I was about 12 years old when my father taught me to drive a stick-shift pickup truck. Of course I was thrilled. I figured out pretty quickly that this was anything but raw altruism; he wanted me to work with him. No matter; for a 12 year old – work was a reasonable trade off for being allowed to drive well before California laws would normally allow.
Dad restricted my early vehicular activities to either the parking lot at the freight line terminal where he worked in Petaluma or on a friends ranch in Novato, California, where Dad, for many years had a consistent side business cutting firewood that he sold by the cord. His rancher friend asked only for a few cords of wood for his family each year and directed which groves were approved for culling.
I recall looking forward to the early Saturday morning, when dad promised to let me take the wheel for the first time. He drove us to the large freight lines parking lot and, as the sun crested the Sonoma mountains in the east, we switched seats.
My dad was not given to long verbose highly detailed instructions – and yes – he was my REAL father, so this is my only defense for what happened. He told me in the shortest terms possible, to, “Make sure the parking brake is set and step down on the clutch. Now, you can start the engine.”
I carefully did exactly as he instructed. The engine kicked over and as it did, he quickly added, “let go of of the key.” This left me holding the steering wheel of a nicely purring truck with my foot holding the clutch down. This was so cool and my heart was pounding with the expectation that very soon – I’d be driving – YES ! ! !
We were on flat ground so when he told me to release the parking brake, nothing really happened. “Good. You’re ready to roll. With the clutch held down, the motor is turning, but there’s no power to the wheels and you can select which gear you want to use. Most of the time, you’ll start in first gear.” He guided me in moving the gear shift around into each gear and warned me to be careful about ever landing in reverse. “You only shift while in neutral, between gears and only shift to reverse when sitting still.” I was loving this – but can I drive now? I anxiously thought.
“Okay,” he said – and by now I was hanging on is every word because I did not want to miss anything that would slow the process of getting to the driving part. “Give it a little gas then take your foot off the clutch and . . .”
The rest of his sentence was lost because I did exactly as instructed and completely popped the clutch, which immediately transferred ALL THE POWER of the engine to the wheels causing the truck to jump forward and the engine to nearly stall which stopped all forward progress which allowed the engine to rev back up which caused the truck to jump forward again and – well – I think you get the picture. There I was desperately holding on to the wheel while the truck jumped and stopped, jumped and stopped, over and over – throwing dad and I back and forth like jack hammer. Making matters worse was that each time we were thrown forward – my foot was still on the accelerator so I was gunning the motor which aggravated the next cycle.
In a panic, I had no idea what was happening. I’d never seen anything like this. What had I done and how do I stop it? I grabbed a quick glance at dad who, lacking a steering wheel to hold on to, was flying back and forth between almost head-butting the windshield (oh God – I’m going to kill dad) and being thrown back into the seat – back and forth. With arms flawing, he regained enough self-control to call out; “Push the – – damned clutch – – back in – – NOW!”
I did so and the truck immediately stopped trying to kill us. The quiet morning returned. I took my foot off of the gas pedal and the now-quiescent engine dropped back to it’s gentle purring. Holy Smokes! Where did that all come from and what just happened? Dad settled back into his seat and leaned his head back for a rare moment of thanking God he was still alive.
I took the safe moment of time to make sure my bladder had not let go during the attack (lucky me. . . ) and then worried that my driving lesson was over and any plans to teach me to drive had just been postponed to some time after my 30th birthday. Ugh . .
Well – dad was bigger about the whole thing than I expected. “You were supposed to let the clutch out slowly,” he said as he dragged his arm across his forehead to wipe away some sweat that had appeared. I thought, but did not have the courage to answer, you could have said that. . .
Once armed with that small detail, the rest of my lesson went really well and in less than 20 minutes, I was ready to test my skills with all four gears, first in that parking lot and then on a few quiet streets back in the ranch area west of the freight line terminal. I was a driver! An illegal driver, but a driver non-the-less. What a morning that had been!
From that point on, driving for dad was mostly restricted to the ranch where we cut wood. Each morning after we arrived at the ranch, dad would stop the truck and get out to open the gate to the back hills while I slid over to the coveted driver’s position to drive through the opening and stop while dad closed the gate and climbed into the passenger seat.
