Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Learning to Drive

I think yesterday's post sparked memories for all of us. My younger brother, who comments occasionally anonymously under the initials L.B., reminded me of his 1974 beige bug and his saga of learning to drive it. I think he intended for L. B. to stand for Little Brother, but knowing him the way I do, I chose to interpret the acronym, "Loco Bro." I learned to drive on a Farmall Cub tractor, and a few other farm vehicles, but my real lessons came from my dad. When I got my learners permit, we had a 1957 Buick Century sedan, and a 1954 Willys Aero. The Buick was an automatic, but I learned in the Willys which had three on the column. I still duck when I pull out in traffic. My dad had a way with his left hand upside the right side of my head to signal when I erred in judging the oncoming traffic.

The Willys was very similar to the one in the photo above. I drove it through my freshman year in college. I couldn't afford gas or insurance so I sold it for $100.00 and bought a five speed Schwinn bicycle for $75.00. I can almost conjure up the feelings of elation I got when I was allowed to drive the big Buick around the neighborhood with no adult passengers. So, with that background you can understand what kind of driving instructor I became. My methods were a refined version of my dad's sure fire formula. I took out the striking and substituted loud outbursts of instructions instead. Both are designed to make you flinch and re-focus your attention on the job at hand. My brother came to live with my wife and I during his Junior year in high school for one semester. My mother had purchased the brand new VW bug for him to drive to school. He was a football player and had practice after school, so the bus was out. The only problem was that the VW was a standard shift, and he had never driven a standard shift. Our house was adjacent to an elementary school. The streets around the school formed a square of one block for each of the sides. It was the perfect shifting range course. For several afternoons I instructed him in the fine art of driving a standard shift automobile. The neighbors reported that they could here me shouting above the over revving VW engine, "Shift, shift, shift...." L.B. would stay in whatever gear he happened to be in at the time until the tach red lined. There were jerking starts and stalls, loud revs during shifting when he failed to let off the accelerator, and of course my yelling. Finally, he decided to ride his bicycle to school. After two a day drills however, he had very little energy left to pedal a bicycle for five miles. I told him you either learn to drive it or pedal. Our drive way had a slight downward pitch from the curb to the house and required some skill to get a standard shift car in reverse to the street smoothly. My wife and I were awakened a few days later, early in the morning, by the sound of the VW engine starting up in the driveway. It was still dark outside. Then the engine hit top rpm and we heard a series of rubber on cement skids as the clutch was released. The ensuing silence was followed by a re-start and a repetition of the same. The little VW jerked off into the darkness over the sounds of our laughter. Darkness fell that evening with no sight of L.B. As the hours passed I thought I should go and see if he had met with some terrible fate. Then we heard the put-put sound of the VW engine pull into the driveway. We asked L.B. where he had been, and he told us that he did not want anyone to see him drive, so he waited in the parking lot of the school until all the coaches had left for the night. He did eventually master the standard shift and drove his little bug for many years. My girls refused to take driving lessons from me. They opted for professional "Driver's Ed" teachers. I have ridden with them, and I think they would have benefited from some of my methods.

Fifty Four Willys

It sat alone in an old wood garage.
Its engine long silent.
I found it one day.

Painted green with white top.
Covered with dust.
Nose coned,
hump fendered,
like a stretch Henry J.

I painted it black.
New tires all around.
Filled it with Casite.
Drove it to town.