The Old Man, The Old Volkswagen, and The Big-Ass Grasshopper

You do not want to play “punch bug” with me.  You will lose.  Every single time.  I can spot them like my wife can spot the words SHOE SALE at a crowded strip mall from the window of a speeding car.  In the rain.  At night.

When I first bought the ‘65 Beetle, and before I dismantled it,  I attended a couple of the monthly meet-ups of the local classic Volkswagen club.  You would think that, with so many of the area’s old VW’s in one location, I’d have been over the moon about the whole affair.  But I soon quit going.  It was not just because my one and only VW was in pieces in the garage.  In the club, that’s standard practice.  Completely normal, natural behavior.

And it was certainly not because of the people.  A funny thing is that, all these years later, many among the general, non-aficionado population still associate first generation Volkswagens with the counterculture, with the hippies.  True, one or two of the attendees at the the few meetings I went to might be old enough, and hairy enough, to be the real deal.  My first time out, a wheezing, battered, and faded Westfalia camper pulled into the parking lot of the sandwich shop where the meetings are held.  I was somehow not surprised to see a tall, lanky guy about my dad’s age step out, sporting a scruffy grey beard and a pony-tail.  But on the other end of the spectrum, there were several attendees who would have been quite at home among the pit crew at a NASCAR event.  A few others seemed more the of the intellectual or high-tech sort.  One of these showed up in a stunningly original, Gulf Blue ’63 Beetle.  He and another member — a machinist — recalled, with laughs, overhauling the engine one night.  They started at ten o’clock, and had the car back on the road at dawn.  The owner also detailed how he was able to slightly modify the original Bendix Sapphire radio to accept an MP3 hook-up.

So I enjoyed the wide variety and diverse backgrounds of the members.  They were very warm and welcoming.  A good crowd.  And they all had something to offer, which leads me to something closer to the truth:  I quit going because I felt like I had nothing to offer them in return.  I’m a pretty strong cyclist, in season; but those guys would be hard-pressed to understand why anyone would pay more for a super-light carbon fiber racing bike than the going rate for a late-model Bus in decent shape.  I can fly an airplane, but all that’s good for is conversation.  They would only want to know how it works.  And I’d have to mumble into my beer that really, I have no idea.  I just fly the damn thing.

I’m stunningly charming, both in looks and in wit.  But I am also happily married; with a club that is 99% male, my personal charisma could not be more irrelevant.  I’m a voracious reader.  I’m pretty good at crossword puzzles.  I can imitate Cleveland from The Family Guy passably well.  And I can make farting noises in more places upon my body than any third-grader out there.  I may not have invented the palm-in-armpit method, but by the time I came around, that was passé anyhow.

So I’ve decided to retreat a bit.  I’m not averse to soliciting advice from the various forums — truth be told, I’d be lost otherwise.  But most of the learning curve will need to be drawn the good old-fashioned way — day after thankless day of toiling in the garage, through heat, cold, busted knuckles, bruised egos, unhinged tempers, sore backs, and scratched corneas (don’t ask).  Some day I’ll roll up to that sandwich shop in my shiny rejuvenated Volksie.  They might remember me.  They might not.  But it will be a proud moment.  And by then I hope to have some advice to give, and a story to tell.

But that doesn’t mean I’m not out there, watching.

The benefits of being an avid cyclist are manifold: a healthy heart; an outlet for stress; a distinctive suntan; tree-trunk quads; implicit license to wear brightly colored spandex in public; and the ability to consume appalling amounts of food, yet still remain slender and youthful-looking.  Another, lesser-known perk is that you cannot hide your Volkswagen from me.  I ride thousands of miles every year, both in town and in the country.  I do not need a map, or a GPS.  I know which dogs are dangerous, which I can out-sprint, and which just want to play.  I’m acutely aware of the wind and the clouds and if it’s a big year for bluebirds or sunflowers or spring peepers or yellowjackets.  I know when you leave, who’s motorcycle that is in your driveway when you’re gone, and what time you usually come back.  I can tell if you’re a smoker as you drive by at 60 miles-an-hour.  I can smell what you’re having for dinner.

I have yet to discover the ever-more-elusive “barn find” (although I do have my leads).  But if you live within, say, a fifty-mile radius of me, and if you have an old Volkswagen — of any type and in any shape — I know about it.  I want you to know this thing.

I’m watching you.

If that sounds creepy, well, I’m a creep.

