It was the summer of 1970. I was just shy of 17. Jim Croce’s “Bad, Bad Leroy Brown” was blasting from transistor radios all around the Bungalow pool. Everything was new and possible. Sometimes it seems like a dream from a different lifetime. Yet, I remember the first time I saw him like it was yesterday. He stood there proudly with that compact, muscular build and that smooth, tawny skin. He was totally popular with all the other girls and even many of the guys*. Okay, I must admit he was a little on the simple side, but you can’t have everything and I was in love for the first time. The only problem was he belonged to another. And “that” woman was my mother. Before, this gets too “Maury Povich “, let me start again.
I will never forget my first love, a two-door, semi automatic stick shift, VW Beetle. My first car; or should I say my mom’s first car.
Now, those who know me will certainly attest to the fact that I know nothing about cars. I do care about certain aesthetics: the design, the color, the upholstery, whether or not there is a lighted makeup mirror that flatters the viewer and overall functionality, the number of cup holders being of critical concern. But, even in all its Spartan simplicity, I fell in love with that tan VW the first moment I laid eyes upon it. We were made for each other.
My dad purchased it for $1839.00. And with that amazing price, came all the features a girl could ask for: roll down windows, vents that let in outside air, rear wheel drive, a 4 cylinder, overhead valve naturally aspirated engine (I have no idea what this is, but I do know that the engine was in the back of the car) and the “pièce de résistance”, rear window defrosters! The little cutie averaged an impressive 19 miles to the gallon and boasted a 57 horsepower engine. Besides the price, it’s diminutive size was perfect for my mom who had not learned to drive until her 30s and was afraid to drive anything bigger that the Beetle or go any farther then back and forth from our house to the junior high school where she taught (probably less than a mile).
I simply could not resist that car. I flirted every chance I got, even though it technically belonged to another women. I found myself making excuses to take it to school dances, swimming practices and completely unnecessary orthodontic appointments. Emboldened by these brief jaunts together, we went further together and for longer periods of time. I remember once, I took it all the way to my grandmother’s house near Wilkes-Barre, Pa. This was no easy task. The Blue Mountains, part of the Appalachian chain, run through the eastern part of the state. Let’s just say going up steep inclines was not one of the Beetle’s particular talents. If you knew the car as intimately as I did, you were alright. When you saw an upcoming hill in the distance, you had to floor it immediately and you could make it to the top of the crest going 25, even 30 mph, no problem. Speed is not everything anyway. On the way home on that particular trip, I remember running low on gas and with just 43 cents worth of the cheapest octane available (the average cost of gas in 1970 was 36 cents to the gallon) I made it home sweet home without a worry. Now you can’t beat that!
Unlike many others, I did not break up with my high school sweetheart after graduation. During semester breaks and summers, I would spend as much time with this car as possible. Many of my most precious memories are from that time. Once my best friend Andrea and I took the Beetle on a ski trip to Jack Frost Mountain. We were happily driving along in the midst of a windy, snowy squall quite undeterred by a foreboding blizzard forecast. Oh, the innocence and impetuousness of youth! Now, if they predict more than a half-inch of snow, I immediately check the milk and bread supply and hunker down for the rest of the winter. But then, on the day in question, possessing the ferocity of youth, we were undeterred by nature. We did have to stop every couple of miles to wipe the outside windows so we could catch the occasional glimpse of the road (the defrosters on the VW were not particularly effective, but seeing is overrated) and what’s a little inconvenience like that among friends. Andrea and I can get very distracted when we are together so it came as no real surprise when all of a sudden we realized that the car was no longer upright and, in fact, was no longer on the road at all. Yes, a mere 1800 lbs. of metal and rubber, plus another couple 100 lbs. of college student had simply blown sideways across Interstate 80 into an accommodating gully. The good news is that because of its trim figure, we were able to push that little vehicle right back up onto the highway and had a great day on the slopes. Well, Andrea did. Me and skis- that’s a whole other story. Andrea and I also crack up every time she reminds me of the time I was backing up while turning at the same time and somehow maneuvered the poor little fellow into an inexplicable situation, wherein, a no parking sign had somehow become wedged between the back of the car and the rear bumper (take a minute now and try to picture this in your mind’s eye), a quite peculiar situation impeding any forward or backward movement and producing a lot of unhelpful laughing from both the occupants and several passersby. (Since publishing this post, Andrea has reminded me that I did not react well or laugh at the time. I think her exact words were ” I had steam coming out of my ears!” As a crowd gathered around our predicament, I told her to ignore them. She also advised me that some chuckling boys eventually came to our rescue by lifting the entire back of the Beetle up off the sign.) When I think of it now, I cannot help, but smile even more so now that I know I was so irritated at the time.
Over the years, I put some real mileage on that Bug, but it never once failed me. There was the time that another friend, Donna, and I (The VW was a chick magnet, what can I say!) set out on the requisite, 24 hour, collegial migration to Ft. Lauderdale, Florida over spring break. As an aside for those that care, the VW Beetle became the most produced car in automotive history, with 40 million rolling off production lines between 1945 and 2003. Any way, back to our two colleges coeds on I-95. Let’s just say we are still alive and misbehaving today. We see each other once a year or so and I credit our continued existence in this world completely to the dependability of that little car as the dependability of its two drivers is sketchy at best.
After college, the VW accompanied me on daily sojourns to the schools where I taught. It never broke down. It never complained. There was of course “that one incident”, but again, it was my fault completely. Around Christmas time, 1975, I was going to the mall in Hazleton with a male friend my parents had never met. Let’s call him Joe because his name was actually Joe. My dad wanted me to stop home on the way for a reason I have long since forgotten as it’s buried under the calamity that was about to follow. Joe and I were in a rush and I didn’t want to go through the hassle of introducing him to my parents and taking the time to field all the questions that I knew would be forthcoming. So while I stood knocking at the door, I told Joe to duck down in the car so my parents wouldn’t see him and we could go merrily on our way. As fate would have it, I was parked on a slight incline and had failed to apply the emergency brake. As I was talking with my father on the front stoop, the VW started to roll down the hill. No one was more surprised than my dad who was running towards it when the car miraculously stopped by itself. This memory will never fade. There was my dumbfounded father, next to the driver’s side of the car introducing himself to poor Joe who was still crouching in the passenger seat with his left foot firmly on the brake, sputtering “It’s very nice to finally meet you Mr. Jones. Rhonda has told me so much about you.” The incident has never been mentioned in our family since.
By the time, I arrived at law school, my beloved companion was showing some signs of wear and tear. Even though his body still looked as good as ever, unbeknownst to me at the time, he and his kind were prone to rust. I became aware of this abruptly one day when a rear seat passenger’s foot went through the bottom of the floor and truly exposed the beauty of the open road. Sporting an underside bolstered with a piece of plexiglass, my love valiantly ventured on, but it was never really the same after that. One of life’s cruelest lessons is that we all must say goodbye at some point and, so, the day came when my amazing Bug was replaced by a Honeybee, a Datsun Honeybee. It could never hold a candle to its predecessor, no matter how hard it tried.
*. In April 1934, Adolf Hitler gave the order to Ferdinand Porsche to develop a Volkswagen (literally, “people’s car” in German, pronounced [ˈfɔlksvaːɡən]).