Before enlisting in the Army, I lived in Germany. The amount of things to see and do was endless. Rich history, castles, museums, and bordering countries that people pay thousands of dollars every year just to visit for a week at a time. Even driving on the autobahn was an experience, since there was no speed limit.
My first, permanent duty station was Fort Polk, Louisiana. When on post, the only things I did were; sleep, eat, drink, do laundry, or watch T.V. One can imagine the level of boredom this created. To top it off, I had no transportation. It was a major challenge to go anywhere or do anything.
Off post, in the town of Leesville, there really wasn’t anything enticing either. Just gas stations, fast-food restaurants, a couple of stores and if there was anything else, I just don’t remember.
However, I don’t think there was.
The closest town to Ft. Polk with anything of interest was Alexandria and it was about an hour away. They had a mall. I knew this because, I lived there from seventh through tenth grade. I decided to drive to Alexandria to go to the mall and visit with some friends from high school.
The challenge was that none of the car rental businesses would rent a car to an eighteen year old. Someone told me that they knew of one in particular. So I caught a ride from a fellow soldier and made my way to the rental office.
Sure enough, this place was legit. The owner of the business took a risk on young soldiers because he wanted to help them enjoy life. So I rented some sort of very early eighties, white, Chrysler sedan. It wasn’t pretty or cool, but it drove.
My first trip to Alex wasn’t anything to write home about. I visited with a couple friends, went to the mall and then drove back to Fort Polk. However, my first taste of freedom did give me a raging case of car fever.
I HAD to buy a car…
With no experience whatsoever, I had a friend drive me down to the nearest car lot. He said he would wait for me while I purchased a car. On the way in, I saw a brand new, gray, Ford Escort and decided it was mine.
Normally in a place like this, the second your wheel hits the lot, about a hundred salesmen come spilling out of the doors in a mad stampede. With laser-guided precision, they lock in on your signal and zoom towards you, business card in hand, shouting, “What can I do to earn your business?”
Being so excited to have my own mode of transportation, I made it inside before any salesmen came out the door.
Once inside, I told someone that I picked a car and was ready to buy it. With no money down, I signed a loan for the full price of this brand new car. This salesman must have been dreaming about someone like me, his entire life.
With keys in hand, I went check out my new purchase. Sitting in the driver’s seat, I put my hands on the wheel and then reached over to grab the gear shift.
Wait a minute…
Suddenly, the realization hit me that I just purchased a stick shift. In all three years of my driving experience, I’d never learned how to drive a car with a manual transmission.
The salesman asked if I wanted to take it for a spin. Trying to play it cool, I told him, “Na, I’ll just come back to get it later.”
On the ride back to work, I nonchalantly asked my friend, “Hey, can you explain how to drive a stick shift?”
Of course, he knew how. The explanation sounded something like, “You push on this pedal, move the stick around, then switch pedals.” Sounded easy enough.
After work, and with my new found confidence, I had a different friend drive me back to the car lot. He dropped me off and I got behind the wheel of my brand new car. Everything was so pristine and the smell of the interior made me feel like I was about to drive a Rolls Royce.
Using the instructions I was given by my friend, I was able to push the pedals, move the stick around and get the car in motion. As I rolled out of the parking lot, I made it to the first street and landed at a red light. With some pedal-shift action, the car came to a nice stop.
And then something happened…
Red Light Green Light
When the light turned green, I did the routine again. However, this time when I pushed the gas pedal, the car lurched forward, maybe an inch. Then in a violent motion, with an equally violent sound, the car just died.
What the heck was that?
Sitting there dumbfounded, the light turned red. So, I shifted to neutral and restarted the car. To my amazement, the car started right back up. It sounded just like the first time I turned it on, like nothing ever happened.
When the light turned green again, with some slight hesitation I shifted into gear. When I stepped on the gas, the car started to roll forward with promise. Out of nowhere, another violent reaction stopped the car dead in it’s tracks…
What was I doing wrong?
Leesville was a pretty small town, so there wasn’t much traffic.
However, as I sat there in my state of starts and stalls, an occasional car would come up behind me, see the routine, decide to navigate around me and leave me in my predicament. A couple of drivers shouted a few choice words as they sped past me. I even received a few single finger waves from some of them.
This went on for over an hour. No matter how many attempts I made at moving the car, I only succeeded in making it about a foot. My friend left me at the dealer, and in 1988 there were no cell phones. I was just stuck. It was to the point of abandoning the vehicle and walking back to the Army Post.
Deciding to give one final attempt at this manual transmission nightmare, I looked down at the shifter. There was a diagram on the top of it. On further inspection, I noticed the number one was left and up. I put the car in neutral and turned the key, which started the engine for the bajillionth time. With my right foot on the brake and my left on the clutch, I shifted left and up. The shifter followed my lead. With a slow switch from clutch to gas pedal, the car moved forward…
Whether the light was green or red, I don’t remember, but I was moving…
Seeing on the shifter where the number three was in relation to the number one, I realized what the problem was. During this entire ordeal, I had been trying to start driving in third gear…
I really needed to get my shift together.