Category Archives: Sticks

My life with cars

Sticks VI – Basic arithmetic

I was out on the deck a few nights ago on hummingbird monitoring duty when I remembered this story.  It’s a gratis part of the Sticks Series, no extra charge.

When I was hanging out with the sports car crowd, there was a woman who I shall call Zoey in the mix.  She had been unblessed with the statistical improbability  of contracting polio when that sort of thing was way out of fashion.  But Zoey was not the sort of person to let a minor problem like that slow her down.  She had a left leg with a set of metal braces, and she had to sort of sling it around to walk, which gave her a bit of a drunken sailor gait, but nobody cared.  The story goes that when she graduated high school, every member of her senior class limped and clunked across the stage so she would not look different.

And so it came to pass that the sports car club held a solo event at the local race track.  This is a step above roaring around mall parking lots, but a lot safer than an actual race, since it’s one car at a time against the clock.  But since it’s on an actual race track, you can get some serious three digit speed on the dial.

Zoey had her own car, although I shall not identify it.  By the snobbish sporty car rules of the time, I would be required  to denigrate and disrespect it, so I shall refrain from an accurate description.  It did have a clutch and a stick, so I’ll leave it at that.

By some random selection, it was my lot to ride around the course with her on a lap, to show her the way and lend her the questionable value of my expertise.  So I strapped in and off we went.

We started off on the front straightaway, about a three quarter mile section leading into turn one, a long right hand sweeper followed by turn two, a much tighter left turn.  I wasn’t paying much attention until we were most of the way down the straight, when she went for fifth gear at the fastest part of the course.

She did not have enough strength in her braced left leg to work the clutch, so she pushed it down with her left hand on her left knee.  This allowed her to work the shifter with her right hand.

Those of you with acute mathematical skills may have noticed a slight problem with this scenario.

I certainly noticed the problem, and I’m glad Zoey was too busy driving to notice the terrified look on my ashen face.

But it worked out OK.  Her distinctive style meant that she only shifted up or down on straight sections, setting up for the next turn in advance, which is generally good technique anyway.  Her healthy right foot, planted on the loud pedal, did just fine.

I was impressed and appreciative, but one lap was enough.  I did not volunteer for any more instruction.

I know when I’m outclassed.







Sticks V – Near Miss

And so it came to pass that the Porsche and I were travelling through the wilds of central South Carolina, heading north toward Mooresville.  I can’t recall the exact occasion, but it was probably not a particularly happy one.

But getting there was pleasant, as we cruised along the two lane, exceeding the legal limit by enough to satisfy my rebellious nature but not enough to attract regulatory attention.  The car was so spartan it didn’t even have a radio, but the strident song of the tuned exhaust kept me content as we ate up the miles.

We popped up over a slight hill and I saw a car driving somewhat slowly ahead of us.  I didn’t see that as a problem, and I moved into the left lane to pass.  But about a second later I realized that I could see both door handles on his left side.  He was turning left.  We were in a jam.

The brakes immediately came on, hard enough to slow down but soft enough to maintain steering.  We gently drifted right, then the brakes released and the throttle went down enough to stabilize the suspension  as the right wheels flirted with the marbles on the shoulder.   A set of tail fins flashed by my window, and the throttle eased as the car side-slipped back onto the pavement.  The whole sequence took about 4 seconds.

After a few quick breaths, I realized that we were in third gear, although I didn’t recall how.  A little gas and a quick shift resolved that problem and we were back at speed.  I confirmed that I was still alive, although that simple fact had been at issue a very short time ago.

For the next few miles, I expected a comment from the car.  I didn’t hear anything, although there was a loud thumping noise in my chest that might have drowned it out.

But the next morning I went out and there was an interoffice memo taped to the wheel.

Dear Dummkopf:

Yesterday I pulled your roasting chestnuts out of an open fire.  I didn’t do it just for  you, I also  didn’t want to smack my immaculate fenders into that hideous piece of Detroit scrap iron.  It’s OK, you don’t have to thank me.

You know I am proud of my 4 wheel disks and my agility, but I would really prefer not to be called upon to demonstrate them without  proper  notice, particularly on a public road.  Let’s leave that sort of thing  to the track, OK?

In the future, please try to exercise what little intelligence and judgment you may possess to avoid such situations.

Thank you.

Well, my first impression was, “What a snob!”  But given my own history of such things, I didn’t have a lot of standing to complain.  And more importantly, I had indeed been asleep at the switch the day before.

I did try to clean up my act.  Many years and many cars later, The Boss has been known to say, “Maybe I should drive, so we’ll get there on time!”

