Growing up, I always thought that driving was easy. I watched my parents carefully and it seemed to me that all they did was move the steering wheel around a bit. Easy enough, I can do that. I got my permit when I was 15 and had signed up for driver’s education during the summer. Since I played sports during the school year, this seemed the easiest time to do it. I would go to basketball camp and then head straight over for driver’s ed.
My cousin went to the same basketball camp that I did and since he was a few years older than I was, he drove himself to camp. One day after camp I convinced him to let me try and drive his Gremlin up and down the parking lot one time. The trick was, it was a stick shift and I had never tried one before. But, trying new things has never been a problem for me, so I jumped in and tried to drive off. If you have ever driven a car with manual transmission, you can guess what happened. I killed it. At this point my cousin must have had visions of his Gremlin blowing up, so he stepped in and stopped me from trying again. And my first shot at learning to drive a stick shift was cut short.
My next opportunity came after I had my license. It was after school and my friends and I were hanging out by our cars before we headed home. I was driving my Chevelle (which you can read about here). It was already running. My best friend decided that he would take it for a spin. Without asking me, he jumped in and drove off. He told me later that he wasn’t worried about me driving off in his car because he knew that I couldn’t drive a stick.
Well, you can guess what I did. I jumped in and tried to drive off in his little 70’s Honda Civic (they look like an egg to me. Of course I killed it the first time. But the second time, I took off with no problem. I did know about how to shift because when I was 5, my mom used to let me shift for her when she was driving my grandparents 58 Nash Rambler. It was a three on the tree (meaning that the gearshift was on the steering column). Using this vast experience of shifting, I was able to keep the Hodna going (it was a Hodna because when he had it repainted, they put the letters back on out of order).
I came back to the school a few minutes later and my friend was shocked when I drove up. He asked me when I learned to drive a stick and I told him that I just got done teaching myself. He insisted on seeing for himself, so we drove around for a few minutes to prove to him that I could.
Since then, I have driven quite a few cars that have had a stick shift. When my wife and I moved to France, all of the cars we had available to drive were stick shifts. Since she didn’t know how to drive one, she left the driving to me. Towards the end of our time in France, we took a trip down to the south with our six month old daughter. One day we were sitting in a parking lot outside a large grocery store in the outskirts of Dijon. I went into the store to find us some lunch while she fed the Princess.
It took awhile for me to come out because I found a sandwich cart inside the store and I had to wait in line to get our sandwiches made. Unbeknownst to me, it had started raining pretty hard outside. Jen had finished up feeding Princess and was thinking that I was waiting in the store for the rain to let up. So, she decided to drive up and pick me up. Meanwhile, I finish up getting our food and start out through the rain to the far end of the parking lot where I thought our car was at.
Imagine my surprise to see the car drive by heading the opposite direction in the next aisle over. I tried my best to run after her, but I was carrying all the lunch food without a shopping bag (you have to provided your own in France and I hadn’t brought one in). I chase her down the row, and she turns and goes up the next one. I try and chase her down that one and she keeps going! She didn’t see me for a bit. So here I am, running up and down the parking lot and getting soaked. Eventually she saw me and stopped. We had a great laugh when I got in.
Interestingly enough, that was the only time that Jen drove a stick. Even though we have had a few cars that have a manual transmission, she really has no desire to drive a stick. But that is okay, I enjoy driving a stick and we have other cars that she loves to drive (including this car).
I can truly say that I taught myself how to drive a stick.
Ok, so my wife has been bugging me that I “abandoned” my blog and needed to post a new story. I guess that I haven’t been in much of a story telling mood lately, but I thought of a fun story from when I was in high school.
One Friday night, I was out with some friends. As curfews were drawing close, I started driving a few friends home. My best friend and I (I will call him G) dropped off a friend on the South Hill area of Spokane and then headed north to drop him off in Mead.
We pulled up to a stop light and looked over at the car next to us. It was Mr. H, a teacher and the dean of students at our high school. Mr. H had been our teacher, my basketball coach, and ASB (student government) advisor. He also had lectured me a few times on my fast driving, and rightfully so.
