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My first vehicle was a 1968 VW bus. I spied it in the weeds behind a farmer’s barn, inert and consigned to a fate of slowly rusting into oblivion. The farmer probably could not believe his good fortune when I showed up on his front porch with 10 crisp twenty dollar bills and an offer to take it off his hands. We towed it home and pushed it into the pole barn and I set about fixing it up. I had no idea what I was doing but I was doing it with complete confidence. I was 15 at the time.

My Dad had a derelict 1967 VW beetle whose engine still ran and I planned to use parts from the beetle to get the bus running. Salvation came in the form of a neighbor who taught auto mechanics at the local junior college. He offered to rebuild the engine as a class project. We wrestled the engine out of the bus and he carted it off in his station wagon. Over the next semester, he’d give me shopping lists and I’d get a parent to take me to the VW specialty store to get parts. In the meantime I set about doing bodywork.

The bus had pretty severe rust damage all the way around on its lower margin. I had seen a friend’s older brother fix a rust spot on his car with Bondo (body filler) and the theory behind it seemed simple enough.  After removing all the trim, I ground off the rusted parts and then reconstructed the superstructure with bits of hammered aluminum siding, pole-barn tin, or window screen pop-rivited into place. I then sculpted a roughly appropriate shape with liberal accretions of Bondo that I would sand fair. Sometimes, with successive cycles of sculpture and sanding I’d declare a discrete repair done and I would spray-paint it with primer and move on to the next repair. Usually though, I would work on one repair until I got bored with it and then I would move on to another leaving the entire lower margin of the bus spackled with repairs in various stages of progress.

I hated sanding when I began and it didn’t take much experience with Bondo-sanding to convince me that there were depths of hatred that I had not even contemplated. Still, I kept at it – working all winter in an unheated pole barn. My motivation was a fantasy bus with a gleaming custom paint job, and richly re-upholstered interior, and a bitchin’ stereo system complete with a cassette tape deck (8-track was on its way out don’tcha know).  I had no idea how I was going to accomplish the fantasy or pay for it.

The engine returned during my 16th spring. It was a thing of beauty, completely clean, bristling with high-performance dune-buggy parts, and featuring an exhaust system replaced by menacing black and chrome hot-rod headers. My neighbor helped me install it and as soon as we turned it over, the engine growled to life and I drove (…drove!) the bus out of the dark, spider-webby, bondo-dusty, tool-strewn chaos of the pole barn into the sunlight. I heard angels singing.  

I was blinded by love and fantasy but truthfully, the bus looked perfectly ridiculous. Given my haphazard bodywork it looked like a giant had taken the wheels off and had dipped the lower third Easter-egg style into a vat of swirling red, blue, and gray dull paints. Somewhere, I had acquired wheel adapters and 2 chrome mag wheels with oversize tires. These were installed in the rear and gave the bus the appearance of being nosed down.  In the back, a set of 4 improbably new-looking oversized chrome tailpipes snaked out past the space that would have been occupied by the rear bumper had I not removed it. Cool. On its maiden voyage, I drove it to my summer job. I roared up and braked to a stop raising an appropriately dramatic swirl of construction-site dust. I then stepped out of the dust and into the sunlight with a lunch bucket and a swagger. Oddly, my buddy was laughing.

Driving the old bus was a singular experience.  The bus must have had organic material in the upholstery because its signature smell was that of sun-weathered vinyl, sweet fern, and mouse piss (this eventually faded). There was about 6 inches of play in the linkage between the big flat steering wheel and the steering mechanisms controlling the wheels. Moreover, you sat with the front wheels under and behind you such that you actually felt like you were moving sideways when you turned. The linkage in the stick shift was similarly loose and I began grinding through the indeterminately located gears before I developed a sixth sense for where the gears actually were. After a while shifting was mostly accomplished through will and mental telepathy. The bus had no radio (very important!) and I tried playing my harmonica with one hand while I drove but I quickly determined that I was not ready to die for my music. More so than for most vehicles, driving the bus required full attention and both hands to make all the minute continuous adjustments needed to offset the randomness inherent in the loosely connected steering.  This mandate was reinforced by the realization that your knees were about 3 inches from the sheet-metal front of the bus and there was nothing between you and whatever you were approaching at highway speeds other than a windshield and a few millimeters of steel. If you contemplated the physics of a head-on collision you’d realize that they’d probably need to free your corpse from the wreckage with a blow torch and bury you encased in a giant steel taco.

