Lessons in life and shifting gears

Psssssst! Clack-clitter-clack! And a final raaahhhhm. The Model A starts with the smallest amount of coaxing. I peer over the dash, what little of one there is, to see my father standing in the doorway. He's just a shadow behind the screen door of his home, but I know he's there, watching, even after all these years of tooling around in his Model As.

Dad taught me many years ago to cajole and coax his beloved cars into starting. He watched with feigned indifference as I depressed the starter button on the floorboard, pulled down on the throttle lever on the left-hand side of the steering column, and pulled up on the accelerator lever on the right-hand side. He stood cross-armed in the yard, just far enough away to be on the fringe of assistance, watching me.

I'd finally get the uncooperative vehicle started, only to listen with exasperation as the 1931 truck died. "You forgot to turn the gas on," he'd call out matter-of-factly. "How did he know?" I'd wonder. Of course I had, I'd mutter to myself as I reached down to the firewall and flipped the only lever I'd forgotten.

Why he allowed me to climb behind the driver's wheel and grind the gears into shifting, I'll never know. Model As are temperamental, difficult vehicles to drive. They are not as straightforward as an option-laden modern car. There are no disk brakes. The mechanical brakes of an A overheat if used too much, and when they're hot they offer no stopping power. Descending a large hill requires planning.

You must estimate the distance of the hill, the velocity of the car, and budget the braking power. Downshifting is the first line of defense. That is, if you can manage to slip the gearshift into a lower gear without too much grinding (the gears are not synchronized - another modern marvel we so often underappreciate).

Dad had sat patiently next to me on the cab's small leather bench seat as I'd plundered my way through all the knobs and levers, shifting mercilessly among three gears. He taught me to plan ahead in order to conserve enough momentum to make it over large hills - oh, there are no fuel-injection systems either - and to leave a very large space between me and the car in front of me. I continued to grind and grate the gears, while clenching my teeth and scrunching my face.

Finally, I learned to find that tiny spot on the throttle where the engine hummed softly. Just a smidgen up and the engine would quit. Just a bit down and the engine would race in high idle.

Mom and Dad bought their first A, a 1930 Model A truck, more than 40 years ago. Dad was in graduate school and money was tight -very tight. Mom had saved $125 for a new refrigerator. In a joint decision to forgo the new appliance, Dad brought home the truck. It sat in the garage of our cottage in Michigan all the years we were growing up.

My brother, sister, and I would play gas-station attendant on garage-cleaning days, when the truck was pulled out into the yard. We'd fill its ever-thirsty water compartment with a yellow garden hose. My brother learned how to drive in the truck.

Eventually, Dad bought a companion for our black-and-maroon-primered truck.

A 1929 Model A coupe occupied the bay next to the truck. Both vehicles ran, but neither was restored. During the lime-green days of the 1970s, my soon-to-be-legally driving brother Chuck dreamed great dreams for the truck. He wanted to "soup it up."

As we drove down highways, he'd point to a hot rod and state, "That would look cool," referring to large, fat tires with no apparent tread. I don't remember what color he'd planned to paint the beloved rust bucket, but I do know he wanted lots of chrome and a very loud, roaring engine to replace the modest original. Mom and Dad listened patiently as my brother planned aloud, never responding with more than a "hmmm."

My brother's emphatic dreams soon faded with the ushering out of tie-dyed shirts and bell-bottom pants, and Dad began to restore the truck. He spent years patiently sanding, painting, and repairing the vehicle, which debuted in full splendor during the early 1980s.

During this time, Mom and Dad enjoyed the now-restored truck alone. My brother, sister, and I showed minimal interest, as we were consumed by college, our young adult lives, and raising families of our own.

In the late 1980s, I moved to the same small town in upstate New York where my parents had settled. This was when Dad taught me how to drive the As.

During the green, warm summer months we'd wind through hilly two-lane back roads, past dairy farms and broken-down barns.

It was quiet on the roads that crisscrossed small upstate villages. The only sound was that of the engine and a small, mysterious rattling somewhere on the steering column.

Our rides were wonderfully peaceful, as long as I didn't grind the gears. I could feel the engine pssting along through the large, black vibrating steering wheel, which I clasped with both hands. The sounds of that beautiful motor permeated every corner of the truck's small cab.

I began to know when it was about to stall and whether I could make it up a hill in third or needed to downshift to second. As my father sat next to me in the solitude of the cab, I fell in love with that truck.

There were so many things I learned from Dad that summer and those to follow as we sputtered along in the truck. It was easy to philosophize, driving the A, about lifelong lessons of climbing hills and losing momentum before descending too rapidly. But mostly, I just enjoyed spending time with my father.

Dad did have another restored vehicle in New York, a 1930 Ford sedan. It was beautiful. He'd painted it in an original deep-chestnut-brown color and reupholstered the interior in a soft creamy fabric after completely reassembling the vehicle. (The previous owner's attempts at restoration had only gotten so far as tearing down the motor and placing parts in bulging cardboard boxes.)

Though I occasionally drove the sedan, it didn't impart itself on me in the same manner. It was an impressive sight, but my hands didn't melt into the steering wheel, and I was unable to find that small spot where the gearshift would relinquish first gear without a screaming grind. It was a bit like babysitting another's child: I enjoyed the change but was ready to return to my own love, the Model A truck.

Dad and I had wonderful conversations in that truck. We spoke of things that were difficult to discuss, and he helped me along a rough stretch in my life, which I am, thankfully, well past now.

Still, every summer when I start up the truck for the first time, I know he's somewhere, standing on the fringes of help, shadowed by the screen door or just around the corner, watching my success or ready to coax me through a false start.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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