Mr. H drove an old Honda Civic that he called “The Germ” and it was legendary at our school. He would try to drive from basketball practice only using his brakes a certain number of times. If he was running out of his allotted times to brake, he would even run into a snow drift to stop himself.
We were actually surprised to see him out and about that late on the weekend and wondered what he was doing. Mr. H looked at G and I and gave us a look like we had caught him doing something wrong. The light turned green and he took a sharp turn and sped off. G hollered “FOLLOW HIM” and I took off as fast as my trusty 74 Chevelle would go.
The next 15 minutes were some of the craziest driving that I have ever done, including driving in Paris and in Slovakia (more on that driving in a later post). To my credit, I stayed with Mr. H in spite of the driving maneuvers that he tried.
After the crazy chase, Mr. H turned down a residential side street and we thought that we had lost him. We were sure he couldn’t have made it to the next intersection, so we slowly drove up the street. Finally, we spotted The Germ parked in someones driveway. G and I looked at each other and decided to slowly approach the car. We didn’t see anyone until we got right up to the windows and there was Mr. H hunched over.
When he saw us, he jumped out and started laughing. He didn’t give any explanation, but made us promise not to tell anyone what had taken place. We agreed (which I guess I am now breaking that agreement) and headed back to my car. I took G home and we were still a bit thrown off by what had taken place. We figured that no one would probably believe us, so we didn’t really tell many people.
Someday, I will run into Mr. H and I am sure that we will have a great laugh about this memorable night of driving.
Growing up, I had heard about the Autobahn. The place where fast cars got to go fast. No speed limit. For someone who enjoys driving fast, it sounds like a dream world. When I learned to drive, the speed limit was only 55 mph, and that seemed slow to me (and to Sammy Hagar too!) But a place where there isn’t a speed limit? Sounds like somewhere I would like to go.
I got my chance while we lived in France. Our church was a part of a convention of churches from around Europe. Each year we would have an annual meeting somewhere. One year it was outside Venice, Italy.
One year the meeting was in Frankfurt. Our pastor, music pastor, Jen and I drove from Paris to Frankfurt for the meetings. While we were there, I was invited by a friend of mine to come and visit his youth group in Kaiserslautern. This was more or less an hour drive. I drove over by myself, following my friend. It was raining and he didn’t drive too fast.
But after the youth group, I got to drive back to Frankfurt on my own. Here was my opportunity. I get to drive on the autobahn all by myself! Oh…how excited I was. I couldn’t wait to get my chance to drive fast! Now, at this point you might be asking what sweet driving machine I was behind the wheel of. If I made a list of 100 cars that I would want to drive on the autobahn, the car I was in wouldn’t have even made the list. It was an Opel Vectra. For those of you that aren’t familiar with Opel, it is a German company that was owned by GM until 2009. They have been making cars since 1899. But really, they are not exciting cars.
But this was the car that I had to drive, so I was going to see what it could do. In the car’s defense, it was a well-built car that had been maintained very well. So it was a safe car. But how fast would she go? I had no idea, but I had a goal in mind. 200 KPH (124.27 MPH for those who don’t want to convert this in their head). If I could hit 200 kph, I would feel that I had really accomplished something.
What I needed to find a good long stretch of road that would allow my non-super car to get up to this speed. Add in the challenge of other cars and I was going to have to pick my spot well. When driving in Germany, you have to watch your mirrors for the faster cars coming up behind you. If they flash their headlights at you, you should move over very quickly. As I was making my assault on 200 kph, I had to get over a few times to let people pass. This slowed me down a bit, but didn’t deter me at all.
I pushed that little car and I was able to not only hit 200 kph, but go over it slightly. My heart was thumping so loud and the adrenaline was pumping. I was loving life. And, to my amazement, even at 200 kph I had cars passing me! I didn’t stay driving that fast for long. I slowed down to 135 KPH…which is the smarter speed to drive. While it is true that there isn’t a speed limit on the autobahn, what you don’t hear is that many insurance policies don’t cover you if you are driving over 135 KPH. So if you get in a wreck going over 135 KPH, you are liable for any damages
I would have to say that driving on the autobahn was a blast…when I was going 200 KPH. When I wasn’t, it really was just like driving on any other freeway…well, except for the fact that all of the signs are in German and I never did figure out where the heck Ausfahrt was.
