My most formal driver training occurred when I was ten years old. My teacher? Mitch, my thirteen-year-old brother. Our vehicle of choice? Dad’s 1949 Ford pickup truck, painted red and blue for the colors of his Chevron gas station. The scene of the crime? Our driveway, which was no more than forty feet long.
For this first lesson, the truck is sitting at the head of the driveway, right on the edge of the street, where Mitch has stopped it for me. The engine is purring as smoothly as any flathead Ford has ever idled. I’d supervised its rebuilding just months before, cleaning parts to prepare for my dad to reassemble.
I’m sitting on the front edge of this old pickup’s big bench seat, feeling the rough edges of its cracked, worn black leather prickling through my jeans. I can barely see under the top of the huge three-spoke steering wheel and over the dashboard. Looking around, I can see the sky well enough, but not much of the driveway in front of me. The truck’s floor is bare metal, shiny and worn just below the gas, brake, and clutch pedals, but still its original black color elsewhere.
I place my right foot on the gas pedal, which is just a thin, shiny metal rod, as the actual pedal broke off long ago and my dad never bothered to replace it (something about a mechanic’s car always being the last to get fixed). Meanwhile, my left foot is pushing with all its might down on the clutch pedal. I’m aware that my skinny ten-year-old leg is helplessly quivering, either from the effort to depress the clutch, my mounting nervousness, or both.
I grip the hard, thin, black plastic of the steering wheel, which is about the size of a hula-hoop. My trusty teacher Mitch is sitting next to me on the seat. The transmission is in first gear, its long handle protruding from the floor, pushed all the way forward and to the left.
An experienced driver at the ripe old age of thirteen (I’ve never asked how he learned to drive, let alone become an “instructor”), Mitch provides the only instructions he knows: “Push down on the gas pedal and take your foot off the clutch.”
The next thing I know we’re heading straight for the shrubs at the end of the driveway…I’d taken my foot off the clutch, all right! Straight off, with the leisurely speed of a jack-in-the-box’s head tasting freedom. It seems Mitch had neglected to suggest taking my foot off the clutch slowly. And I didn’t ask.
There is something good about instincts: They work instantly. My instinct was to take my foot off the gas pedal and step on the brake. Hard. That just may have come from years of intensely studying drivers. We lurched to a stop with the bobbing nose of the truck just a foot or two into the shrubs.
For lesson number two, I learned how to restart the engine, shift into reverse gear, and s-l-o-w-l-y release the clutch pedal, backing up the driveway to the edge of the street. Lesson number three had us heading toward the shrubs again. Lesson number four involved my driving the truck back and forth over that forty-foot driveway for what could have been hours but seemed like only minutes to me. I could have kept doing it forever. We covered lessons one through ninety-eight that day, and I did get pretty good at starting and stopping.
While going up and down the driveway quickly became very natural to me, it also set fire to something deep inside, something that still burns today: the sense of challenge and control when manipulating and matching the gas, brake, and clutch pedals and steering wheel to smoothly, efficiently, and quickly drive a vehicle. It is something that I will never, ever perfect, but always strive to get better at. I love dancing with a car.
Come back for more of my early driving lessons next week.
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