But I know, in the imaginary made for bad TV screenplays that cycle through my head, when the Federal Agent commandeers my car and says, “Follow that Evildoer!”  I’ll do just fine.  I’ll kick the bad guy’s butt into a spectacular flaming crash scene, and then pose for the heroic final shot before the credits roll.

Or perhaps not.





Sticks IV – Autocross

It was late 1969.  I was stationed in New Orleans watching my ship get built, and one weekend I attended an autocross.  An autocross is a fun event for sports cars, a one car at a time run against the clock on a closed course.  Some are held on parking lots with the course marked with orange traffic cones, and some are held on actual race tracks.  They are a lot of fun, and a mostly safe way to wring out your car.

But this one, my first one, I just watched.  I pulled up in the Porsche and parked so everybody could see it, but I just watched.  I was totally convinced that because I had borrowed enough money from a Navy credit union to buy a 4 year old used car from a dealership in Atlanta, I was an absolutely cool guy.  It seemed patently obvious at the time.  After viewing my awesomeness for a while, the organizers tried to get me to make a run, but I declined and just sat there looking cool.  I thought.

I had a nagging feeling, although I didn’t want to admit it, that if I actually tried to compete I would botch the whole thing, look like an idiot, and disgrace the sacred name of Porsche.  So I just watched, and tried to keep looking cool.  But when I didn’t want to enter the event, people kind of lost interest in my elegant presence.

A few years later, in Savannah, I found myself watching another autocross in a mall parking lot.  The years since the first one, with their succession of personal, professional and financial disasters, had pretty much cured me of thinking I was a cool guy.  In fact, I no longer really gave much of a rodent’s posterior if people though I was a cool guy.  But I still had the Porsche.

As I watched everybody else roar around the course, I got a little down.  Then a voice in my head said, “Are you having fun?”  Obviously not, I thought.  In a lot of ways.  I assumed it was the car messing with me again, but the accent was all wrong.  It wasn’t German, it was something else.  Maybe… New York.

I watched one more car run the course, then walked over to the registration table.

Since I was a rookie, an old hand volunteered to ride as a passenger to show me the course and check me out.   I revved up the engine a bit, and it somehow sounded a bit more purposeful than it did in my morning commute.  The cobwebs were being blown out.

Being in a parking lot, it was a tight course.  First gear in the car ran up to about 30 mph at 6,000 RPM, so I only hit second a few times.  The turns were tight and I was having a great time.  But then I hit the limit of my capabilities.

Almost through the course, there was a left/right/left chicane leading into a short straight with a hard left at the end.  I made it through  the initial left/right part OK, but friends and neighbors, at the third left I just flat lost it.  Suddenly I was sailing down the straight in a 30 degree left crab, tire smoke billowing and my foot still in the throttle out of a mixture of exuberance and panic.  I was watching my progress through the passenger window, catching a glimpse of my passenger trying desperately to stay calm in the clutches of a crazy man.

It’s hard to maintain speed when you’re moving mostly sideways, and in a second or two the car slowed down enough that the tires regained their grip and slung us off to the left.  I’m sure you saw this coming, but once again we darted dead center through the next gate.  I recovered enough to make the final right turn through the timing lights and finished the run.

My guide looked at me, said “Uh, Well, OK, I guess…” and shakily got out of the car.  For some reason, he never rode with me again.

The car giggled.  I don’t know how to describe a Germanic giggle, but that’s what it was.  I could hear it.

I may have giggled a bit as well.

I was having fun again.



Sticks III – Porsche Quirks


I’ve had some rather strong relationships with cars over the years, but most of them didn’t talk to me.  Even the Porsche, my partner in misspent youth and foolish behavior, was Teutonically taciturn.  It did communicate from time to time, though.

The first time was early on in our relationship, the first few months.  I was in the Navy, driving to “The Navy School” in Athens GA, where I was supposedly learning how to be a Supply Corps Officer.  Part of the route was a left turn off a two lane highway onto a local road.  It was a nice spring day, after a few pleasant little showers.  It is within the realm of possibility that I was just a bit over the speed limit when I reached the turn, so I stomped smartly on the brake pedal and turned the wheel.  In an act of obvious insubordination, the car kept going perfectly straight.  I had been summarily demoted to passenger.  In an attempt to reassert my authority, I turned the wheel a bit more to the left.  No change.  Just as the term “hydroplaning” began to enter my now nervous young mind, the tires squeezed out the last of the rain.  As they suddenly  took hold, the car turned ninety degrees left like a county fair bumper car, and I was deposited right where I needed to be on the side road.

