Riding the Clutch…

I don’t know if Iowa laws still remain the same as they did back in the Stone Age when I was a teen. I’m sure I’ll be corrected if I’m not remembering right. I believe when you turned 14, you could get a learner’s permit. In the Gerritson abode it meant this: Mom and Dad were supposed to tag-team teach their youngest child-me how to drive a car. So with about a year to go before I took Driver’s Training I could become an accomplished driver. Right.

Yup, this Rock Valley Rocket booster was claiming all roads her territory now…

Unlike the majority of families in the mid-60’s, my parents drove cars with a manual transmission and a clutch. Ugh. It takes some skill and a lot of concentration to learn how to drive a car with a manual transmission. This was done on one of the cheaper varieties from Chevy. I believe it was a maroon 4 door, 1963 Nova. Three speed on the column. For anyone younger than 50, the gear shifter thingy was connected to the right side of the steering wheel. Try to envision that little scenario.

Much like our 63 Chevy when I learned to drive a straight stick…

Neutral was in the middle of this 12 inch span and could be moved a bit towards the dashboard or pulled in towards the driver. Me. Neese was learning to drive. Watch out world. First gear was pulled in and down towards your lap. You wanted to shift to second gear when you were going about 10 mph. Mom was pretty patient. My left foot had the clutch depressed to the floorboard. My right foot was either on the brake (if there was ANY kind of slight in-or decline), otherwise my right foot rested lightly on the accelerator. Not hard enough to race the engine. I was fairly coordinated (helped by the fact though I was not a ‘smokin hot, I was indeed a ‘smokin’ cheerleader, I could do more than walk and chew gum at the same time).

This may look easy, but combined with the clutch, accelerator, brake and parent, it wasn’t

Mom would go over the sequence again and again. Push the clutch in, shift to first gear. NOW, AT THE EXACT SAME TIME, EVER SO SLOWLY, let the clutch out with your left foot as you apply light pressure to the accelerator with your right foot.

If not done with the precision movements of a brain surgeon wielding a scalpel, the car stalls. Shit. Once you hear something being wound too tight, take your foot off the gas with your right foot while depressing (wow, this was actually hard & scary) the clutch to the floor again with your left foot. If that wasn’t confusing enough, your right hand now had to manually move the transmission from first to second gear. Your left hand is steering the car BTW. Move the shifter thingy back up to the loosey-goosey neutral spot, then gently push it a bit towards the dashboard. Then straight up towards the headliner. Ta-da, you’re now in second gear. The clutch should be all the way out and you are still pressing on the accelerator to go faster. One more gear to go. Thank you Jesus. Now you’re up to about 25 mph, Mom’s yelling encouragement or “slow down, hit the brakes, stop, or we’re gonna die,” when it’s that time again. We’re shifting, we’re shifting. Take your foot off the gas, push the clutch all the way in and shift to third. Right hand takes the gear stick and brings it straight down. You’re cruising now baby. And here’s a stop sign. On an incline. Oh boy.

My first car was a green nifty-50 Chevy like this one during the mid 60’s…

Once you’ve mastered starting from a dead stop with a clutch on an incline, your status is forever changed to the ‘pro series driver.’ But as an inexperienced driver, tackling a stick shift from a dead stop-on an incline was enough to break me out in a cold sweat and my mouth was as dry as a popcorn fart. If you don’t give the car enough gas while you slowly let the clutch out, you start rolling backwards. Scary enough, but to be certain you’ve got moxie & mettle, make sure an impatient old Dutch guy is riding your bumper 2 feet behind you while you try these 12 steps at once. If one (grumpy old Dutch guy) is not available, you can get the same hyperventilating effect doing this when the roads are slick. Why, oh why couldn’t one of our cars be an automatic? Was that too much to ask?

