My father, the late Charles Sr., spent the last several years of his life teaching driver education, in the process of which he earned the respect and affection of innumerable Guilford County students. But decades earlier, in the 1970s and ’80s, he had taught his own kids how to drive. And for that monumental task, the accolades have been insufficient.
It stands to reason that Dad would eventually be a driver’s ed instructor. He racked up thousands of miles all over the Southeast and Mid-Atlantic as a traveling salesman for a South Carolina-based textile firm. But his driving expertise was not limited to automobiles. He drove everything, from motorcycles to motor homes.
I’m grateful for the lessons Dad taught me behind the wheel, but in retrospect, I also feel sorry for him. There were, after all, four of us — my younger brother, two older sisters and me — and much of Dad’s instruction took place with one of us behind the wheel of a 1977 Honda Civic.
Don’t misunderstand. It was a great little car, but it presented a couple of obstacles: first, Dad was so big he could barely fit in the passenger seat. He looked like an elephant astride a tricycle. And second (this was only an obstacle for me and my siblings), the Civic was a stick-shift.
To the driver unfamiliar with that type of transmission, the term “stick-shift” is synonymous with “whiplash.” Placing a novice behind the wheel of an automobile with a manual transmission is the equivalent of putting an uncoordinated person with no sense of rhythm behind a drum set: chaotic and unpleasant.
But Dad was notoriously stoic and unflappable. I can count on one hand the number of times I witnessed any kind of emotional outburst from my father. (One of those occasions involved a legal dispute, which we lost, against another neighborhood family. Dad delivered the monetary settlement to the plaintiffs in the form of multiple bags of pennies, which spawned a profanity-laced confrontation that nearly escalated into front-lawn fisticuffs. That’s an interesting story for another day.)
He also had a robust sense of humor, which came in handy when, as a consequence of my driving “skills,” the Honda lurched violently forward a foot or two before unceremoniously stalling. Repeatedly.
This must have happened a dozen times. Because of my initial incomprehension of the relationship between the accelerator and the clutch, we were alternately hurled forward into the windshield, and then slammed backward and pinned to our seats.
Dad joked about needing a neck brace, and I remember his melodramatic entrance when we got home: lurching stiffly into the living room, moaning and holding his neck, informing Mom and my siblings that he might require medical attention, etc.
My first stick-shift lessons took place in the parking lot of a church on Horse Pen Creek Road. I wouldn’t be too surprised if the skid marks I produced, lunging and gyrating back and forth so long ago, are still evident today. Echoes of Dad’s laughter probably linger in the air.
A couple of hundred years ago, a British statesman by the name of Lord Chesterfield wrote the following in a letter to his son: “We are, in truth, more than half what we are, by imitation. The great point is, to choose good models, and to study them with care. People insensibly contract, not only the air, the manners, and the vices, of those with whom they commonly converse, but their virtues too, and even their way of thinking.”
I am fortunate to be the son of a “good model,” a man I strive to emulate.