Ah…my Chevelle. Now, I say that it is mine, but it was supposed to be a family car. But as far as I was concerned, when I turned 16, it was mine. I went to a small Christian school, and so our parking lot wasn’t real big. So, I quickly claimed “my spot” right across from my two friends’ spots. I loved this car and would wash it and dream of ways to fix it up to make it better.
I do have to tell you that I did everything in my power to keep my older sister from driving it (sorry, sis!). One of my best tricks was whenever I knew she was going to drive it, I would run out to “my” car and disconnect the main wire on the distributor cap. This would keep the car from starting. It would sound like it should start, but it never would. She would get mad and take our 1975 Impala and I would then get to take the Chevelle. This worked well until my father, who was a mechanic, figured out what I was doing. Then I would be in big trouble if I tried that.
Now, the Impala looked horrible. I actually got into my first accident in the Impala. It wasn’t my fault, and didn’t do much serious damage, but it did make the ugly brown car even uglier with dents all along one side. The top had the vinyl covering that was a faded off-white and was flaking off. This didn’t help the look of the car either. But, this car could fly. I could burn out (spinning the tires) with just a little power braking, (sorry Dad, I used up your tires) and this was always a hit with my friends.
The Impala was easily the faster car between it and the Chevelle, even though they had the same size engine. (I attribute this to the transmission in the Impala that was geared better.) So, my choice of cars to drive depended on what I wanted to do, look cool (Chevelle) or go fast (Impala). When I did drive the Impala, I would usually amaze people with how fast this big old boat really was.
Since I loved driving fast, my parents would let me go to the local drag racing strip and race there on some Friday nights in the summer. Now, my dilemma was…do I want to look cool or go fast. Well, since it was racing, I went with the Impala. I took a bit of a hit driving that ugly boat with all of the other cool cars there, but in the end, it was so worth it.
Now picture the other drivers, that come with their very cool looking Novas, Camaros, Mustangs, and other sweet looking muscle cars. And I roll up in my poop brown, dented up Impala. I know that I heard some snickers and saw some people point. But, like I said, that car was fast. After I ended up beating them in a race, they weren’t laughing anymore! I even made it to the semifinals one time, but I lost because I went too fast!
It was also fun, because many of the guys that my dad worked with had really awesome drag racing cars, and they were all there. So I was able to hang around with them and their cool cars. That helped a bunch. Plus they would give me good pointers on how to race faster. My parents would come out and watch me race. I know that my mom didn’t really like the racing all that much, but I knew that she was up in the stands yelling as loud as she could for me to win.
Eventually, after I graduated from college, my dad sold both the Impala (someone bought it to take the engine and put it in another car for racing!) and the Chevelle. I was sorry that these two cars had to go away. Not as sorry as when my dad “sold” our Chevy Biscayne, but that is another story for another day.
One of the most interesting things about driving in Paris is the parking. It is hard to find places to park on the street. You can usually find a parking garage, (“un parking” in French) but what fun is it to pay a bunch to park? No, the challenge was to circle the block for an open spot. It is cheaper (or free) and you get to hone your parallel parking skills.
Now, here in the good old US of A, many spots are marked out for you. Whether you have a big car or a small one, you get the same size spot. Not so in Paris. If you can fit your car in the spot, you can park there (one of the reasons that Smart cars are so popular…you can park them anywhere). So, your parallel parking skills are really put to the test. But on the flip side, you can be aggressive in your parking. What? That doesn’t make sense! Oh yes it does. You can totally bump into the cars in front and in back of you. So the spot only needs to be a few inches bigger than your car in order to fit into it.
