A beat-up Chevy jolted me from a life on automatic

Held together by rust and primer, a pale, formerly sky blue 1952 Chevy pickup dozed in the parking lot of the Anchorage airport. From a key in the ignition dangled a worn key tab from A-1 Roofing. I'd found my ride for the next three months, left for my pleasure by the friend of a friend.

I was told that the pickup would be waiting for me with the doors unlocked as its appearance, and the trustworthiness of the locals, made security unnecessary. I was also told that there would be a couple of cans of oil and a funnel in the bed, and to give the truck a drink before I started the engine and every hour or so thereafter or whenever I heard the engine go "thunk, thunk, thunk." I was not told that truck had a worn clutch and no first gear.

I was 19 years old, 3,000 miles from home, and I'd never used a stick shift before. Growing up in the suburbs, the youngest daughter of loving and devoted parents, I'd lived a cloistered life. I was a brainy nerd. What my parents didn't protect me from, my inadequate social skills did; I never drank, smoked, stayed out late, or dated like my peers.

When I went away to college, it was to the university three miles from home. To buy a sense of independence, I lived on campus. Still, I knew my life was on automatic. Food, housing, clothes, and pocket change were always available precisely when I needed them. I wondered if I had the ability to make it on my own.

By the end of my sophomore year, I'd grown itchy in my cocoon and was ready for adventure. When a friend suggested that riches could be earned in the fisheries of Alaska, I knew I'd found my summer job. I boarded a plane alone, over my parents' objections and tears, and left for Anchorage the day after my last final.

I had yearned to be on my own, to see if I could survive in the world without a safety net, and there I stood: in a gray asphalt parking lot stymied by the first challenge on the road to adventure. For the first time ever there was no one I could call for help. It was just me and the stick shift.

I'd seen others use a clutch before. I was game and foolish, but not foolish enough to try to back the truck out from between two unscathed vehicles. Pointed forward, I thought, I could handle the situation. I tossed my duffel in the bed and leaned against the tailgate. The old vehicle groaned. Men and women with luggage, children, or both wove their way through the parking lot and confidently backed out and left. I waited for inspiration. A 40-something man wearing a faded denim jacket and scuffed work boots passed. I hailed him. Startled, he looked my way.

"Excuse me, sir, " I said. "I'm having a little trouble with my truck. I was wondering if you could give me a hand."

He tugged on his baseball cap and came over, Lancelot to my Guinevere. "What's the problem? Won't start?"

"That's not it. Do you know how to use a manual transmission?"

Lancelot nodded; I hurried on. "Well, I don't, and this truck has one. If you could just back it out for me and point it toward the exit, I think I can take it from there."

Lance tipped back his cap and scratched his head. Not a good sign. Now I was in for it. A thousand questions would be asked and unsatisfactory answers given before I could get going.

"Keys in the ignition?"

His question surprised me. I nodded. He motioned for me to stand aside, creaked open the driver's door, and brought the Chevy to life. There were some awful grinding sounds before he was able to back the pickup out and point it toward the exit as I'd requested. Leaving the engine idling, he got out and held the door for me. I slid in.

"It don't have a first," he said.

"Oh? Well, I can't thank you en-"

He interrupted, pointing. "That there's the clutch, that's the brake. Don't mix 'em up. It's in neutral right now. You pull this lever all the way up to get it in first, but it don't have no first, so let it drop into second and give her a lot of gas before you let go of the clutch. Third is across from first. Reverse is to the bottom and in." With that brief introduction to the manual transmission, Lancelot banged the door shut. "Oh, and remember to use your seat belt." He touched the brim of his cap and was gone, never having received a proper thank you.

Beyond the rows of cars and low airport buildings, black mountains loomed. The engine grumbled and the chassis vibrated. I fastened my seat belt, stomped on the clutch, lifted the stick into first, let it drop into second, put my right foot on the gas, revved the engine, and popped my left foot off the clutch. The old Chevy lurched forward, snapping my head back, and promptly stalled. I was five feet farther on my journey.

I drove that finicky old truck from Anchorage to the tip of the Kenai peninsula and all the way to the foot of Mt. McKinley and back, as well as on the short trips to and from the fishery - becoming adept both at starting in second gear and providing hourly transfusions of oil. By the end of the summer I was confident I could survive on my own because I had. I've been living life in manual ever since.

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