I learned to drive in a 1965 VW bus, stick shift and all. I remembered this today as I was reading a list of twenty things a father should teach a daughter. One was how to drive a stick shift.
It was quite the adventure, learning to drive from my father in that box of a bus. I started out in the parking lot of the L.A. County Fairgrounds which was essentially right across the street from our house. I learned how to let the clutch out, shift gears, put the clutch in with the brake, turn, but all at about 10 miles an hour. It wasn’t until I got out on the actual streets of Pomona that the fun began.
My dad had a theory. Distract a driving trainee as much as possible, and the trainee will know how to deal with distractions on the roads of life. He’d bark at dogs in yards as we passed them. He’d insist I carry on conversations with him—not a problem since I loved being with him. He’d whistle and play the drums with his fingers on the almost nonexistent dashboard.
He taught me how to play the clutch and the handbrake on a hill. I’d stalled the bus at some point on an incline, so he had me get to the base of the hill that led to our house, and then he kept making me stop, set the handbrake, put my foot on the gas, release the clutch slowly, release the handbrake slowly, and eventually I got it.
And then there was the time when I nearly turned the bus over. We were headed down a street with a very slight slope. We approached a familiar narrow street with a tighter-than-90-degree corner, and he ordered, “Turn right!” Now here’s what you need to know. First, he’d never mentioned—not once—that one should slow down and downshift to turn a corner. Second, VW buses being light and boxy have a rather high center of gravity.
So at that 60-degree-or-so corner, I turned the wheel, not slowing down, and we swerved into the opposite lane of the target street, the bus tilting at a dangerous angle. Thank God nobody was sitting waiting at that signal, or the collision probably would have killed or, at the very least, maimed me. There’s nothing between you and the hood of a VW bus. My dad grabbed the steering wheel to keep the turn going (my instinct being to just let go and let fate make the decision). But the trusty bus remained upright, and years later when my sister took her driver’s training from Dad, I asked her about whether he’d warned her about shifting down for a turn while in motion. He hadn’t, but I had so she was spared the experience.
Tomorrow, December 15, is the fifth anniversary of my father’s passing. He taught me a lot, some good and some not so great, but I miss him as a constant in my life. I was a Daddy’s girl. To all the Daddy’s girls out there who still have their daddies, love them and appreciate them; you’ll miss them when they’re gone. And to those whose Daddies have left them, remember them with fondness; they deserve it. And so do you.