place where you just want to hang out with your friends, and my parents were smart enough not to fight that. It’s not like I was the sort of kid who would get into much trouble, either, at least not any more trouble than I would have gotten into anyway. So they let me stay home.
This would have been 1983 or 1984, I guess. We had two cars at the time. One was a relatively new automatic transmission car, and that was the one they were going to take on this trip because nobody in their right mind would have taken the other one anywhere out of the zip code. It was a 1973 Chevy Nova, chocolate brown, with a standard transmission that mostly worked as designed if you swore at it long enough.
My dad decided that I would need a car while I was alone and since The Brown Bomb was the one that would stay behind with me, I needed to learn how to drive it.
We lived on a hill. Not a steep hill, mind you, but the nearest flat surface was a good half mile away. Keep that in mind.
So one afternoon, not long before they were headed out, my dad told me to get into the Nova and and we’d go for a drive. I’d drive. I made it all the way to the end of the driveway – a journey of roughly fifteen feet – before stalling. After several further failed attempts, I finally got the car pointed up the street toward the traffic light at the top of the hill, and managed to get it smartly stopped at the red light. The light turned green.
Eventually I got the car out onto the main roads of our suburban neighborhood and we drove around for a good couple of hours. I managed to get the hang of things as long as the car was moving, more or less, but getting from 0mph to 1mph was a trial. At some point my dad must have gotten tired of the grinding noises and the smoke, and – fearing for the future existence of both son and automobile – took over and drove home.
They borrowed another car for their trip and left me the automatic transmission one.
The next person to try to teach me to drive a stick shift was Kim.
We each brought a car into our marriage. Mine was a 1986 K-Car that I had christened “Emilio” because it just looked like an Emilio to me. Hers was a red Pontiac Sunbird with a manual transmission. When we traveled we generally took Emilio because that one I could drive, but there was one trip early on where we took the Sunbird.
This turned out to be a mistake.
Kim was determined that I should learn how to drive that car. We spent a fair amount of time before the trip trying to make that happen, with about as much success as I had enjoyed with The Brown Bomb. But we kept trying.
Things came to a head in Pittsburgh, where we were staying with some friends on our way to Philadelphia. Our friends also lived on a hill, which frankly is just another way of saying that they lived in or near Pittsburgh. Pittsburghers sometimes travel out to Ohio just to see what flat ground looks like. It’s a field trip to them. Sometimes they bring cameras.
That morning Kim told me to get in the car, as I would be driving for a while.
The car absolutely would not start. The engine would not turn over for me, no matter what I did. Kim got into the driver’s seat and it started right up. I got in and – nothing. Repeat. That car knew what was going to happen and it absolutely refused to participate.
Whenever people tell me that machines have no feelings, I think about that car.
Eventually Kim just drove for the rest of the trip. I still can’t drive a stick shift car.