In the fall of 1972, a few months after I got my driver’s license, my father bought a sporty new Capri sedan. The Capri would be my mother’s car, replacing her small Ford Falcon station wagon, the car in which I had learned to drive. The Falcon was an easy car to drive – small, good visibility, simple controls.
There were still four kids at home. I don’t know why Dad bought the Capri, instead of a bigger station wagon (the best family option before the minivan era). I don’t even know if it was Mother’s decision or Dad’s. I suspect it was Dad’s. In any event, what Mother got was a copper tinted Capri.
As a rule, my mother and I shared the family’s second car. My father drove an Olds 98, which was as large as a tank. I rarely got to drive the Olds unless Dad was out of town. So I knew I would have to drive the Capri when it replaced the Falcon.
There was just one problem: The Capri had a stick shift. My mother hadn’t driven a standard transmission since the early 1950s, and I had never driven one.
In my driver’s education class, we had had one simulator session to teach us how to drive a standard transmission. The alarm on my simulated car buzzed constantly, indicating a stall, until I realized that if I kept the clutch in the whole time, it would stay silent. And the instructor would never know I was failing this lesson. The primitive simulator could only detect a few errors, but in the early 1970s, this was as good as it got.
My real education on a stick shift came during weekend lessons with my father after he got the Capri. We went out to the old Army camp near our house, where I had learned to drive with him right after getting my permit. The barracks and other buildings in the camp had been removed, and only the paved roads remained, pitted and pockmarked and sprouting weeds – but adequate for beginning drivers.
Dad drove us to the camp, then I got behind the wheel of the Capri and lurched my way down the road.
My father muttered encouraging remarks from the passenger seat. “Put in the clutch. Now let it out. SLOWER!” he yelled when I stalled it.
“Try again.” He sighed.
We practiced for an hour or so, till we were both frazzled. “Well,” he said as he drove us back home. “You did better than your mother.”
A couple of weekends later, we were at it again. This time, Dad allowed me to drive home from the Army camp. Our route took us uphill toward a major intersection. The light turned red; I had to stop.
When the light turned green, I started forward. For about 2 feet. Then the car stalled and started to roll backward. I slammed on the brake.
Dad waved the cars behind us around, so I wouldn’t hit anyone when I tried again to go around the corner. I took my foot off the brake with the clutch in, and the car rolled backward. I let out the clutch and gunned the engine as I tried to get it in gear.
Dad sat patiently beside me, waving cars around, then waiting for me to try again. It took three cycles of the traffic light for me to get through that intersection. I must have stalled it fifty times through those three cycles of green lights. Finally I got around the corner, and we headed home.
But I have never had any trouble with a stick shift since that day. I’ll stall a car occasionally, but not often. Even driving a strange car with a stick, I can quickly get its rhythm. I guess that afternoon at the traffic light was time well spent.
Just a few months after that episode, on an evening in early December 1972, we had our first snowfall of the year. I had choir practice that evening. My mother was in a tizzy over how I would get to our church across town. I had to go; we were practicing for Christmas. Neither parent was available to chauffeur me.
“Here,” Dad said, handing me the car keys. “Take the Capri.” It would be my first experience driving in snow, and he trusted me with the new car. I slid a bit that evening, but arrived at the church safely.
Dad’s patience in teaching me to drive with the stick that fall, and his faith in me that snowy evening, still awe me today. I tried to be as loving with my kids as Dad was, but if you ask my children about the year James learned to drive, you’ll know I failed.
Thank you, Dad, for your patience and trust over so many years.