Sunday, September 19, 2010

Stick-Shift It Where The Sun Don't Shine!

I've been driving cars for half my life now, which tends to make a person fairly confident in her abilities, but recently, I acquired an adorable 1970 Gremlin, Big Bad Orange in color, that I dubbed "Ginger."  Well, Ginger features a three-speed manual transmission.  She was originally "Three-On-The-Tree," but thankfully, somewhere along the way, someone thought to put the shifter on the floor.  I think cars with the shifters on the column are nerdy, whether they're manual or automatic, but that's a vortex for another day.

Now, I absolutely adore my Gremlin.  The whole way home from New Jersey, where we bought her, I kept turning around so I could see her riding proudly on the U-haul trailer we rented.  I got the biggest charge out of watching vehicles that would pass us on the 4-lane slowing just a little go get a better look at the ginger-colored gem that was now my Very Own Gremlin.  I'd "SQUEEEEEEEEEEEE!" with glee every time someone would give me a thumbs-up.

But of course we got Ginger home, and it was time to drive her.  Now, when I was learning to drive, my parents let me drive their old Plymouth Voyager, a mild-mannered whale of a minivan with a four-cylinder engine and automatic transmission- shifter on the steering column- perhaps you see whence my bias against comes. And for almost sixteen years, the only kind of transmissions on any vehicles I've encountered since has been automatic, although with the "PRND12" on the floor, at least, mostly.  So knowing that Ginger was manual, and that my dad happens to now own a manual Neon, I thought it would be fun for him to give me a crash-course in driving stick in the little red car the day before my husband and I headed to The Garden State after Ginger.  Cereal, how hard can driving stick be?  I'm pretty flippin' good at handling the "autostick" in our 2009 Dodge Challenger R/T (don't roll your eyes that we bought an automatic sports car- we wanted a damn Challenger, and the dealership that had any on their lot had the one we got and an SE model, which is the 6-cylinder, automatic, "Soupy Edition" because it's the watered-down one, and it was during the spring of '09 when Chrysler's assembly lines were shut down while they got through another of their squirrely periods- so our R/T has the frackin' Hemi and autostick, and I can still teach every pimply-faced seventeen-year-old in late-model Rustangs and zipper-cars a lesson at stoplights.) 

The giant hole in my logic that I'd be a natch at driving stick is two-fold: first, I underestimated the clutch.  Second, I underestimated how being back in the position of having to learn something like driving from my dad, just how spazzy and high-strung I can be.  Now, my dad's a very nice person, and as evidenced by his coterie of devoted grad students at the university where he works, he's obviously a good teacher.  And he taught my sister how to drive stick and he had a hand in teaching one of my cousins how to drive.  But I'd forgotten the yelling matches we'd get into when, at sixteen, I was learning how to drive with Dad in the car.

The first stick lesson went about how you'd expect it would have, except, I'd been driving for fifteen and a half years, thought I knew all there was to know, and got really upset when I couldn't take off without jumping, I couldn't stop without stalling, and I accidentally ground the gears once.  And instead of yelling something useful like "Clutch!" (even though I'd been briefed before we got in the car that the clutch is the default thing to use whenever the car's making a disconcerting noise, feels like it wants to stall, etc., in the heat of the moment, truth was, I was flustered!), Dad just started yelling incomprehensible syllables.  I can't remember what finally got my foot to the clutch, but I did get the car in the proper gear, the disconcerting noise stopped, and the whole episode lasted just a few seconds.  I know that's enough to damage push-rods and such, but anything I broke, I would pay for!  After that brief lesson, my self-esteem had taken a beating, not so much because my dad peeled my butt for being inept- he didn't, really, but he has a way of not saying anything that conveys disappointment and surprise that a kid of his can be so thick- something I saw a lot of during the alebra-geometry-trig years in high school- that gets me every time.  So I did what any self-respecting thirty-one year-old would do after disappointing Daddy.  I stomped into my house, opened up a bottle of wine, and bawled about it all evening long.

The second lesson, two days later, on a Saturday morning, began with a run-down of all the shit I did wrong during the first, and a lecture that "you can fly airplanes, so this shouldn't tie you up in knots like it does!"  Well, when I learned how to fly airplanes, both my instructors would tell me all the shit I did wrong as soon as we were on the ground and let me go home to think about it, and then at the next lesson, it was a clean slate.  I was already still brittle after my first battle with driving stick in the Neon, so this probably wasn't the way to start out, since it took me a good two miles of jack-rabbit starts, stalling out at intersections, and inappropriate up-or-down-shifting, to get myself together and stop that "tears are imminent" feeling in my throat and nose.  See, I have been a grade-grubber since birth, and any disapproval from anyone in a position of authority has always and still does push the high-strung-ness button I have.

Anyway, we went to the high school parking lot, which was thankfully empty, to practice starting and stopping, pulling into and out of parking spaces, and driving at slow speeds.  Dad kept saying how the real way to learn to drive stick was to learn on a tractor with manual transmission, which made absolutely no sense to me, because I don't have access to such a tractor, and here we were, in a perfectly good, although old Neon.  This lesson lasted about an hour, and I think Dad realized I was thisclose to humping up and bawling the whole time, thanks to the rundown of all the rookie mistakes I made during our first lesson, and my inability to shift at appropriate times on the road on the way to the school, because on the way back to my house, he said how impressed he was by my control of the steering wheel.

