My life behind the wheel didn’t start behind the wheel at all; It began behind the gear shift. As the oldest child in a family of four my spot in our 1980’s era Nissan pickup was between the front bucket seats, one leg on the driver’s side, one on the passenger’s side, straddling the gear stick. Dad drove while my younger brother sat on Mom’s lap. The close quarters left little room for maneuvering which meant the job of switching gears fell to the person closest to the stick: 12-year old me. I learned to listen for the drop in engine noise and wait for the slight pause in forward motion when Dad stepped on the clutch. More importantly, I learned to feel the tension created by the application of “equal gas” when accelerating from a stop. It got so that Dad and I operated in unison, our actions timed perfectly, driving the truck together like a single unit.
With all those hours logged behind the gearshift I assumed learning to drive would be pretty straight forward. On the contrary, Dad made sure I spent the first dozen lessons peering over my right shoulder driving backwards . At the time I felt disappointed. Puttering around in reverse wasn’t how I pictured my driving debut. But, looking back I realize the tactic was brilliant. It would have been easy to start the car and go forward feeling like I’d already mastered the hard part – the shifting. But Dad wanted the experience to feel foreign. He wanted me to understand that even though I’d spent three years with a hand on the gear knob I in no way had a handle on driving. He wanted me to see that even in a tiny sports car or on a motorcycle, most of the vehicle is behind the operator. Today I credit all that driving in reverse for an increased understanding of the way my vehicle moves through the world, the space it occupies. That spatial awareness makes me an alert driver, a conscious driver, a safer driver.
Not to mention I can parallel park like a boss.