The other day, my friend Erica heard me saying that G and I were planning to rent a truck this weekend to haul a load of stuff to the dump. She offered her husband’s pickup truck to us for a few hours and I was delighted to accept. Then she said, “Oh, wait. Can you drive a stick?”
Why yes, yes I can! When I was 15 and getting driving lessons from my mom, she insisted that I learn on a stick. Her opinion boiled down to, “If you learn to drive a stick shift, you will never get stuck riding with some drunk boy because you can’t drive his car.”
She had a point. So one Sunday afternoon, I learned to drive on her Toyota Corolla hatchback with a manual transmission. That first mile took FORTY FIVE MINUTES. “Keep the gas steady, push in the clutch, change the gear, let out the clutch.”
I was doing OK until we got to the first stop sign. I stalled it and stalled it and stalled it. Talk about stuck with a stick. I worked the clutch and hit the gas. Roar then stall. Mom adjusted the gearshift for me. Stall. I tried again. Stall. I wanted to cry. Stall and stall and stall. When we were both about ready to quit, I realized that I was in third instead of first.
Luckily, we lived on a dirt road so it’s not like I was blocking traffic or having anyone honking at me. I turned left and crept onto the blacktop. The engine whined and screamed. Mom told me to shift up, but I was scared to leave first….it had taken me so long to get it going! But I snuck into second, then third–I was getting it. Listening to the engine for the sign to shift. Watching the tachometer. Remembering to breathe.
We made three loops of the dirt road that we called “The Circle” and I had it. Short of a bulldozer, I’ve been able to drive anything I’ve needed to for the rest of my life. And my mom was right. A few years later in college, I found myself at some party out in the woods with a drunk date and his Honda with a stick. Not a problem. No sirree.
The first car I ever bought was a stick and a steal. It only had 3000 miles on it, but I bought it at the used car price. Some soldier had bought it for his wife, but she didn’t like driving the manual transmission. Their loss, my gain.
Richard had a BMW with a stick and a straight six engine. I loved that car. Germans keep it tight. I once took a right turn at about 35 to see how it would feel. Car didn’t even seem to notice.
I gave up driving a stick once I had kids. It’s hard to answer questions, juggle sippy cups, and sing “Wheels On the Bus” while shifting gears.
But here’s what I was thinking about today as I drove Paul’s truck to the dump: I felt GREAT. On top of things. Empowered. I want my kids to have this skill.
How many times have you seen some doofus lose hours on The Amazing Race because they couldn’t drive a stick? Sticks may be rare in the USA these days, but manual transmissions are common around the world. They get better gas mileage, last longer, need less service and repair. I’ve driven a stick around the English countryside through hedgerows so close to the road I thought they would scratch the paint off. I’ve bumbled along Brasilian dirt roads in search of a waterfall. In Brasil, I was more thrown by the fact that I had to crank my window down with a handle than I was by the stick shift.
Yes, automatics are easier. But with a stick, you’re never stuck.
When you learn to do things the hard way, the basic way, you have more options. You don’t get stuck.