I read somewhere that only 4% of new cars sold in the U.S. have manual transmissions. There were a lot more in the 60’s when I was a teenager learning to drive. We had an almost new Pontiac sedan with automatic transmission and power steering that was a breeze to drive but my parents insisted I learn to drive my Dad’s old paint truck first. It was a 62’ step side with a 3 speed shift on the column, no power steering and smelled like paint and turpentine. You had to keep yourself focused to keep the fumes from making you daydream about your boyfriend. But I would do anything to get my driver’s license and my life was a little askew of my girlfriends anyway like the fact they all had pretty designer dogs and we had a hunting dog that stunk.
So, every Saturday off we went to the desert. I had not graduated to a city parking lot yet. My older brother was usually my instructor which I resented because he was so picky. My verbal instructions each and every Saturday according to him was – stay mentally vigilant, do not take your foot off the clutch letting it fly up stalling the engine, do not try shifting without the clutch or break forgetting you have a clutch, do not look at the shifter instead of the road (many cactus lost their lives by my hit and run), do not mistake neutral for first gear and revving it until smoke comes out of the tail pipe and the biggest demerit of all was forgetting to take it out of gear when parked causing his cigarette to fly out the window when the truck violently jerks forward. yada yada yada
After the summer of mind numbing practice I learned to effortlessly release the clutch millimeter-by-millimeter in a smooth transition. I graduated to city parking lots and even parallel parking which is a whole different learning curve than automatic transmissions. Although I was ready to take my driver’s test in my mom’s sedan my brother convinced them that I really needed to learn the five speed stick on his disgusting dirty Scout 4 wheel drive. Just to be rounded he explained.
So off we went to the desert again but I already had the clutch down pat so just had to learn the 5 speed configuration without always looking at it. We started in the area I already cleaned out the cactus months ago so no more fatalities would occur. A few weekends and I was a pro. I finally got my license by driving the automatic, power steering, glide on a cloud, Pontiac family car but I was capable of driving just about anything now. I knew a lot more than my classmates who only drove automatics like do I use second or third getting for the exit ramp, is the grade steep enough to downshift, did I remember to put it in first gear before parking. You never stop assessing the situations. Automatic transmissions took whole steps out of the driving process. Driving while doing something else isn’t like letting go of your handlebars while riding a bike. It’s like operating a missile without paying attention to where it’s going. Texting and cell phone calls are just about impossible while driving a manual.
I look back now and marvel at the devotion of time and patience my family had to teach me skills that lasted a life time. Bonding together came naturally as each one taught one in my family village.