I’ve haven’t made it to nearly as many of the Volkswagen car shows as I’d like, but I can do almost as well creating my own.  No, there will not be a swap meet.  There will be no technical clinics.  There will be no funnel cakes, no beer tents, no wet t-shirt competitions, no temporary tattoos, no burn-outs, no loudest engine contests, no see-how-many-people-we-can-stuff-into-a-Beetle events, no Lynyrd Skynyrd tribute bands.  I need none of this.  All I need to enjoy my own private show is a bicycle and a digital camera.

There was a time, of course, when the very idea of going out to look for air-cooled Volkswagens was a ludicrous idea.  It would be like hunting for black flies in the Maine woods, or gnats in south Georgia.  But not anymore.

These first two snaps are both within a mile or two of my house.  None are show cars.  That’s one reason why I like them.  I can slobber over a pristine, painstakingly restored vintage Volkswagen like anyone else.  But I wouldn’t want to own one.  It is not part of my ethos.  I believe some things, if properly maintained, age well.  Things like baseball mitts and cathedral steps.

Another plus in my book for these fine examples is that, being so close by, they have a certain girl-next-door quality.  I like!

Frequently my ride takes me through town.  Many cyclists I know actively avoid town.  With so many miles of beautiful, rolling, country road with light traffic so close at hand, it’s not hard to understand why.  Sure, every now and again a particularly ferocious pit bull gives chase.  Or a particularly obnoxious red-neck projects an empty beer bottle in your general direction (empty, though — always empty!).  Generally, though, the cyclist can enjoy hours and hours of peaceful, unmolested miles.

To me, if you avoid riding in town, you’re missing half the fun.  Although I am keenly aware that you only get one life, urban cycling is otherwise like a great big, city-wide, real-time video game.  And it’s also part of the show.

This one is truly special:

I’m not sure, but I would guess this one is of mid-60’s vintage.  You don’t see too many of these anymore.  Some people are surprised to learn that they came from the factory like this, that they’re not custom hack-jobs rendered from a former Bus.  In actuality, Volkswagen made both a single-cab (seen here) and a crew-cab version.  It is not custom, but it is indeed based on the Bus platform and is considered a Type 2 variant.  The tailgate folds down, of course; but the side panels are also hinged, a somewhat unique feature that would make loading and unloading much easier.  The hatch underneath gives access to the “treasure chest,” another storage area that extends straight through to the other side, and as far back as the engine compartment.  It’s like a pickup truck with a basement.

An interesting bit of history:  I can’t remember where I read this, but at some point in the 1960’s West Germans decided they wanted more chicken.  Demand soared.  Their government, in an effort to preserve the livelihoods of domestic chicken-people, decided to impose a tax on imported chicken — meaning, in no small measure, American chicken.

LBJ said fine — that’s how you like it?  How about we tax some of them Vee-dubyas y’all keep throwing at us?  Naw, the passenger vehicles are too popular.  There could be repercussions upon my person.  So how about a little import tax on delivery vans and light trucks?  What do you think of them apples?  I’ve got your chicken right here!

The Germans donned black leather trench coats, gathered around the map table, pushed some miniature container ships around the oceans, said machts nichts (and probably some other surly, gutteral-sounding things), and decided to stand behind their chicken-raising countrymen.  And that’s why you very rarely see later-model Volkswagen delivery vans and light trucks here in ‘Merica.  They make ‘em.  But to this day, you can’t buy one.

Here is another fine example from just before the little trade spat:

I discovered this beauty shortly after I bought my own heap of Wolfsburg steel.  But oh, I wanted this one too!  I wanted it so bad it hurt.  My loins positively ached at the prospect!  (Did I say that out loud?)  A thousand times I thought about what I would do with her, if I had my way.  A thousand dreams I dreamt, in which I was the privileged one who would caress her shapely form, discover her secrets, linger in her embrace, and fog her Sekurit glass with my breath.  But alas, this particular fruit was forbidden.

She sat there for about a year.  Then one day she was gone — only to reappear later, in the company of two similarly-aged passenger Buses, at somebody’s shop along the highway leading out of town.  Then all three were gone for good.  I don’t know where.

One other thing about this photograph: the sign.  That alone would be cool to have hanging in the garage.  Local legend has it that Doster’s was the place to have your VW serviced, back in the day.   As the name implies, it was a family-owned business.  There were three brothers.  They would be quite old now, if they still survive.  For a while there was a rumor that the younger generation would carry on the family tradition, but I think it’s safe to say that’s not going to happen.  Every time I ride by the place it looks more and more decrepit.  The entry door hangs ajar now, open to the darkness within.

