The Big Shift

The following was written a number of years ago and another version was published in my Lebanon Democrat weekly column shortly afterwards. Good memories:

SAN DIEGO, CA. – Several weeks ago, I had my truck’s air-conditioning repaired before a golf outing in the desert. Driving back, I recalled learning to drive a standard transmission.

Jimmy Jewell, my father, had a career as a mechanic in Lebanon. In 1920 when he was six, he stoked the wood-fired boiler of the mobile sawmill my grandfather, Culley Jewell, operated for Wilson County farmers.

Jimmy Jewell started working for Donald Philpot’s Ford dealership in Lebanon in 1933, located where McDowell Motor Company, owned by J.P. McDowell, later occupied the northwest corner of North Maple and West Main. . He later worked for Bob Padgett’s Dodge-Chrysler dealership until he went to work for Jim Horn Hankins at Hankins and Smith Motor Company on East Main in 1940.

In 1955, he and my Uncle, Alvin “Snooks” Hall started their automobile repair business. Bill Massey later joined them and the business became the Jewell-Hall-Massey Garage. I remember the Mobile “pegasus” above the storefront on West Main. In 1957, my father and his life-long friend, H.M. Byars bought into Jim Horn’s business. Hankins and Smith became Hankins, Byars, and Jewell.

My father, as most fathers do, taught me how to drive. He showed me the rudiments of standard transmissions, but he didn’t teach me how to drive a “stick” shift. I practiced in a used car he brought home on occasion. But it was difficult coordinating shifting with the clutch, and I pretty much gave up on the concept. My driving lessons were in my mother’s 1958 Pontiac Star Chief or in my father’s 1955 Pontiac, both automatics.

H.M. was responsible for me learning to drive a standard transmission. He really didn’t teach me, but he was certainly responsible. In Height’s 1960 spring break, about six months after I had turned sixteen, I was working at Hankins, Byars, and Jewell, mostly pumping gas, checking tire air pressure, and washing car windows.

One afternoon, H.M. came out and announced he had to pick up a Johnson Dairy milk truck and bring it back for repair. He asked me to accompany him. As we came out of the Johnson Dairy office, H.M. tossed me the keys, stating, “I know you can drive a standard transmission, right?”

As my parents can tell you, I was a bit stubborn and thought I could do anything well. So I acceded I could drive a “stick.” H.M. tossed me the keys and left without another word. I vividly recall getting in the seat and looking at the ominous gear shift rising from the center of the floorboard with a black knob on the end.

I was faced with a rather significant dilemma: start the milk truck, learn to shift on the fly, and drive back down the busiest street in town, around the square, and back up East Main to the dealership. Or I could admit defeat, call my father and have him come and get the milk truck.

As usual, I chose the worst option.

I bucked and stalled my way from West End Heights, past Castle Heights Avenue, and over the railroad tracks and onto the square. On the square to a symphony of bleating car horns, I stalled twice and bucked continuously, until I emerged on the east side and reached the shop.

Miraculously, the milk truck and I made it unscathed without wiping out one vehicle, pedestrian, or storefront. In fact, by the time, I got the vehicle to the service bay, I felt like I might have gotten the hang of driving a “stick.” I thought I was ready for a GTO. I don’t recall anyone agreeing, but I don’t recall any significant problems driving a standard transmission after that.

I was adamant about teaching both of my daughters to drive in a vehicle with a standard transmission. Both are admired by many of their friends because They can drive a “stick.” Both had cars with standard transmissions and appear to be glad, maybe even a tad proud, their father taught them.

When their grandfather started driving, it was a bit different. They didn’t have automatic transmissions, and they didn’t have drivers’ licenses. Jimmy Jewell was grandfathered when they began issuing those symbols of big government. It is a big shift from when he and I started driving and my daughters’ driving experience.

I’m glad they didn’t have to learn on a Johnson Dairy milk truck. I am also glad H.M. Byars made me learn in that way. It taught me a lot of lessons.

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