Monday, May 21, 2012

COLUMN: Stick Shift

There's a lot of things I imagined I'd be when I grew up: writer (check), DJ (check), meteorologist (before I realized math was involved), astronomer (even more math), Supreme Ruler of Earth (give it some time)... but "driving instructor" was never one of 'em.

A very good friend of mine has been on a bit of a self-empowerment crusade this year, and set about completing a "30 by 30" bucket list of sorts - thirty things she wanted to accomplish prior to turning 30 next month. It turns out she did pretty good and was able to cross 29 things off her list at a record pace.

The final item? Learn to drive a car with manual transmission. And with me being the only stick shift owner on her speed dial, I got the call. Who better to teach the fine art of driving than myself? After all, I enjoyed Driver's Ed so much in high school that I took it TWICE.

Why, you might ask? Well, I blame one of two scenarios. Either:

(1) I was a really, really bad driver.


(2) It was a complicated conspiracy theory that was equal parts: (a) the school realizing months into the semester that I was in fact five days by age ineligble to take the course, which resulted in them kicking me out of the class two weeks before the finals and only allowing me to remain AFTER my parents came down to school and raised an unholy hissy fit, and (b) the fact that my teacher was, in fact, a spurned suitor of my mother when they were both in high school (both true.)

Either way, it resulted in a big fat F on my report card, which at the time was a horror of inconsolable proportions, but in fact was the greatest thing that ever happened to me because that lone F stopped me from getting into my first college of choice BUT caused me to instead choose Augustana which brought me to Rock Island and, in a round-about way, into your homes every Sunday. Plus it also caused my mild-mannered mother to, upon finding out my grade, roll down the car window and chuck my driver's ed textbook at my teacher with full force, which might just be the most awesome potential misdemeanor that I've ever seen in my life.

Truth be told, it was all probably because I was a pretty bad driver, and with one good reason:

My folks owned a stick-shift. My dad's a patient guy, but after the fourth or fifth session of me doing my absolute best to grind the gears clean out of the family Nissan, I'm pretty sure I'm the direct reason why the man is bald today. I just absolutely did NOT take to driving a 5-speed. It was enough of a challenge to get my right foot to work the accelerator and brake, so adding a left foot and a clutch to the mix was just plain inconceivable. By the time I'd finally figured out how to pass the class on my second go-around, my folks had given up on the Nissan and bought me a junker -- but a junker with automatic transmission.

Fast forward to 1998. The junker had gone to wood-grained heaven, as had the ATE (All Terrain Escort) that followed it. Pretty much the day that VW announced the New Beetle, I was on the waiting list for a shiny black automatic Wonder Bug. In the meantime, I was relying on my dad's backup car -- a Chevy Blazer from the Mesozoic Era, complete with doors held together by pop rivets, a rockin' 8-track player, and a family of mice that would run across your feet while driving. I was desperate, and when the dealership called to tell me that my black automatic would be months off but a white 5-speed could be mine that day, I perked up.

"One problem," I told my salesman, "I can't drive stick."
"I'll teach you," he promised.

Unbelievably, he was true to his word. That night, we spent hours in the dealership lot while I ground the gears off one of their demo cars until I got it. Later, I took my new Beetle to the parking lot of Black Hawk College and practiced starting and stopping until sunup. That weekend, I took it to Chicago and got caught in rush hour - a "crash course" if there ever was one.

I'm still not the world's best stick shift driver, but I make do. So I figured hey, I can teach a friend, right?

Reality hit as we drove out for Lesson #1. I wanted her to avoid embarassment, so we went FAR out in the country until I found a lonely and blessedly straight gravel road. But as we headed into the great wide open, I realized I had absolutely no clue how to explain what I was doing.

In fact, what WAS I doing? I had no clue HOW to drive stick, I was just DOING it. This would be like trying to teach someone how to breathe. Just then we reached an intersection and I tried to focus on being able to explain how to downshift. Let's see - clutch, shift, blennnd the pedals, clutch, shift, blennnd the pedals, clutch, shift, blennBA-BUMP KRRR THUD!

"This," I explained, "is how easy it is to kill the engine if you're not careful. I did this on purpose to show you what it feels like."

First lesson complete. Better yet, she bought it. I think. Eventually I found the ideal training road, gave a few quick instructions, and we changed seats. I braced myself for the shock of the engine dying while she carefully put the car in gear, gave it some gas, and... took off smoothly like a pro. I had her stop and try it again. Car goes into gear, annnd... another perfect start.

"Okay," I said, "Now try putting it into second gear."

Clutch, shift, annd... perfect into second gear. Then we went back to first, stopped, restarted, stopped again, restarted again. It carried on for a half hour. Not ONCE did she kill the car. In fact, her shifting was smoother than mine. Within minutes, we'd gone from 1st to 5th, gravel to highway, up and down hills, forward and backwards. This can mean only one thing:

I AM A MASTER EDUCATOR. Clearly, my interpersonal communication skills have seamlessly merged with my love of NASCAR, transforming me into an expert in the command of motor vehicles -- and proving once and for all that the '87 Driver's Ed faculty of ol' GHS can pretty much suck it. So if you need someone to expertly teach you how to bond with your car, let me know. My rates are high but clearly worth it. I'll even teach you how to change a tire -- just let me know in advance so I can learn how to do it first.

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