One Lump or Two?

One Lump or Two?

Bonnie & Clyde
Double Trouble

On the left is the engine that came with the car.  It’s been in that same exact spot for about three years now.  I never did a compression check or anything like that.  At the time, I didn’t have the tools and didn’t know how.  I still have not learned the esoteric art of assessing it’s worth from the color of the soot in it’s pipes, the condition of the plugs, or the consistency of the oil that has collected in the filler neck.  With time I will learn these things, just as I have learned everything else.

Plans include a total overhaul.  I will do this in the winter, so as to have her fresh and ready for spring.  It is still my intention, in April, to drive the Beetle over the mountains to Bug-a-Palüza 15, up in Tennessee.  Maybe then we’ll head down to Savannah, to visit family.  I’ll take back roads only, going at my own pace.  Schedules will loosen.  I will learn to accept help from others.  I’m sure there will be rough spots, but this is something I’ll learn how to handle with aplomb.

And once I’ve worked out the kinks, this motor will take me to Maine.  One way.

(I did mention that we’re moving to Maine this summer, yes?)

As for the engine on the right, well . . .

I first heard about it a few weeks ago, while browsing the classifieds on the local VW club’s website.  To avoid temptation I have had my eBay and TheSamba alerts shut off for quite some time.  Well, most of my alerts.  Every now and then I get a hit for “1975 Beetle,” hoping for the one-in-a-million chance that my old love will miraculously reappear in the same exact condition as I last saw her, for the same price I got for her those twenty-some-odd years ago.  (I do not like to think too much of her far more likely fate.)  And of course, I get an alert any time a Bus, of any variety or vintage, is listed anywhere in world.  Just to keep an eye on things.  Just browsing, you know.

I can’t remember exactly what I was doing in the classifieds on this occasion.  Maybe I was looking for knickknacks or knobs.  Or perhaps it was a last-ditch effort to find original 1965 seat frames, without resorting to buying them sight-unseen from California — only to have them arrive, disappoint, and get tossed in the storage locker along with the rejected doors, fenders, deck lids, and hoods that were acquired in the same fashion.  But one listing caught my eye, as you might imagine.  It said: “Parting out 1965 Beetle.”  It described a “barn find” that was rolled in 1971 and subsequently parked at the far end of one of those football-field-long chicken houses that dot the rural Georgia landscape.  The seller discovered it, along with a 1963 model, just previous to posting the ad.

The accompanying photographs depicted a Bahama Blue Bug that seemed surprisingly intact and complete, except for the pinched roof, dented hood, and misaligned doors.  All of the glass except the windshield had survived.  The interior was still done in the original, beautiful Windsor blue, and the under-the-hood area was especially clean — including the original spare tire and tool kit.  As I perused the photographs, making a mental list of all the goodies I could snag from this special find, I was suddenly struck with something akin to buyer’s remorse, even though I hadn’t even reached for the wallet yet.  Being in what I hoped to call the final stretch of my own project, I really didn’t need to part with yet another wad of cash.  I was thankful, at least, that I already had most of the major necessities.

I was also relieved when I noticed that the ad had been posted two months prior.  Surely, I thought, most of it was gone by now anyhow.  It wouldn’t do any harm just to call and ask about it then, would it?  Besides, I knew the guy — sort of.  I’d seen his posts on the local forum.  I’d even met him once or twice, in the beginning, when I was still naive enough to believe I could carry on a normal conversation with the guys at the monthly club meeting without revealing myself to be the complete newbie that I was.  He seemed nice enough, like an honest guy.  So I found myself dialing.

Almost everything, he told me, was indeed gone.  Although I had recently come to terms with the incorrect (by two years) seat frames that I already had — and had already ordered the appropriate upholstery kit from TMI — this was the first item I asked him about.  Already sold, he said.  He still had the back seats, though, but I didn’t need them.  I was surprised to learn that the first thing that went was the body shell.  From the photographs, the car looked as though a Volkswagen-hating giant had squeezed the car from the sides, like a pimple, until the middle of the roof folded to create a peak.  I couldn’t begin to imagine how one would go about repairing that.  Yet, he told me, it was already done.  He’d heard that the guy who bought the body cut the roof at the pillars, stretched the body back to its normal proportions, and grafted in a donor roof.  Simple as that (gulp!).

Bumpers?

Gone.

Headlight assemblies?  Turn signals?  Bendix radio?

Gone, gone, and gone.

Most everything, he said, except the engine.

After the seat frames, that was next on my list.  But I was afraid to ask.  I really didn’t need another engine.  Unless there are dirty secrets that reveal themselves when I start the teardown, I already have an engine that, I figure, is a good candidate for an overhaul.  Most of the ancillaries have long since been replaced, but it is built around a genuine Volkswagen case (1963 vintage, by the stamped number), sports an original Solex 28 PICT-1 carburetor, and a pair of VW square-boss single-port heads.  Of course the fan shroud flaps have been disabled by a previous owner.  And that carb was still a little finicky last time I ran it, despite (or because of?) my rebuilding it.  And for reasons I can’t quite explain, in my rewiring of the car, I’m tempted to bring it back to its original, 6-volt setup.  So I’ll need a new generator anyhow.

From the photographs, I suspected that the guy wasn’t kidding when he said it was all original — carburetor, generator, distributor, coil, fuel pump.  Only the muffler was, for unknown reasons, missing.  Also, while I had him on the phone, he checked for the thermostat when I asked him about it.  It too was gone, but he reported that he could move the shroud flaps by hand.  The rest, he said, was complete.  I told him thanks, but I’d have to think about it for a few days.  His asking price was fair, I thought, but $500 is still $500.

The following Saturday was a “one-and-done” kind of day, the early morning flight from Philadelphia back home.  I was in the parking lot by 9:30.  I gave him a call.  Could I come by and see it?

Sure, he said.  C’mon by.  Like most VW guys I’ve met, “William” is friendly and enthusiastic — not just about VW’s, but about life in general.  He likes to talk, too.  Before he gave me directions to his house, he regaled my about having spent much of the previous day — Black Friday — at Walmart.  Didn’t buy anything, he said.  No, he and his family simply sat on a bench with their ice cream cones, people-watching.  Had I ever done that?  Ever gone to Walmart to simply people-watch?

No, I confessed, I hadn’t.  Never occurred to me.  Especially on Black Friday.  Usually, the only time I’d even consider patronizing that giant, gaping, cancerous hole of consumption is under extreme duress, usually of the type that involves the furtherance of the Beetle project.  Like when I absolutely have to have that can of satin black Krylon and that box of 100-count latex gloves at two o’clock on a Sunday morning.

During normal business hours, usually I get that kind of stuff at Strange Hardware (I’ve changed the name here, but the actual name is about as “strange”).  It’s a quaint Mom-and-Pop sort of place about three miles down the road that has miraculously managed to survive the onslaught of one Home Depot, two Lowe’s, two Walmarts, a Harbor Freight, and a Tractor Supply Company within a ten mile radius.

That whole part of town is called Normaltown. It got its name from the state normal school that originally occupied the campus across the street.  For most of my time in this town, that campus was home of the Navy Supply Corps School.  It took them the better part of fifty years but eventually the Navy discovered, to their great dismay, that Athens, Georgia is nowhere near the sea.  So they left, headed for the coast.  Now the space has been re-purposed once again as a new medical campus for the ever-expanding behemoth which is simply referred to by locals as The University.

A few doors down from Strange Hardware used to be Allen’s Bar and Grill — immortalized in song by the B-52’s, who got their start here in Athens — but that was torn down a some years ago.  The “Love Shack” was also a real place (not in Normaltown, but out in the country, and less than two miles from my house), but it too is gone — burned to the ground, the story goes, under “suspicious circumstances.”  The whole shack shimmies no longer.  All that remains is the chimney.  And the tin roof, still rusted.

