Thursday, August 10, 2006

Learning to Shift Gears

A few days ago, Alvis and I were hanging out in my Saturn in the family doctor's parking lot. We had arrived very early and didn't feel like sitting in the cramped waiting-room area just yet.

So we hung out together, finishing up a Sonic chocolate-pie shake, watching the fluffy-white clouds against the blue sky, and listening to the radio.

While we were hanging out, she asked about the shifter. (My Saturn has a 5-speed manual transmission.)

I showed her how the gears are arranged, explained about why there are multi-gears, and then let her shift through the gears. She found it all really fascinating. Lavie can drive a standard-transmission also, and I find that a wonderfully attractive quality in a woman for some reason.

Manual transmissions are really not that practical in the Houston area for daily driving. Nothing as fun as having to ride the clutch in stop-and-go traffic for an hour in a Houston traffic jam. But then racing up and down the gears when the road is clear is still just a wonderful feeling. There is something delightfully tactile to me about the experience. Hitting the shift points, tossing into the next gear, feeling the clutch firmly grab the clutch-plate. Wonderful!

My first experience behind the wheel as a child was with my grandfather. I was probably about eight or nine and spending the summer with them on the road. We were at an Airstream rally and he was helping one of his buddies jump another car. They were both busy getting the cables arranged, and Grandpa felt I needed to keep the engine revs. up for them. So I was placed behind the wheel and told to keep the revs up. I mashed the accelerator down and the truck's engine roared and both their heads popped out from behind the massive truck hood! "Hadn't I ever driven before?" Grandpa's friend asked me in all seriousness. My heart racing, I manged to nod "No!" Grandpa patiently gave me some pointers and stepping down on the accelerator like it had a bag of cotton-balls on it, watching the newly understood dial on the dash called a "tachometer" I proudly held the revs at 1500 RPM. Nice!

I remember discussing with Dad why his blue Pinto had three petals and mom's Buick had only two. (Did Dad need another brake?) Oh! The clutch! Never got to shift the gears on the Pinto, though.

The very first time I got to actually "drive" was courtesy of our back-yard neighbors. They were a really cool "Cajun" family. We were running around with them (I must have been 14ish) in their really cool Jeep and 4-wheeling in a big field sometimes used for neighborhood baseball games, other times used as a runoff-retention area. Mom-Cajun asked me if I wanted to drive the jeep. Ummm. Not really. Upon learning that my declination was based on a mixture of fear and lack-of-experience I was encouraged into the driver's seat and coached in clutch operation and shifting. I think I lasted for about five minutes, never getting higher than 2nd gear--but it was neat and exciting--especially since it was in an open-top Jeep.

Dad ended up teaching me how to "really-drive" and handle a manual transmission. We had built a MG-TD roadster replica (based on a VW chassis) as our father-son bonding project. I think it was a 4-speed. Anyway, he had to teach me how to work the clutch, shift and accelerator. We practiced in the parking-lot of the neighborhood elementary school. I had been driving automatics with my newly acquired permit for some time, but this clutch-thing was a new experience.

I shut down the engine more times than I'd like to admit the first few days of practice, dropping the clutch too fast, but gradually I got the hang of it. Before long I'd figured out the magic dance of the pedals. And within a few months had even gotten the whole "down shifting into turns is WAY better than breaking" thing. Especially in a sporty MG-TD convertible replica.

I've never looked back.

Almost all my vehicles since have been standard-transmissions. I went for years in my last vehicle (before the Saturn) in an automatic and wanted to get one back. Luckily the Saturn dealership had a 5-speed. I was nervous in getting behind the stick again, as it had been over seven years since I last drove a manual--and it came back in an instant! Delight.

Although I'm not looking forward to Alvis being old enough to drive, I am looking forward to teaching her the joys of driving a stick-shift transmission. And she can't wait.

See you in the skies,

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