Driving Lessons, 1960

“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.

1952 Chevy. I know Dad still had this car in 1960, but can’t remember whether it was the one I learned on. (Gloria and me at Grandma Wilson’s in Guthrie Center, 1950s.)

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.

At the right shows the intersection along Creamery Road in Madison County, Iowa, where Mom and I turned around and headed back to the house. You can see the area between the house and barn where I practiced those early gear shiftings.

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.

columnshift (2)
Yup, this is the way it worked. The foot feed is to the right of the clutch.

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.

Dad bought this car, in this color, which he came home and told us was green. I loved the 1957 Chevy, but this is a 1958. I don’t remember what year he got it, but it may have been the one I learned to shift gears in.

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.

1969 (4)
Dad in 1969, with Mom’s Formica table large enough to have “men for dinner” with enough room for sweaty farmers to enjoy lunch.

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, having learned Dad’s nuances of negotiating rural roads.

And I keep in mind what would become Dad’s most frequent final blessing: “Just be awful, awful careful.”


  1. I love these memories, I too had to learn with a clutch – oh goodness, round and round in school parking lot on a Saturday. great post, loved the pictures too

  2. Oh my goodness, funny and brings backs memories of terror that I wound never learn how to drive a car.

  3. Oh my goodness, funny and brings backs memories of terror that I would never learn how to drive a car.

  4. Funny how we learn how to drive (at least I did) before we learn rules of the road. I learned in the suburbs. Busy suburbs. No time to panic. Much later on, my son asked if I wanted to try a stick shift. I told him I didn’t want to put others at risk.

    • We made sure our son learned a stick shift. Many times after church we’d drive on up to Camp Dodge, and he’d practice there. Lots of starting and stopping and not much traffic. Then there was a little hill in our neighborhood–with a stop sign. Went round and round and round. ha

  5. I thoroughly enjoyed this story of your learning how to drive! Boy, did it bring back memories. My dad was of the same opinion as yours about the superiority of the standard transmission over the automatic. Our car was a Ford Falcon with the same stick shift on the column as in your diagram. I remember my mother taking me out to the country to learn the stick shift, and we had the misfortune of encountering a stop sign on a hill, meaning I kept rolling backwards when I tried to let out the clutch and take my foot off the brake. I ended up gunning the engine, careening across the road, and getting stopped by the police. I don’t remember my mother taking me out to practice after that.

    • Yes, stop sign on a hill! There’s one here in Des Moines on Grand Avenue–I still think if it every time I go past there driving an automatic. We’d switch drivers at a skating rink on the outskirts until I got brave enough to tackle it. People behind you wouldn’t know you just might roll back into them before making a lurch forward!

  6. I love you pieces, Joy, and I especially love the picture of Uncle Warren sitting at the table.

    • Thanks, Judy! Now I’m trying to remember the cars we had growing up. Gloria told me which was the first with air conditioning–Guy and I were in Colorado then. It may have also been the first automatic. 1972!

  7. I was born and raised in Saint Paul but I learned to use a manual transmission driving a Farmal H. My first attempt stood the tractor up on the drawbar. 🙁

    • Wow. I never saw a Farmall in the position! Our son lives in Saint Paul–with our only grandbaby, nearly 2 years old. We had a stick-shift Jetta when he learned to drive. We’d to go Camp Dodge on the weekend–lots of stop signs and not much traffic! He actually took that Jetta to the Twin Cities for his first real job–until gave up. (I think that Jetta was my favorite car to drive!)

  8. I’m glad you found my blog…now I have found yours! Looks like lots of reading ahead for me. We had to learn a stick shift in drivers ed. Same experience even though I had driven tractors with a clutch for years, each one is different. My daughter ran into our barn while learning to drive a stick in 1988! lol

    • We had a stick shift Jetta when our son learned–1980s. No longer on the farm, so we’d go up to Camp Dodge on the weekend and let him practice there. I used to enjoy driving them.

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