That ranch proved to be some of the most fun driving around. The dirt roads did some of the coolest things like: dipping down into dry creek beds and curling around hill sides like an exaggerated 3 dimensional, want-to-be roller coaster. Stop signs were non-existent and if you needed to go off-road because you were dragging a chain and 100 foot long log, well – you were already off-road, so you just avoided deep creek edges, standing trees and other non-moving hazards. It was a 12 year old driver’s paradise. There were times when dad just let me drive and explore those back hills by myself.
There was one near disaster that brought my driving and the whole firewood gig together one afternoon. Dad had arranged to remove one tree for a friend, then split and remove the wood for sale as his price for doing the work. I was helping and after a long day of cutting and splitting that wood, I was pretty tired and got sloppy while we were trying to get it loaded into the truck before it got too dark. The wood had to be stacked in the truck or there was no way it would fit. Dad was up in the bed and I was on the ground tossing split pieces up to him for stacking. I wanted the task of throwing and stowing 10-18 pound chunks of wood over as quickly as possible.
I had to pick up each piece and toss it to dad, who really had to be looking at me to catch it. In the frenzy of tossing chunk after chunk, I recall tossing one without looking to verify that he was ready and (of course) he wasn’t. The wood was almost on him when he turned and I saw my mistake. Time dropped to slow motion and my heart sunk – knowing that there was no no way for him to properly catch the log. He saw it just before it smashed his hand between two heavy pieces.
My dad NEVER screamed – but he did, on this occasion curse like he was dragging heaven down on the kid who did this to him. His glove was badly torn and blood was spreading wildly from the wound. I scrambled up and did my best to wrap up his hand with a fairly clean towel.
I felt – well like that kid who had just injured his own dad by being sloppy. It was horrible. We both realized that he could not drive leaving it up to me to get us home – on the freeway, the only real route that made sense – where I’d never driven before. Any other time – this would have been great news. Now – I’d give up driving ever again to undo the previous 5 minutes. I was sick with regret.
Dad was in serious pain and he never showed pain normally. We left the remainder of the wood, packed dad up into the passenger seat and I climbed into the drivers seat to get us home. Guilt and fear were barely displacing worry about driving the freeway for the first time. What would I tell the cop if I were stopped? Anything I could think of only seemed to make things worse, so don’t get stopped – not too fast or too slow. Dad used to tell me about freeway driving while I was learning. Now I was mentally scrambling to recall something, anything of what he had told me.
Home was reached. Mom engaged to clean him up. I stayed nearby to help, but I think dad had enough of my help for one day. Soon mom had the wound dressed properly, mom gave him a strong dose of aspirin and sent him off to rest. I must have looked pretty destitute because mom decided not to chew into me. Dad never did seek real medical attention for that injury; not even for stitches. After resting through the weekend, he got up and went to work on Monday as normal.
The only punishment I ever received for this was when we went back for the rest of that wood. I loaded it all myself. It seemed a very small price to pay.
Before getting my first car, after I was old enough to become street legal, I mostly drove dad’s old truck when he got a newer one.
I loved that old Dodge. In addition to being a 4-speed shift, it had a neat feature, a foot pump that blew windshield washer fluid all over the windshield for cleaning whether the wipers were running or not.
One warm day, I was driving it, with my girl friend by my side and for some long forgotten reason, decided that she needed a jolt. This gal had plenty of spunk and brains, so a wise person did not mess with her – but this day – I did it anyway.
While cruising down a quiet stretch of road, I faked a huge, face scrunching, multi-breathed whopper of a sneeze and synchronized a hard punch of that pedal with the wall-wrecking “ah-chu!” – which of course blew fluid all over the windshield before us.
My reward for this perfect delivery was her screaming frantically “ECH – GROSS ! !” as she began to sequence through: covering her eyes, peeking out to verify that it was fake and not really weaponized snot, reloading her lungs for, a second round of screaming while, turning to pound on me with both fists while, reloading again to tell me what a jerk I was and , how, “That WAS NOT FUNNY”.
“Okay – okay,” I answered, “I can fix it. Stop already!”
“That was disgusting. How are you going to fix it?”
I answered, “I’ll just wipe it away,” while simultaneously triggering one cycle of the wipers which only smeared the fluid across the windshield which did nothing to reset her gag reflex.
“See – it works as good as a shirt sleeve.”
Surprisingly, her eye brow centers dropped and she restarted the whole, “ECH – GROSS” sequence.
Ah, (mostly) fun memories of fun days. . .