Right around the corner from where the single-cab lives are these two:

Again, I’m not sure on the years.  The Beetle has only one exhaust pipe, so it’s no older than ’75.  The Bus is probably of similar vintage.  The “bay window” and high turn signals in front mean it’s certainly no older than ’73.  Neither is in perfect shape, but both look pleasantly worn, yet well-maintained.  I’d be proud to own either one.

I found this next pair also downtown, on a dead-end street I seldom have reason to visit:

The Bus needs work.  I don’t know if it runs.  I would date it as a little earlier than the one above it.  It has the same windshield, which was new for the 1968 model year.  But the turn signals are below the headlights.  So somewhere between ’68 and ’72, inclusive.

The Fastback is a special find.  You don’t see too many of these either.  Technically referred to as a Type 3, they were produced from the early ’60’s to the early ’70’s.  Also imported to the U.S. was a station wagon version, commonly called a “Squareback.”  A sedan was produced too — nicknamed a “Notchback” — but was not imported here.  In this country, the Fastbacks and Squarebacks were fairly popular, though not nearly so much as the Beetles.  I’ve found that when you try to describe the car to non-enthusiasts, they don’t know what you’re talking about.  But when they see one — if they’re old enough remember — they say oh yeah.  Those.

I met the owner once, in the parking lot of the grocery store.  I complimented him on the car.  We chatted for a bit.  I think he told me it was a ’69.  When he drove off, though, there was a loud and clear knocking noise.  I thought of Muir: “. . . a rod making its throwing song, like a rattlesnake about to strike.”

I hope he fixed that — whatever it was.

Notice two trends in our tour about town:

  1. In three cases so far, there is more than one.  Beetle + Bus seems to be a popular combination, but there are others.  I happen to know that there are some guys in the club who have several — a couple of Beetles, perhaps, a Bus, a Thing, maybe a Ghia or a Squareback.  Sometimes none in the entire collection actually runs, but that’s beside the point.  Just note that I am not alone in thinking that more than one is the optimum number of old Volkswagens to have.  I’ve made it clear, on many occasions, what the next addition to my stable would be.  Sometimes, though, I do wonder what I’m getting into.  Is it a trap?  Can the optimum number of Volksies be summarized in the formula: x + 1, where x is the number of Volkswagens currently owned?
  2. All of these cars I’ve photographed are parked outside.  I like this.  I do not believe that Volkswagens were ever meant to be garage queens.  Mine (if I ever finish it) will spent most of its idle hours, it’s true, in the garage.  But from time to time I plan to park it right out front, where I can see it and where the neighbors can finally understand (or not) what all that racket was about.  No landscape is the worse for an old Beetle in the picture.

The next example was driving me completely batshit for quite some time:

Didn’t see it right away?  I didn’t either, the first hundred or so times I blazed past on my racing bike.  This one is way out in the country, past the reservoir, along a back road that connects a string of rusty old railroad towns; towns bypassed by the super-slab they built a while back to take happy, healthy, hardworking commuters deep into the heart of Sprawlville.  So much the better, because now it’s a great place for cycling.

I don’t know how it escaped my attention — for years, it must have been.  Since my focus here would obviously be on the car and not the foliage, I don’t know what kind of thicket it’s hiding in, other than that it’s dense and green year-round.  And I don’t know why, on one particular occasion two winters ago, I happened to look directly at it.

Was it a cry for help?

I came to a screeching halt and unclipped my cleats.

I stood there for a moment, letting my heart rate wind down, wondering.  It was immediately apparent that, given the thickness of the undergrowth, the poor thing had been rusting there for quite some time.  There no window glass. I could see that it still wore the overrider-style bumpers, marking it as a ’67 model or earlier.  Pretty sure the back window was rectangular, not oval.  So newer than ’57.  Yellow or orange in color — which would likely be a non-original respray, given the vintage.  Other than that, it was impossible to tell much without getting closer.  Without risking — in these parts — getting shot at.

Maybe I’m paranoid but one must consider these things.  Many people live on the edge of nowhere for reason.