In lieu of an actual Mom and a real-life Pop in Strange Hardware, there is a tiny, twitchy white guy and a big, burly black guy, both of whom are always there if the lights are on.  Twitchy is usually the first to ask if I need any help when he hears the cowbell jangle and my boots on the creaky planks.  Burly seems the more pensive type, usually speaking only when he has something to say.  You can get a wide variety of goods there — spray paint, hand tools, plumbing supplies, a rake, a wheelbarrow, a gas drill, nuts, bolts, and washers.  They can make keys.

Once I stopped by three times in the same day, each time buying the same exact thing: contact cement.  By the third visit I was, admittedly, a little rattled.  After taking the very last quart-sized can of DAP Weldwood off the shelf and placing it on the counter, Twitchy and I must have had the same exact thought.

My thought: I wonder if he thinks I’m huffing that shit.

His thought: I think he’s huffing that shit.

Of course, it just wouldn’t do to ask me that directly, so Twitchy came at me sideways.  “Man, that stuff adds up, don’t it?” he said, eyeing me suspiciously as I forked over the cash.  “Whatchya workin’ on?”

“Carpet,” I said, without further explanation.  It was true, but I just didn’t feel like talking about it.  I mean, the stuff does add up, and I hated having to stop what I was doing to drive town to Strange three times in the same afternoon.  (A note to future Beetle carpet installers: I discovered after the fact that the DAP Weldwood “Gel” works much better than the “Original.”)  Burly said nothing.  Twitchy shrugged, apparently satisfied by my curt explanation.  He handed me my change and gave me the usual, hearty, and very Southern, “Thanks — come back!”

We’ve had our laughs, too.  Once I tossed a bag of disposable blue latex gloves on the counter.  All they had was the 25-count pack.  It would have to do.  But I was confused about something.

“Why do you suppose they package these in odd quantities like that?”

Twitchy was a little slow on the uptake.  “Huh?”

“I mean, what would I want with twenty-five?” I said, waving both hands in the air like this was a stick-em-up in reverse.

“Well,” Burly began in his slow baritone.  For a moment there was nothing but silence and anticipation, Twitchy and I both waiting for Burly to continue.  It’s amazing how much attention one can command when one is very choosey about one’s words.  “I suppose if you was a proctologist —”

They say that comedy is all about the delivery.  I wouldn’t know about that, but I do know that I laughed hard, for a long time.  I still think it’s pretty damn funny.  Corny as all get-out.  But funny.

Something tells me you can’t get that kind of entertainment at Walmart.  But maybe that’s like the difference between dry, British humor and American-style slapstick.  I wondered if William was a Monty Python fan like me.  Probably not.  It did occur to me, however, that the main reason I’m not a Walmart people-watcher may very well be because I’m one of the ones being watched.

Daddy — look at that strange man!  Why is he covered in black paint?  Does he know he’s wearing two different shoes?  Who is he talking to?  What happened to his eyebrows?

We may not share the same sense of humor, but definitely we share the same passion.  As is often the case with air-cooled VW freaks like me, I found William’s house easily.  All you have to do is keep an eye out for one of those distinctive shapes, like that of a ladybug (in the case of a Beetle) or a loaf of bread (a bay-window Bus).  William’s gorgeous, bone-stock, gulf blue 1963 Deluxe Sedan (which I had the chance to swoon over at one of those club meetings) was at someone’s shop, he explained, getting a front-end alignment.  But I knew I had found the place when I saw his late Westfalia parked in his driveway.

On the day of my visit I was in the midst of one of my insomnia marathons, and had not slept a wink for about eighty hours, and counting.  This by itself was not unusual.  I’m used to it.  During those times I try to give myself a little slack, and constantly remind myself that I’m not one-hundred percent.  I try to keep to a somewhat-normal (albeit scaled down) exercise regimen, and I try to defer any big “life decisions” until I’ve finally gotten some sleep.  I make an effort to pay attention, and to be patient, with varying degrees of success.  After a while I slip into a hazy, spacey groove where the desiccated husk of my body might seem to be animated with at least the semblance of a life-force, but the brain may or may not be participating.

Also, I drink coffee.  Lots of it.  When I’m sleeping well, I cut off my caffeine intake somewhere around lunch time, knowing that I’d otherwise jeopardize my chances for continuing that blissful, rejuvenating trend.  Eventually, though — every few weeks or so — things get completely out of whack and I simply stop sleeping.  Nothing I do makes any difference.  During those times I switch to survival mode, and I reach for the hot, black bean juice with a vicious craving, attempting to wring every ounce of remaining energy from my slowly withering frame.

These two things alone — the chronic lack of sleep, coupled with a severely over-caffeinated state — would make anyone a blathering idiot.  To make matters worse, when I arrived at William’s house, I had to pee — badly.  I mean like right now.  This seems to happen regularly enough that I’m beginning to wonder if it’s some manifestation of a deep-seated social anxiety, and a possible explanation as to why I have a hard time making new friends (as if my general surliness has nothing to do with it).  It never happens, say, when I’m going to the dentist, or the bank, or the hardware store.  It only (and always) seems to happen when I recognize — subconsciously, at least — that I might actually enjoy, for a change, an easy conversation with a like-minded individual.  Somebody who might be a friend.

What to do?  To leap out of the car and waddle up to the door like my legs are zip tied at the knees, to pound on the door and greet whichever man, woman, or child that answers with heyI’mBruceheretolookattheenginebutfirstomigodwhere’sthebathroom?!?!?!? — well, that simply wouldn’t do, would it?  What is the standard protocol here?  Can I Google it?  Am I over-analyzing this thing?  Because really, I want to know!  I need to know!

As it was, the overhead door to the garage was open.  The engine in question sat on a dolly in the middle of the spotless floor.  Notwithstanding the urinometer being pegged, I noted with envy the well-appointed and orderly space.  A large, modern tool chest likely chock full of anything one would need to maintain an air-cooled Volkswagen.  A well-lighted bench with a broad work surface.  An wheeled cart containing a MIG welder, gas cylinder, regulator, and a space for accessories underneath.  In the other corner, and actual desk, complete with a computer terminal, a collection of manuals, and a file cabinet.

Well, I thought with smug satisfaction upon noticing the itsy-bitsy, teeny-tiny, decidedly unmanly pancake compressor nestled under the workbench.  At least my compressor is bigger!

Still, there was no denying it.  This was no newbie duffer’s garage.  This was a shop.  I never had the chance to even think about setting up a “shop” before I found myself suddenly ass-deep in the unplanned, complete rebuilding of the Beetle.  At some point I threw up a most ungraceful assemblage of two-by-fours and plywood.  Perhaps it is instructive to reflect that the first thing I attached to said assemblage was a pub-style bottle opener.

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Above the cramped and cluttered alcove that serves as a work surface, I installed a single fluorescent fixture — that I have to unplug if I want to plug something else in there, unless I drag the extension cord over from the other half of the garage.  Nuts, bolts, washers, and unidentified/unidentifiable small parts reside in coffee cans, empty yogurt containers, pickle jars, baggies.  My only actual tool chest — a small, wheeled Craftsman unit — was already insufficient for my bicycle tools.  Now the drawers won’t even close.  The pegboard I hung is festooned with the most motley collection of crap imaginable: body hammers, screwdrivers, wire brushes, hog ring pliers, scissors, snips, wrenches, rubber bands, punches, calipers, clamps, drifts, scrapers, chisels — and a standby bottle opener (just in case).  Every new tool I bring home requires my finding a bare patch of real estate along one of the two-by-fours, so I can hammer some nails and hang it there.  I regularly inscribe part numbers, phone numbers, lists, mantras, and reminders into the soft pine.