The easiest way to make sure you don’t stall the car while stopped on an incline is learning to ‘ride the clutch.’ Not an acceptable option if a parent was with you. This method is rather hard on a clutch for some reason. But it’s what I did many times as a rookie driver. Instead of leaving the clutch depressed to the floorboard while you wait, you let the clutch out-about a 1/3 of the way. If you don’t give the engine some gas at this point you’re gonna stall, and if you use too much gas, you’re gonna start moving. Remember you’re at a stoplight or stop sign so you really shouldn’t run either one. But if you do this just right, your car stays motionless. The clutch is out a bit and just a touch of gas. Sounds as though you’re goading the guy next to you into racing as soon as the light turns green. These learning experiences however were conducted in Rock Valley. We had one stoplight (I was so smitten with Rock Valley’s one stoplight, it’s what I chose when naming my blog) smack dab in the middle of downtown, only one lane each. And it was flat as a pancake, so most of my ‘riding the clutch’ was done from stop signs on an incline or in some other small town where I was just looking for trouble.

I was legally allowed to drive unattended now, hallelujah…

Didn’t take me long to master driving a stick and little did I know it would be about 20 years before I’d buy my first automatic transmission car! Most of my stick shifts though have been on the floor and not the steering wheel. And I very seldom stalled a car. All of our kids learned how to drive a straight stick too. I think every one of their first cars were manuals. Even Ariana, our first grandchild drove a straight stick for several years. Actually great skills for anyone to have.

Mom had some different money ideas. Thought nothing of buying Shannon a fancy wool Sunday coat to be worn one winter when she was little, but would not spend a dollar on a new paring knife. Mom made it abundantly clear early in their marriage she was chairman of several committees which Dad would not get a vote. One area of concern was money. Mom decided where almost every penny went. Dad did have spending money, but Mom doled it out. Bills were paid early and mostly in cash. Tithing to the church wasn’t optional, it was mandatory. No questions or doubt. She was strict in her savings goals. As chairman of the car acquisition committee, her job was to decide what kind of cars they would drive. Mom felt a small engine, 4 good tires, some steel to protect them, a heater and most importantly-the cheaper manual transmission were sufficient to meet the needs of their travels. Period. Once Mom became chairman on these important committees, she was reluctant to give them up. Ever.

Practiced driving on many gravel roads with corn fields on both sides…

By the mid-70’s Mom stopped buying cars that were considered mid-sized. She bought a new Chevette, manual tranny of course, paid cash, drove it for a couple years, then gave it to Dad. And bought another one, different color, for herself. When GM stopped making Chevettes, she was unsure what to do to meet her new car goals. Hubs suggested a Ford Escort, which were relatively new. My parents and John had long been GM consumers, but for the first and only time in her life, she took Hubs advice. (Yes, believe it, there are still miracles). Bought an Escort, loved it, but had to order it because she refused to have or pay for a RADIO. Oh my goodness. Although she would sweat bullets during some brutal Iowa summers, she wouldn’t order a car with air conditioning for several years.

Dad’s sign, trying to get his message to the masses…

Always felt bad for Dad’s sake. After Larry died, Dad became very involved with several different ministries. One was visiting and preaching to inmates in prison, which he would continue to do until a few months before his death at 91. The other was his special sign ministry. Large wooden, hand painted signs he designed (no offense Dad but I’m using the term ‘designed’ loosely). He used old boards he saved from buildings he took down and nail them together. Give the whole thing a coat or 2 of paint. Decide on a catchy or clever saying, like um, “7 Days without Jesus makes one weak,” and just start painting. No lines drawn, he’d just wing it. His apostrophe’s always make me smile when I see pictures of his signs. They looked like where the commas should be, but still in the general apostrophe vicinity. Dad’s signs were meant to catch your eye from highway 18 or 75, so they stood pretty tall in the corn fields. How did he get his signs to their appointed spots? He drove the smallest, cheapest car in America. Dad sure would have loved driving a pickup. But it was not to be.

Looks like this one could have been worded better, but it was definitely Dad…

I think one of Dad’s coworkers helped him with his signs because he had a pickup. After a few years of Iowa’s wicked winters and scorching summers, Dad’s signs would start taking a toll from the weather. He’d fetch the sign, bring it back to the garage, plop it on 2 sawhorses, make any repairs, add a fresh base coat of paint and give it a makeover. He had a small notebook filled with potential sign sayings and was just itching to use a new religious catchphrase that would surely draw the eye of those zipping along the highway. Perhaps forever changing the life (and afterlife) of one weary traveler…

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