Georgia can be a damp and humid place.  While road salt is not a factor, exposed metal left to the elements — manure spreaders, tractors, gas grills, shipping containers, and old cars — will rust quickly.  Even clean, freshly-exposed metal kept under cover will develop the telltale orange patina in an alarmingly short time.  So I harbored no hidden urge to save it.  Even if I didn’t already have my hands full.  I could guess that this one was simply too far gone.

Instead, I was thinking parts.

At the time there were several things I was looking for — fenders, a hood, a fan shroud, a pile of trim pieces.  And the greedy side of me considered the other possibilities:  How much would a slightly pitted, but original rear-view mirror fetch online?  A usable seat frame?  A deck lid?  Was there an engine under there?  How many parts could I fit in the Subaru?

The car and the thicket were in the front corner of someone’s property, to the right of the rutted dirt driveway, about fifty feet from the road.  There were several other cars scattered about the yard; most of them derelict, all of them at least fifteen years newer than the hidden VW.  A battered Chevy Lumina.  A char-grilled Gran Am.  A derelict window-van, ’70’s California-style, with the wheels removed, resting on its belly.

A handful of roosters strutted about in what might be called the front yard.  There were also a rusted pink Huffy, a trampoline with a mattress on top, an antique satellite dish smothered in kudzu vines, a blue plastic kiddie pool with a basketball floating in the thick green water.  A ratty push-mower with the part you hold onto removed.  A pile of bricks with grass growing on it.  A moldy doghouse without a dog.  A liquid propane tank that somebody, at some point, had seen fit to spray-paint in camouflage hues.

The place seemed deserted and I was considering a closer inspection when a young man appeared from around the back of the house.  With his cell phone leading the way — like Spock with his tricorder — he didn’t notice me at first.  He was stepping onto the front porch when he happened to look up and see me standing there.

I waved and asked if this was his Volkswagen.  He sauntered over.  As he came closer I saw that he was fifteen, maybe sixteen.  He wore his pants so low that I wondered if it would be an encumbrance should the need to evacuate on foot quickly arise.  I reflected — with relief — upon how mature and considerate my own generation was.  Surely, we never acted, dressed, or spoke in ways that mystified our elders.

The kid seemed nice enough, though.  He said no, it belonged to his uncle.  No, he wasn’t home right now.  Pretty sure he didn’t want to sell just parts.  Pretty sure he wanted to sell the whole thing.

I did not ask if I could have a closer look.  I don’t know why not.  Maybe because I didn’t want to go crawling around in the underbrush with an unknown youth while wearing spandex and bicycle cleats.  Just didn’t seem like a good idea.  But I did ask him how long it had been sitting there.

“Aw, like, forever,” he said.

Forever is a long, long time.  I was thinking no way in hell anyone’s going to buy it.  Nobody can even see it!  I was thinking that this thicket would be the final resting place for this sad old Volkswagen.  This would be where rust and dry rot would conspire to return it to the earth.

The kid punched my number into his cell phone as I dictated it to him.  I said thanks and rode away.

It didn’t surprise me that I never heard back.  I rode by there many times over the next several months, hoping to meet the owner himself.  Finally, one sweltering August afternoon, there he was.  He was older than I would have expected — maybe the young man’s grandfather? — but sinewy and strong.  He wielded a large hammer.  Not sure what he was actually doing with it; he seemed to be wandering around the yard, hammering anything that might need hammering.

I stopped and leaned on my handlebars, sweat dripping off my face, catching my breath.  When I waved he walked across the yard to meet me in the road.  I mentioned the conversation with his nephew, and that I was looking for parts.  He pulled a bandana from his back pocket, wiped his brow with it, and said nothing.  I asked for more details.  He didn’t seem to be sure what year the car was.  First he said it was a ’61, then a ’64.  Then he said it was a “turbo.”

Was he pulling my leg?  Had this guy lost his marbles?  I looked him in the eye.  Bright and clear blue.  Unusual for a black man.  But impossible to tell where he was coming from.  Unsettling.  I looked away.

It was possible, I supposed, that at some point in the car’s long history, somebody had shoe-horned a high-performance turbocharged motor into it.  Ever since the first Beetles were set free from Wolfsburg to roam all points of the globe, owners have perpetrated all sorts of unholy acts upon them.  Compared with some of the more drastic modifications — like, for example, “shaving” the trim, “chopping” the roof pillars, or rigging solenoid-operated “suicide doors” — putting a hot motor in back is a relatively easy thing to undo.  But I found it unlikely that someone would have simply discarded such an ostensibly valuable item along with the carcass I was now contemplating.

