Saturday, July 18, 2009

No.40: A Driving Lesson

A red Volkswagen Beetle similar to the one in the following story

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.

Friday, July 3, 2009

No.39: Public School Music

"Apples with rosy cheeks grow in September.
Also the golden rod so tall and slender…"

These were the opening lines, and really all I remember, of a song we learned in public school music. Our teacher was the young and lovely Miss Betty Duvall who made everyone want to learn, just to please her. Joyner shared Miss Duvall with the other elementary schools, so we only had music about once a week. We met in the auditorium, sitting on the first three rows nearest the piano. Some songs were seasonal like “Little Jackie Jack Frost,” and others were traditional like “The Erie Canal” and “She’ll Be Coming ‘Round the Mountain” and “Clementine.” We learned basic music notation and rhythm, all of which was a lot easier for the girls and the few boys who took piano lessons. But mostly we just sang and sang. Sometimes we practiced songs for a play we would perform in the auditorium for the rest of the school and a handful of parents.

And then one day when we were in the fifth grade Miss Duvall passed out our flutophones, magically simple instruments that made virtuosos out of even the most musically challenged of us. Each flutophone was packaged in its own box so you could be sure no one else had ever had it in his mouth. The flutophone had seven holes along the top that you played with the first three fingers of your left and right hands and the little finger of your right hand. The instrument rested on your two thumbs, and the left thumb played the hole on the bottom side of the instrument. Cover the hole completely and you made beautiful music that could charm a cobra out of a basket; otherwise you made a screech that made everyone around you wince. Over and over we practiced “Lightly Row” and “Mary Had A Little Lamb,” until even the worst of us had some mastery of the instrument.

The only time I remember our ever playing them in public was in our fifth grade graduation exercises when we joined with the other fifth grade class in a mass flutophone orchestra. “Lightly row, lightly row; o’er the shining waves we go …” We were magnificent, or at least that’s the way I choose to remember it.

Fifth grade graduation at Joyner, May 1963
To recall the sound of a flutophone concert, try the following link:
(We were much better.)

No.38: Summer Nights

Step outside after dark this time of year in the deep South and you will be greeted by a wall of heat and humidity. I walked out of the air conditioned comfort of the house the other night and my bifocals fogged over, blinding me enough that I paid attention to the sounds of a Mississippi summer night. On a low and nearby level, I heard crickets rubbing their hind legs together or whatever it is that they do to make that chirping sound. On a high and not so nearby level, I heard communities of noisy locusts competing in the tops of various trees. When my glasses cleared the scene was completed with a visual element – the faint yellow lights that blinked on and off across the yard. These sights and sounds carried me back to a time when central air conditioning was unheard of, when our house was cooled by open windows and an attic fan, and when children found the outdoors a much more inviting playground than today’s children can imagine.

Sometimes we gazed heavenward, picking out the one or two most familiar constellations and trying to distinguish between the blinking lights of stars and constant lights of planets. Sometimes we played hide-and-seek (or hide-and-go-seek). In the dark that was a much more challenging game. And often we chased those faint little yellow lights that much of the world calls fireflies. We called them lightning bugs, or more exactly, lightnin’ bugs. The only equipment you needed was a jar with holes punched in the lid. The first lightning bug was easy to catch. You looked for one silhouetted against the night sky or you simply waited for one to express himself with light, scooped him into the jar, and clamped the lid on. Thereafter, the challenge was much greater – trying to catch another one or two or three without losing your earlier captives. A jarful of bugs became a dim lantern of light. These hunts might continue long into the night, sometimes ending with a retreat into the house when a mosquito truck rounded the corner and started down the street, leaving behind a foul-smelling toxic cloud. I’ve heard of kids who chased after the mosquito truck on foot or on bicycles, but I was never that adventurous, or that crazy.

Later, in bed, you realized the price you paid for such an evening of bliss – mosquito bites.