When I was about 19, my parents bought a second car.
For most of my life we’d only had one but with 4 drivers now in the house, the whole “who gets the car tonight?” discussion was turning into a slightly more polite version of a WWF Smackdown.
So the folks shelled out hard earned dough for a used Chevy Citation X-11 in a reddish color that Martha Stewart would probably call “Burnt Umber”.
It didn’t look exactly like this picture, but pretty close.
So, the one kicker with the X-11 was that it had a manual transmission, better known as a “stick shift”. (For all you millennial types who have never heard of such a thing, ask your parents. They’ll explain.)
For anyone who may have learned to drive a stick somewhere in the flatland expanse of the Great Plains, say, like Denver for example, believe me when I say driving a manual transmission car in Pittsburgh is a totally different ball game.
For starters, Pittsburgh is incredibly hilly. (See picture.)
Take your foot off the brake to move to the gas pedal with the clutch engaged and suddenly it feels like you’re rolling uncontrollably backwards at 47 mph. Probably because you ARE rolling uncontrollably backwards at 47 mph.
Second, all the roads in Pittsburgh were built sometime shortly after the Revolutionary War when the major modes of transportation were horses, goats, and feet. So, in addition to being ridiculously hilly, the streets are also ridiculously narrow.
- Kate Moss could lay down on a Pittsburgh street and have both elbows touching the edges of the asphalt.
So, here I am at age 19, behind the wheel of a Burnt Umber Chevy Citation X-11 with a manual tranny, forced to relive the joy of having my Dad teach me how to drive yet again.
In the interest of full disclosure, he wanted to take me to the High School parking lot and have me drive around in circles for like 6 weeks before letting me out on the road, but clearly my 19 year old ego wasn’t having any of that nonsense.
“Saddle it up, old man! I got Summertime parties to get to!”
Which is how we found ourselves, the two of us, tooling around Pittsburgh with him intermittently barking instructions while slamming his foot on the imaginary brake that was nowhere to be found on the passenger side of the car. (BIG believers in the imaginary brake, my people.)
About 11 seconds into the drive we come to one of those bowel shifting Pittsburgh hills. Maybe not quite as bad as the one pictured above, but close.
As I roll smoothly to the Stop sign, I notice that a bad ass Orange Mustang has pulled up behind me somewhere between 8 and 14 inches off my ass end.
My Dad says, “You got this, right? If not, just put on the emergency brake and we’ll switch.”
With little or no confidence in my suddenly sandpaper dry throat, I managed to spit out a “No, I got it.”
Left foot on clutch. Right foot on brake. Move right foot from brake to gas. Gun the hell out of the engine…….aaaaaand start rolling uncontrollably backward at 47 mph thereby smacking the bad ass Orange Mustang right on his front bumper.
“Emergency brake! Put on the emergency brake and get out”, says the Old Man.
Information is exchanged. Apologies are made. 19 year old schmuck slinks into passenger seat and stares silently out the window while considering the depths of his ass-hole-dom on the ride home.
It wasn’t just the money I knew the fender bender was going to cost me, though that was part of it.
And it wasn’t just the frustration of having to acknowledge that my YOUNGER brother was already totally adept at driving stick, though that was part of it too. (He’d done his learning while I was still away at school.)
I think what upset me most was that I was the one who had convinced my Dad to skip the parking lot training and head straight out onto the road. He was right. I was wrong. And that’s a shitty combination when you’re 19 and relatively sure you know everything there is to know.
About an hour or so after we got home, my Dad knocked on my bedroom door and asked if he could come in.
“Blarggedy blargen flarg”, I mumbled toward the door.
He pulled out the desk chair and sat down across from me, resting his hands on his legs.
“Look, I know you’re upset about the fender ding, but the truth is, it was my fault.”
I had to blink a time or two to make sure this guy was really my Dad and not some alien imposter.
“Your fault”, I said?
“Yeah. I know how hard it is to drive a stick shift around here and I should’ve known it was too soon to go out on the road without some parking lot practice. That was my mistake. Nothing for you to worry about.”
“Uh, okay. Thanks.”
“We’ll give it another try when you’re ready. A little more practice and you’ll have it in no time, I promise.”
And with that, he turned and walked out of my room.
No lecture. No bill for damages. No “I told you so” moment. Nothing. Just an apology.
Years and years later, when I became a parent myself, I realized how hard it is and how much strength of character it takes to own up to your mistakes in front of your children.
It’s so easy to fall into the role of almighty, infallible parent. And deep down inside we’d all love to remain almighty and infallible in the eyes of our kids.
But that’s not reality.
Kids don’t really have any power of their own so if you want to be the guy who’s always right, that’s your prerogative as a parent. But by insisting on always being right, you can make your kids always wrong by default. Kind of a lose-lose situation there.
I’ve already had to face my kids numerous times with some version of the “Man, I really screwed THAT up. I’m sorry” speech and I imagine it’ll happen more times than I can count in the coming years.
But, as I learned from my Dad almost 30 years ago, sometimes we teach our kids more by being wrong than we do by being right.
(PS– I now KICK ASS at driving stick. Vroom. Vroom.)