That’s when I noticed, just this side of the yellow line, the biggest grasshopper I had ever seen.  He looked liked a giant cigar on spindly legs, just baking in the sun and thinking about what to do next.  His shadow alone was a sight to see.

In the South there is a way of conversing that takes up the maximum amount of time but contains the least amount of substance possible.  It can go on, if given due course, for hours.  A simple yes or no is rarely uttered.  Maybe it’s their own secret way of wearing a Yankee down.  If so, it is a vicious yet effective tactic.  Especially when it’s like 108 on the asphalt, and so humid that I’m pretty sure I’m growing moss upon my nether regions.

The old man and I chatted in this fashion for a while.  On the fringes of consciousness, I detected the whir of tires off in the distance.  I looked again at the grasshopper.  Still there.  I looked at the shrubbery partially concealing the car.  Again I had the thought that if he plans on really selling the thing whole, he’s going to have to reveal it, sooner or later.  The old man seemed to have read my mind.

“Been tryin’ to get my nephew to cut that all back,” he said.

Up ahead, the vehicle approached.  I could see that it was an angry-looking, bright red F-150, barreling down the country road like it was the interstate somewhere in western Texas.  If the grasshopper somehow sensed this three-ton mass of Detroit iron bearing down upon it like all-come-home, it made no sign.

Man, was it hot.

I could feel the breeze from the pickup as it blasted past.  Through the rolled-up driver’s window, I caught just a glimpse, like a single frame shot, of the driver’s arm pressing a cell phone to his head.  Air-conditioned comfort and convenience.  The eddies left in the wake of the truck swirled around for a second or two.  Then it was still and hot and the noise faded and was gone.

The grasshopper had not moved.  Luckily for him/her/it (I’m certain I don’t know how to tell, with grasshoppers — even large ones) the pickup, while fast, had kept its lane.  Same as before.  One cigar-sized grasshopper hovering over one cigar-shaped shadow.

I looked down and noticed that I was casting no shadow at all.  I wondered why that might be.

“Those things used to be all over the place,” the old man was saying.  At first I thought he meant the grasshopper.  “My sister had one, drove it over to Alabama once a week for eight years.  Every week.  Never even changed the oil.  Eight years.”

I said I needed to be going now.  It was nice to meet you, Sir, I said.

I clipped in and rode off, leaving the old man standing there with his hammer.

It is unknown why I didn’t even ask to have a closer look, or try to convince him that really, there was no way he’d ever sell the thing in one piece unless somebody could actually see it.  Maybe the heat was getting to me.  It does that sometimes.

Eventually my shadow came back but I never saw the old man again.  I rode past there from time to time.  The grasshopper was gone but otherwise everything was the same.  For a full year and then some, the old Volkswagen sat hidden in the same unkempt, untamed thicket.  Nothing changed.

Then, about two weeks ago, I was surprised to see that something had, in fact, changed.

As I approached I could see the dense, green cluster of bushes, same as it always was.  But my first clue that something was different was the presence of two muddy ruts torn in the earth, leading right up to the spot.  Had some drunk run off the road and come to a skidding halt just in time?

Good thing he managed to stop before he hit the —

The Volkswagen was gone.  All that remained was a dark, cave-like burrow in the greenery where it had sat, slumping and rusting, for all those years.  The two slashes in the Georgia red clay were made, evidently, by whomever dragged it out from its hiding place.  The wheels, likely fused in place with rust, clawed the earth like a cat being pulled out from under the bed by the scruff of its neck.

No.  I’m not going. 

But yes, it was gone.  I don’t know where it went.  I checked the forum on the local club’s website but saw no mention of a recent acquisition, a new parts car, or a “look what I found” thread.  Whoever snagged it either isn’t talking, or came from afar, snatched it up, and is long since gone.

Do not think that I am upset by this, because I’m not.  Somebody obviously went through all that trouble for a reason.  Maybe he needed the parts for his own project, and was willing and able to just drag the whole thing back to his shop.  Maybe there is no project, and he aims to “part it out,” take the Sawzall to it, and sell the pieces on the internet for a profit.  Either way, if the car was indeed beyond saving, parts of it, at least, will live on.  The torch will be passed.

Vonnegut: “And so it goes.”

But still I wonder who found it, and how.  He must have been a friend or relative to the old man.  Or maybe it was the mail carrier, or the UPS guy.  It must have been the type of person who would know about these things.

It might have been a cyclist.

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