How to Drive Stick
by Sharon Feigal
One day in Amsterdam’s Vondelpark, a small boy on a small bicycle prepared to ride directly into a small pile of freshly mounded earth. The red bicycle was so tiny that, with its training wheels, it looked more like a tricycle. The boy, helmeted head bent in concentration, readied himself for the challenge. His father’s hand on his shoulder steadied his nerves.
I cycled past, and as I did, I heard a light thump, and a satisfied harumph as the father groaned in sympathy. I looked back. The daredevil was still jaun-tily upright, his front tire just slightly embedded in the soft dirt, his eyes wide with confusion under his helmet but his mouth held in a proud line.
When I was his age, I had many idols, among them the great motorcycle stuntman Evel Knievel. I couldn’t jump a motorcycle over several parked trucks, but I could line up logs beside a small ramp and attempt the jump on my bicycle. I lined them up, but a memory of actually missing any of them in the subsequent “jump” eludes me. It probably never happened.
Somewhere along the line, we lose our fearlessness. We become cautious with our possessions, aware of their vulnerabilities as well as our own. We are terrified of collision, terrified too of a loss of control. As children, some of us crave those feelings and learn from them. Some of us ride our skateboards as hard and as fast at the flat wall as possible, alone in the parking lot, anticipating with delicious dread the impact that will follow if we fail in our daredevil last-minute pivot.
Maybe we’re the same ones that always have to learn everything the hard way. Or at least the painful way. Maybe we’re the pigheaded non-believers, distrustful of the loving parents who tell us that our antics will end in raw knees and broken toys. Or maybe we’re just experiential daredevils, out to discover for ourselves what it feels like to fling ourselves headlong into a muddy pile of dirt.
As it happened, my dreams of living up to the legacy of Evel Knievel weren’t completely unachievable. I did have access to a motorcycle—my dad’s humble 1969 Honda CL70, silvery grey with blue trim, which his own dad had given him when he was at Western Washington University studying Biology and Chemistry.
The first in his family to go to college, Dad had used the bike to get himself and sometimes my mom around to classes, work, his apartment, and on adventures, back in the early 1970s in damp and grey Bellingham, northwestern Washington State. Despite the very limited capacity of a 70cc engine, he once convinced Mom to ride with him to the top of nearby Chuckanut Mountain, a well-intentioned adventure that disappointingly ended in hours of rain and two frozen and bedraggled individuals returning home late that night.
Out on the winding country roads of the Lincoln Creek valley in the southwestern region of Washington, I rode on the front between Dad’s arms when I was very small then on the back when I grew a little bigger. When I became a teenager, my dad began to let me take it out on my own, although never very far. I was too young for a driver’s license, and didn’t even have a learner’s permit, so I was forbidden from traveling as far as town, but farm kids grow up driving many vehicles in order to help out with the work, and I’d been driving tractors and 3-wheelers for most of my life.
At the age of 15, the well-intentioned but ultimately disastrous adventure that was my parents’ marriage was long over and I was mainly living in town with my mom, stepdad, and a handful of siblings. My dad still lived out at the farm, 20 minutes away up Lincoln Creek, and my brother and I still spent lots of time out there with him.
My friend Nathan lived just inside the city limits. His parents had converted their garage into a house extension, which meant that his teenage bedroom was accessible covertly at any hour by side door, after knocking on the window.
One afternoon, I borrowed Dad’s bike with a promise that I was only going to cruise up and down the valley, certainly no further than the foot of Cook’s Hill Road, about 5 miles down the creek. Along the way, fuelled probably by lovesickness from a crush on either Nathan himself or one of our other friends to be found at his place, I decided to drive an additional five miles into town for a visit.
Partially in order to make up the time so that my dad would not suspect the distances, I had an excuse to drive much faster than I ever had before. My hair was flying out behind me, and the twists and turns of Lincoln Creek Road—a death trap to many motorists over the years—were exhilarating. Not much later, my first boyfriend and I would race up and down that same road in his VW Beetle, misunder-standing Dad’s cautionary advice: “You should drive so that you never use the brakes on this road.”