My compressor isn’t really that big — thirty gallons, if I remember correctly — but it suffices for my purposes.  It has a hard time keeping up with the air tools, but since I’m a very slow worker I don’t really mind.  But I should have sprung for one of those fancy rubbery air hoses, since on a cold day, the plastic one that I use is so stiff that it’s all but impossible to work with.  And any time I need to weld something I have to unload a pile of labeled boxes from the shelf, risk back injury dragging out the MIG setup and placing it somewhere nearby, hook up the gas cylinder, try to remember all the settings, then remember where in that heaping mess my welding helmet might be — only to find it and get all pissy because it’s a cheap-ass model, not one of the auto-darkening ones I find myself drooling over whilst sitting on the john with a tool catalog.

I knocked on the door and was met by William.  In all honesty, given my sorry state, I would have been perfectly content to pee, pay, and leave.  But with William’s outgoing and friendly nature, it wouldn’t be so easy.  First we talked about life in general — family, work, the weather.  I commented on William’s nice shop space.  He thanked me, but casually mentioned the complete redesign that was in the works.  Then he showed me the back seat from the rolled Beetle — the original, one-year-only upholstery was indeed beautiful — for which he was planning to build a wooden frame, to enable its use as a cool couch for the kids.  As for the muffler that had been on the engine, he said it was too far gone to be of much use — as a muffler, at least.  Inspired by its design — including the über-cool, prominent “VW” logo stamped right between the exhaust pipes — he cut off the back half length-wise, blasted the front, painted it, mounted it on a wooden slab, attached two new cheap-o chrome pea shooters, and voilà! — a super-groovy tie rack!  If Martha Stewart were a male, thirty-something Volkswagen freak with a much better personality and a strong Southern accent, that would be William.

When there was a very slight pause in the conversation and I sensed that the time was right for a commercial break, I finally asked for and used the bathroom.  When I returned to the garage (wondering vaguely how much eight gallons of coffee-infused urine weighs) one of the kids was in there with his dad.

“Mister Bruce is a pilot,” William explained to his young’un.

Here was go again.

Being childless, I have no idea what impresses kids nowadays.  But judging solely from the boy’s response, pilots aren’t one of them.  Much to my relief, he really didn’t give a shit.  I could have been an accountant for all he cared.  Children like that give me hope for the future.

The boy ran off and I approached the engine.  As I got down on my knees to have a closer look, William told the story of its history, as he knew it, in more detail than he had over the phone.  The threat of having my bladder bursting was no longer there, but I was still jittery and exhausted.  It was a warm day, and the hoodie I had slipped over my head to hide all of the garbage festooning my uniform shirt was making me sweat.  I was as mimsy as a borogove, and having a very hard time paying attention.  But the gist of the story was this: the engine had not run since 1971.  That was when So-And-So’s nephew rolled the car, and it was parked in the chicken house.  So-And-So (or was it So-And-So’s brother?) had, apparently, been a serial Volkswagen buyer back in the day.  He bought one new in ’61, drove it for a couple of years, then traded it in for a ’63.  And so forth.  But the ’65 he’d kept for his nephew who, in his gratitude, proceeded to drive like a maniac, and rolled it.

End of story — until William and a friend came across it while photographing old barns.  It had taken a while to figure out who, exactly, the barn belonged to, and a little while longer to figure out who, exactly, owned the cars therein.  But through dint of persistence and an undisclosed outlay of bread, they dragged off both the ’63 (which was forthwith sold whole) and the ’65, whose engine I now beheld.

I might be giving away a potential money-making business concept here, but I’m thinking about creating a product called Bruce’s Barn Dust.  It would be available in both aerosol and brush-on varieties.  I might even go the route of POR-15, and convince everyone that they need to buy the whole system of products.  One would start with Barn Dust Quick Fade, which creates a dull, milky, translucent base.  Then comes Barn Dust Honey — which actually is honey, especially formulated to provide the optimal adhesive surface for the next layer.  Next (after the proper curing time, under very specific temperature and humidity conditions which are not known to actually exist in any locale on this planet except in one county in eastern Utah, in late autumn, between the hours of three and five in the afternoon) comes the actual Barn Dust.  For this step there would be several varieties to choose from, of several different colors and textures.  For example, you wouldn’t want to use the “Georgia Red Clay” variety to convince someone of your “barn find” in Vermont (maybe “Dairy Cow Dung Dust”?).  Technique could be varied depending upon the type of barn (chicken, cow, hog, hay, tobacco, etc.), as well as the purported time the car spent in said barn.  Finally, one would apply Barn Dust Mr. Murky, which would encapsulate the dust particles in a dull resin that would render the removal of all previous layers virtually impossible.

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“Barn Find” or Barn Find?

Bruce’s Barn Dust could be used on components, too.  This engine would serve as an excellent example of what the genuine article looks like.  Yes, the muffler/tie rack was gone, as well as the rearmost piece of tinware.  I verified that the thermostat was indeed gone, too.  You might say I’m fixated on this last item, mainly because I’ve never actually seen one.  It’s the elusive, mythical thermostat, a key component in the simple yet effective system a team of German engineers came up with to ensure that, after starting, the engine would quickly rise to operating temperature, and only start to cool itself when the thermostat-controlled flaps in the shroud opened up.  The same system that, by the looks of things, was summarily disabled by millions of shade-tree rednecks, whose engineering expertise went no deeper than:

Cool Air = Good.

Cool Air Always = Gooder.

I pulled the dipstick out.  I don’t know why it should have surprised me to find oil in the case, but it did.  It was dark brown and thick, but looked pretty much like I’d expect to find in my Subaru when it’s about due for a change.  I grabbed the crank pulley and jiggled it, emulating the actions of people who actually know what they’re doing.  Finding no play, I went around to the clutch side of the engine, got down on my knees, grasped the flywheel, and started to turn.  I could feel the easy rolling of inner works, interspersed with the hard resistance as each piston approached top dead center and the valves closed.  I do not have nearly enough experience for such an exercise to provide me with a quantitative assessment of the health of the engine.  But I can say that it felt pretty much like my other engine does — the engine which, as I said, ran fine right up until I pulled it.

“Nice,” I said, looking up at William.  “Square-boss heads?”

Then something amazing happened: William had no clue what I was talking about.  He had no idea, and I’m almost positive it’s not because of any newbie error, misconception, or strange phraseology on my part.  For the first time — ever — I seemed to know something that another VW guy did not.

“Mind if we pull of the valve covers?” I asked.

He fetched a rag and a screwdriver and we had the covers off within seconds.  I got down real low, pointed to the square bosses, and read the part number stamped on the rocker floor: 113 101 373.  Same on both sides.  The good ones.

I didn’t explain much beyond that, mainly because I can’t.  But William’s a bright, analytical, technically-oriented guy — does computer systems for a living.  I’m willing to bet he did some research that night, and probably understands it all a lot better than I do by now.  I can also hazard a guess as to the first thing he did once he got his ’63 back from the alignment shop.  But it occurred to me then — exhausted as I was — that maybe I did have something to share after all.  Maybe I’m ready to start thinking about showing up for the monthly club meetings, without worrying about making a complete ass of myself.

Fortunately, I had already made the decision to buy that engine before I even saw it in person— days previously, after a good night’s sleep.  All that remained was to satisfy myself that it was as advertised.  I paid him what he was asking, we tossed it in back of the Subaru, and I went home and took a good long nap.  The engine rode around in the back of Subaru for a few days, until I could solicit the help of a friend.  The two of us easily lowered it onto the waiting dolly.  Though this particular friend is far more mechanically inclined than I (indeed, he owns, operates, and maintains several CNC machines for his futon manufacturing business), his eyes usually glaze over when I start rambling on about Volkswagens.  But even he had to admit this was a cool find.