As I was working back up through the gears, I could have sworn I heard “Dummkopf!” in an exasperated voice.

However, the car did have a sense of humor.  With its VW Beetle ancestry, it had a reserve fuel tank.  It held about a gallon and a half, so if the main tank ran out, you would reach up behind the dash and find the valve lever on the firewall, turn it to the right and wait for fuel to fill up the carburetors.  This was long before the high tech days of electric fuel pumps and fuel injection.

The fuel pickup line was in the front of the main fuel tank.  So naturally, the most likely time to drain the fuel lines was under acceleration, with all the gas washing back to the rear of the tank.  Also naturally, this tended to happen when the dumbass driver pulled out in front of a massive propane tanker or a poorly maintained logging truck with faulty brakes.  Just as you got in the middle of the road and floored the throttle, the engine would bog down and sputter.  The only recourse was to reach down and switch tanks and proceed to frantically pump the gas pedal to get the acceleration pumps in the carbs to fill the lines.  You couldn’t take the car out of gear, because then the engine would stop entirely.  So with death and destruction filling the rear view mirror, and wishing that the Presbyterians had come up with a functional equivalent to a Hail Mary, you worked your feet like a demented squirrel dancing across the griddles at a Kiwanis Pancake Breakfast.

But of course, the car had everything perfectly  under control, being in firm  command of all the machinery.  Just as the shadow of the logging truck’s ragged and rusty front bumper reached the tailpipe, the car would let all four 40mm venturis have a taste of precious hydrocarbons and Our Blessed Lady of Acceleration would  not fail us.

And the car would snicker.

Out loud.

I swear.  I could hear it.

Every damn time.

By now, some of you more mature and reasonable readers might be moved to ask, “Why didn’t you just put some gas in the thing when the gauge said you were down to a quarter tank?”

Well, after thinking about it, I have to say:

That never occurred to me.


Sticks II -Teen Paradise Lost

This was originally written as a Threadstart, the initial post for an in-game thread on the Davidson College Basketball message board.  That will help explain some of the references.  We were playing the University of NC at Wilmington.  The car is only a bit player in this story, but it was important in its own way.

In the Spring of 1964, my senior year in High School in Greenville SC, my Dad bought a new car.  He actually ordered it from the dealer, picking the options.  I really don’t think he had ever bought a new car before.  But what was amazing was that he bought what I wanted!  It was a Corvair Monza, 4 speed two door.  He actually popped for the high compression engine, the 110 HP version.  Considering that the family stable at the time consisted of a ’53 Chrysler and a ’56 Studebaker, I considered it a major step up.

My friends all wanted Chevy 409 Impalas and Pontiac GTO’s, but I of course heard a different drummer.  I had been allowed to drive a Porsche about a mile and a half a few years earlier, and I was a sports car guy.

The Corvair was not my car, of course, but I was allowed to drive it when it was available, and drive it I did.  I didn’t have to have an errand or a mission, I just drove, mostly in as curvy a place as I could find.  I learned my way around the shifter in about an hour, and it was speed-shift city from then on.  It was really a nice transmission for its time.

And She liked it too.  She and I were getting along pretty well, after a half year high school adversarial romance.  We had kind of finally decided we belonged together, and the summer was fun.  She liked to shift, so I would do the footwork and she would move us up the gears on command.  I let her actually drive once, until she refused to give it back.  Finally, She stopped at a light and I reached over and turned off the engine and pulled out the key.  She was not pleased.

In the Fall, I went off to Davidson and She was off to a small college in Alabama.  It never occurred to me that this might have some effect on our relationship.

We didn’t talk much, telephony being in its infancy in those times.  She was in a competition for “Class Favorite” and I sent her flowers, using the phone next to the furnace in the fratty-club basement and promising to mail a check to the florist the next day.  Times were different then.  She won, of course.

I got the bright idea of going to visit her unannounced. Even today, I consider this the single stupidest thing I have ever done, not counting momentary spur of the moment things. Using a combination of airline discount cards and hitchhiking I made it there without a problem, and She was actually glad to see me.  We had a nice weekend, but getting back entailed a whole lot more excitement than I was counting on, although it turned out OK in the end.

For Christmas, somehow a plan was developed, although I don’t completely remember how.  I stayed at Davidson, and She drove up to get me in the Corvair.  I have to point out that my parents really liked her, probably better than they liked me.  They thought She was a good influence on their socially awkward son.

It started really well.  She made it to campus, and I took over my rightful driver’s seat.  We went in to Charlotte for a nice dinner in an actual fancy restaurant.  I was on a roll, quite full of myself.  We drove back to campus, and I found a nice dark “parking spot”.

