The Spectator
founded 2004 by ron cruger
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A place for intelligent readers
by Ron Cruger
Books, mail, Selectrics and shifting gears
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        My left foot pressed down hard on the clutch. My right hand pulled back on the stick shift, trying to find its way into second gear. The nasty, irritating sound of gears grinding filled the inside of the Model A Ford. My dad showed a half smile and said, “Let’s try it again. This time try pushing in the clutch just a second before you move the gear shift into gear.”
        The car, in first gear, moved ahead slowly. As the speed picked up I stepped on the clutch and pulled on the gear shift, attempting again to move it into second gear.
        Once again the sound of metal gears grinding against each other followed my clumsy attempts to drive the Ford.
        I was twelve years old when my dad, bless him, tried to teach me to drive the family car. The clutch, the gas pedal, the steering wheel, the gear shift – all this plus steering the car in a straight line were just too much for my twelve year old body and mind.
         Three more years passed before I could manage the actual driving of our family car, which by this time was a newer model Studebaker. By the time I was fifteen and a half years old I had my official California driver’s license, which, by the way, remains one of the most joyous accomplishments of my life. My father told me that my smile was enormous when the licensing inspector told me I had passed the test.
        Three years passed and I had become the owner of my own car. By now I could expertly shift the gears, press the gas pedal and steer my car. I got a great degree of pleasure by being able to smoothly shift the gears manually.
        I owned two more stick shift cars before I became the possessor of an automatic transmission Plymouth. No more manually shifting gears.
        The years of my dad teaching me, of my own practicing, of my finally achieved ability to use a stick shift was gone. To this day, at the same time I enjoy the ease of driving a car with automatic transmissions I miss the physical success of shifting from low to second to third gear at the same time I steer a straight line down the road. The shifting was an important part of my growing up, my life. I don’t do that anymore. Another small sign of life’s changes.
        All of our lives are filled with constant change, some more notable than others.
        I used to be a prolific letter write. Typing on white typing paper, with a typewriter – an IBM Selectric. Ah, what a machine. Half the fun of typing on the Selectric was watching the crazy ball rotate and strike the paper - always with the correct letter. The sounds of the Selectric were like wizardry to me. It was a mechanical nirvana that stretched from my fingers to my brain. I would type the letter, place it in an envelope, address it, put a stamp on the envelope and walk to the mail box to post it. All pleasant activities that are quickly going the way of the buggy whip.
        My IBM Selectric now lies, wrapped in a black plastic bag, ensconced under the king sized bed, unused for a decade.
        Now, as everyone else, I e-mail. I hear the tiny click of the letters on the keyboard as I type my correspondence. There is no paper, no envelope, no stamp, no walk to the mail box in front of the house. It’s all much more efficient and speedy, but every once in a while I reflect on those days of threading a piece of white paper into my Selectric, maneuvering it to the correct location and creating a message on paper.
Every once in a while, just for old-time’s sake, I print out a letter and go through the process of mailing it (they now call it “snail mail” unfortunately). As of late my reveries of the mechanics of things formerly part of my daily existence have increased.
        These seemingly minor things that were part of my life are disappearing.
        The United States Postal Service is facing a seven billion dollar loss for the year. Mail volume continues to drop and some seven hundred post offices are doomed for extinction shortly.
        There was a time, before television, before telephones when the Postal Service was our contact with the outside world. The short walks to the mail box were our contact with the outside world. Now the outside world comes into our homes via our television and computer screens. No need to take the few steps to the mail box. Perhaps someday soon neighborhoods will no longer feature mail boxes in front of the houses.
        Lastly, the days are coming when books will become a memory of days past.
        Amazon’s “Kindle” is leading the way on the march towards the elimination of books as we know them today. Over a quarter of a million books are available electronically on “Kindle,” with more available daily.
        E-books are available for as low as ten dollars a copy, send electronically direct to the “Kindle.” Press a button and you have a complete book. No more walking down the quiet aisles of the library. No more kids toting back packs bigger than themselves. No more book cases at home, no more creative book marks stuck between pages. No more yellow highlighters marking significant sentences.
        I can handle these changes. The clicking of my Selectric. The walk to the mail box and finding letters addressed to me, sealed and mysterious, the cuddling up with a real book, with real pages, the pleasure of standing by a book case and admiring the titles, the ownership.
        Years ago I got used to cars with automatic transmissions, but every once in a while I think back to that day when my dad, bless him, tried to teach me to drive a stick shift.
        It’s been years since I’ve shifted gears. I wonder if I could do it again. Just for old time’s sake.