I will rebuild the first engine and it will take me to Maine.  As for second, I have added it to “the list.”  Not the “To Do” list, but another list.  In the very back of the notebook I’ve been keeping (currently 125 pages and counting) I have several lists — parts to order, things to remember to do, things that are muy importante but that I can easily see myself forgetting (like putting gear oil in transaxle).  As I contemplated what to actually do with this engine I absolutely had to have, a vision began to coalesce: what would it take to restore that engine to the exact condition it was in when it left the factory?  Right now, that sounds like something far beyond my experience.  Heck, I haven’t even rebuilt the first one yet.  But at least I have enough sense to recognize something special, and to not mess with it until I’m better prepared to do so.

So I created a new list, entitled “Projects for a Maine Winter.”  These are things that can wait.  Things for which I currently haven’t the time (like painting the steering column the correct color), the money (finding original or very nice reproduction bumpers), or the know-how (rebuilding the newly-acquired lump to one-hundred percent original condition).  Lucky for me, the winters are long in Maine.

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On Doing Something Right for a Change

I stand under the buzzing fluorescent lights in front of the dairy case at the back of the convenience store, overwhelmed.  Despite the medical urgency of the moment I simply cannot decide.

I glance back at the Pakistani man behind the counter.  His eyes are glued to the tiny black and white television that in all likelihood has been on, and in the same exact spot, for thirty years or more.  I briefly consider — with mixed feelings — that perhaps it’s a security monitor, but then I hear a tinny burst of canned laughter.  Not being a connoisseur of late-night television fare, I wonder what could be so funny at this hour.  Judging from the absolutely dead-neutral, glazed-over look on the clerk’s face, not much.

I know he knows I’m here, because we made eye contact when I came through the door.  He didn’t move a muscle.  He remained slouched on his stool, as he remains now, but his bloodshot eyes followed me as far as they could, until the extra effort of having to shift his entire head seemed to be too much for him just then.  I noticed his stained white button-down linen shirt with pearl snaps and breast-pocket stuffed with pens and popsicle sticks.  But my own appearance — pajamas, flip-flops, tousled hair, and mouth smeared with blood, as if I’d been feasting on fresh roadkill — did not seem to arouse anything worthy of further attention from him.  Perhaps this sort of thing happens all the time, at three in the morning.  Just as well.

I turn again to the dairy case.  Skim, 2%, whole.  Chocolate, strawberry.  Pint, quart, gallon.  Soy, low-fat soy, vanilla soy.  Even chocolate low-fat soy milk, for Chrissakes.  At a convenience store.  In Georgia.

I raise my bloodied and clenched right hand to my face and, after another glance at the clerk, open it, palm up.  Some of the blood has dried already, and the skin on my fingers crinkles and cracks with it as I open my hand.  But it’s still there.  With my tongue I probe the raw, pulsing gap where the tooth used to live, not particularly savoring the taste of pennies.

I find myself wishing I had paid more attention in chemistry class, or biology class, or whatever class would have provided me with the esoteric yet crucial knowledge that was now required to be an “informed consumer.”  I try to remember where I even heard it, that you can preserve a tooth in milk for possible later reinstallation by qualified medical personnel.  Maybe it’s a myth.  But no harm done in trying, I suppose.

Probably not soy milk, I think.  It’s a start.

There is a flash and I turn to see another vehicle pulling in.  The driver kills the headlights and now I can see it better.  It is a very strange car — part ’59 Caddy, part Hoover.  Festooned with LEDs but also with wings.  Like some crazy-ass bile green Batmobile, built from the recently-unearthed, sixty-year-old plans of a long-dead fugitive Nazi engineer.  With a cold shock I recognize the thing.

“Fuck,” I mutter, in a spray of pink spittle.

In a sudden panic, I swing open the glass door to the cooler and reach for my usual choice by default — 2%, quart size — while formulating a vague plan to make a mad dash out the back door, if there is one.  I hear something tiny hit the linoleum floor.  It sounds like a tooth, for some odd reason.  It is.  I bend to pick it up and proceed to kick it under a cardboard display stocked with jerky (assorted animals and flavors).  I get down on all fours, set the 2% aside, and reach underneath to locate my tooth.  I can’t find it.  So I go to slide the display over — easy now, so as not to arouse the clerk’s attention — and proceed to topple it over.  I am now awash in a downpour of jerky.

The jerky-rain stops falling and all is silent for a moment, except for the hum of the coolers and another round from the laugh track.  I am still on the floor, and I can’t see what the clerk is doing.  He had to have heard that.

Suddenly I’m overcome by sleepiness, as if under a spell.  I yearn to slumber, deeply, for a long, long time.  Nothing else matters.  I roll over on my back, surrounded by beef jerky, buffalo jerky, alligator jerky, turkey jerky.  I lie on cold tiles under glaring artificial light but it is heavenly.  I wonder if it’s possible to bleed to death from a tooth that’s been unceremoniously bashed out of one’s skull; but this wonder, oddly, is no longer connected to care.  I am liberated.  I start to drift off.

As my consciousness slips away the distant sound of a cowbell reminds me that this is the absolute wrong time to do this.  The men (women?) who did this to me are here.  But in my utter lassitude I assure myself that they cannot see me, yet.  They are probably not interested in dairy anyhow.  Or in the dried, cured, spiced, colored, preserved, processed, and packaged byproducts of an amazingly creative variety of animals.  I convince myself that they will simply turn and leave, continuing their search elsewhere.  Somewhere far away from here, while I rest in peace.

Then the cellphone in my pocket rings — louder, by far, than it has ever rung before.  Not only that, but some joker has apparently replaced my usual, bland ringtone with the “Menah-Menah” song from Sesame Street.  It is as if a chorus of Muppets are surrounding me, singing to me, taunting me, as I lie there on the cold linoleum.  I cannot open my eyes.  I want to reach into my pocket and silence the phone, but I can’t.  I can barely move.  All I can manage is a half-hearted swatting motion with my right arm.

Then I feel something jabbing at my ribs, on the left.  It’s annoying but not painful (yet).  Somebody prodding, perhaps, with the pointed toe of a leather boot.

“Are you dead?” I think I hear someone say.  Then there is a softer, somewhat friendlier, and strangely familiar woman’s voice.  “Get up,” she says.

I am trying get the damn Muppets to shut up and to fend off whoever is kicking me.  But my brainstem is not cooperating so I am just flailing about, getting more and more frustrated.  I want to shout.  I want to scream.  But all that comes out is a wimpy, effeminate moan.  It’s enough to wake myself up, but not in time to avoid one more especially firm and well-placed jab in the ribs.

“Wake up,” she says.  It is the voice of my wife.  Finally I muster the willpower to open my eyes with a brisk shaking of my head.  Cats scatter.  Dawn filters through the closed blinds.  I see her elbow poised once again.

“Okay,” I whine.  “I’m awake already!”

Then I reach over and silence the alarm on my phone, for which I now remember having downloaded the “Menah-Menah” song.  I make a mental note to change it back.  I do not wish to be further traumatized by the “Menah-Menah.”

Why would I be subjected to such a strange dream?  A few of the major themes are so obvious as to not require pointing them out.  I will leave those to the psychoanalysts (if there are any left).  I will, however, provide a bit of context: the dream occurred in the midst of a week when I was mired in indecision regarding the selection of upholstery for the Beetle.  There were just too many choices.

I had never really given it much thought up to then.  Having been ass-deep in the project for so long — to the point of wondering, in all seriousness, what I used to do with my time — such matters seemed frivolous and impossibly far into the future.  Oh, I guess I might have said, I dunno, some off-white and some tan might look nice for Rubylove, with genuine German square-weave carpet (nothing but the finest!).  But when the time finally came to make an actual choice, I was overwhelmed, caught high up in the naked, tangled, windswept branches of the indecision tree.

