Sit down behind the wheel. Close the door. Fasten your seatbelt and shoulder harness.
With your right hand, grasp the gearshift knob, eighteen inches off the floor atop the shifter stick. Grasp the knob from above, so that it fits into the palm of your hand.
With your left foot, press the clutch pedal to the floor. Push the stick around until you find "neutral," that slot that allows the stick left-right movement. Once in neutral, release the clutch.
Shove the key into the ignition switch -- yes, a simple, flat metal key. Turn the key clockwise, and hear the little engine spring to life with a tenor roar. Is the engine warm and eager? Or cold and reluctant? Let it idle a few seconds to grow warm, or not: your choice, and your consequences.
Now it's time to get under way. Put your right foot on the brake pedal and release the parking brake with your left foot. Then move your left foot back to the clutch and press it to the floor. With your right hand, still clutching the shift knob, shove the stick hard left and then up. The shifter engages first gear with a brisk "thunk."
Pivot your right foot on its heel so that the ball of your foot shifts rightward from the brake pedal to the accelerator pedal. Rest your foot lightly on the accelerator. Partially lift your left foot off the clutch. Let the car edge forward for just a second before releasing the clutch completely; and in that brief time, listen to the engine:
Is it revving high enough, or not? If so, release the clutch fully, gently, so that the car moves smoothly into full motion. If the revs seem low, or if the car is pointed uphill, depress the accelerator lightly before releasing the clutch; you don't want the engine to die, but you don't want to powershift either. It is a matter of judgment. You and the car will discuss it, through sound, vibration, and acceleration (or the lack thereof) in the half-second that this decision requires.
Clutch released, the car moves out smartly; three miles an hour, then five. Lift your right hand off the gearshift knob and grasp the steering wheel in the two o'clock position. Depress the accelerator: eight miles an hour; twelve. It'll soon be time to consider second gear.
Congratulations. You've just started a 1991 Honda Civic sedan with a four-speed manual transmission. All those steps, all those decision points -- and yet the complete process takes five seconds. Seven, perhaps. Easy as pie.
Or it seems that way -- if you've driven a stick, and only a stick, for 35 years. Tens of thousands of cold starts, hundreds of thousands of shifts, the endless soft-shoe dance across three foot pedals: they engrave themselves on your nervous system until you could no sooner forget them than forget to breathe.
But every stick-shift jockey has to start somewhere. For me, "somewhere" was an empty church parking lot and a '64 Volkswagen. It took some work, it did, to learn to pop the clutch reliably, without stalling.
I got there, though, thanks to my father's tutelage. Dad wasn't an easy man to know; moody, touchy, insensitive, insecure. Surprise, surprise, he wasn't much of a teacher. He took the typical questions that a kid might ask as a challenge to his own competence.
And yet Dad held his temper, that time when he taught me the art of the stick shift. No matter how often I stalled out that poor Beetle he would offer sound advice and send me out to try again.
I don't know how he managed it, or why, but I'm grateful. High school driving classes taught me how to drive Mom's car -- a big wide Buick with an automatic transmission and power everything, a car that did all the work for you. But ddn't do it very well. Dad taught me to drive simple, severe cars that did none of the work for you, but would do whatever you could physically make them do.
And for 35 years thereafter, I drove a stick: four speeds, five speeds, even an eight speed for awhile. I'm no great driver, nor a lover of big engines and many horses; but I liked little cars that let you feel the surface of the road, that would sing to you with their gearboxes and, if you listened, tell you just how much more of third gear they were willing to put up with. Simple cars for simpler times. Cars you could wear like a tee shirt.
And besides, manual transmissions got better mileage and performed better than automatics, right?
As the years passed, not so right. Automatic transmission improved -- in capability, flexibility, and in the end, even fuel efficiency. And you didn't have to learn to clutch, or even shift much if you didn't want to. Your robot masters in the drive train have it all taken care of.
When America fell in love with sport utility vehicles, that was pretty much the end for manual transmissions. Nobody wanted to wrangle a clutch in one of those monsters. Today, maybe seven percent of cars sold in this country are equipped with manual transmissions. Automatic transmissions are good, they're efficient, they're easy to use. People want them.
There's no tragedy here. America will not fall because today's teens, mostly, don't know what a clutch pedal is for. Maybe for other reasons, but not that one.
And me? I've driven an automatic for six years. Not just any automatic, either, but a Prius hybrid. I wanted a hybrid; and for such a car, a manual transmission is not an option.
A Prius offers the driver, basically, two gears: forward and reverse. All the finesse is handled by the sophisticated software that runs the car according to its own logic. A logic that, by the way, I don't always agree with. And yet I have no regrets; the Prius is a comfortable, capable car, and a miracle of engineering. It has never let us down.
But the Prius doesn't sing to me, nor let the feel of the road seep up through the tires. You don't wear a Prius; you sit back in it, as in an easy chair, and let it do the work. And I'm older now, and maybe that's best.
But we have an old car we don't drive much -- a '91 Civic, by odd coincidence. We keep it around for emergencies. The Civic is a very simple car; it's so much smaller and lighter than today's cars, even than today's Civics. Windows that crank, power nothing, no radio, and a five-speed stick.
I take it out from time to time. I sit in the driver's seat, turn the key, and my hands and feet know exactly what to do. They'll never forget, they can never forget.
And I pop the clutch and the Civic hops light-footedly down the road. Singing, I'm still in first, I'm ready for second, I'm ready for second, second is good, second is good, try third, try third. And I work the lever and push the clutch and manipulate the drive train my own self. On a quick spin back to simpler times.