My brother owned a few too many red Austin-Healeys, holding onto a couple of them for parts along with one that was drivable though he routinely had it on blocks and it was missing third gear, not that I understood the implications when we decided one spring afternoon that he would teach me to drive a standard.
When I left home at 17, escaping a violent father and a passive mother who played the victim expertly, my brother was 12. I came back around years later to find a handsome, talented young man who raised a baby raccoon he found abandoned in a nearby wood, who sheltered turtle eggs in his back yard one summer until they hatched, then escorted the newborns to a nearby river.
It was just one afternoon, one lesson, his hand on mine on the stick shift, me in the passenger seat, then in the driver’s seat, repeatedly stalling halfway up the steep incline of Dallas Avenue, the dip and climb of that road all too familiar from those months I walked it, even in rain, even in snow, to school and back, one mile each way, in the third and fourth grades. I would buy my first manual transmission years later, shortly after my divorce, a sardine can of a car, a baby-blue Datsun hatchback, affordable, and my first car that wasn’t some questionable hand-me-down.
In May 1987, I will take the kids, then 12, 7, and 5, out of school for a week and drive the four of us and all our luggage from Connecticut to Florida in that sardine can of a car for a vacation on the cheap — Disney, Sea World, four nights at a low-end Days Inn, one night at my sister’s place, a few nights at a friend’s house in Jacksonville, before starting the long trek home, a drive that was intended to take two days. By the time we reach Richmond, Virginia, I’m looking for some spare impromptu overnight stay, leaving the rest of the journey until the next day, only something is wrong with the car. I manage to get off the highway at the next exit, coast into the first gas station I see, late on a Saturday of Memorial Day weekend, where we will wait in the hot afternoon, the exhausted kids and I, for a mechanic to show up, look under the hood, tell me I blew the engine, and that they cannot fix it until Tuesday. I cannot wait until Tuesday.
Covertly outraged, somewhat over the Tuesday issue, but mainly over the blown-engine diagnosis, how stupid do I look, the car is still drivable, I risk it and get to the next garage I can find, which is now hours later, where I learn I have blown the clutch plate and they cannot fix it until Tuesday, Monday being a holiday. This mechanic, far more helpful than the first, directs me to a nearby Sears thinking their auto center might be staffed late in the day on a weekend.
The Sears mechanic confirms it’s the clutch plate, and they cannot help me either, not today, not until Tuesday, but I cannot wait until Tuesday. I don’t recall what I must have said, or maybe I broke down, teared up against my will, and the man at the Sears garage late on that Saturday afternoon, believing I could do this or not believing, what does it matter, became my teacher. One lesson, one hot May afternoon, and there will be no overnight stay.
My daughter sleeps across the small ledge this side of the back windshield, my younger son across the back seat, while I force Michael, my oldest, in the suicide seat, to stay awake with me, at least until we cross the George Washington Bridge, and from Richmond to Connecticut, I master it, periodically revving up the engine to prepare for the upshift, master the feel of the vibration and rotation of gears as I apply just the right amount of pressure to the stick, then back off the gas and wait for it to slip into the next gear when the speed slows just enough, hit the gas again as I force it to the next transition, slip it into neutral at the toll booth, then put it in first each time I have to start over from a standstill, and once I hit fifth gear on the highway, I push it, all the while, from Richmond to Connecticut, without ever using the clutch.
I was determined not to stop until we pulled into the driveway – driven (pun fully intended) to not be stranded anywhere away from home. When I cross the G.W., I’m as good as there, arrive just before dawn that Sunday morning, my oldest son sleeping in the passenger seat the last couple of hours from New York. I’d been driving for 24 hours. I don’t drink coffee, ever, and it’s been years since I dropped a white cross or black beauty. I’d put my daughter and oldest son in precarious positions, and for what, to save a few dollars, get the kids back in time for the next school day? How reckless it all seems now, but oh, how I couldn’t wait to tell him, my brother, my first teacher, just what I had done.
A couple of my favorite travel books –
- Travels with Charlie – John Steinbeck
- Blue Highways – William Least Heat-Moon
- A Walk in the Woods – Bill Bryson
“What I love most about this crazy life is the adventure of it.” — Juliette Binoche
Image: Stock Photo – public domain