As with the paint, in the end it wasn’t really a choice at all.  I just decided to go with the way the car would have come with from the factory — or something close to it, as far as I could figure.  Of course, when I bought the car, there were no traces of the original interior left anywhere.  In lieu of an actual headliner, a previous owner had glued strips of off-white vinyl padding, of unknown origin, directly to the roof.  The header and roof pillars were painted blue — a different blue than the lower half of the misbegotten two-toning attempt on the exterior, and of a quality that bore the mark of a highly-skilled kindergartener on acid.  A little bit of research told me that the stained basket-weave off-white vinyl seat upholstery, while quite similar to the seat covers on the 1975 Beetle I used to have, were not original to this car.  Neither (and I didn’t need to research this one) were the pieces of grandma’s old quilt that were tacked to the door panels in place of the genuine articles.  Tatters of black carpeting were strewn about the floorboards, pocked with cigarette burns and funky with mold.

In spite of it all, it had one thing going for it — amazingly, somehow, after years of such raw treatment, it still retained that “old Volkswagen” smell.  Either you know what I’m talking about, or you don’t.  I won’t describe it to you.  But that’s the only thing I’m gonna miss.  That’s a big thing, though — and I am gonna miss it!

A bit of research was in order — though given some of the P.O.’s offenses, it was at times more like a crime scene investigation (perp was determined to be a color blind, heavy smoker with neither a sense of pride nor respect for his grandmother’s quilting).  When tearing it all apart, I found some tiny shreds of off-white, perforated vinyl clinging to the steel grippers that once held the original headliner in place.  The “birth certificate” that I got from the Stiftung AutoMuseum Volkswagen in Wolfsburg says “Upholstery leatherette Grille Grey.”  And of course the internet was a veritable treasury of helpful information (especially the color charts at www.wolfsburgwest.com).

What I could glean was this: headliner, perforated off-white vinyl.  Carpet, gray (I went with premium, pre-cut loop instead of the German square-weave — have you seen the price of that stuff lately?).  For the door cards and seat upholstery, the best I could determine was that ’65 was a one-year-only, pattern-wise.  I found what I judged to be a very close approximation by TMI, which I thereupon ordered from www.jbugs.com.  It is a two-tone dark grey, with a lighter, “mesh grey” on the seating surfaces and in the middle of the door cards.  The seat backs are “rollover style,” meaning the solid grey comes up the back, over the top, and stops a few inches later, transitioning to the mesh pattern.  They were not custom, exactly, but were “special order” — they make them as needed.  This takes some time, and costs a bit more.  But I wanted it to be “right.”  Also, I ordered the JBugs interior video, as I was aiming to do it all myself.

By the time I mustered up the gumption to have at it (and watched the video almost as many times as I’ve seen The Big Lebowski), everything — including the special order items — were on hand.  I decided to start with what many consider one of the toughest jobs in Volkswagen restoration: the headliner.  In the hours I spent combing the forums, I came across many enthusiasts who were no doubt far more experienced than I, yet who readily admitted they wouldn’t even attempt it.  We’re talking guys who could synchronize dual carbs during half-time with naught but a Leatherman, a glass of water, and a keen sense of smell — but wouldn’t go anywhere near a headliner, citing maddening frustration.

If you’re looking for a “how-to,” you’d be well-served to go elsewhere.  My intention is partially to inspire — as in, if an idiot like me can do it, so can you — but mainly to blow my own trumpet.  Being a forty-three-year-old slacker with no special skills, achievements, or ability, the chance to sing my own praises so seldom occurs that I’d be a fool to pass it up.  So without further ado, dig it!

The most astute observers no doubt have noticed that my new headliner closely approximates, but is not an exact reproduction of, the genuine article for 1965.  You would be correct.  Instead, I opted to go with the so-called “easy install” version, the most obvious difference being that the roof section is one with the piece around the rear window.  I thought long and hard about this; but in the end I decided that doing it myself was of higher priority than meeting somebody else’s standard of “correct”-ness.  Even those who are otherwise meticulous about the vintage ethos — and dare to attempt this thing themselves — often make this one of their rare concessions.  That said, if I were to do it all over again, I’d be tempted to step it up to the original-style kit, just for the added challenge.

I was so “chuffed” (as the Brits say) about the results that I even risked posting the same pics on http://www.thesamba.com.  Those forum-meisters are tough crowd, and a few of them — many of whom, I’m convinced, have never touched an actual Volkswagen, but pride themselves in assumed internet identities as the ultimate arbiters of perfection — can be tactless, ruthless cretins sometimes.  Still, the few that bothered to comment were complimentary.

Am I being cocky?  Not really.  My work is not perfect.  There are minor imperfections here and there, things I could point out to you and you would most likely say, “So what?”  I’m just feelin‘ good about the way the Volkswagen life is going and want to brag a little.  And after all, isn’t bragging what all of the tweeting, Facebooking, and self-absorbed blogging is all about?

Do I have a special talent?  No, but I do have a couple of faults that might have helped.  For starters, I’ve been maddeningly frustrated my entire life, so that mental state is nothing new for me.  Also in my favor is the fact that I’m a very slow worker.  By necessity, I’ve become quite comfortable with having a very loose agenda, setting few deadlines, and leaving a sub-task in the lurch while I gather up more gumption.

For this particular work, you really truly have to be “in the moment.”  As a matter of fact, that is precisely how I took a rather interesting discovery in stride, without freaking out.  I was sitting in the car, on the bare hump, gingerly holding a piece of glue-slathered vinyl that was semi-attached to the right “B” pillar.  Things were going along okay.  I had already done the left one.  There were just a few small wrinkles at the very bottom, but I figured that with the rear seat bottom and the carpet installed, as well as a possible shoulder harness (I’m not decided on that part yet), it wouldn’t be very noticeable.  Either way, it was a helluva lot better than the first left pillar attempt, which saw the offending piece in the trash and me in a self-imposed “time out” before I was on the horn ordering another one.

So I’m sitting on the hump waiting for the contact cement to set so I can press it into place.  Maybe the fumes were getting to me, but I’m looking around, thinking man, we’ve come so far.  Long way to go still, but shit — look at you!  Goofy stuff like that.  Then my glance settled upon the rear end of the hump (the rump?), above where the transaxle lives.  And that’s when I saw the number.

“Hmph,” I said myself.  “That looks like a rather short number.”

I mulled this over while the glue set.  I finished the piece that I was working on, brushed some mineral spirits on my fingers, dried my hands on my pants, reached over, gave the hood release a yank, and un-shoehorned my way out of the fumey car.  Then I raised the hood (not the engine compartment, as if you need reminding about this thing) and consulted the placard.

I saw what I expected to see — a decidedly longer, decidedly different number.  Then I checked the hump number again, just to verify that I really wasn’t high, hadn’t been hallucinating.  There was no denying it.  They did not match.

Why had I not noticed this before?  If you would have asked me, just minutes before this discovery, where one can find the chassis number for an old Beetle, I could have told you about two places: the placard behind where the spare tire goes, and on the hump under the rear seat.  And what if they don’t match?  Well, dumbass, obviously you’ve got a body and pan that began their lives with different pans and bodies.  Each had been “previously married,” you might say.

I guess I hadn’t noticed it because right off the bat — the day I first laid eyes on her — I could tell she was a ’65.  Slightly larger windows, slanted vent-window posts, so not a ’64; no “1300” logo on the deck lid, nor a center defroster vent in the middle of the dash, so not a ’66.  Yes, I did happen to verify this with the number on the front placard — the number I sent off to Wolfsburg for documentation.  I suppose it just never occurred to me to cross-reference it with the hump number.

