Thursday, October 14, 2004

Driving lessons

Oh, how wonderful it was to be young and stupid! However did we survive?

I've been in so many car wrecks that even the wildest among you would probably gasp if I threw out a number, while vigorously shaking your head in disgust and boring through me with stern, cold eyes.

Truth be told, I stole my sister's car when I was sixteen, and wrecked it. My father told me then never to bother asking him for his car keys. And I didn't. I would steal my mother's car occasionally, but never my Dad's. I hit her car against a whole bunch of stuff too, but I never totaled it.

The next thing I drove was a tank. Yup. The US government grabbed a snot nosed kid who's entire driving experience was limited to racing and wrecking stolen cars and put him behind the wheel of a sixty ton M1 Abrams tank.

The most important thing a person needs to know about driving a car with a manual transmission, is that all traction is lost when you put your foot on the clutch.
I learned my lesson too late on that one.

I was freshly moved to Altadena, straight out of Fort Riley, Kansas, into a rented room in a nasty little house. Living the dream. Working a security job and driving a red 1975 Buick Skyhawk, with bubble tires, no spare, and a hatchback without a latch. When you're twenty-two you feel invincible. I don't think I even knew about speed limits.

One fine evening, with sheets of rain and bolts of lightning thundering down from a dark sky, I was on my way back from the grocery store. I'd just spent my spare pennies on a few cans of food (I had then and have now very limited cooking skills). Though it was only a two mile drive back to the house, I chose to get on the freeway because it had an exit that left me only two blocks away from home.

There wasn't much traffic. I sped onto the on-ramp with characteristic recklessness, and darted out into the flow at full speed. There were a couple of cars blocking progress in the two middle lanes, so I slammed back into third gear to go around them on the fast lane. Twas then that I lost all traction. Since I was steering to the left, the car skidded in that direction, fortunately avoiding other cars but headed toward the median. With my feet slamming on both the clutch and the brakes, and my hands pulling the steering wheel sharply to the left, the car started spinning endlessly, once, twice, three times...until, facing oncoming traffic, the car came to a jolting halt when the rear end came slamming into the median.

I wasn't wearing a seatbelt, of course. Nor did I have insurance (auto or health). But luckily, I was fine. The hatchback had flown open and my precious cans were out on the wet road. After hesitating for a moment, I got out and gathered what I could. I still had to eat after all.

Traffic was still moving slowly, cautiously beside me, when I pulled out in front of them, turned my car around and carefully headed back down the road. I had the shakes, a small cut on my forehead, some bruised ribs on my right side, and general soreness all around. My car only suffered cosmetic damage. I don't know what happened to the median.

You think I learned to drive safely after that? Nope. Not quite. I was to have many worse accidents in the years to follow. But there is one thing I learned, even though it took somebody else to point it out to me. You lose all traction when you step on the clutch.

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