The day I became a fan of the manual transmission is seared into my brain. Oddly, every time I pass a dairy farm anywhere that I travel, I get an odiferous flashback to a manual shifting Bluebird bus, built on an international chassis.
One would think that my first day of school would bring back other memories. I guess it does. But feeling abandoned by one's mother and being thrown into a roving wagon full of runny noses and brand-new sneakers would not be appropriate fodder for a Car Talk blog post from a relatively unknown dipstick from the Pine Tree State.
I do remember crying but hoping that the tears would be invisible to the other kids heading to Ms. Gilmore’s half-day kindergarten class. Thinking back to that September day in 1968, I know that the others didn’t notice my sadness due to the fact that they had just gone through the same thing. We were all in this mess together.
Thank God for Richard. My standard transmission-shifting, dairy-farming driver. He smiled a little as I boarded the bus. It was the smile of a man that had been up for a while. Little did I know that driving the school bus full of miniature ruffians was probably the easiest part of his day. His green work shirt matched his green work pants. Both faded to a different hue. A uniform of sorts. The uniform of a man that could drive stick. I noted the dog-legged lever topped with a faded black shift knob. Inscribed into the top of that knob was a white outlined schematic. Placed there to aid in smooth shifting travel down Route 302.
The motion of the initial launch, or lurch, caused the student body to collectively rock back and then forth in the green vinyl seats. As velocity was gained, the shifts became smoother. I watched Richard masterfully upshift and downshift all the way to the school house. The squeaking clutch spring was the indicator that downshifting had begun and that meant the addition of another person you originally hoped would not take the space in your seat. I never wanted a window. Aisle seats on buses and, later in my life, airplanes, are always preferable for those of us that like to observe things.
As the year rolled on and cooler weather caused the heater fans to drown out the sound of the engine, I noted that the smell of Holsteins and their various leavings would permeate the cabin of the Bluebird. I recognized the smell of cows and by that point it was clear to me that Richard was a dairy farmer both before he picked us up and probably long after he dropped us off. Richard rarely talked. He was a focused pilot. Double clutching from time to time, I watched him row through the gears and dreamed of the day that I could drive a truck, bus or anything with that magical lever on the floor. Thoughts of fast cars and motorcycles would come much later.
Sometimes on the way to the grocery store, our family Ford would pass Richard’s farm. The bus in those days would be parked at the driver’s house. It was a white clapboard covered farmhouse with crooked additions. One big barn full of bovine. Old farm equipment and tractors were parked in various places. The air was thick with Richard’s cologne. During the daily bus rides, I mimicked his moves when I knew no one was watching. Left foot pressing the invisible clutch. My right hand shifting the same pattern that Richard did. I didn’t even mind the smell of the cows. It was a reminder that Richard was in control. I don’t ever remember grinding a gear. I was smooth.
I never really wanted the green Dickies' shirt and pant set. It was cool on Richard but I knew I would never be able to pull off that look. Later in life, in the driver’s seat of my buddy’s 1976 Ford F-250, I learned the dark art of double clutching. I also learned that gas wasn’t cheap but worth every penny. I really was quite happy just riding around. I still am.
With the 460 V-8 “camper special” option under the hood, the 10-ply tires took a beating at stop lights. Believing that the ladies wanted to see black smoke was only a bonus byproduct of the visceral pleasure that dumping the clutch brought to our 16-year-old souls. U-Joints feared us.
Driving home in the Ford F-250 after a double feature at the drive-in movies, we had the windows down to aid us in clearing out the single cab of Swisher Sweet smoke. Wooden tips. We were all class. My hand rested on the faded black shift knob. I could feel the slightly raised schematic shift pattern under my palm. As we passed a small dairy farm, I smelled Richard’s cologne and, just for a minute, I was driving a school bus down Route 302. Hopefully no one would notice that I wasn’t wearing green Dickies.