Zola By the Dashboard Light

When I was learning to drive Synchromesh was a fairly new improvement to the automobile transmission so we were still taught to double-clutch when changing gears. I wonder how many readers remember when to double-clutch or even what-the-Hell a double-clutch was? A clutch?

The Drivers’ Ed teacher that summer was a old football coach. When reading the official Dress Code memorandum aloud to the class, he was genetically incapable of saying the word “provocative.” Can you believe that’s the main thing I remember from that class?

You had to be fifteen back then to begin to drive unless it involved motorized farm equipment or if you really needed to drive yourself to work each day. I imagine they modified the farm requirement seeing as how the modern reaper or bailer in the hands of a thirteen year old might be considered a tad dangerous, and the work need was handled by upping the minimum age to qualify for work papers (unless you were a migrant worker and it was tomato season). Also, when you were only fifteen you had to have a qualified driver with you in the car. This wasn’t usually a problem since you only had to be sixteen to be a fully qualified driver back then.

Driving was an important skill, so much so that it required two separate classes in High School: One to learn about cars and driving through books and lectures called Drivers’ Education, and the other to actually learn to drive a car called Drivers’ Training. To put it another way, Drivers’ Ed was where you learned what a clutch was and Drivers’ Training was where you learned how to operate a clutch. Drivers’ Training was a split course. There was an old single-wide trailer out by the parking lot, inside of which was a very non-Disney array of ancient mechanical simulators. In this early man-cave, a dozen road warriors stared at a grainy black and white newsreel flashing on the screen before them depicting city streets, country roads, the occasional right or left turn, and two or three Farmer-Browns you could wipe out if you weren’t observant and fast on the clutch.

In the second part of the course you actually were trusted to drive a car. Back then an instructor and six students would fit into a single car and the driving course, unlike my experience later in life, was down-the-road across-the-bridge and straight on to the highway. At first it was scary but you learned fast … you had to.

Later, after I moved to the other coast, I heard stories of the driving age being eighteen and the drivers’ training being outside of school at the students’ expense. When my daughter came of age she insisted on getting a learner’s permit, arranged and paid for her own driving lessons, started working at a business requiring a familiarity with cars, and aced her driving lesson on the first try. When it comes to driving cars or even trucks, she is a pro.

Nowadays they no longer let me drive—too slow, bad eyes, and simply too old to be hurtling down the avenues squinting and drooling.

Fortuitously I no longer need to be out and around with the Moon Roof open and Blind Boy Grunt pounding on the custom speakers. Every few months my daughter stuffs me in the van and hauls me over to the clinic for some kind of checkup. This last year, however, it was almost entirely stay at home to avoid the pandemic. Like Burgess Meredith, I had all the time I wanted to read book after book, and when I needed new reading glasses, I didn’t cry … I just ordered them over the internet.

It’s August. The twenty titles in my reading pool seem to be going faster each month so I’m expecting to add at least two Big Fat Books before the month is over, possibly from my Bucket List but I’m still deciding. Even so, the first twenty are set:

  1. Homeland Elegies — Ayad Akhtar
  2. Foundation and Empire: Foundation 2 — Isaac Asimov
  3. The Rabbit Factory — Larry Brown
  4. Americana — Don DeLillo
  5. Styx — Bavo Dhooge
  6. The Parade — David Eggers
  7. North & South — Elizabeth Gaskell
  8. Klara and the Sun: A Novel — Kazuo Ishiguro
  9. Some Rain Must Fall: My Struggle Book 5 — Karl Ove Knausgârd
  10. Deacon King Kong — James McBride
  11. Panther In the Basement — Amos Oz
  12. Morte d’Urban — J. F. Powers
  13. Weymouth Sands — John Cowper Powys
  14. Bodega Dreams: A Novel — Ernesto B. Quinonez
  15. An American Type — Henry Roth
  16. The Counterlife — Philip Roth
  17. Queen of America — Luis Alberto Urrea
  18. Fu Ping: A Novel — Anyi Wang
  19. The Chrysalids — John Wyndham
  20. Son Excellence Eugène Rougon — Émile Zola

4 thoughts on “Zola By the Dashboard Light

  1. When I wascstudying accountancy I drove buses in the morning to fund my living expenses and tuition. You had to be 21 years old. to drive the British doubke deckers. They were all double declutch gearboxes. You learnt to change up wujckly with no clutch, just by getting the revs right, but thatvwas after giu had been examined doing it properly. Changing diwn you always needed the clutch. The buses were tall, weighing to tons, and were a handful on our narrow, twisting roads. I just loved it, even though the unassisted steering anc huge pedals were very heavy going for a 9 stone lass. Afterwards when syncromech came in fir cars, they seemed a breeze to drive. Enjoy your reading. I’m reading a two volume work about Napoleon.


    1. Mastering the clutch was once a major milestone in life. One of the many reasons for admiring my daughter is that she can drive just about anything. When I got her her first car she opted for the one with a standard transmission, even though she had never driven a “stick shift.” Her job at the car detailer meant she often had to drive strange vehicles: cars, vans, trucks, luxury sedans. In college she drove the jitney (short bus) for local transportation and even on extended field trips.

      I always smile inside when a large truck pulls up with my daughter at the wheel and her big strong man comfortably settled in the map-reading seat.


    2. Your post reminded me of my old Volkswagen. This had a transmission which, with skill, shifted fairly smoothly between the gears without the benefit of the clutch. You could even start from a complete stop without the clutch; but it was also very easy to start without using the starter (dead battery) by popping the clutch after a short push or a mild incline.

      In Los Angeles I had an MG TD which was awash with mechanical problems. One day I dropped the transmission and had to travel home on busy LA boulevards reduced to what was effectively third-gear. In this instance it was the delicate operation of the clutch which got me home (actually, to the nearby repair shop).


      1. Driving a non-syncho gearbox was fun and I took a strange pride in doing it. My grandfather was a haulier and I drove his early Scania with a syncro box, it seemed boringly efficient after a crash box. It was his second artic unit and he was proud of it, but I liked his older 4 axle Leyland truck better. My dad used a large pickup for his work, a Bedford. That really was fun to drive. He was a steel erector and used it to move his equipment. I loved to drive it. He also had a series one Landrover non- equipment moving days. It was a sturdy beast and would go anywhere off road.


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