My love affair with all things that go zoom began long before I could legally drive any of them. At four, my family gave me the nickname “Moto” out of respect for the early motocross skills I displayed on my tricycle. It occurs to me now that it may have been an ironic nickname, but it was a moniker that stuck. I grew up surrounded by matchbox cars and Tonka trucks, and I yearned to be able to drive one for real. As a young teenager I watched with envy as each of my older brothers received his license and the freedom that came with it. The best I could do was the ride-on mower we used to cut the grass.
Our family car – the one I learned to drive – was a red VW bus. These were pre-mini van days, mind you, and it was hard to find a vehicle to fit all of seven us plus the family dogs. My father’s cars, on the other hand, were always terribly impractical as they played into his notion of what he thought a respectable doctor ought to drive. He once came home behind the wheel of a sporty little MGB convertible. My mother didn’t speak to him for days.
The VW bus was the first new car I was old enough to remember getting and we traded in our old, drafty Jeep Grand Wagoneer for it. The bus was one of the few vehicles that could carry all seven of us comfortably and I appreciated its uniqueness. The sliding side door was a novelty back then, and the passengers rode tall in their seats. Plus, it’s hard to lose track of a red VW bus in a parking lot. Yet like most of our family cars, it descended pretty quickly from sleek and shiny to abject jalopy-dome. It wasn’t long before we discovered that the heater never worked and we travelled with an odd assortment of quilts and blankets. The gas gauge quit and we had to keep a small notebook to write down the mileage at each fill-up. Then, the sliding door broke so that if you let go while opening it, the whole thing would go sailing off its track and land elsewhere with a thud. The final blow was when the clutch became finicky and we occasionally had to push the bus to get up enough steam to pop it into second gear. The VW bus so famously featured in the movie “Little Miss Sunshine” had nothing on our red bus.
So that’s the car I learned to drive and it was nothing like what I had dreamed about as a youth. Learning to use a stick shift is challenging enough for a new driver, but it was a whole different ball game in a VW bus: the stick on was about two-and-a-half feet long and disappeared into the floor. It had quite a lot of wiggle to it even when in gear. There was a small faded diagram on the dash that provided some guidance for the location of gears, but I soon discovered that those were mere suggestions. It was anybody’s guess as to which gear you actually might be in at any given moment. Finding reverse was an adventure unto itself since you had to push down and forward in order to lock it in. The clutch had a wide range and it never seemed to connect the transmission to the engine quite the same way twice.
I remember practicing a three-point turn up on Nashawtuc Hill with my patient mother. I swung the nose down towards a line of carefully tended hedges. So far so good. Next, I pushed the shift down and forward to put the car into reverse. Turning my head and torso to look over my shoulder, I carefully let the clutch out while keeping firm pressure on the accelerator. My brothers’ helpful instructions were foremost in my mind: you don’t mess around on a hill when you’ve got a clutch. Sometimes you have to gun it in order to keep from rolling in the wrong direction. So I gunned it.
You already know what happened next: instead of being in what I thought was reverse, I was firmly, unequivocally in first gear. The bus rocketed forward and through the carefully tended hedges like a surprise guest bursting out of a giant cake. We landed on a carefully tended lawn. I’ve blacked out on what remained of that particular driving lesson, although I do remember profuse apologies all around followed by gales of laughter with Mom on the way home.
That finicky old bus was possibly the orneriest car in the world to learn how to drive. But I’ve never feared a stick shift since. Hedges, though, are a different matter.
Editor’s note: This story is part of our October 2016 series ‘Hundreds of Words about My First Car’
Martha K. Holland has been an administrator and educator in independent schools for 26 years. She earned her B.A. degree from Mount Holyoke College and two master’s degrees from the University of Virginia and Harvard University. A native of Concord, Massachusetts, she is an avid musician, reader, runner, cook and gardener. She is genetically obligated to root for the Boston Red Sox. You can write to her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Read Hundreds of Words by Martha Holland here.