When I turned 15 and got my learner’s permit, my dad handed me the keys to the Blue Bolt (a Ford delivery van), asked me if I had been paying attention all the years he would lecture me about gears and clutches and drive trains and steering.
“Yes. Why? Are we going driving now?!!”
“No, you are. Take it around the block until you figure it out. Remember where the brake is, and go slow.”
We lived at the bottom of a hill, and our driveway angled down to the road at about 35 degrees, so he thoughtfully put the truck into the street for me and let me loose. After teaching 6 other kids how to drive, he was done. His heart couldn’t take teaching another girl behind the wheel.
It may have actually been intuitive on his part. He knew I had a certain love for engineered things, that I wasn’t afraid to tinker with the tools in his garage and enjoyed the model train setup that my brothers created.
So I climbed into the cab seat of that van, pulled hard on the underside of the big platter of a steering wheel and pushed with all my might down onto that horribly stiff clutch that was likely of a mind to make me work for my racing stripes.
Errrtt! Errtt! Kikuttikikutty-uhrrrrnnnn-eeeeeee! eee! And away I went making beautiful music while I learned; grinding the steel against steel and rubber against asphalt and herky-jerked my way around the small block of small homes while the neighbors anxiously called their kids in for dinner.
But I got it.
And then Dad made me learn the art of how to park-brake on a hill and not slide into the inconsiderate drivers behind me when the light changed to green. Driving the Blue Bolt was a ballet made for my decidedly un-ballet-like features, and the mastery of coordination seemed more like an intricate gymnastic routine. Especially with that long clutch arm that needed to go all the way to the floor to disengage. So there I was, with my butt at the edge of the seat, my arms gripping and pulling up on the steering and grabbing the column shifter and shoving it forward as far as my arm could reach. Every trip was competitive: me against the mechanical forces and physics of bodies in motion in the quest to turn contained explosions into horizontal movement that wouldn’t kill me or someone else.
And so, my first car was a Javelin. Mint green with the dual racing stripes, black and running wide down the hood and over the roof and down the back. $600 for a used one back then and it looked about like this:
Fast forward to recent history. After years of accompanying the J.R. on road trips down two-lane blacktop of assorted rise and run I’ve picked up more of the joy of driving, if not completely embraced the “discover the physical limits” edges of any particular vehicle. It suits me fine just to have little match-ups with unsuspecting young men, calling out to them with a double-clutch downshift and maybe a bit of heel-and-toe if the turn is tight as I edge past them through the snaky crosstown boulevard and let the super-charger kick in when the traffic clears as I make for the opening near the rail, bolting up the Ravenel Bridge. It never fails.
No one in a BMW expects a woman of *cough* years in a little red Miata to scream [n.b. to the J.R.: Literary license for effect. I’d never push the car to “scream” levels. Honest.] past them with the throaty roar of a well-tuned engine flowing through a generous muffler and pounding the pavement with 160hp. Now, if said BMW driver puts his foot into it on the straights I don’t have a chance. But I have my moments off the marks and wending through traffic. The J.R. gets all the mondo cred for having built such a sweet little sleeper of a road car.
Why would anyone want to text while driving? Because they have crappy cars or they are incurious about the one they are driving. They are bored and probably scared to step into in a turn, but have no fear of recklessly endangering others with their bored inattention.
I’m not bored when I drive. I love it. I love to move, and make good time, or make a good downshift or a tidy chicane. I don’t really know all the technical details like a good gear-head would. But I do know how to have all the fun of the swooping, diving curves as the car’s Koni shocks squat into the pavement and stick four fat tires to the surface. I won’t say I’ve ever overpowered the throttle and fishtailed it jumping out of a dead-stop turn, because the J.R. will probably read this at some point and give me the look that makes me feel like maybe I did something wrong.
And then I will try to be contrite but I’m afraid the grin on my face will betray me every time.