Monday, May 2, 2011

Learning to Drive, Part 2

I am an admitted cheapskate. So even when it became evident that my Board of Ed (BOE) would let me get a car, I wasn't sure I'd find one in my price range (any free used cars out there?). After all, I hated to spend thousands of dollars on a car that I would only use for a year or two. Of course, I didn't know then that I would end up spending 8+ years of my life in Japan, but that, of course, is another story.

Aware of my extreme frugality, my colleagues came up with what they thought was the ideal solution. They would give me a car. Granted, the car was an old car used for official town business and had the name of the town painted on both sides of it. And the only reason they were offering to give it to me was because they didn't want to pay to dispose of it, nor did they want to pay the more than $1000 it would cost to put the car through the "shaken" (shaa ken)inspection cars had to have every three years in order to be driven legally in Japan. In order to make the car mine, I would have to pay for an inspection, but all things considered, it seemed like a good deal.

Except for one thing: the car had a manual transmission, and I didn't know how to drive a stick shift. (This turned out not to be the only "one thing" wrong with the plan, but that comes later). I have older siblings, and at some point in my young teenage life at least one of them tried to teach me how to drive a stick. None of them turned out to be patient teachers, however, and the experience ended up being fairly traumatic. After that, how hard could it be to learn how to drive a stick the mountains...on the opposite side of the road...that had no shoulder?

It was decided (a lot of my early experiences in the village were decided by consensus, without the least regard to my opinion) that my first driving lesson would be on one of the Wednesday afternoons I was forced to spend at the BOE during the school year. Somehow it was also decided that half of the members of the BOE would be giving me this driving lesson.

So the five(!) of us headed out on that sunny fall afternoon to test drive the car. It was a white station wagon, one that looked a lot like an elongated Pinto, and the first thing I noticed, besides the fact that the town name was painted on the side, was that there were no floorboards or carpeting inside. "Well, at least it's free," I told myself. The young OL Sawako, who was the only person in town who could speak a lick of English, was nominated to drive the car first. She hopped in and turned the key in the ignition. Nothing. She tried again. Again, nothing. Followed by a flurry of conversation in Japanese that I couldn't comprehend.

The next thing I knew, the other three guys, dressed in suits, were pushing the car through the city hall parking lot, toward the slope that led to the city ground (picture a huge circle of dirt the size of three football fields side by side--see the picture on the previous post? You can see part of the town ground in the picture). Suddenly, the engine kicked in, and Sawako was gone. The four of us stood there for awhile, expecting her to loop back around, and when she didn't I half-wondered if my free car had exploded with her in it. "No," I told myself, "I would have heard something."

Eventually, we figured out that Sawako was down at the ground waiting for the rest of us to get there. When we did, it was time for my driving lesson. Okay, so you can picture how well this went. Me, with limited Japanese, learning to drive a stick shift car with four backseat drivers and a broken starter. Each time I killed the engine, which I did a lot, the four of them, dressed in business attire, rolled out of the car and started pushing it across the dusty, dirt-covered town ground until I figured out how to get it started again. Now imagine that school let out and all the members of the junior high baseball team (all my students) were watching the ill-fated driving lesson while waiting for their coach to arrive.

Thank goodness for the baseball team! Our lesson was cut short when the coach showed up.

As we were walking back into the city hall and up the stairs to the BOE, the four of them tried to convince me of two astronomically absurd things: 1) the driving lesson went pretty well, and 2) the car was perfect for me. "After all," they argued, "My house was on a hill, so the slope would make it start automatically." (Forget the fact what comes down must go up, and, besides, once I got to the "big city" there were no hills at all. "Your friends could give you a push start," my BOE colleagues argued.) Yeah, right. Sometimes even a free car isn't worth it.

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