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Archive for July, 2011

Some of my most vivid memories come from summer 1965, six weeks with my uncle, aunt, and cousins in Cypress, Texas. Uncle Joe decided to teach me to drive. A very smart man, he still could have been confused with the proverbial fool that rushed in where angels fear to tread: I knew nothing about driving – steering, starting, or stopping – but that didn’t intimidate him. It probably should have.

I started from scratch. Literally. The vehicle chosen for my course in the fine art of driving was not a sleek, automatic transmission sedan. My driver education conveyance was an orange, battered, not-cool-looking 1950 Chevrolet pickup truck affectionately called “Aurora.” I’ve no idea where Uncle Joe got the name; it certainly had no resemblance to the Aurora Borealis. He just fancied the name, and it stuck.

Aurora was a piece of basic automotive craftsmanship. Igniting the engine involved a starter button on the floor. You stepped on it to turn the engine, but the trick was to quickly move foot from starter to gas pedal before the engine died. As soon as the engine began winding to life, you released the starter and fed the gas – or the engine would cough, buck, and stall. It took me about two weeks to master this delicate skill. Why God provided only two feet if He intended for us to drive, I couldn’t understand.

Did I mention Aurora also had a clutch? Yep. You engaged the clutch to get the truck to start moving. Depress the clutch pedal with the left foot while performing the dance from starter to gas pedal with the right. Getting the truck moving required releasing the clutch while depressing the gas pedal. Let out the clutch too quickly and again the engine would jerk, then stall. Step on the gas too fast and the engine would race, emitting a loud roar while you still attempted to engage the clutch. It took me another two weeks to discover how to get Aurora into motion without herking and jerking.

Of course, the clutch meant the truck was manual transmission. As I said, Aurora wasn’t fancy. It only had three forward gears, along with reverse. Mounted on the steering column. You started in first gear and, if you didn’t stall out by letting out the clutch too fast or not giving the engine enough gas – an exquisite balance, I concluded – you accelerated to a certain speed and then pushed the clutch, let off gas, and shifted into second gear. Third gear was a comparative piece of cake.

The challenge of driving is tough enough without fretting about clutching and shifting, gassing and going. But Uncle Joe was determined; if he taught me how to drive, I’d know how to do it right. Including how to shift gears, so I could handle whatever kind of vehicle came my way.

Eventually I figured out the starter/gas pedal, clutch-in, clutch-out, give-it-gas system fairly well. I could start the engine without sputtering, get Aurora moving forward with decreasing amounts of herky-jerky momentum. I’d head down the road, trying not to forget about shifting into second. When we were really going fast (about 30 miles an hour), I’d shift into third and think, “This is the life!”

Then a stop sign would appear out of nowhere and with Uncle Joe’s reminder, I’d feel for the brake pedal so we could stop. Initially, focused on taking my foot off the gas and moving it to the brake, I’d forget about the clutch. The clutch, unfortunately, did not forget about me, so the truck would lurch to a stop – and after a gasp or two, stall.

OK, let’s try it all over again, from the top: Starter button, gas, clutch, etc. Several times I wanted to surrender and let Uncle Joe assume the driver’s seat, resigned to lifetime passenger-dom, walking, or riding my bike (which I didn’t do all that well, either). My lack of driving skill was partnered with minimal confidence and low self-esteem.

Did I mention Aurora’s steering wheel had considerable play in it? That ole steering wheel could make about half a turn before even starting to make any difference in the direction the front wheels were heading. At times even making a 90-degree turn became an adventure until I mastered the steering wheel and its foibles. Just another complication.

Amazingly, I finally got it. Uncle Joe’s persistence in sticking with me, despite my teen-aged impatience, paid off. I could motor down Jones Road and Hempstead Highway without breaking a sweat. Cypress, Texas was 30 miles from the heart of bustling metropolis of Houston in those days, which helped – with relatively few cars on the road, I had my own practice track.

Those driving lessons that summer taught me a lot more than how to drive. I learned patience, perseverance, and the power of having someone believe in you when you didn’t even believe in yourself.

That was the summer I started to grow up.

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