The Duchess of Nonsuch
The Duchess of Nonsuch was the name of the White Rabbit Volkswagen I drove in 1974, one year after getting my driver’s license. The name “Duchess of Nonsuch” was coined by my grandfather who passed on his love of Alice in Wonderland to me. The brand “White Rabbit” was too much fun to pass up. I “christened” it with the magical name.
I loved the car and I loved driving. The minute I could sign up for a driver’s permit, I did and then on to getting my license and passing with the test on my first try. After a year of my mom driving me to evening activities and then sharing her Station Wagon to drive from our home on Valley Forge Mountain to the high school activities in Phoenixville, she and my Dad decided to buy a car for me to use for 18 months; I would pass that car on to my sister before I left for college. There was no bus service on the mountain except the school bus for getting to classes during the day, and the public bus service was at the bottom of the mountain, with limited evening service. It was too dangerous to walk up the mountain, alone, late at night.
The first challenge with the White Rabbit was that it was a manual car and I did not know how to drive a stick shift. One evening before going to school, my mom had me hop in the driver’s seat and with a few instructions, she accompanied me on a drive around the block. I dropped her at home and off I went, fearless with only five minutes of instruction. I was in Guys and Dolls, the musical, at my high school: a hot box dancer with a special Cuban dance with a partner. I couldn’t wait for practice every night, so I had to learn how to drive the stick shift quickly. The musicals, along with show flag Captain, pep club, secretary of my class, chorus, and any other activity I could sign up for, the car became my mode of freedom and connection to a world of social activities.
Thinking back on that time, I learned responsibility, had adventures, spread my wings of independence and began to carve my future. I even have a funny story about learning how to go up hills. One day, a friend and I drove into the countryside, so I could practice going from a stop to engaging with first gear, when there was a hill. For 15-20 minutes, I tried engaging with first gear over and over again, each time the engine struggled and died. Every few minutes, someone would pull over and ask if I needed help. Politely I would say, “no thank you, I am just learning how to drive a manual car on a hill.” People would smile and wave in acknowledgement. I would take another deep breath and try again. Finally, there was a man who pulled over to ask if I needed help, and again I politely thanked him with an “I’m just learning how to drive…” But this time, his response, was a mean comment like, “Idiot!” All of my politeness fell away and I yelled, “Fuck you, mister.” I slammed my left foot onto the clutch, turned the car on and used all of my power and focus to engage the car in first gear and drive up the hill! I channeled all of that anger into my feet and learned the dance of engaging the clutch and the accelerator pedal.
This was the first time I learned the power of pushing away the nice girl and engaging all of my anger into focused power, a skill I have used many times since!