For the purist seeking a virgin concourse queen, this numbers mismatch would have been unforgivable, a deal breaker.  For a guy like me, it’s okay (for the most part).  It actually helps to clear a few things up.  For starters, I had to buy earlier-than-1965 carpet, to accommodate the older, “spigot”-style heater knob.  Since my car (the body, at least) was actually made in October of ’64 (as a ’65 model), I had assumed that knob was just a curious leftover from the previous model-year.  I also knew from my own research that the serial number stamped on the engine case dated it to some time in 1963.  Again, this was easily explained.  In its long life, the car has most likely been through numerous engines.  A genuine VW case from a ’63, in good condition, would make a great contender for a rebuild.  Why not?

Sure enough, after consulting with the ever-growing section of my bookshelf that might someday be endowed to the Volksfool Memorial Library and Hall of Horrors, I determined that while the body is still a 1965, the werks are from the spring of 1963.

What does this really mean in my life?  I’m still not entirely sure.  Still processing.  I’m thinking about interfacing, interchanging, compatibility.  That heater knob should work fine if the rest of the lower deck is part of the same shebang.  But why did the previous owner have the control valves wired open?  The engine will be rebuilt anyway, but why does the existing shroud sport the newer-style cooling flaps (frozen in place, of course, with the control rod dangling free between #1 and #2, and no thermostat to be found anywhere) on a ’63 case?  Should I rebuild with an air-control ring instead?  Does it matter?  What about the brand-new, made-to-order 1965 wiring harness I’ve partially installed?

None of this stuff was depriving me of any sleep (not for the next couple of nights, at any rate).  If I’ve gained anything over the past few years, it’s the confidence of knowing that I’ll figure it all out eventually.  Somehow.  I always do.  The answer might not be readily apparent right now, but it will just need some research, and some time.  I’ll figure it out, just like I’ve figured everything else out.

As you should know by now, sometimes I’m slow on the uptake.  So you shouldn’t be surprised to find out that it took me the better part of a week to notice the cardboard box that I shoved in a corner of my study, between the bookcase and my newly acquired 1970’s-vintage stereo setup.  On that box is printed “TMI” in large, red lettering.  Inside are the one-year-only, special-order seat covers.  Behind that box is another, also from TMI, that contains the matching door cards, also to my specs.

The actual seats are in a storage locker about a mile from my house, where they’ve been collecting dust for a couple of years now.  I haven’t been over there in a while, but I think I know what I might find: original seats, in pretty good condition, from a 1963 Beetle.  In other words, that beautiful new upholstery ain’t gonna fit.  As far as I understand it, that new upholstery would be perfect for actual ’65 seat frames, and would also fit a ’66 or a ’67 (thought the pattern would not be correct, which is a less consequential matter to me).  Like for 1965, those years still retained the “low back” seats (no extra charge for the whiplash).  But 1964 and earlier seats had more rounded shoulders, and the piping was oriented laterally across the car, versus longitudinally swept back.  Check out these photos I lifted off the internet:

Earlier upholstery. Note more rounded “shoulders” and piping direction.
1965-67 shaped seats. Also, I’m pretty sure the upholstery marks this as a 1965-only. Note “rollover” at the tops, like I was talking about. My upholstery (which, sadly, I will not use) is the same style, but different color.

When I ordered the stuff, it never occurred to me to dig those seats out from underneath the pile of rejected fenders, deck lids, hoods, doors, and wheels to double-check what I was dealing with.  Why would it have? But it’s so obvious to me now it ain’t funny.  I could spot the difference a mile away.  I could even tell by feel.  But like the hump-number, I never questioned it.  When I (finally) decided on a pattern, I picked up the phone an ordered away.  Yep, that’s right.  1965.  Several hundred bucks down the drain.

Ever since paint, the kitty has become precariously low, even without this painful mistake.  I’m discovering that taking a car apart, and even much of the body work, costs relatively little if you do it yourself.  But putting it all together, after spending several grand for a paint job — well, that’s a whole ‘nother thing.  I get a modest monthly allowance earmarked especially for the project, but this latest screw-up would set me back quite a bit.  And simply putting the whole thing on hold won’t cut it.  I’m still committed to having it on the road by spring.  Drastic measures were necessary.

So drastic, in fact that I — wait for it — I picked up some extra time at work!  Yes, it’s gotten that desperate.  Oh, and by the way — anyone wanna buy brand-new upholstery and matching door cards?

I may be a slow worker, but I’m an even slower writer.  Since the first draft of this episode (I do revise, you may be surprised to learn.  Like putting lipstick on a pig, I know.  But as they say, it’s the journey . . .) I’ve installed the sound insulation, padding, and charcoal carpet.  Check it out:

Things are happening — do try to keep up!

The Dude Abides.

 

My Own Private Public

I usually assume that the work in the little garage behind my townhouse on the limbic fringe of a stillborn subdivision goes mostly unnoticed.  Naturally, it’s hard to ignore the resounding roar of a pneumatic dual-action sander upon a Beetle roof (it sounds like a Messerschmidt in a power dive) but hopefully those days of noise are behind me now.  Hopefully, the next motorized sound emanating from my garage will be the gentle, civilized purr of a freshly-rebuilt forty-horse Volkswagen engine.

Those Germans: the
coolest toys, the worst motives.
Even with a war
going on, those Germans made time for some Baja action!

 

For those who can’t
decide.

Life goes on around me.  The country-clubbers who had been renting the townhouse next door have moved on.  Their lives seemed to be an endless whir of activity.  He traveled constantly.   She always seemed harried, always running late for something.  Her BMW came and went many times on any given day.  Sometimes she would stop and chat — mostly about her ten-year-old daughter, to whom she was
immensely dedicated.  Once she confided in me about some medical problems she was having, of the female variety.  I didn’t know how to take this so I just kept my trap shut and listened.  Surgery, she said.  Hysterectomy, apparently.  She didn’t seem particularly frightened but I bet she was.  I know I would be.  I wondered why she was telling me all of this — me, of all people, who really didn’t know her very well, and whose understanding of female plumbing is marginal, at best.  Maybe it was exactly what she needed just
then — a neutral listener, a neighbor with whom she had merely a passing acquaintance, someone with no personal stake in the matter.

Soon enough things were back to normal over there, the comings and the goings back to their pre-hysterectomy level.  Then in the spring he took a transfer, and they moved out at the end of theschool year.  In spite of the noise (which I tried to keep to normal business hours, Monday through Friday) and the fact that my garage faces theirs, they showed very little interest in what I was doing over there.  Which was more than fine by me.  In spite of some early tensions regarding what I perceived as their taking an unfair portion of our shared driveway — which I resolved by simply blocking them in and disappearing for hours on my bicycle — one could do a lot worse in terms of immediate neighbors.

Slightly farther afield, I have other neighbors who seem to be rooting for me.  This was clear within days of Rubylove leaving for the paint shop, vacating the spot in the garage where she had been resident for a thousand days. “Where’s the old Vee-Dubya?” Carl wanted to know. Carl is a friendly old guy a who lives two buildings over.  I am the only male citizen of Athens, Georgia (or anywhere else in Georgia, I suspect) who knows absolutely nothing about football.  But it is said that back in the day, Carl was quite a standout for the Georgia Bulldogs.  I’ve changed his name here, but I just now Googled him by his real one — he comes up on the first page.  I think he once told me he’s 78.  It’s hard to believe, because that dude doesn’t seem to sit still.  He spends hours working in his garden — even with the temperatures in the triple digits — and I often see him in the morning, power-walking along a road that’s popular for cyclists and runners like me.  He is always smiling.

Another fan is Maribeth.  Her interest apparently stems from the fact that she once owned a Jetta (don’t ask me).  I might have her name wrong — at least, I think it’s Maribeth.  But if it isn’t, she doesn’t seem to mind my mistake.  She usually strolls by with a bunch of kids in tow.  I’m never sure which are hers, but at least some of them are.  There always seems to be another one on the way. “What color are you going to go with?” Maribeth asked. “It’s a secret,” I said, playfully. She seemed to appreciate that, and didn’t press the issue.

