When I was growing up automatic transmissions were pretty common, but from time to time my dad would buy a car with a manual transmission. I remember sitting in the backseat when my dad tried to teach my older siblings how to drive a straight shift. That old car bucked like an unbroken stallion in a bad mood as they tried to coordinate the clutch and accelerator. Of course the ultimate embarrassment to the novice driver was to have to motion for other drivers to come around when you came to a stop on an incline. Having witnessed their frustrations, I never wanted to try to learn to drive a straight shift until I was a licensed driver.
When I got my license, we had a 1965 Ford Galaxie with an automatic transmission and a 1964 Mercury Comet with a three-speed-on-the-column stick. I immediately saw the advantage of having more than one car I could borrow, so I took that old Comet out one afternoon, by myself, and drove around and around in the neighborhood. I practiced starting in first gear on a flat surface, then on an incline until I was pretty comfortable. I learned to clutch when I slowed down and how to downshift as I turned corners. I actually got good enough that I was then able to drive in traffic in one self-taught lesson where I probably burned 50 cents worth of gas. (Gas was pretty cheap in those days, but as I think about it, 50 cents was probably harder to come by, too.)
Later I was in the high school gym one afternoon after school, and Coach Cheney asked me if I would pick up something for him at the hardware store. As was often the case, I didn’t have a car that day, so he offered me the keys to his car, saying: “You do know how to drive a stick shift, don’t you?” I was profoundly glad that I was able to assure him of my driving prowess. Now everyone in school knew Coach Cheney drove the old red Volkswagen Beetle that was parked in front of the school, so I didn’t have to ask him which car was his. When I got in the car, the first thing I realized was that the stick was not on the column; it was in the floor. Not a problem. I depressed the clutch and started the car. Everyone knows you park a car with the gear in reverse, so I eased off on the clutch. Other than the embarrassing sound of the motor revving, nothing happened. He had parked it in neutral with the parking brake on. I released the break and shifted into reverse or, at least what I thought was reverse. When I let off on the clutch and eased down on the accelerator a little, the car bounced off the curb in front of me. I tried again, but I couldn’t seem to find reverse. The diagram on top of the gear shift was completely worn off, so there was no help there. I didn’t want to have to go back in the gym and ask Coach Cheney where reverse was, especially since he had been sitting with a bunch of other coaches when I left him. So I kept working with it until, much to my relief, I finally found reverse. I backed down off the curb where I was by this time and completed my hardware errand without further complications.
The lesson I learned that day was that pride and ignorance are a bad combination.