The Washington Times - June 16, 2008, 07:44AM

How I learned to drive

I bought my first car at the age of 14 after saving $135 of my lawn mowing money. I was the kid who manicured nearly everyone’s lawn in my neighborhood in Arlington Forest, maintaining my trusty Hechinger gas-powered mower so that it always started on the first pull. The car, a 1950 Ford two-door sedan, couldn’t be operated on the streets by me until I turned 15, the “magic age of personal freedom” in the early 1960s.

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By the time I got my driver’s license I’d put nearly 400 miles on the car, endlessly running it up and down the driveway until my exasperated mother would call me in to dinner. During those many hours of driving I became adept at the gentle release of the clutch pedal and could move the three-on-the-tree column gearshift with precision. Carburetor adjustments became second nature, as did checking the oil radiator levels. I was becoming one with the machine and eager to learn as much about how the thing worked as well as the sophisticated art of parallel parking.

It was during this time that I also learned the skills of speed-shifting and laying rubber, although not in “Old Blue,” as the Ford was named. Blue had a 72-horsepower, 6 cylinder engine, which added up to a 0-60 time well into the double digits and made it impossible to smoke the tires. No, the “trainer” car in which I was mentored belonged to the neighbor immediately behind our house, a sweet old lady named Henrietta Fluck (this is all true, so read on).

Mrs. Fluck was 87 years “young” at the time and she lived with her son and daughter-in-law, both in their early 60s. She always referred to them as the “old fogies,” which consistently made me laugh. They drove a 1952 Hudson Hornet but had to keep it exposed to the weather on the street. Mrs. Fluck kept her car, a 1958 fuel-injected Corvette, in the garage.

I mowed her yard, of course, and she would always come out and walk around the lawn with me as I worked. She never failed to ask me if I needed more gas for the mower (which I usually did) because this was her weekly opportunity to get the Corvette out of the garage and take me to the Esso station. It was something both of us looked forward to.

In fact, we were only located about 3 blocks from the gas station but that was the shortcut through the neighborhood streets. Instead, Mrs. Fluck and I would throw down the soft top on the Corvette, I would hop in with my gas can and she’d light up a Camel cigarette (yes, she also taught me how to smoke and this was in an era when people didn’t worry about burning cigarettes near gasoline!) We’d go out her street to Route 50, Arlington Boulevard, and she’d never fail to lay about 15 feet of rubber as we accelerated westward toward 7 Corners.

She’d crank the engine up to redline in first gear and then slam it into second with just a light tap on the clutch, generating that telltale “chirp” from the tires as she took the engine back up to redline and then into third. Ashes would fly from our cigarettes as we blasted past the Esso station, well on our way out to Falls Church and back. I never failed to be awed by the sight of this [seemingly frail] woman as she sat behind the wheel, supremely confident and totally focused on the task at hand. She taught me about synchronizer rings, double-clutching, proper lines through turns and minimizing brake fade, along with how to blow smoke rings and keeping a match lit at speed.

Like most teenagers of the era I learned the basics of driving from my father, a very competent driver himself. Thanks to him I learned about closing speeds, safe trailing distances, proper turn signal etiquette, parallel parking (sadly, no longer a prerequisite for obtaining a license in most states) and being courteous on the road (yes, people used to exercise courtesy in traffic). He was always there when I worked on the car, pointing out what to do and handing me wrenches. He also quit smoking at the time, and I figured he knew something I didn’t, so I quit too.

Time passed on, as did Old Blue, Mrs. Fluck and my parents. Over the decades my love of automotive machinery grew into what it is today and even after rebuilding scores of engines and transmissions I’ve never done so without thinking of my father. I’ve never been able to get all the way around a racetrack without thinking about Henrietta Fluck and, thanks in part to her, I’ve demonstrated the art of speed-shifting to many others.

If I could turn back the clock I’d find and restore Old Blue and, of course, say the things that we all wish we’d said to our parents. I’d also find Henrietta and ask her about her early life, which is something I wish I had done when I had the chance. She must have had a most unusual youth, especially for a woman living in the early 20th Century, and it would have been fascinating to find out how she became a “gearhead.”

Unfortunately the opportunity is lost forever. It was in my first semester at college when I came home on vacation that my parents mentioned that Mrs. Fluck had died on her 90th birthday. It seems her son found her sitting in the driver’s seat of her Corvette with an unlit cigarette in her hand.