The Truth Always Comes Out in the End
I received my driver's licence, on my second attempt, early in my last year of high school. Back then, in 1970, our family car was a 1959 FC Holden, Australia's General Motors local product. "Family" may not quite be the correct word in our context. My father had passed away four years earlier and my mother, though she paid annually for her driver's licence renewal, didn't really know what to do when seated behind the steering wheel. On rare occasions she took the car out for a short spin, but only if a kindly neighbour was available to pull the car out of the garage and, some minutes later, to return it to its designated spot.
At the end of that year, following peer pressure from some of her friends, accompanied by not just a "little" from me as well, she decided to upgrade to a new car. She justified the purchase to herself in that, as it was now a new model, she too would be able to drive it.
This decision came just in the nick of time. Shortly afterwards, driving home from school one day with a few friends in the old car, Izzy, seated next to me, lifts up the rubber mats and observes the road passing beneath his feet. The hole in the floor was a good foot square. The sad thing was that the car, which fetched a mere $75 on trade-in, had only travelled 40,000 miles -- not a lot for nearly twelve years!
My mother's closest confidant had just bought his son, a chap in my class at school, a Hillman Hunter GT, the car that had recently won the London to Sydney Road Rally. Of course I didn't object to this choice. As it was a just superseded model, we actually bought it for quite a reasonable price. However this meant we had little choice of colour. Ours was white with a black vinyl roof (no air-conditioning) which was quite elegant, sporting one of the most beautiful dashboards I've ever seen on any sedan, very similar to the Jag's renowned wooden dashboard. The other colour choice was black, attended by the same black vinyl roof.
I only realised later that my mother had assumed the car was going to be an automatic. But this topic had never arisen in any discussion. I'd be surprised if the Hunter GT was even produced in automatic.
I had barely taken delivery when she said, "OK, take me for a drive". I put this off for as long as I could -- until I ran out of excuses -- eventually I knew I had no choice. I waited until the following Sunday morning and, as we lived on a main road, I drove around the corner to a quiet leafy suburban street -- Boronia Road for those who know Bellevue Hill. We swapped seats. I was a leaf shaking in a stiff breeze. I reassured myself, "how much damage could she possibly do?" And after all, she had paid for this vehicle. In hindsight, I should have taken her driving in the park.
Parked on the flat street, she drops the handbrake, then gently presses the accelerator, in parallel to releasing the clutch. So far so good. We're moving slowly down the street. She never changes out of first gear. The Holden gears were a three on the tree arrangement; the Hillman is a four on the floor job. For most people this would not be no big deal. I am still shaking -- she is sitting very stiffly.
She drives to the end of the street at about 12 m.p.h. She has no problem steering the bend and then moves towards O'Sullivan Road, the main road at the end. "OK, stop at the corner and check the traffic situation." It was a T-intersection and I wanted her to turn left to avoid having to cross the two-way traffic.
"Don't tell me how to drive!"
. . . but the car does not stop at the corner. It rolls out into the middle of the road. A guy flying down on our right takes evasive action, swerving on our inside. Fortunately no-one is coming at us on our left. But we're headed straight for the golf course fence across the way.
I grab the steering wheel. Hard turn to the right. Up with the handbrake.
"What was that about?"
She had been pushing the clutch instead of the brake. "On the old car the clutch was in the middle!"
Needless to say, she didn't get behind the wheel of that car again. But from that day on, I become chauffeur.
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That summer, following the higher school certificate, I spent a month in Melbourne, first competing in the annual Maccabean Games, which brings together Jewish athletes from around Australia, and then at Bnei Akiva interstate camp. I left the month-old car parked in its spot by the side of the house, in the place we never got around to putting up a carport.
Four weeks into my absence -- camp had finished and I was spending a few more days with friends in Melbourne before returning home -- I get a panicked phone call. I wasn't easy to find -- remember this was fifteen years before the first cell phones. And I was sleeping with different friends each night.
"You've got to come home, immediately!"
"What happened? The dog died?"
"No, he's OK. Nothing happened. You've been away long enough, too long. You have to come home now!"
"I can't believe it -- you pranged up the car!"
"No. How did you know? Someone already called!"
I arrived back in Sydney a couple of days later, and sure enough, the front of the car is smashed in.
"It was parked out the front. Someone must have backed into it under cover of darkeness!"
I didn't believe a word. I just accepted the story. I took the car off to the panel beater. He too was incredulous.
Fast forward again, this time another three years. My mother is married and we've moved house. My brother is now seventeen and wants to take driving lessons. He arranges for an instructor, but my mother suggests I first take him for a spin and explain a few things about safely operating a moving vehicle. It is evening, and I don't want to take him out in the dark. I take him down to my car in the garage. He is sitting in the front passenger seat. I explain the function of the three pedals, the art of using the gear stick; a little background into how the gearbox operates and the function of the clutch.
I start the engine, pointing out the function of the neutral position of the gear-stick, and mention, as an aside, that leaving the car in gear, with the clutch depressed achieves the same state.
Then he asks me a rather naïve question. "What happens if you start the engine in gear and do not depress the clutch?"
"Oh the car would simply jump forward."
"Oh, so that's what happened."
I was a little slow on the uptake in digesting this statement. My mother, who was within earshot, suddenly says, "I never told anyone. I kept it a secret all this time. Now you can both appreciate the love of a mother."
Menachem Kuchar, 5th March, 2011
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