A few years ago, I was in an accident that totaled the car — but, happily, not me. I replaced the old Honda with another — a 1990 Accord with just over 200,000 miles — and the intrepid crate, mottled paint and leaky trunk, served its purpose perfectly. That is, I got from one place to another as surely as if driving a BMW or Audi.
There was only one complaint I had about the Accord. It was an automatic. Like many people my age, I learned on a stick shift — specifically, on Dad's frog-green 1951 Ford. My father bought the car used — this was way before "pre-owned" -- in, maybe, 1957, to replace our 1939 Pontiac and, the day we picked up the Ford, I thought, brother, now we're cooking.
The Pontiac had the look of a stevedore, wide and brawny, but the Ford, oh, man, the Ford was a rocket ship by comparison. It seemed to lean forward and had two decorative bullet heads in the grille. There was a radio, for Pete's sake, and a snazzy dashboard and gear lever with a black ball at the end. I didn't care about the color. This baby would fly me to the moon.
My early tries at shifting, however, were less Buck Rogers than Clarabell the Clown. With me at the wheel, our Ford was balky as a rodeo bronc. But then I got it. This much clutch, that much gas, keep it smooth and steady. The herky-jerkiness disappeared and, though I'm sure my dear parents, Winnie and Fred, did so with terror, they encouraged me to get a license and drive by myself. Did I ever. From Bay Ridge to South Brooklyn and, though it was supposed to be off-limits, over the bridge and into Manhattan. The city! Look at me.
For decades after, I favored stick shifts. I married a New Jersey girl whose father — a swell guy who hailed from eastern Oregon and knew everything about mechanical stuff in the way small-town westerners often do — taught her well, on a standard transmission. Winky — her name is Eileen, though mostly on formal occasions — was not only cute but could slip through those gears like slicing Velveeta. The girl for me.
Our first car was a Ford Fairlane station wagon and then a succession of VW buses, and a Volkswagen camper, too, that took us coast to coast with our four kids one '70s summer. The buses were way underpowered, and downshifting was a must on the hills of Pennsylvania, let alone Rocky Mountain inclines. Fourth, to third, to second — and sometimes, first, too. Ain't we got fun? Later, Winky and I owned a couple of VW bugs, and stick shift Toyotas, and then entered the Honda phase of our marriage — two hatchbacks and a steel gray Civic wagon that logged 330,000 miles.
At some point, though, Winky said maybe the time had come to opt for convenience — we were getting older, weren't we? -- and we bought an automatic Subaru. The 1990 Accord was a great find after my wreck but now, with the Subaru in our two-car fleet, we were, well, shiftless.
I missed the feel of really driving, of gearing up and down as circumstances demand — the SUV ahead stops abruptly in front of Starbucks for an emergency mocha grande, say, or a cellphone junkie walks into the crosswalk while texting dinner plans — and not relying on the calculations of some far-off automotive engineer.
This summer, I decided to part with the old Accord. My 20-year-old grandson down South was without wheels — a terrible thing in the endless Atlanta suburbs — and, for the last couple of years, I had been eyeing a Honda Fit, which looked to me a lot like the Civic wagon we called the Silver Bullet. I made the plunge, bought the Fit — steel gray, standard transmission.
A few weeks ago, my younger son and I headed for Georgia. He drove the Accord earmarked for grandson Ryan. I was at the wheel of the Fit. In Dumfries, Va., the Accord sprung a serious coolant leak, but a genius local mechanic named Dean pulled the engine half apart, replaced an old manifold gasket and, serious money left behind, we were dashing to Dixie again.
I handed off the Accord to Ryan. The kid is thrilled — who cares if the odometer shows more than a quarter-million? It's his. I'm thrilled, too. I'm shifting again, in control of my driving destiny, going from fifth to fourth when a little extra oomph is required, and starting off in first, smooth and steady.
Winky? Now she tells me she misses the old days of left pedal and right, of moving through the gears without a grind, and, though she doesn't say it, maybe of being that Jersey girl, her father's daughter, who could drive a car as good as any guy. The other day, Winky had to move the Fit in our driveway. She gave it a little too much gas, she said, and started with a lurch. Next time, she'll nail it. Some things you never forget.