LSS: Changing gears

Long ago, children received their drivers’ licenses at the tender age of 15. Shortly after my landmark driver’s license birthday, my father and I drove 30 miles to the nearest Toyota dealership and bought a blue Corolla.

He made it clear that this would be a family car, but I picked it out.

It was the first new car I remembered my family buying. As my daddy signed papers, I was about to hyperventilate with excitement. I kept sitting in the driver’s seat imagining the possibilities. I hadn’t been able to test-drive it since it was a standard, and I only knew how to drive an automatic.

But such tiny details mattered not.

Finally, the salesman took the car around back for a wash. My dad and I stood at the door and waited for it to reappear. When it did, the man jumped out and gave my dad the keys.

Daddy looked and me and said, “You want to drive it home?”

I could hardly speak for smiling.

“Of course,” I muttered, “but I don’t know how to drive a standard.”

And this is what happened next.

My father said, “It’s easy. This car has five gears,plus reverse. You start out in first. When you get up to 12 or 15 miles an hour, push the clutch all the way in with your left foot, and pull it down to second. Give gas as you let off the clutch. When you get to about 25, put it up to third. The pattern of the gears is there on the knob. Just go up, over and up again. Then when you get to about 35, pull it straight down to fourth.”

I stood there wide-eyed.

“You could keep it in fourth,” he continued, “but to save gas, put it in fifth when you get to about 55. I don’t think you’ll need reverse between here and home.”

He handed me the keys, got in his truck, cranked it up and waited for me to get in the Toyota.

When I did, he rolled down his window.

“Remember, don’t crank it unless you’ve got the clutch pushed all the way in,” he yelled, just before pulling out of the parking lot. I could feel his eyes watching me in the rearview mirror.

I did my best to remember what he had said.

I stalled several times, but before long before I was going lickety-split down Highway 35.

Last week, I went home for the holidays and drove another standard transmission car my parents recently purchased. Remembering how came easy. As I shifted gears, I smiled at my dad’s Outward Bound-learn-through-experience approach to child rearing. It kept my youth fun and exciting — and built self-confidence. He gave me the tools and knew I was up for the challenge.

These days, my father scoffs at what he considers to be my overly cautious parenting style. In this new year, I resolve to sprinkle limited doses of his wisdom in my children’s world.

Jan Risher’s column, Long Story Short, appears on Sundays. She can be reached at

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