Two Sons, Two Cars, One Lesson

'I will train my 16-year-old to operate a stick shift," I said. The class roared with laughter. Previous speakers in the class, Designing Training Programs, had earnestly outlined plans to train employees to transfer data, log calls, and even hyperlink manuscripts. What else could one expect in the highly wired Silicon Valley? No doubt they needed a laugh after years of teaching code and teamwork to software engineers and assembly-line workers.

"You have my sympathy," one woman told me.

"What are you punishing him for?"

"Does anyone drive a stick anymore?"

"I was an absolute hellion at 16," the only other male in the class chimed in. "I thought I was immortal."

When I was 16, I was never good at backing up. The driver's education teacher and my dad both tried, but something about putting my right hand on top of the seat with my body turned around threw me off.

Two wide sentinel trees at the end of our narrow driveway were all that stood between me and a perfect evening. I remember it was a warm August night, I was driving a new car, and I had a date. No more double dates, or even worse, rides from Dad.

Our gold Impala station wagon seemed to steer like a big-rig truck when it came to navigating the space between those trees. Once past the trees, our street was narrow, with the neighbor's deep ditch and a telephone pole - a detail I'd overlooked - directly across. I waved to Mom, Dad, and my younger sisters, all standing in the screened-in doorway, and I was off. I went past the trees, into the street - what a long car! - into the ditch, and then a horrible crunch.

Dad was at the side of the car, remarkably calm after witnessing the unwelcome "christening" of our first new car in seven years. He soon had it out of the ditch and back onto the driveway.

"Go ahead, son. I'll bring it to the garage in the morning," he added calmly.

Now my own son was popping the clutch, and we lurched into an uncomfortable stall. "This is not good, Dad! Why would anyone want to drive this way?"

"It's different," I said. "I thought you wanted to learn how to drive a stick." I tried not to match his stress level.

This wasn't like teaching him how to catch a fly ball or ride a bike. Part of my son's urgency was that he wanted to leave me behind. More and more my training outline from class was looking like theory. I had told my amused classmates that we would start by teaming the gears with the engine off and then move on to slow driving, shifting from first to second. Finally, we'd do the tough stuff: using the emergency brake to hold the car on a hill, downshifting, hitting reverse instead of fourth, and not stalling at the worst possible times.

The reality of teaching an impatient teenager in an old car was quite another thing. This was our third session, and the first time that we'd managed to venture out of a deserted parking lot.

"Dad, I know how to drive!" (Fortunately, I'd had him take his road test on our automatic, and he had narrowly passed three-weeks earlier.)

"But you don't know how to operate a clutch yet."

Eventually, youthful coordination carried the day, and the drive home was relatively smooth. For once, he even agreed to put the car into our narrow one-car garage, and I went into the house.

"Dad, I'm stuck!"

His stress was contagious, and I bolted for the garage. Not stuck, but close. How had he gotten the car at that angle? Perils seemed to lurk on all sides: the lawn mower, the garbage can, the back of our fireplace, and the sides of the garage door opening. How would I ever get the car out of there?

"You move it, Dad!"

"You got it there!"

My dad had been so much calmer as he examined the damage I'd done in our driveway. I remembered the look of puzzled love he'd given me - a look that wondered how different we could be. But he also knew I could back the car out of the driveway this time.

My father had hit me fly balls and watched my Little League games, but fathers in the 1960s didn't hang out with their sons. Mine didn't either, but I realized now that my father had always been there, watching. I realized that he knew when to let me go, when to let me be myself.

I also realized that what really bothered me now was a tight squeeze - much tighter than those two trees from that long-ago summer - and the thought that I would have to fix this. I would have to do what I liked least: back out of a tight spot.

"Go ahead, son, you're better at backing up than I am."

I knew when I said it that I, too, might hear a crunch, even if I directed him, but I had to let him get past his sentinel trees. Soon enough, he, too, would be lurching alone into a summer night.

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