I have to point out that considering the times, and the two people involved, there was no possibility of any activity with potential medical or procreative consequences.  But I did expect, considering the evening’s events, a bit of serious smooching.  I mean, a lot of serious smooching.

Instead, She kind of huddled against the passenger door, and said quietly, but firmly, “I don’t love you anymore”.

Now, that’s a statement that doesn’t really allow for a lot of clever rebuttal and counter arguments.  There’s just not a whole lot you can say.  I certainly couldn’t think of anything to say, as most of my teenaged world crumbled around me.

Words failed me, but I did still know how to drive, and that seemed like the only thing left.  I backed out of my now irrelevant secluded refuge, and ran up through the gears.  We then proceeded to cover a wide swath of the countryside around the college.

First, second, third, fourth, and then hope for curves.  Stop sign ahead, third, second, first.  Pick a turn, right or left, kick it up again through the gears.  There was no conversation, just an air of mutual loss and the muffled drumbeat of the exhaust.

I didn’t offer to let her shift.

I’ve always had a pretty good compass in my head, and after what seemed like a very long time, or maybe it was a very short time, we were parked in front of the house where She was staying.  There was not a lot of conversation at the door.

I picked her up the next morning and we headed home.  I-85 is pretty much a top gear run, so I didn’t have the helpful distraction of shifting.  I could have used some distraction, as the conversation was pretty sparse.  We stopped for lunch in Gastonia, at a restaurant where I had eaten before with the high school football team. It didn’t seem as good an idea as it had when I was planning the weekend.  I still have an unfair grudge against Gastonia.

We got back to Greenville, but I can’t remember the logistics involved after that.  That next summer I made an unannounced visit to the summer camp where She was working.  She was neither amused nor interested.  I haven’t seen her since, in the intervening 50 years.

The Corvair didn’t seem to care about all the teenage drama.  I drove it in the summers, and actually was able to have it at Davidson for my senior year.  It went to Canada for Expo ’67 and slid into a ditch on the Blue Ridge Parkway (earning me a distinctive and rare Federal traffic ticket).  I crunched the left side headlights in the snow coming back from a basketball game in Greensboro, and backed the left taillights into a very strong bumper on the Davidson campus.  It was pretty ragged by early 1969, when it served as the trade-in for the Porsche.

And as for She, I got over it relatively quickly.  After all, there are a lot of streetcars in the sea.  As I got older, those old memories were eclipsed by much worse new memories which involved multiple lawyers and venues.  I didn’t think about She much.  But with the advent of the ‘net, searching for old friends got to be a lot easier and more  anonymous.  Killing time one night, I did manage to track She down a bit, and found about what I expected, a nice stable life with a husband and kids.  I’m not bitter at all, and wish She well.  I’ve never tried to make any kind of contact, but there is one thing about She’s current life that I noticed.

Wait for it…

Here it comes…

She lives in Wilmington.

Go Cats!

Sticks I

Pink Hair pops her head into my office.

“Can you drive a stick?”

First of all, I’m a bit offended.  Can’t she see the piece of an old race car mounted on the wall?

But there must be a story here, so I listen.  Her friend Matthew is stuck downtown.  In his family shuffle of automobiles he wound up with a stick shift econo-box in need of attention.  He had picked it up at a repair shop and tried to drive it home.  However, he is inexperienced with a clutch, and driving through historic Savannah with its squares, traffic  lights and meandering tourists is not a suitable training exercise.  He has wisely parked it in a hotel loading zone.  He needs help.

We trundle downtown and I get out of the car to help him out.  Then it turns out that with all his false starts and sitting with the flashers on to avoid a parking ticket, the battery is stone dead.  An hour of various alarums and excursions ensues, but finally I’m in the left seat and the engine is running.  It dawns on me that I haven’t driven a manual transmission for many years, and this one has a nearly dead battery.  Choking it down would mean a massive loss of parental face.

I get it rolling with way too much throttle, and we’re off.

After a few shifts, it’s starting to come back.  Hey, I remember how to do this!  Soon we’re stopped at a light, waiting to cross Oglethorpe Boulevard.  I’m in first, holding down the clutch.


Suddenly it’s 1970, and I’m in Jacksonville Beach on my way home from the ship.  I’m first in line for the traffic light, just the way I like it.  Just across the intersection is an overpass, a short concrete tunnel.  The car is a 1965 Porsche 356SC, with  milled heads and a custom camshaft.  But the best part is a magnificent bit of metallic stagecraft hanging out the rear end.  It appears to a casual observer be a muffler, but it’s actually a megaphone to dump all the noise to starboard.  If I work this right, and I usually do, I can hit 6,000 RPM  in first gear by the middle of the overpass.  The resulting reverbatory cacophony will be exquisite, as usual.

