A friend told me last week that her grandson had just turned 16 and was now the proud owner of that coming-of-age document, the learner's permit. The accomplishment was the highlight of the young man's life.
I still remember receiving my learner's permit. But, in that long-ago time, reaching that milestone was far more difficult than it is today. The reason was that dratted clutch.
As anyone who has suffered through either learning... or teaching... the operation of a standard shift car can attest, the only way to master the relationship between the clutch and the gearshift is while actually driving the automobile.
The learning period involves stretches of tooth rattling, neck whipping, body-jolting action unlike anything short of an out-of-control carnival ride. It's a time of high stress for both the learner and the well-meaning instructor.
These days, there are few adults, with the exception of my daughter, Sherri, who chose to operate a standard shift car. Those of my generation who had to learn the technique have happily switched to automatic transmissions and never looked back.
But it's not just the shifting that separates today's drivers from those of past generations. Folks who learned to operate cars in the '40s, '50s and '60s developed some unique approaches to their driving adventures that often got the attention of those sharing the roadways with them.
One driver that stands out in my memory was my long-ago neighbor, Bina English.
Mrs. English, who drove a massive tank-like black Plymouth, often invited my non-driving Mom and I to go along on grocery shopping trips.
From the vast back seat, I'd nervously watch Mrs. English. My fears were sparked by a heart-stopping habit of our chatty neighbor. As she drove, she carried on a running conversation with Mom and me. But, instead of just talking, Mrs. English continually turned her head and gave her full attention to her listener, whether beside or behind her.
Mom and I sat with eyes fixed on the road, bracing for what seemed to be an inevitable crash. Yet somehow Mrs. English, without a break in her talk, managed to pull her big car out of harm's way at the last second. Though she was queen of the close calls, that fact had less to do with her driving skills than with the quick responses of those who had the misfortune of sharing the roadway with her.
Another driving technique I found more than a little unsettling was the routine used by my late father-in-law.
Pop Schenk was very protective of his car and seldom took passengers. But occasionally, he would decide it was time for the family to visit relatives. Then, we'd all pile in.
Pop's standard method of operating a car was to keep one foot on the gas pedal, one on the brake.
Never content to drive in the middle of a group of vehicles, he inevitably worked his way to the head of the line. From there, he'd use his stop-and-go pattern to control all the cars behind him. Their honking never distracted him from his unique driving pattern. Every trip with Pop was a jerky journey.
The big, heavy vehicles of yesterday, with their gearshifts and temperamental clutches are now only found at classic car shows.
Today's drivers have the advantage of much more responsive and comfortable transportation. But chances are there are still chatty drivers like Mrs. English and start/stop drivers like Pop Schenk out there, adding their own brand of excitement to the roadways.