“All right, give it some gas,” my dad tells me, “and start easing the clutch out — not too much,” he warns when the engine revs too high.
I lift my foot off the gas; a blink of an eye later the clutch engages, the car lurches forward, and the engine stalls. I killed it, I think to myself morosely, waiting for my dad’s reprimand. It comes in the form of a long sigh modulated in such a way that I can’t help but notice his displeasure with me.
“Start it up,” he tells me. I turn the key and the car lurches forward again. “Foot on the clutch,” he barks, and I’m certain that this surely is how his recruits must’ve felt on Parris Island. My dad: the consummate Marine DI. I expect that, once we get home, he’ll have me run a mile in full gear.
I start the car and tease the clutch with my left foot while feathering the throttle with my right foot to get the car rolling. I’m accelerating now, still in first gear, toward the far end of the parking lot. Topps, a local retailer, went out of business a year or so ago, so the parking lot is empty, making it a good place for Dad to teach me how to drive the manual transmission in our 1965 VW Beetle.
“Shift it into second,” he tells me as the engine revs escalate. I release the gas pedal and step on the clutch with my left foot, then shift the gearshift into second gear, engaging the clutch a moment after stepping on the gas; Dad admonishes me: “Slipping the clutch like that will burn it out prematurely.” At the far end of the parking lot Dad tells me to come to a stop and has me repeat the process of engaging the clutch and shifting into second gear. We do this several times, the last two I manage to reach third gear; I’m noticing improvement in my technique.
“All right,” Dad tells me. “Let’s take her out onto Michigan Avenue.” I think I hear a note of excitement in his voice and wonder whether he’s getting into this as much as I am.
Michigan Avenue, I tell myself. It’s only a four-lane divided highway that once was the main connector between Detroit and Chicago, but eighteen or twenty miles east of here is Tiger Stadium, where the Tigers play and where the Lions played when last they won a championship. I hear Ernie Harwell, the radio voice of the Tigers, say in his southern drawl, “Welcome to another afternoon of Tigers baseball here at the corner of Michigan and Trumball.” Another eighteen or twenty miles west of here is Willow Run Airport — Charles Lindbergh was Henry Ford’s advisor on the aeronautical aspects of Willow Run when it was built back in 1941. That was 30 years ago — fifteen years before I was born. Dad works for Zantop Airways. Two years from now, after graduating from high school, I’ll get my first job at Willow Run Services, pumping 100 octane into World War II vintage aircraft — C-46s, DC-3s, and DC-6s, among others. But at that moment all Michigan Avenue means to me is another step toward achieving manhood: I’m learning to drive a stick-shift.
I pull out into traffic and accelerate from first to second to third gear, up to 35 mph. Each time I take my right hand off the steering wheel to shift, the Beetle veers left. I wonder if the wind is really that strong — in a rear engine car, the front end is light. Dad tells me: “If you didn’t have such a death’s grip on the steering wheel the car wouldn’t swerve like that every time you shift.”
We hit a couple traffic lights; I’m getting more practice starting from a stop, once on an incline, and now, cognizant of keeping a loose grip on the steering wheel, the car no longer veers left when I shift.
We’re approaching the city of Wayne. Once we get through downtown the speed limit jumps to 50. I hope Dad won’t make me turn around before I can achieve fourth gear. He doesn’t, and by the time I pull into our driveway at home I feel as if I’m ready to qualify for the Indianapolis 500.
I eventually bought that ’65 Beetle and made it my own: eight-track quad stereo, ten-inch diameter chrome steering wheel, Hurst short-throw shifter (replacing the knob with a Coors beer can), black shag carpeting on the dash, and replacing the VW emblem on the hood with a chrome swan taking flight. Of course by then the running boards had rusted off along with the back bumper, and on cold winter mornings Dad had to push me, backwards, with his car to jump start it. But it was all mine; it gave me my first taste of independence. It got me to work for two years, I took my first real girlfriend to a drive-in movie where I stole my first kiss, and while I never qualified it for the “500,” it got me down to Indianapolis as a spectator and provided me with some near-miss adventures.
When I finally sold it to buy a new car, I felt as if I’d let an old friend down; worse, that I’d dumped my girlfriend for another girl, one that was prettier and wore more baubles, but had little personality.
More than thirty years have elapsed since that driving lesson, and Dad is now gone, but I have this memory, and many more, some more pleasant than others; I treasure them all because that’s all that I have left. Maybe that’s what they mean when they say no one ever really dies, so long as you keep their memory alive.