Wednesday, June 4, 2014

The Acrobat

My Little Green Car - The 1976 Datsun B210 - Best. Car. Ever. 

I let the clutch out very slowly and pushed on the accelerator.  I listened for the pitch of the car’s engine to tell me when I had enough power to make the turn and get up and over the hill.  I thought I had it right, so I let out the clutch all the way and the car lurched forward and died. I’d let the clutch out too fast.  As it began drifting backward toward the car behind me, I stomped on the brake and the honking commenced.

Crap! I could feel the tears of frustration begin to sting my eyes as I started the car again.   I was going to be stuck on that little hill forever.

Mom took a deep breath and said, “They’ll wait.  If they get antsy, they’ll go around.  Third time’s the charm.  Just take it easy and give her a little more gas.  It’s all about balance.”  My mother had the patience of Job.

I’d bought the car for $200 two weeks before my 19th birthday, even though I had absolutely no idea how to drive a standard shift car.  It was a little, dark green, ’76 Datsun B-210.   I couldn’t drive it, but, oh, I loved it.  It was sporty, gas-efficient, and, best of all, it had an after-market Pioneer digital cassette deck stereo system in it that kicked butt. 

I missed the independence that a car gave me after selling my first car.  It had been a 1969 Plymouth Belvedere with a bored-out 6 cylinder engine.  It could pass anything but a gas station.  I missed long rides with my music and the thrum of the big engine.  I missed being able to go wherever I wanted to, whenever I wanted to go, (as long as I had the gas money).  I longed to pop in my U2 cassettes and listen to the stereo system of my new car at top volume, with all the windows down, blazing down the freeway like I used to in the Mighty Thunder Wagon.  The only way I was going to reclaim my independence was taking the leap and learning to drive a stick. 

Mom had been raised on a ranch in Arizona and had learned to drive when she was about 12.  Because they lived 50 miles across the Arizona-Sonora Desert from the nearest town, it had been essential that my mom and her sister know how to drive in case something happened and they had to go for help.  So, as soon as Mom could reach the pedals in the International Harvester pickup with “three on the tree”, her Daddy had taught her to drive.

Once, my dad had bought a VW van.  Mom drove like the car was an extension of her body: smoothly and confidently.  Dad could not master the VW clutch.  Every time he drove, we’d hold on to the panic handles for dear life.  Eventually, he killed the van.  We’d been on the freeway on our way to Pataskala.  He was so mad that he walked all the way home.  As he ranted, he vowed he was never going to own another standard shift car, much less a foreign car.  So, though most of my friends learned to drive from their fathers, Mom taught me the ropes.  She was unflappable.

As I sat on that hill with all the traffic behind me waiting, ever so patiently, I thought about equilibrium.  Mom watched the traffic on Karl Road for an opening so I could make the turn.

“Okay, kid, here comes your break.  Now, push down on the accelerator and ease off your clutch until the gears pull at the car, just a little bit.  Try not to let it grind.”

I began to let out the clutch and push on the accelerator and the pitch of the engine dropped until the gear engaged.  It caught with a sound like an enormous zipper would make and I grimaced.  That sounded expensive.  The car moved forward slightly.  I eased back a little on the accelerator and found the balance point between the clutch and accelerator to keep it steady on the hill until I was ready to move.  The car I was waiting for made a right turn without signaling.

Nice, I thought.  I could’ve made that turn anytime.  Now I have to hurry.

“All right now,” Mom was saying, “push down that accelerator and let go of the clutch.  One motion, honey.  Go. Go. Go.”

I hit the pedal on the right a little too hard and let my foot off the clutch a little too quickly.  The car shot forward and shuddered like a bowl of Jello in an earthquake as I turned to the left.  With a final lurch, a squeal of tire tread and a clank of the flywheel, I was off!  Finally!

“Good job, kid.”  Mom smiled, “That’s the toughest thing to learn: turning left at the top of a hill at a busy intersection.  Good job.”

I let out a sigh of relief.

“You hungry, Mom?”  I pulled up to another stop light just as it was turning red.  I engaged the clutch, let off the accelerator and shifted the car back into first gear as I began to brake and waited for the light.

Mom sighed, “I guess it’s time for lunch, isn’t it?”  I nodded.  She continued, “Well, let’s stop and get something and then we’ll lurch on home.”  She chuckled.  I made a face at her. The light changed and I let out the clutch and pushed the accelerator.  I took off smoothly, as if I’d driven the car for years.

“There you go!  You got it!”  Mom was pleased.  She settled back into her seat.  I hadn’t noticed how tense she’d gotten.  “See. It’s all about balance, kid.  Once you learn how to balance, everything else is easy.”

1 comment:

  1. Great writing! Bring tears to my eyes. I remember being a nanny in San Francisco when I was 18 and my only hope for independence was to drive a stick on those terrible hills. You describe the sounds and terror so well!