"Well, I should hope I could keep a car between the ditches on dry pavement after doing this for fifteen years," I said.  Duh, I wasn't exactly starting from square one with the driving, just the dance between clutch and gearshifter.

I'm pretty sure my dad has been relieved that I never asked for another lesson in the Neon.  In fact, I'm not going near that car, ever again.  I make it sound like my relationship with my dad is contentious, but it really isn't.  It's just literally been since he taught me to drive back in 1994, that we've experienced this particular dynamic, that we both forgot that being in the car together on a teacher/student basis brings out the worst in both of us.  In fact, for a couple weeks after these two disastrous attempts at trying to teach me to drive stick, Dad would tell anyone who knows us both just how surprised he was that I was so nervous behind the wheel, especially since I can wrestle a small aircraft safely to the ground in a cross-wind without half as much drama as was happening in the Neon.  It was my younger sister who pointed out that although most of the time, if I'm going to pick a fight with one of our parents, the safe money goes on Mom, when I was learning to drive, it was my mother who was the more patient teacher behind the wheel, and Dad was good at driving with Colleen, but Mom and Colleen didn't get along during Colleen's learning to drive.

I tried driving my Gremlin a couple times after we brought her home, practicing in the yard such maneuvers as taking off up a hill without rolling backwards, and K-turns without stalling out.  Eventually, fate intervened, and Ginger had to go to the shop for a few months over the summer, and I got to forget for a while just how stupid I am at this particular facet of driving a car.  The Jeep makes me look good, because I've driven that vehicle for seven years, I know right where the wheels are in relation to the edge of a road or a curb, and there is no stalling at at-grade intersections.  I love my Jeep!  And in the Challenger, I look like one hot mama, especially since the auto-stick feature, coupled with the ability to turn off the posi-trac, has made for some pretty impressive burn-outs while I've been behind the wheel.

So it was with some trepidation on Friday night, when we went to the shop and picked up Ginger.  I let my husband drive her from the shop to the gas station, because I get irritated at the Sheetz in Coudersport anyway, trying to make a left turn out of there, and I knew if I were in a car that could stall out in the middle of such a maneuver, there would be some road-rage incidents.  But then my husband pulled over in Colesburg, and we switched vehicles.  He followed me in the truck.  I got me and Ginger home without much incident, but I wasn't sure when to shift, and going around corners at intersections consisted of some good luck in the traffic department, with a shift down to second and whipping around the corner.  I squealed her new brakes a couple times, and was completely over driving her by the time we got home.

Yesterday was a new day, though.  Although I wanted to find someone who wasn't my dad or my husband to coach me on driving stick, because well, as I've just written, Dad and I aren't so good together in that situation, and I really, really hate looking dumb in front of my husband, Shane got Ginger out of the garage for me, got her warmed up, and we did some backing up up a hill and driving up a hill drills before he drove her into town for me so we could get gas, got me away from the intersection, and then made me get behind the wheel.  I was literally sweating like a stuck pig, and my hands shook, but I didn't stall out as I pulled out of the bus turn-around, and I even had a small audience.  At every side-road, Shane would make me slow down and down-shift as though I was going to turn, then up-shift and go, sort of a driver's ed version of the touch-and-go I've done so many times in the plane.  I drove Ginger to my parents' house without incident, without even stalling at the inclined intersection of Second Street and Main Street in Harrison Valley, and no jackrabbit start.  On the trip back to my place, I stalled in the driveway a couple times, then once again getting back onto the main road, and then at the intersection right in front of my house, where I will probably always stall for some reason, but once we were up to the garage, Shane told me to back the Gremlin in.  We have tandem parking and a gravel floor right now in our garage, and Ginger's place is where else but smack in front of the Challenger, the car that Shane doesn't even allow to be parked outside, not even for a minute, if it's home, the car where we'll park in a different ZIP code when we have it out driving and we wind up at a restaurant or a store.  I really, really didn't want to be the one to be maneuvering the Gremlin around, near the Challenger, because as you can imagine, I'd be doubly in trouble for smacking into that car with a classic car, if I got squirrely with the gas and clutch pedals.

But I didn't smack into the Challenger or fling gravel all over the place when I got Ginger out today for a little practice in the yard once again.  I'm thinking this driving stick-shift thing might work out after all.  I definitely appreciate why old dogs are reluctant to learn new tricks, though, because I wasn't the happiest person back when I was sixteen, and when I was twenty-seven and learning how to fly a plane, every instructor or examiner who flew with me commented that I'm 'high-strung', and all this being in a new situation at an age when other people have these sorts of things all figured out, definitely makes me feel like a clueless teenager again, I realize now that pretty much everyone is a beginner at some time or another, and instead of just throwing up my hands and declaring myself not good at this, I'm going to stay with it and get so I'm as slick on stick as my sister is. 

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