Nathan wasn’t home when I got to his house. I pounded on the window of his bedroom, but was not brave enough to ring the doorbell and ask his parents about his whereabouts. Disappointed by the unavailability of my friend for my unannounced visit but excited from the ride, I turned around and headed back to Lincoln Creek and the farm.
Our farm lay in a particularly wide and low section of the valley, and the road curved down out of the evergreen trees and into it at a distance, then continued in a wide bend past further farms and homes before disappearing around the next big curve. The farm itself squatted at the end of a long driveway, leaving the entire section of valley and road visible from the front porch of our house. At night, headlights from occasional vehicles chased patterns around the walls of my childhood bedroom.
It wasn’t surprising, then, that my dad heard me coming, and was waiting for me in front of the house.
“Everything alright with my bike, Sharon?”
“Um, yeah…” I killed the engine. I wasn’t really sure what he was asking, but his hands were on his hips and his tone told me that I was in trouble.
“Engine sounded a little harsh. Did the clutch stick?”
“Clutch?” I knew the word. Tractors had them, I knew. It had something to do with the gears, in the form of a little lever or knob, and you needed to be in a very low gear to get them out of deep mud. You’d probably want someone to give you a push, too, and a few boards to wedge under the tires. 3-wheelers had them as well, but you changed gears with a little joystick. The car that Dad had been trying to teach me to drive had a pedal that you operated with your left foot, usually resulting in us rolling backwards down Cook’s Hill. I wasn’t entirely sure what the clutch had to do with the allegedly harsh sound of the engine, though. I can still feel the bewildered look I must have had on my face, eyebrows crinkled and raised, teeth poised to bite my lips.
Dad tried again, “What gear is it in?”
Uh oh. The motorcycle had more than one. On cars, tractors and three-wheelers, there are numbers stamped on the joysticks or levers. I hadn’t ever noticed one on the motorcycle. I got off and peeked back at it. Nope, I still couldn’t see any num-bers.
At this point, I’m sure my dad knew exactly what had happened, every part of it. Our valley echoed very well. It was usually possible to guess the size and speed of the vehicle by the sound of its engine through the valley. My dad must have deduced that whether or not I’d gone further than I was permitted, I’d done it at speeds far too fast for first gear.
There are second lives, and probably third and fourth, for motorcycles. The lucky ones get repaired, using the parts of other machines, and restored. Unfortunately, that little CL70 took the hard knocks from that lesson in transmissions. A few weeks later, and only after I asked, my dad told me that his mechanic could do nothing for it. Heartbroken, he’d watched it hauled away on the back of someone’s truck, des-tined for parts.
Shortly after this incident, we gave up trying to teach me to drive a car with a manual transmission. No amount of explaining could teach me how to smoothly operate a clutch. Through a barter, Dad acquired a beige 1981 Buick Regal, a giant, safe boat of a sedan, and I learned to drive an automatic transmission. I won’t lie—it’s much easier, especially on the hilly terrain of the west coast. I made it through my first three years of college in eastern Washington with automatic transmission. At the end of those three years, my life and my second car in tatters through a series of other mishaps, I relocated to Minnesota to start anew.
My fresh start turned out to be vehicular as well as personal, since the loss of my last car. I started with a bicycle, which was soon stolen, but home, classes and jobs were sometimes too distant from each other. A motorcycle is a lot cheaper than a car, and motivated by limited resources, I rode the bus from home to home, test driving secondhand motorcycles, always in first gear. I dared not touch the lever beside the left foot peg—the clutch itself.
Eventually, I found a 1977 Honda CB550k, a black beauty with orange detailing and all the extra bits you can imagine. We went for a ride around a parking lot, but I was too afraid to brave the streets and traffic home, that cool spring evening. The seller, an attractive and rather bewildered guy only a little older than I was, arranged to drive it the half hour to my place while a friend drove him home. Meanwhile, I wrote the biggest check of my life so far, for $500.
Once again choosing the most obstinate and solitary method of learning new things, I did not enrol in the Motorcycle Safety Course offered by the State of Minnesota. There, I could have been patiently instructed on every step of riding a motorcycle, starting with getting on it and leaning it up. I could have experienced falling over and picking up a bike with a very manageable 125cc motorcycle, larger than Dad’s old CL70, but still not much more than a moped. Instead, I took the written exam that granted me my learner’s permit, enabling me to ride, during daylight hours, with no passengers, on non-freeway streets, in full protective gear, something not required for fully licensed bikers in Minnesota.
