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Henry A. Barrios / The Californian

Herb Benham

Last week I taught Thomas how to drive a stick. The lesson was lively and our fellow drivers, too, seemed excited about the prospect. They made funny faces, waved their arms and squealed their tires as if to say, "We're with you, bro."

Thomas turns 24 March 1, and we are giving him a car, a 1992 Toyota Tercel that has 75,517 miles on it and has spent the last 10 years in Goldfield, Nev., sitting in the shifting desert sands. The Tercel, with the faded blue paint but sweet Toyota soul, belonged to Oliver, the late father of a friend of mine.

The car has a stick shift, and Thomas has never driven one, thus the driving lessons, the animated responses from other drivers and a few moments where it seemed inevitable that we would either kiss the car in front of us or be blessed by somebody from behind.

"Press down the clutch and go through the gears," I said softly.

Thomas' brother Herbie and his friend Thomas were sitting on the front porch, smiling. They'd been where Thomas was, and they weren't about to make it easy by offering him the gift of reassurance.

"Start the car," I said. "Let's take it down 20th Street."

Twentieth is a dead end. It's also a favorite for driver training instructors who do what we were doing in the relative calm of a lightly traveled road.

Thomas started the car, pushed down the clutch, shifted into first, let out the clutch, pressed on the accelerator and laid about 20 feet of rubber, snapping back both of our heads as if we were a pair of crash dummies.

The car stalled. Thomas started it again, laid 15 feet of rubber but kept the car moving forward. Should this lesson go longer than an hour, we might have to swing by Pep Boys for new tires.

After a couple of spins up and down 20th, I instructed him to turn right, or east, on 21st and head toward F. We'd left the small stream and merged into a mid-sized river with more flow. It was like rafting the Kern River below Comanche. There were rapids, tree branches and rocks, submerged but visible enough to make you wonder what if.

Thomas made it through all the gears -- and that means all , including reverse, which he tested at 50 miles per hour on his way to fourth gear.

"Thomas, let's get on the 178 and exit on Mount Vernon," I said.

Now the midsized river had become the Mississippi, choked with barges, pleasure craft and wild rice boats.

Yes, exit on Mount Vernon, which is uphill and should there be a red light, presents interesting challenges for somebody who had been operating a stick for 15 minutes.

Thomas pulled off smoothly and met four cars waiting for the red light to turn. The Tercel was stopped uphill and suddenly Thomas' face turned a shade I hadn't seen before -- somewhere between paper white and ashen gray.

"Oh, my God. This is going to be tricky," he said, looking at the car behind him, six feet away.

The light turned green, which was good, but what was not so good was that before Thomas could shift into first gear, he would have to take his foot off the brake, which meant sliding backward into the car behind us, should he not apply instant and panicked force to the accelerator.

He did, we did, and before the driving lesson included a lesson in how to exchange insurance information, he punched the accelerator and the car leaped forward.

We circled around, entered the 178 freeway going west and came home.

"Thomas, you did great," I said. "I wasn't nearly as good the first time."

"That was fun," he said.

Yes, it was. We'd gone down the river. Father, son and an old blue Tercel.

These are Herb Benham's opinions and not necessarily those of The Californian. Email him at