Tuesday, August 16, 2005


In Which I Get Behind the Wheel...

Having spent last weekend and this one teaching my kids to ride bikes, it occurs to me that I am probably not the best person to instruct someone on the piloting of any vehicle. I myself did not learn to ride a two-wheeler until I was 8 or 9 years old, and even then the preparations I used to undergo to ready myself for a ride rivaled that of a NASA launch.

First I had to walk the bike to the steps leading up to the second door to our house, the one with the concrete landing that was about level with the bike seat. Then I had to lay strips of scrap plywood on the sidewalk that ran from that door to the driveway (we had a lot of cracks in that sidewalk, and I needed a smooth runway. Plus, if I'd stepped on them, it would have broken my mother's back). Then I laid a couple of rolled-up sleeping bags on the lawn opposite the runway so I'd have a soft landing if I fell during the liftoff.

With the launch pad ready, I turned my attention to the vehicle, a battered green Schwinn bike that my dad, true to form, found at the dump. It was an adult's bike and therefore too big for me, but my dad compensated for that. At first, he bolted a square block of wood to each pedal so my feet could reach, but this modification proved unsuccessful as the wood acted like a counterweight on the pedals, rotating them upside down, rendering them useless for my purposes (my dad experimented briefly with putting blocks of wood on both side of the pedals, but that looked goofy as hell). Eventually, my dad broke out his welding torch and cut off the bike's middle bar (what my brother and I--and probably all boys everywhere--knew as "the ball bar," so named for the part of your anatomy it was most likely to contact during a sudden stop or collision). With this customization I was able to reach the pedals normally, but I was forced to ride the bike in a perpetual standing position. It was hard work, but man, by the time I was 10 I had the quads of a 12-year-old.

The pre-flight checklist of the bike itself was pretty straightforward. I got two clothespins off the line out back and affixed baseball cards to the spokes of the front and back tires, a quaint little trick picked up from my dad. I didn't want to use any of my favorite Red Sox cards, so I generally used the Yankees cards that my cousin had given me. Cousin Jimmy was about 20 years older than I was, and he had given me a bunch of his old stuff, including a shoebox full of baseball cards, mostly Yanks. Jimmy had multiples of a couple players--Mickey something, Stan somebody-or-other--and in short order I sacrificed all of them in the effort to give my bike that all-important purring sound.

Then would come the positioning of the bike by the step and--this was crucial--the orientation of the pedals so that the left-hand pedal was at the very apogee of its cranking orbit. Finally I mounted the steps and in one motion pushed the bike and leapt onto the seat as it moved forward across the plywood. Once we had achieved coasting speed, I slid off the seat, my left foot would hit that raised pedal for maximum power on the down-stroke and off I'd go, across the plywood, past the row of sleeping bags, headed for the driveway.

And that was when my brother would jump out from the garage and into my path, waving his arms and yelling "Oooga Boooga," or some similar incantation of startlement, forcing me to make a squawking flop on the grass or into mom's petunias (it never occurred to me til now that I should have simply run the fat turd over).

With that kind of back-story, it should come as no surprise to you that I never learned to drive a car until I was a junior in college. And by "learned to drive" I mean learned to drive stick-shift. To this day, my dad remains deeply suspicious of the automatic transmission, although I believe the technology is older than he is. His belief was that engaging a clutch also engaged your brain, whereas anyone--"hell, even a g'rilla"--could drive an automatic. Consequently, we only ever owned cars and trucks with manual transmissions, and I just could not get the hang of them, a source of never-ending exasperation for my parents.

"How is it you can type 120 goddamn words a minute and not be able to drive a car! The clutch is just like the shift key on your friggin typewriter!" my dad remarked, after one particularly disastrous afternoon spent lurching around the back yard in our old GMC Jimmy. I wanted to explain that the shift key on my old manual typewriter had rather a lot more give than the clutch on the Jimmy, which needed about 10,000 foot-pounds of pressure to engage. Also, the typewriter did not require the coordinated use of hands and feet to operate, nor was I ever likely to be required to pilot my typewriter through traffic, so the analogy was breaking down for me. Rather like my parents' attempts to teach me to drive. They pretty much abandoned their efforts by time I was in my early teens.

