"Which way?" I asked, trying to keep the tremor out of my voice.
"Up the hill of course," said my mother, beside me in the passenger's seat.
"The hill" was on Church Street Extension - the one with the 60 degree slope and a traffic light on top.
At that moment the light was green, but for how long?
A full-fledged skeptic at 16, I nonetheless did the only thing I could - I prayed.
"Dear Lord," I began, silently. Then I decided to pull out all stops. "Sweet mother of God, thundering Lord Jesus, Ishtar, Isis, Krishna, Vishnu, Moloch, Baal, Bes, Ullr"
God may make little green apples, but when it came to making that stoplight stay green, He was asleep at the switch: By the time I'd hit the top of the hill, the light had turned red.
I jammed my foot on the brake, pushed in the clutch and yanked the e-brake. Then I stared dumbly at the light. For the pickle I was in, it might as well have been directing traffic through the gates of hell itself.
Lost in the clutch
All of this came about from my mother insisting I'd never become a functional adult unless I could drive a standard transmission. She was right, of course, and she naturally became my driving instructor.
In certain realms, my mother was a brilliant teacher. She taught lip-reading to hearing-impaired people; she taught little kids to read; she ran the town Head Start program flawlessly. But when it came to teaching me how to drive, she was a total flop.
Whenever I got behind the wheel I was completely boggled: I'd touch the acceleratorlet out the clutchand the car would stall. Either that or it'd buck and convulse forward and would still stall.
"What's the matter with you?" my mother said, after one particularly nerve-racking session. "Why can't you understand how to coordinate the clutch and accelerator?'
"I can," I said.
"You can?" she asked, incredulous.
"Yeah," I said. "I can also understand how to organize D-Day. The problem is I can't do it."
And so it went.
Finally, when I became barely competent at taking off on level ground, my mother figured it was time for me to do it on an incline. Thus the Church Street Extension Hill Fiasco of '62.
Meanwhile, back on the hill
The light was still red, when a car pulled up behind us. I looked in the rearview mirror -- the driver was our neighbor, Bill Hooley. He immediately recognized us and gave us a big wave. In return, I gave him a weak waggle of my fingers.
A moment passed and then when he realized what was going on, he backed halfway down the hill. Mr. Hooley was a great guy, but he sure wasn't about to let me flatten his front end in the name of friendship.
So here's the scene: I had to drive off the hill, but had no idea how to do it. My mother was no help, nor were all the gods I'd prayed to. Who was left?
While I didn't know how to drive a car, I did know a lot about driving, since I was a diehard Grand Prix racing fan.
My hero was Stirling Moss, a Brit dubbed "The greatest driver never to win the World Championship." He won many races but not the championship, because, patriotic lad that he was, he drove only British cars in an era when they weren't competitive. He summed up his attitude perfectly in one quote, "Better to lose admirably in a British car than win in a foreign one."
And it wasn't hyperbole: Moss was the consummate gentleman, the ideal old-time sports hero, unlike the nitwit billionaire narcissists we suffer today.
I closed my eyes and visualized Moss in his green Lotus, zooming through the course at Monte Carlo.
Then I asked myself this: If Stirling Moss were in my place, what would he do?
I took a deep breathheld it exhaled. And when I did, a voice came to me.
It was soft and spoke in a perfect British accent.
"A little tip, old boy," it said. "God is on the side of the highest RPM's."
Suddenly, I had a total epiphany: The secret of getting off the hill had been revealed to me and by Stirling Moss no less!
"Yeah, baby," I growled. "RPM's, here we go!"
A higher power
I started pumping the accelerator, first cautiously, then harder and harder till the engine howled and the car was rocking from side to side.
The light turned yellow in the other direction; I held the accelerator to the floor, the engine screaming.
Finally, the light turned green.
I released the brakes and popped the clutch and the car stood still. But the air sure didn't, as it was rent by the wildly spinning rear wheels.
I checked the mirror for Mr. Hooley. He was nowhere to be seen, completely engulfed in a huge blue-black cloud of burnt rubber.
Suddenly the tires dug in and the car peeled over the crest, leaving behind a 50-foot patch of Akron's finest.
When first gear maxed out I speed-shifted into second, the accelerator still pressed to the floor.
I hit 60 mph by the time I came to St. Bernard's playground. Luckily, I also came to my senses.
I moved my foot from the accelerator to the brake and glided to a smooth stop at the Lake Flower Avenue traffic light. Waiting for the light to turn green, I snuck a peek at my mother. She was staring straight ahead, jaws clenched, a bit green herself.
Of course I felt some sympathy for her, but this was her karma and she had do deal with it herself.
But I, in my moment of satori, could only celebrate my enlightenment: At last I understood the clutch!
When we got home, my brother was sitting at the kitchen table.
"So how'd the driving lesson go?" he asked.
"Ain't nothin' but a thing," I said, tossing the keys on the table.
"I need some Maalox," said my mother.
As strange and other-worldly as that experience was, for the remaining 30 years of my mother's life, she never once mentioned it.
And not surprisingly, she never asked me to take her up Church Street Extension Hill either.