But then I’m back in 2011, and it would be ungentlemanly to blow up Matthew’s little Ford.  I ease on down Price Street.  This thing doesn’t have a tach, just a wildly conservative light that tells you to upshift just as things are starting to feel good.  But the past comes back.

It’s 1974, and I’m driving a Lotus Esprit as the pace car for an SCCA sports car race.  My boss at the dealership thinks this is a good way to show off the car.  The rule of thumb to start a race in this class is “on the cam” in second gear, and I’m there, watching all those wienie cars in my rear mirror.   It dawns on me that I could keep my foot in it, hit third, and most likely lead the first few laps.  But I don’t think that would be appreciated, and I pull into pit lane like I’m supposed to.  By the way, I also took my mother to K-Mart in this car.  She thought it was kind of silly.

We’re cruising South, out of downtown, and things are opening up a bit.  About Gwinnet street, I have another flashback.  I’m in an Alfa Romeo Spider, (red of course) with the top down.  In another “show the flag” deal, I’m driving in a rally.  This is not a race, but a geekish navigation exercise, with the goal being to match a predetermined average speed.  But we have missed a turn, and I’m trying to catch up on these backwoods Georgia roads, to get back to the calculated speed.  I need to point out that the Alfa has a classy chrome shift lever mounted right on top of the transmission.  The box itself is smooth as a peanut butter and honey sandwich, and I’m flying.  Over the wind noise, my navigator says, “You know, I think you LIKE being behind!”  Guilty as charged.

I’m getting comfortable now, and it’s time to enhance Matthew’s education.  “You know, Matthew, you don’t really need a clutch if you know what you’re doing.”  I drop back again to the early 70’s, selling cars with hydraulic clutches notorious for blowing seals and ceasing to function as planned.  We were used to it.  When a customer called in to complain of a lost clutch, we’d take a shop car to them, trade keys, and drive their car back.  Sometimes we’d beat them to the shop.  It’s a simple drill.  If you have to stop, turn off the engine, put it in first, and hit the starter when the light turns green.  Then, with a little care and footwork, you can run through the gears with your left foot on the floor.

With the confidence of five minutes back in the shifting business, I announce a demonstration.  Matthew turns a bit green, but I make it through the gears clutchless.  He turns a deeper shade when I demonstrate the old heel and toe trick by downshifting, blipping the throttle and braking all at the same time.  I confess, by now I’m showing off.

We turn left onto Derenne Avenue, and we’re in four lane traffic .  I’m transported back to the early 80’s driving conservatively down I-95 with my elder daughter, who was herself a beginning driver at the time.  We are in a 1978 Saab WagonBack, a nice family conveyance.  I’m in the left lane at a gentlemanly pace, easing past a semi.  Suddenly I spot his turn signal in my peripheral vision, and I realize three things:

  1. I’m under his mirrors, I’m a little guy, and I don’t think he sees me.
  2. My EPA approved horn is too weak to get his attention.
  3. There is a lot less truck ahead of me than trailer behind me.

I quickly grab a handful of fourth gear out of fifth and a boot full of gas pedal.  The old girl picks up her skirts and moves smartly forward.  My daughter’s big brown eyes get a little bigger.  “I didn’t know this car would do that!”  “Well”, I replied, “Usually it doesn’t need to.”

In 2011, we’ve turned left onto Matthew’s quiet street.  But I’m thinking Saabs again, this time my 1982 silver four door sedan.  With a turbocharger.  A turbocharger with an attitude.  When you get it into the boost, it whistles, shakes and starts dropping miscellaneous parts onto the road, but it sure is fun.  I’m almost to Matthew’s driveway in 2011, but in my mind I’m at the intersection of US 301 and some anonymous road in South Georgia, running my traps.  I’m at the stop sign, with no cars in sight in all four directions.   It’s time.  I hit first through fourth at full throttle, turbo wailing and enjoying itself.  I’m well into triple digits when  a modicum of discretion requires a slight lifting of the right foot and a shift to fifth.

Turning into Matthew’s driveway, I realize that for the last 8 years I’ve been driving a four wheeled living room that Pink Hair calls “The Cloud”.  It’s no slouch, and even has a shift-friendly transmission, but it’s not quite the same.

So I’m old.  But I CAN drive a stick!