The association of hippiedom and VW buses was not lost on me. It was the 1980s and I was a generation too young to be an authentic hippie, although I would happily accept the title in an honorary sense. A derivative hippieness was for me a fond affectation that I tried on as I cast about for my own identity. It fit with a nascent anti-authoritarian attitude that I was nursing and I probably took too much pleasure from putting a rhetorical thumb in the eye of my Reaganite father and my pastor who thought it self-evident that windsurfing on a beautiful Sunday afternoon was a sin. With notable exceptions, 80s music was a roiling miasma of posturing, formulaic superficiality. Out of simple self-preservation, I took refuge in the music of the 1960s and the soundtrack to my bus adventures was appropriately supplied by a boom box loaded with the Stones, Jimi Hendrix, and Crosby Stills and Nash. When I found Bob Dylan and his poetry, I felt as though I had been thrown a lifeline.

My bus adventures were all G-rated, probably because the girls I knew had the good sense to not risk their safety and dignity to a semi-reconstructed bus with a paint job that looked like it had been done by a pack of blindfolded elves. The nearest almost-exception occurred during the middle of a rainy night when I was camped at the beach. I woke in a fog as the bus’s sliding door swung open and two friends piled inside with their sleeping bags having abandoned their tent to the rain. My confusion was only enhanced by the din of a downpour on the sheet metal roof of the bus. Both were teen women with flowing long hair, suntanned skin on their elegant limbs, and the effortless beauty of late summer. Both were close friends in the earnest-conversation, why-does-nobody-else-understand sense that teen-ager friendships can assume. Friend number 1 was almost a sister to me, having been confidants since we were little kids in the Sunday school of our small rural church. She thought of herself as my essential guide to the Byzantine social maneuverings of our high school. Friend number 2 we had come to know in high school. Truth be told, I had a bit of a crush on her.

They piled into the bus and spread their sleeping bags, one on each side of mine. When I realized what was happening, my 16-year-old endocrine system bathed my sixteen year-old brain in dopamine. In my addled state I wondered and hoped: Was this invasion engineered so that friend number 2 could confess her reciprocal attraction to me and we could ride out the storm together with her in my manly and comforting embrace while friend number 1 feigned sleep with a discrete and knowing smile? Should I DO something??  I lay there still as a stone.  I was bewildered but bewilderment gave way as my head cleared and I considered that friendships are precious and fragile things and that this one could be damaged if I acted like a jerk. I lay there with an odd mix of satisfaction and gently held longing. I lay there rigid as their settling-in movements waned and then stopped and their breathing became measured. In the end, nothing happened. I listened to them sleep for a bit, and fell asleep too.

I’ve been an early riser my whole life and I woke as the barest gray dawn filtered in through the windows of the bus. I lay there in the morning chill with these two beautiful people sleeping peacefully, one on either side. They were close enough that I could sense their breathing. I could feel their warmth on my skin, radiant through our summer-weight sleeping bags. I lay there listening to the wind blowing in across my beloved Lake Michigan and to the pounding surf and I wished that I could hold off the inevitability of morning for just a little while. The old bus smelled like apple-scented shampoo and I had sun-blessed hair on my pillow and in my face. It wasn’t all bad.

I had to give up my bus when I was forced to stare down the impending reality of an approaching Midwestern winter. For all of its storied German engineering, the heater machinery connecting to those old air-cooled engines was a blind spot. More often than not, they surrendered prematurely to the punishments of road-salt and rigor of prolonged sub-zero mornings.  My dad sold the bus for me while I was in school, to somebody who wanted it for its engine. I never saw it drive away. It’s probably just as well. Despite my best intentions, I was only able to give it a temporary and tentative resurrection – one beautiful summer.

I eventually lost track of my 2 friends after high school as my life and circumstances took me in different directions. I hope they are happy and living well. Volkswagen recently announced that it would no longer be making the modern version of their bus. On hearing the news, the slack-water parts of my mind turned more and more to thoughts of that old bus despite the fact that I'm no longer that kid. Funny how that works.

But, I still love the sound of waves and wind on my beloved Lake Michigan and I caught Dylan in concert when here was here last year. My views on Reagan haven’t softened and I've learned that sunny Sundays on the water are actually good for my soul. You don’t see them much anymore but on those rare occasions when I see an older-style VW bus still running, I cannot suppress a smile for the memory of my old bus ...and the smell of apple-scented shampoo.

Originally posted to OldJackPine on Fri Oct 11, 2013 at 05:56 PM PDT.

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