“Shove the clutch in again. A little gas. Let the clutch out slower. Uh, watch where you’re going! Don’t turn so sharp! Okay, try again. Go slow. Don’t get so close the ditch!”
Learning to drive is a teenager’s rite of passage–made more challenging when it includes a stick shift.
From the farm driveway along Creamery Road, south of Dexter, Iowa, Mom and I get as far as the corner. I could fling an ear of corn that far. I’m not going to learn to shift gears this morning. Mom and I are locked in mutual exasperation.
Because of summer driver’s education at Earlham High School, I know how to drive, negotiate traffic, even parallel park. In fact, I’ve passed my driver’s license test. But the driver’s ed car was an automatic shift, and my dad doesn’t believe in them. They’re not as reliable, he says, and they’re more expensive to fix.
Mom heads to the house.
I feel sorry for myself. All the other girls are driving their family cars. All my cousins’ dads have automatics. We still drive a Chevy with the gear shirt on the steering column, and I can’t get the hang of the thing.
It means you have to do things with both feet, both hands, both eyes, and think and do–all at the same time.
Gloria, fourteen, gets in the front seat with me. I start the car. With my left foot holding in the clutch, my right hand pulls the shift low, forward, and I aim the Chevy toward the barn.
Straining forward in the sea, I slowly let out the clutch. The car begins to roll. Now to coordinate the clutch foot with the right hand, trying to “feel” where this elusive second gear is, right foot on the accelerator propelling the car forward, left hand steering, eyes glancing down at the gearshift, directing the car between the granary and Mom’s sweet corn patch.
Lever up, clutch out. The engine revs but nothing happens. This must be neutral. I push in the clutch again, the car still rolling just a little, nudge the gas pedal, and shove the shift lever farther up.
Jerk, jerk, jerk.
But we’re moving forward–not just rolling–covering ground. Gloria bounces on the seat, no seat belts in those days, and lets out a whoop.
It feels out of control but this must be second gear. More gas, the jerking quits, and we are powered over the driveway ruts toward the barnyard. By the time I stop the car we are both bouncing and whooping.
Okay, first gear again. I turn the steering wheel to head back toward the white American Foursquare farmhouse, goad the foot feed, begin to roll, faster, engage the clutch, glance down to urge the gear shift into second, let up clutch.
“I got it!”
Clutch in, pull shift straight down into third (third is easy), clutch up–jerk, jerk, jerk–engine sputters and quits.
But I’ve found second gear twice now, know how it “feels.” I know I can do this.
Dad, in his overalls, learns about my experiment at dinner, and says he’ll work with me after supper. I spend the afternoon revving and clutching and shifting, between the house and the barn, getting the feel of that slippery second gear, the complicated coordination, grinding the gears every so often. I concentrate on focusing through the windshield while my hand gropes for the lever and locates the next gear.
After supper Dad gets in on the passenger side and directs me north on Old Creamery Road, toward the town of Dexter. Right away we pass the corner where Mom and I turned back earlier in the day. I coerce the gearshift into second okay, but the Chevy begins to buck in third. “Just rev it up a little more in second.” Dad is calm.
“You have to go slow on gravel,” he warns, “because it could slide you into a ditch. Always keep your speed and car under control.”
“You’re doing fine. Let’s go up to the corner and turn west–won’t be any cars to meet. When you get to the corner, put the clutch in as you use the brake pedal. Don’t shift down until you’ve gone through the corner.”
Shift down? More coordination–shifting and turning and clutching and braking, all at the same time!
Dad, who taught cadets to fly during WWII, anticipates when something new will occur and prepares me. His calm instructions give me confidence. Dad warns again about speed. The tires are raising dust at 20 miles per hour. The sign says 65/55 night. I can’t imagine ever being that brave.
To Dad’s reasoned running commentary, I back out of driveways, obey stop signs, give a two-fingered “farmer wave” to an on-coming pickup. “Always wave. Might be a neighbor.”
Tired but elated, I drive slowly but smoothly into our own driveway. Soon I too am wheeling all over the county.
And I keep in mind what would become Dad’s most frequent final blessing: “Just be awful, awful careful.”