Thursday, October 30, 2008

Steve learns to drive a diesel stick shift jeep

I never got behind the wheel of a moving car before I started taking driver’s ed at St. John’s Prep School in Minnesota 41 years ago when I was 15. We used a simple-to-shift automatic. It wasn’t until my father came to visit me that I encountered a stick shift.

Dad came down from Duluth. He parked the car in front of the main entrance to the school. For those of you familiar with the St. John’s College/Prep campuses, there were not too many other places dad could have parked the car to make it more difficult for a first-timer. The ’65 Mustang was a powerhouse, “4 on the floor.” It required more than the average gas to get it going without a stall. I remember when my mom first drove it. We lived on a hill so starting out was a breeze. But when we got to the main road, she kept killing the engine. Finally she said the heck with it, gave it way more gas than it needed, and threw rocks a quarter mile back down Lindahl Road.

Somehow Dad thought I would know how to drive a stick shift. Furthermore, he must have felt that starting on an uphill would be no problem. Well, he was wrong on both counts. He had to explain how to keep your right foot on the brake while pushing in the clutch with the left, then slowly letting out the clutch until you felt the gear begin to engage so that you wouldn’t roll backward, then shift your foot off the brake and onto the gas, and push the gas pedal (but not too much or too little) while letting out the clutch. Note: It also helps to be in the right gear.

Needless to say, it took a while. Dad, usually patient, got kind of flustered after a while. I couldn’t understand how he could have possibly thought I would know how to drive this monster, and he couldn’t figure out how I could not already know how to drive a stick. I also think he was afraid that before I got the car going up the hill I was going to leave the transmission under the car and he’d have to walk the 150 miles home.

For those of you who can remember learning on a stick, see if this sounds familiar: You let out the clutch too fast. The car jerks and the engine dies. You start it again. Oops, forgot to push in the clutch, car jumps and jerks to a halt. Push in clutch, let out clutch too slow, don’t go anywhere. Let out clutch too fast. Jerk and die. Eventually you get the car moving forward, shift to fourth instead of second, car barely wants to move, dies. Repeat.

I honestly don’t remember if I ever did get the car going on the uphill, or if Dad had to drive it somewhere where it would be easier to start. I became an okay manual transmission driver, but after we sold the mustang I had very few opportunities to review my skills.

Eventually Dad got to be a fan of Oldsmobile Diesels. I think he bought one every other year from about 1978 until around 1986. The early ones had real problems and got a bad name, but the later ones were very reliable and got great “gas” mileage. And contrary to popular opinion, they were the best starting cars in the coldest weather due to their double batteries and glow plugs. They were, however, slow accelerators and always had that smell of oily diesel fuel. Because we were married in 1973, we only saw Dad’s cars on occasion. We bought our own six-cylinder Olds diesel station wagon in the mid ‘80’s and inherited a diesel Tornado from Dad after his death in 1988. So I am somewhat familiar with diesels.

Jump ahead to 2002, and my first trip to the Philippines. You couldn’t help but notice that an awful lot of vehicles here are diesels. With the exception of luxury cars, buses and motorcycles, it seems that everything runs on diesel. The fumes hang in the air of Manila. Even the bancas (small double-outrigger boats) chug along on diesel fuel. Diesel fuel is slightly cheaper than gasoline here and readily available, and when you live on an island available is good.

So when we went shopping for a vehicle we had three primary goals: 1) the driver’s seat had to fit me, 2) the vehicle had to be stainless steel to withstand the salty air, and 3) it had to be a diesel. We ended up only shopping at two places that had already been selected by Ronald and Fidel, Corregidor Foundation Inc. (CFI) staffers. The first place we looked did not have anything to fit category 1, in other words, they were all very suitable for the average five to five and a half foot Filipino. Once I almost got stuck behind the driver’s seat of a jeepney (a larger jeep-like vehicle used for transporting lots of Filipinos facing each other in the back seats). Fortunately I was able to straighten up again after a few minutes.

The second place, however, had one Nissan turbo-diesel with a seat that could be moved back sufficiently that I could actually fit and press the pedals without feeling that I was eating my knees. Filipinos like loud vehicles, and we had to ask the dealer to add a muffler, which he agreed to do free. (I think he added one, although it is still pretty loud.) They also love stickers. One on the back says Single Son. I don’t know what it means but I am my father’s only son, so it’s accurate. One on the lower front windshield says Simple Dreams. Fitting enough. And the one on the side says Amazing, so I always refer people to our Amazing Jeep. There was one further sticker, this one on the top of the front windshield. I had to ask for that to be removed, since I sit up about six inches higher than Filipinos, and I couldn’t see a darned thing out the front of the Jeep. Ronald test drove it, since there was no way I was going to drive this thing in typical Filipino traffic without first getting real acquainted with it.

Okay, so we owned the jeep. The next thing was to get it delivered to the island. I believe that Ronald and Fidel drove it to Camaya Point. In any case, we arrived on Corregidor a week ago Wednesday and it was supposed to have been delivered the same day. However, low tide and strong winds prevented delivery until the following day. It was towed over on a barrel-supported barge and delivered to the north dock around 4:00 in the morning. So when Marcia and I went down to see about breakfast, there were Ronald and the jeep.

After showing me what each of the buttons and levers does, Ronald handed me the keys and said, “Time to try it out.” He coached me through the essentials, like pushing in the clutch, releasing the hand brake, (real important as I have since found out,) turning the key to the point where you then apply a lever to warm the glow plugs for five or ten seconds, then turn the starter and off you go. I got to the off you go part before I managed to kill the engine by letting out the clutch too fast. But after only another one kill, off I went.

For those of you unfamiliar with Corregidor, it’s steep. Sure there are flat spots, but to get anywhere you are going to go up and down on some pretty good slopes. The secret is to be in the right gear. The Nissan is a five speed. First is up and left. Second is down from there. On the level, second gear is fine to start out. You really only need first gear to get up the steepest grades. In fact, you can pretty much get by on the island with second and reverse, since you want to be in a low gear going down hill so that the engine compression acts as a brake and you don’t go flying off a 3 or 400 foot cliff. On this particular vehicle, reverse, which is far right and down, is hard to find; it wants to go into fourth, a worthless gear here. I have learned to get it into reverse, but it is tricky. You couldn’t get by without reverse here if that’s what you’re thinking.

One last thing: the traffic on Corregidor. The main road on Corregidor goes from the middle of the tail on the east to a circle around the head, where we live. I don’t know, maybe five miles of pavement. This describes Manila traffic: crowded and nuts. This describes Corregidor traffic: me and the road. We did have an oncoming tour bus pass by this morning, and have had to move over for a pedestrian or two, plus a motorcycle that was saving fuel by coasting down the hill.


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