My brother, though, had not.

At least, not until after the incident involving the truck, the signpost and the stone fence...

I did not get my license until I was 17. I was afraid I would kill someone. The only car at home I could drive was a 69 Cutlass. (Red, with black bucket seats). I was/am so short that I could not see over the steering wheel. I passed my test and had absolutely no idea where I drove. I just turned left and/or right when the sheriff told me too. It was an auto-matic : )
I told some people in Europe how alot of Americans don't know how to drive a stick...they were dumb-founded. They thought of automatics as toys. They thought the idea of an automatic was hillarious.

Anyway, I learned how to drive a stick when I got home.

Looking forward to the ending of this one...
I also didn't learn to drive until 18. All my friends were older than me and had access to cars so I didn't feel the need...yeah I was lazy. My first car was standard though and "learning" to drive it meant I drove it home from the dealership solo. That 10Km was one of the longest hours of my life.
I learned to drive a stick a bit early, perhaps...coming from Detroit, I think that not knowing how to drive one is actually an offense punishable by death. But now that I'm in San Francisco...well, it's just a bit scary. Too many frightening hills on which to stall...
I hope you saved the doubles of those baseball cards. Your stories of your childhood are so hearty and wholesome--it's like watching an episode of Dennis the Menace sans the streak for mischief.
Also (a comment p.s.) - many thanks for the linkage.
Truly a treat to read. Had me recalling fondly the summer my late mother learned to drive standard. We three kids were deeply, deeply afraid.
Hey I was doing you a favor. Gotta be able to handle what ever jumps out at you on theroad. What if I had been a deer, huh?

You better tell this next part right. I totally covered for your ass.

The Fat Turd
You wrote:

"Eventually, my dad broke out his welding torch and cut off the bike's middle bar (what my brother and I--and probably all boys everywhere--knew as "the ball bar," so named for the part of your anatomy it was most likely to contact during a sudden stop or collision)."

Where I grew up, the boys called that the "sissy bar", because if a young man were to make an unfortunate contact with that particiular bar... he would *be* a sissy for the rest of the day.

FWIW, I didn't learn to drive an MTX until I was 18 years old, and living in Seattle (where there are hills o'plenty, by golly) and then I learned in (Oh! The Shame!) a 1978 Ford Pinto...

Go ahead, I'm used to the ridicule...
I didn't learn to drive until I was, um, 24? I was much too busy being chauffeured around...

...and standard??? It took me 24 years to get around to learning how to drive an automatic so don't be holding your breath for stick! :) Ain't gonna happen.
I coult not stop laughing at the shift key analogy ... :P

classic MM.

got my licences when I was 20, did not start driving again until i was 25.

public transports required my assistance for their continual survival. So I oblieged.
My second car was a manual. I still remember being maybe one day in to actually being able to get it started in first and make it to second, third, and *sugh* fourth. Ok, just stay in fourth. Then, my little brothers asked to go to the mall. The last intersection before Chapel Hill mall in Cuyahoga Falls, OH is "six points." Six streets coming together on the side of, well, Chapel Hill, which, of course, I was approaching from the street heading most directly from the bottom to the top. I think it took me three light cycles, approximatly 82 irate drivers behind me, and at least six years off of the end of my life to make it through that intersection.

Ahhh, learning to drive.
I was 20 also when I learned how to drive... didn't see a need to until my best friend was getting sick of taking me everywhere so she made me start driving her everywhere... that was fun

Can't wait to read the next installment!!!!
Hell yeah! TEAR UP THOSE YANKEE CARDS! (I'll be a resident of Red Sox country in a week and a half).

What a fun story!! Can't wait to read the end!
First vehicle I owned was a stick. I learned on an old ford pickup. I was so nervous about rolling back into cars on hill starts.I found out you can actually perform a wheely in a pickup, if you rev the motor high enough and pop the clutch fast enough.

At least it made learning to ride a motorcycle a lot easier.
my family's way of teaching things:

swimming - chuck you off the dock

skiing - bring you to the top and give you a "gentle" push

bikes - here it is, good luck with that

driving (manual) - drive you to the top of Westmount Mountain, park the 15 year old Fiat with no parking brake, facing up, and say "go" --- I have not stalled since that day
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