Monday, May 28, 2012

Driving Lessons

Tower Shopping Center, 2012

There is absolutely no redeeming artistic value to this photograph other than that it is a photographic record of a place where something important in my life took place in 1967.
 This is the back exit out of the Tower Shopping Center in Roanoke, Virginia, and it’s where my father taught me how to handle a manual transmission car on a hill.
Since I’d been old enough to reach the steering wheel my father had been letting me drive his 1960 Ford Starliner around parts of Virginia Beach that were deserted in the winter. The Starliner, by the way, was one sexy bit of design for Ford Motor Company. It was sleek and low and cool and painted baby blue and had the closest thing Ford ever came to having fins.
When I got old enough to get my driver’s permit, Dad felt I needed to know how to drive stick shift. The Starliner, though, had automatic transmission. So whenever I’d go out to Roanoke to visit my father he’d take me out to practice driving in his wife’s 1960 Ford Falcon, which had a manual transmission. The Falcon, by the way, looked like this and was, it goes without saying, the antitheses of cool. But there’d been brief talk of me getting that car at some point. So I thought it best to play along.
I didn’t have any trouble learning to use a clutch and to shift gears. But for anyone learning to drive a manual transmission car, the most intimidating part is learning how to stop on a hill without rolling backwards down the hill.
Dad thought the best place for me to learn to handle a stick shift on a hill was the back exit at the Tower Shopping Center. I’d never left the shopping center that way and didn’t think anything of it when instead of exiting down the hill in front of the shopping center, Dad instead told me to go around and leave using the back exit—the one you can see here—the one that goes uphill.
In my memory this hill had every bit of a forty-five degree angle. But as you can see in this picture, it is not quite that steep. But it is decidedly uphill and it does have a stop sign at the top of the hill and you could pretty much count on there always being a car or two behind you.
As anyone who ever learned to drive stick shift on a hill can tell you, the trick to stopping on a hill without rolling backwards down the hill is pretty simple. I learned my lesson that day in 1967 and remembered it well enough to teach it to my daughter thirty-two years later. I was old-fashioned enough to think that a young girl still needed to know how to drive a stick shift lest she need to make a getaway from a bad date in a car with a manual transmission. I’m certain she thought I was a dinosaur in insisting that she know how to do this. But when she later learned that boys thought a girl who could drive stick shift was cool, she changed her mind. I’m sure my father was looking down from heaven, remembering the day he’d taken me to the Tower Shopping Center.


  1. I know exactly where that is. Makes me think of RC and AC--they actually lived pretty close to that shopping center. Great story. I learned to do the same thing along Skyline Drive in VA.

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  3. Your father taught you well, Chris. It’s pretty amazing that you were able to have a transition from automatic to manual transmission without much difficulty. I think you know that it’s easier to learn manual first then automatic. And, oh, the dreaded hill… I think this is one of the hardest skills you have to learn when driving. Well, I hope your daughter learns well, too!

  4. Wherever your dad is right now, I bet he’d be so proud to see that you’ve taken and remembered everything he has taught you. Driving in a steep road can be challenging. You really need timing and persistence or else your car would go backwards. Your dad was a cool person. At a young age, you were taught how to face and break through challenges, well that doesn’t apply only in driving, but also in life, in general. ;)

  5. Your dad was a smart man. I know driving stick shift isn’t all that common here in the US, but nonetheless, it is a valuable skill. And going uphill on a stick shift, it’s really not that easy during your first time, I’m telling you.

    Luise Pagett

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