A friend had given me a well-worn and very oversized leather biker jacket, and another friend gave me a pair of matching second-hand helmets. I wore combat boots and leather workman’s gloves that I’d bought at an army surplus store. I spent every free moment of every day teaching myself to ride that bike around the calm, flat, and uninhabited streets of the quiet residential neighborhood where I rented the attic bedroom of an elderly couple. There was very little street traffic there, and almost no one was ever parked on the streets because every home had a full garage in the alleys that snaked around backyards.
Every corner had a stop sign, and at every stop sign I fell over. Years of attempting to understand how clutches were operated behind the wheel of a car were repeated and condensed by the visceral experience of falling over every 30 seconds. The motorcycle, bearing protective guards for its engine that kept the whole bike off the ground, was unscathed. My wardrobe and knees were not. Within a couple of weeks I no longer owned a pair of pants without holes in the knees, and I’d had to retire the first of the two helmets. But I was able to ride.
I spent that summer taking weekend road trips around the level terrain of the upper Midwest, studying the mechanical manual and learning to do my own frequently needed repairs. I took the Motorcycle Safety Course, where the teacher asked me to please stop showing off. The other students were intimidated. My first passenger was a friend about twice my size, and we got home—slightly tipsy from Foster’s lager—through the traffic gridlock that was downtown Minneapolis’ BBQ Festival.
Dad visited the following autumn. Autumn in Minnesota is beautiful, with all the deciduous trees showing reds and golds, mounds of leaves everywhere. It’s a great time to visit. By then, I was fully licensed. We went for some short rides. Now it was his turn to sit behind me, on this newer, larger Honda, trying to steer me from the hips when he got nervous, but lacking any imaginary brake pedal as he’d had in the cars.
When it was time for him to fly home, the only way I could get him to the airport from my new place in a student house in Dinkytown, just north of campus, was to borrow my boyfriend’s car, a dull-grey Japanese compact. It had a manual transmission. I had never borrowed his car before. I had never driven his car before. I had never told him that I didn’t know how to drive a stickshift.
My dad was more wary. “When did you learn to drive stick?”
I hesitated. “Well, the bike has a clutch. It can’t be much different.” I was game, if nervous. We packed up the bags and I got behind the wheel.
“Do you want me to drive?” he wanted to know. Was he worried that I would ruin this person’s car like I’d ruined his little bike?
“No… I’m going to have to drive back without you anyway.” Maybe he could coach me like he’d done when I was younger. Wait. That had never really gone all that well.
I put the car into gear and drove off down the street without incident, in the direction of the southbound freeway. We needed to get past downtown Minneapolis to the airport, south of the city and its wealthier suburbs.
When I moved to Minneapolis, I was shocked by what passes as driving skills in the locals. They seldom used their turn signals, they veered left on their widest of wide lanes in order to execute a right turn, and they descended into a complete panic whenever traffic needed to merge.
I was pretty pleased with myself as we started down the ramp leading to Interstate Highway 35 West. Freeways should be easy—without stopping, you smoothly change into higher and higher gears until you are gliding along at a reasonable pace. That’s the theory, anyway.
Unfortunately, I hadn’t taken into account what time of day it was—rush hour. The freeway was a tangled mess of traffic. Cars were stopping and starting, making wild rushes to pass each other on the left or on the right, and swerving in the lanes to look for a chance to do so. All of the best examples of Minnesotan driving were to be seen. My poor dad, never comfortable with city traffic anywhere, started to look a little pale. His right hand reached out, not so subtly, and took hold of the panic bar above the passenger door. His left hand gripping the edge of his seat steadied his nerves.
There were some mishaps along the way. I stalled the engine a couple of times, coming out of a dead stop on the packed freeway, a harumph from Dad every time we came to an abrupt stop. But we got there in the end. Dad made his flight, I made it home again, and my future husband was none the wiser about the dangers visited upon his hapless vehicle. I couldn’t have been prouder. I’d finally mastered manual transmission. I could drive stick. And no one had taught me how.