Paul often walks by with his older-than-dirt springer spaniel.  “Well, where did it go?” he said, peering into my empty garage with a wide-eyed, stunned, and theatrical flourish. I’m not sure what to make of Paul. He’s a character, for sure.  A retired high school teacher, he lives in one of the detached houses that front the neighborhood.  Paul’s slow and thick Southern accent, in combination with his exaggerated facial expressions, might give the first impression of someone who is a little slow under the lid.  With the level of amazement that animates him when I answer his questions about the project, you’d think I was attempting to build my own time machine in there.

As with most people, there’s more to Paul than meets the eye.  From the little things he’s said, I’m pretty sure he smokes pot from time to time.  He says that back in the 70’s, he actually owned a Westfalia for a time, and made numerous camping trips with his wife and kids.  But he’s also a bit paranoid, possibly from
watching too much cable news (read: any cable news).  Sometimes he makes oblique references to political
matters, but I know from having spent my entire adult life in Georgia that it’s probably best for me to let such things pass.

Recently there have been a rash of break-ins in the neighborhood.  I tend to take such things in stride — I don’t leave valuables in the Subaru (which is parked outside, an indignity for which I suspect it will forever hold a grudge against the Beetle), leave a porch light on at night, and make sure the doors are locked when I go out.

Paul shared with me a story of one recent nocturnal adventure, which saw him creeping around his house in the wee hours with his loaded .357 leading the way.  He’d thought he’d “heard something.”  Not only
that, but he had seen a “suspicious-looking” car cruising slowly through the neighborhood the previous day.  “Kids,” he said, with a glare that was supposed to tell me something.  It didn’t.  “Black kids,” he added, by way of explanation.  Perhaps he had forgotten that yes, the subdivision is overwhelmingly white, but there are one or two African-American families living here too.  (And Jews. And lesbians.  And even a Jewish lesbian, of all things! Those of us who celebrate such variety call it diversity.)  The denouement of Paul’s story was hardly action-packed.  In the end (spoiler alert!) our protagonist decided it was nothing after all.  He went back to bed.

Was there a hint of disappointment in his voice?  Hard to say for sure.  But the way I see it, unless I am directly threatened, it just doesn’t seem worth it to me to shoot some kid for trying to steal my television set.  But then again, I do not own a gun.  Or a television set.

In spite of the fact that he and I differ greatly in our way of seeing things, I seem to be able to tolerate Paul reasonably well.  I’m not sure why.  Maybe it’s the curious affinity I have for anyone who’s slightly off-kilter.  Maybe with those yellow-lensed Ray-Ban shooters he always wears, his histrionics, and his less-than-savory worldview, he strikes me as an amusing amalgam of characters consisting of one part Hunter S. Thompson, one part Jack Nicholson, and one part Jim Bob Bunker (Archie’s long-lost Southern brother).

There are certain individuals who, I am certain, are placed in this world for the sole purpose of testing my patience.  The retiree who actually owns the townhouse next door was one of them.  But he only lived there
for a short time before heading further south, much to my relief.

Another such individual is Darrell.  Being a very insecure individual, I’m expert at finding faults in others. If there is a chink in your armor, you can bet your ass I’ll find it, poke around in there, and exploit it for my own personal gratification.  Darrell remains a special case.  I would be hard-pressed to actually sit down and create a list of the things I can’t stand about Darrell.  Off the top of my head, I can think of only two. The first is that I feel sorry for him.  Darrell is of indeterminate age — he might be sixty, or he might be eighty.  In spite of his age, he seems compact and strong.  From a distance one might guess he’s tall, but when he comes up close I always find myself surprised to find that I
have at least four or five inches on him.

Another thing that I find myself thinking at close range is how ugly that guy is.  There is no charitable way of putting it.  I’m well aware that I’m no Brad Pitt myself, but I can’t help but be struck by it, every single
time.  The skin on his face is cratered badly, his nose bulbous, his eyes rheumy and swollen.  There are styes, scars, and warts with little gray hairs sprouting out of them.  He is missing many teeth.  He has an extremely thick accent and whistles when he talks.  I have a very hard time understanding him.  Like me, in wintertime he has a penchant for plaid flannel.  But unlike me, Darrell does not look like some woodsy wanna-be.  With his battered face and sturdy frame, he could have come straight from yet another season at the logging camp.

I’m not sure what Darrell’s actual job title is.  I do not follow closely the complex management arrangement of my dead subdivision, but the soporific details go something like this: The developer bailed when things went pear-shaped.  Undeveloped tracts were sold off or foreclosed on.  The remainder is owned by a law firm in which each of the many partners insisted upon being included in said firm’s name.  That law firm contracts with a management company (bearing a more reasonable moniker consisting of one last name, followed by “& Associates”) to oversee what needs to be overseen.  There is a homeowners’ association (of which my wife is a representative) which was to take over management when the subdivision was built out to a certain percentage.  But as that seems likely to never occur, we are left in a state of limbo — for the most part at the mercy of the management company, to which the association serves an “advisory” role. Residents in the detached dwellings are mostly on their own in terms of maintenance.  The common areas, as well as the townhouses, are maintained (or not, which would actually be my personal preference) by a landscaping company.  Of course, with the coffers nearly empty and nobody exactly eager to see an increase of membership fees (a classic American conundrum in which we expect everything but don’t want to actually pay for it) this is a source of perpetual conflict.

Yet somehow, over the years, the management has found the means to keep a general handyman on retainer, a Jack of all trades, a man to step into the breach between where the homeowners’ responsibilities end and the landscaper’s begins.  And that, apparently, is where Darrell fits in.

Darrell’s main occupation seems to be driving around the neighborhood in his rickety little Mitsubishi pickup.  Sometimes he might be found spreading pine straw (the purpose of which is to cover up spaces which we didn’t seem inclined to leave well enough alone in the first place).  Or he might be seen hauling river rocks for a homeowner building a koi pond.  Once an alert neighbor spotted him at the controls of a
Bobcat, randomly thrashing the undergrowth among heretofore undisturbed and mature hardwoods near the entrance to the subdivision.  When asked about it, Darrell claimed to be acting under the direction of a resident who had complained that said undergrowth detracted from the otherwise manicured character
of the neighborhood.  As an added bonus, said resident wound up with a much better view of the highway.

Even though world history has demonstrated that there is a limit to what can be excused for “just following orders,” I do not grudge Darrell for any of this.  He is getting paid (and likely not very well) for doing the menial chores that lie far below what can be expected from citizens of greater socioeconomic consequence.  Given his age, the short shrift he gets, and the frustration he undoubtedly must feel at being subjected to the often conflicting whims of the various parties involved, Darrell might be forgiven for being bitter.  But he is not.  His is friendly, and seldom has a negative word to say.

Like I said, I feel sorry for him.  Pity, of course, is antithetical to truly liking someone.  Ironically, it is one of his better qualities — his friendliness — that is the root of the second thing, the thing that really bugs me about Darrell: He has a preternatural knack for suddenly appearing in the garage when I’m most frustrated, most overwhelmed, or most pressed for time. Not only that, but often he comes bearing gifts.  Sometimes it’s simply the name and number of somebody he knows, who knows somebody who has a nephew who has a few old Beetles laying about his yard, who I might call if I need some parts.  Other times
Darrell brings something physical.  Once it was a couple of catalogs he’d gotten in the mail (Harbor Freight, JC Whitney) that he thought I’d be interested in, and which went straight to the recycling bin the moment his back was turned.  Another time it was a rusty old jack of some sort, that Darrell insisted was from an old Volkswagen.  Really, I’m convinced it came from a Model T (or earlier) instead, but that’s besides the point.  Because I was no doubt in the middle of welding something (which usually entails me burning holes in it before coming up with a better plan), or discovering (after the fact) that no, the window
regulator needs to be in place before assembling the rest of the Rube Goldberg-engineered door innards,
or realizing that I’ve just spent hours meticulously installing the main wiring harness backwards — because I was so damn preoccupied with whatever all-important hell I was putting myself through, Darrell’s intended kindness was dismissed with a half-assed “thanks” which may as well have been appended with, “Now get lost!”

