Bluefield Daily Telegraph, Bluefield, WV

Columns

February 24, 2013

Years and hundreds of miles later, Dad’s vehicle advice still rings

Three months after getting my driver’s license, I could travel to any community in Mercer County while bypassing all intersections and inclines. The reason was simple: I was driving a clutch.

Why my first vehicle was a sports car with a manual transmission was indicative of the naivety of a 16-year-old girl who didn’t pay enough attention to her father when he attempted to explain the basics of auto mechanics, but had an early love of flashy red vehicles.

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Thirty years ago this month, I was a few short weeks shy of my 16th birthday and eagerly awaiting the day when I would have my learner’s permit firmly in hand. I couldn’t wait to drive and own my first car.

A weekend trip to a local automobile dealership with my father and two older brothers showed me the power of batting blue eyes and the words, “Please Daddy, pleeaazzze.” We had initially stopped just to “look around,” but soon Dad was laying out a down payment on a red Corvette.

I was shocked and amazed I had actually talked him into the purchase, but thrilled nonetheless. Less than 24 hours later Dad changed his mind. The Corvette was off the table (‘‘unsafe for a 16-year-old,” he said). But, Dad assured me, he had found me another vehicle. It, too, was a red sports car — an import, well-used and with quite a few miles under her belt, but sporty nonetheless.

He told me it would be a “good first car,” and noted that it had an manual transmission. One look at the color, the style and target top (similar to a convertible), and I didn’t care. I was hooked, and couldn’t wait to get on the road.

At the time, I was fairly self-confident about my driving skills having spent months zooming up and down our long driveway and darting around the back roads of the coal mines where Dad worked. I had never stopped to think that I had always been driving an automatic. And who knew a clutch could be so temperamental?

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The first time my older brother took me to city park for a driving lesson with my new car, I aced it. He was quite impressed with the way I pulled out smoothly, without stalling, and sailed around the parking lot changing gears effortlessly.

Then came day two. Having my learner’s permit, my brother asked if I wanted to drive to the park, which entailed traveling up Route 52 from Bluewell.

“Sure,” I said, brimming with teenage confidence. Things went well until the intersection at Brushfork near Airport Square. I got a red light, and was the first car in a line of several. When the light turned green and I attempted to pull out, the car began to drift backwards — as older cars with clutches would do.

Funny. No one mentioned that particularly idiosyncrasy of a manual transmission.

I popped the clutch, the car died. Tried again, same result. By this time, most of the drivers behind me were honking their horns, and I was in a full-fledged panic attack. The light changed from green to red about a half-dozen times before I was finally able to pull out with one foot on the brake and the tires laying rubber for a good 20 feet.

The incident scarred me, and I would no longer drive anywhere near an incline on which I might be forced to stop.

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With time, I learned to adapt to the manual transmission. But soon the sports car began to show her age. Mechanical problems ensued. One day she broke down in Bluewell, leaving me stranded, frazzled and a little frantic.

Shortly thereafter Dad traded her in on a blue Camaro. It was the 80s, and Camaros — sadly enough — were the “it” car. The punchline was that the car had a four-cylinder engine. Dad had heard tales of me speeding in the red sports car, and was “slowing me down.”

Through the years other cars — some new, some used — followed: a red Dodge Laser when I got my first reporting job at the Telegraph and a black Mitsubishi Eclipse while I was Lifestyles editor (that was my stubborn stage, when I refused to listen to advice from family that I needed a more practical vehicle).

Years later — after hundreds of car washes — I finally agreed that it was time to be practical. My next car was an Easter egg green SUV in which I covered a myriad of stories and traversed the floods of 2001, 2002 and 2003. It was a tank — albeit a small, feminine one.

After many miles and many stories the next vehicle, a navy blue SUV, carried me through to the next stage of my life — a much more mature phase, one without my parents and in my new role as editor of the Telegraph.

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Two weeks ago, the navy SUV hiccuped and died, leaving me broken down on the side of the road. It was the first time I’d been stranded like that since my teen-age years in the red sports car.

Now, another vehicle sits in the driveway — a sporty, “lava red” SUV. Perusing her lean lines, I am again reminded of that first car some 30 years ago.

It wasn’t the easiest vehicle with which to navigate our steep hills and mountains, but its manual transmission forced me to look ahead, anticipate challenges and be prepared for unexpected hazards around the next curve. That first car sharpened my driving skills, and my life skills.

I think that’s what Dad had planned all along.

Samantha Perry is editor of the Daily Telegraph. Contact her at sperry@bdtonline.com. Follow her @BDTPerry.

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