Clippings: Teaching and motoring in first gear

On a muggy July day I found myself parked on the side of the road somewhere near Whiting waiting for the car to move. The sky was the color of old denim and the distant ridgeline of the Green Mountains was in shades of green and purple. Ahead, the pavement cut a broad, jet-black ribbon straight toward the horizon.

The car had shuddered and died. A stunning stream of expletives ensued from my girlfriend’s mouth.

“I’ve had it,” she said, her jaw set in frustration. “I quit.”

We were in the middle of a weekend-long crash course (so to speak) in one of the finer points of motoring — the standard transmission — and I, as teacher, was doing my best to remain calm and avoid carsickness.

“Try giving it more gas this time,” I said, and kept my eyes on the road, watching for oncoming cars.

When people ask me why I insist on driving with three pedals, I offer the story about the time an Italian exchange student joined me and some friends for apple picking at a local orchard. We met in downtown Middlebury and exchanged the usual pleasantries. When she looked inside my Subaru her face lit up.

“Ah-ha!” she cried, “You do the driving with the…”

Her voice trailed off and she made a motion with a balled fist like she was beating eggs.

“Stick,” I said with a grin. “I drive stick.”

“Good,” she replied with an even wider smile, “because that is really driving.”

It’s a conviction I bitterly cling to, and my driving is one of a small handful of practical skills that I can claim complete confidence in. In addition, I can ski about anywhere in Vermont, navigate with map and compass and tie a necktie in three different ways (journalism is a work-in-progress).

But my enthusiasm for driving with both feet isn’t shared by everyone, and in reality I’m like the cranky uncle who insists that his old VCR is perfectly fine, thank you very much. More than nine out of 10 new cars are manufactured with an automatic transmission, and, what’s more, driving with a clutch pedal and a stick shift is a skill that has a steep learning curve. When motoring with the girlfriend, I’m consistently the designated driver and the one who guzzles consecutive cups of coffee on long nighttime drives.

This all changed on a recent Saturday when the forecast called for rain. We made plans to catch a movie in Rutland and headed to — where else — the vacant parking lot of Otter Valley Union High School in Brandon for some practice.

In 1998, “This American Life” host Ira Glass approached the hosts of another well-loved NPR program for some advice. He was teaching one of his co-producers to drive and turned to Tom and Ray Magliozzi of “Car Talk,” who were more than willing to help. They said the experience would be transformational for all parties involved.

“Things in your nature that you heretofore have kept secret from the entire world will be divulged to this person,” Tom said.

Not wanting this to be the ultimate test of our relationship, my plan with my girlfriend was to provide the very basics of instruction and sit back and let her practice.

For new drivers, the most difficult part of driving with a manual transmission is balance — discerning by touch how quickly to release the clutch and how much to apply the accelerator when starting from a complete stop. When they stall, they think they’ve destroyed the engine. I wasn’t feeling worried yet, so I allowed her to send my forehead nearly whipping into the dashboard. These fits and starts were usually followed by tense exchanges before she’d turn the key again.

“I think I broke your car.”

“You didn’t break the car, just stalled.”

“I hate this.”

We were progressing beautifully.

While watching her practice, I found it impossible to lose patience; after all, I’d been there too. My own learning experience many years ago could be best described as a series of sustained panic attacks. I used to drive up to 20 minutes out of my way to avoid having to start on a hill or drive through dense traffic. I still wake up in a cold sweat from nightmares of repeatedly stalling in the middle of a busy four-way intersection.

In another attempt while slowing down, she failed to downshift, the Forester rattled and shook like a thing possessed, the warning lights came on, the tachometer dropped to zero but the car continued to roll forward.

“You stalled,” I offered, helpfully.

“THANKS, I CAN SEE THAT.”

After that I remembered to keep my mouth shut.

Our next goal will be to practice with some more traffic in a small commercial park near Brandon with lots of intersections and small cul-de-sacs. Later, we might graduate to Route 7 and then just maybe the clutch-burning hell that is Shelburne Road in South Burlington. I may not have succeeded in fully converting her to the joys of the clutch, the stick shift and the manual transmission, but with some more practice I think I’ve got a chance, and until then we’ll keep tooling on down the road together.

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