UNITED STATES—At a time when national malaise over minutiae has increased while the national agenda seems bent on minimizing danger, this real menace and mystery that lurks in the hidden nooks of manual transmission is downright invigorating. A marvelous tingling sense of danger is generated by the stick shift because I, and I alone, am fully responsible for managing the complex relationship between the gears and the road. This carries the great weight and foreboding: if I haven’t coordinated my muscles and controlled the gears to meet changing road conditions and topography, there is the potential to make mincemeat out of a costly auto part.
Think what patience and forbearance my Grandpa Tex must have had to take an ordinary sweltering August afternoon in
Idaho and teach me the ins-and-outs of a stick of stick shift in a ’54 milk-blue Chevy Bel-Air. This memory crowded in on me when Chatita entered my life. She’s lipstick-red and shorter than a conventional car, high riding SUV, so named by her past owner, because Chatita means pug-nose in Spanish.
The first time my daughter rode with me in Chatita, she said, “It feels like we’re min a bumper car.” Hard to imagine what it would have felt like if
Tex had never taken me into the stubble field in the Chevy Bel-Air, with the stick-shift genteelly placed alongside the steering wheel. There were fraying of nerves and gnashing of gears, the potential for a mangled clutch, and yet my grandpa never lost his cool, as we swerved and jerked. I didn’t come halfway close to mastering the cagey dance of coordination and physics a stick-shift requires.
On the other hand, automatic transmission, first introduced in the 1940 Oldsmobile, frees the driver from a sense of responsibility, and fosters the sort of ignorance which cannot conceive a difference between what brought a candy carrot and a real carrot to the store. It is simply taken for granted. Automatic transmission lulls us into a passive state. Back when I had automatic is when I coined my classic definition of the
Los Angeles freeway: a good place to catch up on sleep. The morning trip down the
Hollywood freeway was fraught by this peril: I used to fight the urge to drowse and put down the windows to get the blast of cool morning air to keep me awake.
The stick shift enforces laser-embrace of the road, and surrounding traffic, and acuity in hearing, while automatic transmission offers the perfect cocoon for audio books and dispersing soliloquies. Still in the learning phase with stick, I needed the radio off. When the radio was blaring, my senses were dulled, and always something weird and jarring took place in the mysterious innards of the gearbox. Now, I am stretching the limits of my concentration, permitting my daughter to listen to Rihanna and rap, and reaching the awareness necessary to pierce the thick layer of music and keep focus on the gear sound, and know instinctively when it’s time to shift.
Even after my Grandpa’s crash course, and previous stick-shifts, mastering Chatita has been a steep learning curve. For about three weeks I would blithely shift from second to third gear. Sometimes it would be seamless, a smooth continuation for the motor; other times the shift provoked a warbling sound, a throasty waaaah waaaah evoking a ’46 Buick in a noir flick. No rhyme or reason why it happened, and I kept trying to riddle it. Then is hit me, after three weeks: I was working with the wrong perception of gearshift events. All this time the shift had been slipping not from second into third, but from second into fifth. Oh mangled clutch! But that’s all transmission fluid under the bridge, now.
I want to applaud my risk-taking grandfather and the way he took potential damage to equipment in stride, applaud his generosity for passing down the gift of being able to handle manual shift. He jump-started a kid’s knowledge and advanced coordination, and coaxed me beyond a comatose comfort zone. My grandfather’s example is inspiring me to take my own daughter out into an un-peopled field and setting her a little freer to shoulder that brave responsibility.
Grady Miller can be reached at email@example.com