Thursday, June 14, 2012
"Stick or Slush?"
Hiram, Ohio. 1959. I am 15 ...
Dan: My dad just got a new car.
Friend: Stick or slush?
Friend: Too bad.
It was important then--in 1959--that I knew how to carry on a moderately informed conversation about cars. Guys needed to know stuff like that, and I pretty much didn't. I knew the difference between the hood and the trunk, headlights and taillights. But not really a lot more. But I paid attention when other guys talked. Picked up what I could. Tried not to sound too stupid. Explored the dimensions of agreeing with the guys who knew the most. A good strategy.
Here's something that happened once. In the back of our high school science room (that's right--room, not rooms: ours was a small school) was an old automobile engine, cleaned and mounted and on display. I don't know what it was doing there, but I would sometimes sit back there and look at it and wonder how-the-hell anyone could ever take one of those apart, figure out what was wrong, put it back together. It seemed harder than sentence-diagramming, which was giving me enough trouble. (It's hard to diagram the suckers when you really don't know what, oh, a predicate is.)
One day, two behemoths were back there, seated near me (never a comfortable feeling), and I was avoiding eye contact by pretending to do homework. (We were enjoying that splendid time after a teacher has just said, "Why don't you take the last ten minutes and get started on your homework?" Later, a teacher myself, I learned what such a question means: I've run out of stuff to do and ten minutes still remain in the period!) I could hear that they were debating something about the engine. About the name and location of some part or other. They couldn't agree; things were heating up. Then one of them tapped me on the shoulder. "Hey, Dyer."
"Yeah?" I sounded cool, detached, competent.
"Where's the thingamabobby?" (I can't remember the name of the real part.)
Both of them, faces red, were glaring at me. Both of them could crush me like a cardboard coffee cup. And then--do I have some Huck Finn blood in me?--I asked the bigger of the two, the guy I knew would win a fight between them, "Where do you say it is?" He pointed. "You're right," I said. And turned back to my homework.
"See!" brayed the bigger guy. "Told ya!"
And I lived to lie another day.
So ... the question stick or slush? was a question about the transmission: Did my dad's new car have stick (manual transmission) or slush (automatic)? And--in 1959 Hiram--if you drove a car with slush, well, you were something less than a man. I mean, it wasn't even driving if the car shifted for you!
In Driver Ed class, we used a stick. Oh, were there some funny times in that class, the car bucking along like a spastic bronco while some novice tried to adjust the gas-clutch to get a smooth start. I didn't have any trouble. Not because I'm a gifted driver, mind you, but because back in eighth grade, Johnny Kelker (a friend) had a dad who let him drive their car (stick) up and down their long driveway. Johnny liked to see if he could get it into third before he hit the garage. And every now and then, when Johnny's dad was up on the Hiram campus (he was the Admissions Director), Johnny would let me try it. And so by the time I got to Driver Ed, I had done all my bucking and snorting back in Johnny's driveway.
As the years went along, it became a bit more of a problem to get stick in our cars. Toyota still offered its five-speed (which we loved) in its Corollas until fairly recently, and we always went with it. But now it's all slush, all the time. And I miss it--a lot.
The last stick I owned took me to Massachusetts a few years ago when my younger brother was about to undergo prostate cancer surgery (which I'd "enjoyed" in 2005). I went out to help out. His son, Rick, a new driver, was very interested in stick, so I took him to a large empty parking lot near a church one weekday, and we bucked and snorted around a bit before he got the hang of it, and off we went onto the roads of Lexington, where we sent a number of Redcoats and others fleeing for their lives.
I'll end with one of my favorite "stick" stories. Back in the spring of 1999, I was chasing Mary Shelley's story around Europe--England, France, Switzerland, Italy--and Germany, where stands Castle Frankenstein (though its tie to her story is tenuous, at best). I took a train from Florence to Munich, where I rented a car at the airport to drive around and see relevant sites (the castle, the Rhine, and others). While I was waiting in line, I heard the clerk telling people in front of me that they had only standard transmissions. Stick! Some people turned away, grousing, thinking of long bus and train rides. I strode to that desk, flashed my license, signed those forms, headed for that lot, picked out that car, fired her up, roared out onto German roads like the Stick Stud I've ever been!
PS--If you're interested in Mary Shelly, see my Kindle book: THE MOTHER OF THE MONSTER