One time I had to take a friend to pay a bill at a hospital. I saw a spot and told him I would wait for him there. This was going to be tight, but I managed to park in a tiny spot, on a hill no less. While I was sitting there playing games on my lame cell phone, I felt the whole car rocking and shaking. I looked around to see what hit me when I realized that it was just a car parking behind me. It felt like bumper cars, but that is just how they park!
Most Friday nights, my wife and I would drive in from the suburbs to our pastor’s apartment a few blocks from Trocadero for a Bible study. This is when the fun would begin. We drove two different station wagons while we were in France, first an Opel Brake and then a Volvo V40. Both of them were small by American standards, but in Paris, they felt like trying to park a Humvee! Our plan was to circle the block (or about four of them) and find a spot to park. Then the fun ensued!
I would determine that our car would fit into the spot, then I would begin my 15 point parking process. Now, if you have plenty of room, you can parallel park with a three point process (which would have been nice to be able to do on my driving test, but that is a completely different story). But when you are trying to get in a spot with much less than a foot on either side, you can’t do it in a few moves. In order to maximize every inch, it is acceptable to touch the bumpers on the cars on either side. This allows you to get into much smaller spaces than you could ever imagine. It is a fun challenge!
I came back with the ability to parallel park like a pro. But, often I lament to Jen that I really miss my bumper car parallel parking. But I try to be good and not touch anyone’s bumper. Look at me, not being aggressive. (If you haven’t read my blog about driving in Paris, check it out here.)
It is possible to be too aggressive. Here is not how you park in Paris (at the end, listen to the people who are watching yell at the guy).
When I took drivers ed in 1985, one of the big things that they teach you is to drive defensively. Now, for a teenage boy, this goes against your very nature. I couldn’t wait to get my license so that I could drive our Chevelle, and drive it fast. It is a wonder that I didn’t get into serious accidents or even get a ticket, but I didn’t. Over the years, I have had to learn to slow down and look for all the bad drivers that tend to want to cut me off or run into me. Driving defensively is a smart way to drive…in the USA.
But, in Paris? No way. You let your inner NASCAR driver out and go nuts! (Which is one of the reasons that Jen didn’t want to drive in France.) If you wanted to get anywhere, you have to learn to drive super aggressively. Case in point, I was the first youth pastor at our church that didn’t total a car while driving in France. I will have to be honest, I absolutely loved driving this way. You cut people off, honk your horn (a lot!), and look for the smallest opening to fly into.
One of my favorite things that I loved to do in Paris was drive through the Etoile. Everyone knows l’Arc de Triomphe. The roundabout that encircles it is called l’Etoile. Here, twelve (yes 12!) roads come into one giant circle…that has NO LANES!
When we first moved to Paris and drove around, we would often end up places where we weren’t quite sure how to get back to the western suburbs where we lived. But, in Paris, finding the Etoile was easy. I could find my way home from the Etoile, so for a long time, every time we went into Paris, we would drive through the Etoile.
Now, there are two basic rules to these big roundabouts. Use your horn as much as you can and whoever is to your right has priority. So, the people coming into these big roundabouts can cut you off and you can’t do anything but honk. So, I loved entering the roundabouts…fly in and they have to avoid you. But, the tricky thing is getting out of them. Those darn drivers coming in have the right of way, so you have to figure out a way around them. That is where you channel your inner Frogger and try not to die. But, if you are aggressive enough, you won’t get stuck in the roundabout for too long.
Whenever we had friends come and visit us, I would try to drive through the Etoile with them right at the start of their visit. Once they saw that we could survive that craziness, they relaxed on the rest of their trip. The rest of the crazy driving that they saw didn’t seem to bother them as much. They were often amazed that 1) I would be even willing to try and drive around in it, and 2) that I loved it so much. Plus there was the added bonus of a bigger, more confusing roundabout just down from the Etoile that we would drive through and after going through the Etoile we would get to drive down the Champs Elysees.
One of the hardest things about moving back to the US was toning down my driving. I once again had to go back to driving defensively. Jen had to remind me often that I couldn’t use my horn so much. I had to learn again how to not purposefully cut people off. And I also don’t have any big huge roundabouts to have fun in.