And therein lies the main reason I can’t stand Darrell.  I am convinced he is the Buddha manifest, presenting himself as a golden opportunity to greatly enrich my karma. And I fail miserably, every single time.  In his kindness, Darrell is a constant reminder of what a dickhead I can be sometimes.

It dawns on me now that maybe others are not rooting for me after all.  Maybe Carl, Maribeth, Paul — all of them, except maybe Darrell — are secretly wishing for me to fail. Perhaps they would all revel in the schadenfreude of seeing their moody, unneighborly neighbor reap his just rewards, of witnessing the billowing, black clouds of smoke rising from the pyre of an abandoned restoration, fueled by the timbers of what had recently been his garage.  Or maybe, in showing interest in his progress, they’re just hoping the noise is over, wishing that he would just be done with it already.

Rubylove!

“Rubylove,” was all that she said.  She slowly turned and retreated back into the garage. — Excerpt from “The Woodstock Volkswagen Show,” 7/29/11.

Where Mrs. Sorensen came up with that nickname for her 1965 Volkswagen Deluxe Sedan remains unknown.  Cat Stevens’ song of the same name would not be released until 1971, two years after Mrs. Sorensen uttered that nonsensical word and retreated into whatever private universe she was inhabiting at the time.  Perhaps she was deep in the throes of one of her ever more frequent fugues.  Perhaps she was perfectly lucid.  We will never know.

Either way, I’ve decided to keep the name because, well, it fits!

Gorgeous!  (But those wheels are history — originals are currently getting powder coated.)

For all the time I spent getting the body straight, you’d think I would have reached a color decision before the car was actually ready for the paint booth.  Actually, there were several ideas rattling around in the cranial space that would normally be occupied by a brain.  Among the top contenders were L87 Pearl White, as well as a custom color to match my favorite bicycle (seen above in the background).  For this last option, I had even e-mailed the gentlemen at Surly Bikes (the manufacturers of the frame) to explain what I was up to, and to ask if they could provide any help.  They responded promptly and enthusiastically with a powder coating code (RAL 6013, Reed Green — but not quite the same as the VW color of the same name) and made me promise to send pics.  Now, I am aware that matching auto paint to RAL codes is tricky, but I’m given to understand that it can be done.  But in the end, my concern was that this color would have been fun for about a week.

During my last (and, to date, only) State of the Volksie address, I said, “All I will say is that my decision [is] already made regarding the first choice of color for the car.  It just hit me one day, and imbued me with a clarity and certainty that I rarely enjoy.  I haven’t given it much thought since.  That’s how sure I am.”  That was back in January, and until the very day that James and his son came to get the Beetle — the very moment, even, that they were about to drive away with it — my resolve did not waver.  The choice was L518 Java Green.  Certainly I could have called him the next day, or the next week even — at any time, as long as he had not mixed any base coat yet — to inform him of a change of heart.  But for some deep-seated reason, I wanted to make the decision in the actual presence of the car.  There would be no last minute phone calls.

At that very moment, with the car already on the trailer, something was speaking to me.  I don’t believe in auras, but it was something like that.  The car suddenly seemed to glow with one of those little bursts of color normally found framing the words On Sale Now! or New and Improved!  It was like the undersized, under-appreciated third-grader who sits silently all year doodling in the back of science class, suddenly thrusting his hand in the air one fine spring day when the subject turns to butterflies or lunar landings.

Me!  Ooh — me!

I asked James a couple of questions — mainly concerning cost, because what I was now thinking about would, for whatever reason, add to the price.  Then I walked over to my workbench, tore off a scrap of paper, scribbled on it with a gnawed and dull pencil, and handed him the note.  Upon it I had written, from memory: “VW Ruby Red — L456.”

I went around and opened up the deck lid, to expose the original paint that I discovered upon pulling the old tar board away.

“Like that,” I said.

“Are you sure now?” he said, skeptical of my sudden switch.

“Yes.”

“You can call me in the next couple of days, and —”

“Paint it red,” I said, shaking my head.  “Ruby Red.”

We shook hands and the thing was done.  Before he drove off, I said he could call me at any time.  I reminded him that the man who has my Volksie has my attention.

For two weeks I heard nothing.  As nightly my vacuous headspace played host to a series of nightmares, mainly featuring revelations of shoddy workmanship on my behalf, and frustration on behalf of the paint man, this silence did not bother me so much.  I believe that a professional must be given the time, the space, and a measure of trust.  I did not want to pester him, or to make him feel rushed.

But after that second week, my sheer curiosity got the better of me.  I gave him a ring.  He said he was about to call me anyway.  I thought, uh-oh.  Were there problems?  Was he giving up?  Would he report me to the Bondo Police?  It was nothing, he assured me, of the sort.  He reiterated his first impression, that my work had been pretty darn good.  There were a couple of areas that needed some massaging (the roof and driver’s door, mainly, but I knew that already).  But overall, nothing major.  He simply wanted to inform me that the inside base coats were laid, he was getting ready to apply the clear, and that I should come down to his shop to check on the color before he committed to the outside of the car.  I was about to head out of town for a couple of days, so we set up a time the following week.  In the meantime, he said, he’d go ahead and clear the inside, to give me a better idea.  But he assured me I’d like it.

The final color choice surprised nobody, perhaps, more than myself.  There were several reasons why I had not considered Ruby a top contender.  For one, there seems to be little agreement as to what L456 Ruby Red is actually supposed to look like.  Take the following examples:


They all look great, but the variation is clear.  Some are vibrant and bright, almost like one might find on a Miata.  Others are deeper and richer, like the inside of a fresh cherry.  I’ve been reminded of crimson, maroon, rose, burgundy, and even brown.  Yet in each case, the owners swear up and down it’s L456, Ruby Red.

I prefer the deep, rich tone myself — but not too deep, or too rich.  The original paint I found on the rear firewall, though almost fifty years old, gave me a pretty good idea of what I was looking for.  But given the wide spectrum of results I’ve seen, I was leery about the whole thing.  It could come out stunning.  Or it could come out looking like, well, like a Miata.  (Nothing at all against Miatas, mind.  But a Miata is a Miata and a Bug is a Bug.  Dig?)

So it was not without serious trepidation that I drove the Subaru down to James’s shop.  That worry was soon traded for the ear-to-ear grin that I wore the whole way back.  It was that good!  I do not know what I would have done if the color were too bright, too brown, or otherwise contrary to the vision in my head.  Maybe he would have been able to tinker with the pigment and try again.  Or I might have just said forget it, let’s go with the Java Green.  Either way, it would have no doubt cost me some (or all) of the extra I had set aside for contingencies such as this.  Money that would come in handy for the rest of the rebuild.  Money I really didn’t want to part with.  But when I saw that color on the dash, the door jams, the rocker panels, and all of the other exposed surfaces of the interior, I said Go! Go! Go!

I slept a lot easier for the next two weeks.  Eventually, though, I was beginning to wonder.  Will he finish it on time?  Should I call him?  Should I leave him alone?  I believe that when one hires a reputable professional, it is okay to check up on his or her work — to a point.  Beyond that, there is a certain level of trust involved.  If you don’t think you can handle that (and usually, I can’t) do it yourself.

In my own profession (which makes me — nominally, at least — a “professional”), I don’t mind fielding basic questions from customers when the situation warrants it.  For example, many passengers have a hard time understanding why our flight from, say, New York to Atlanta is three hours late due to thunderstorms in the Ohio Valley.  That’s a reasonable question.  But sometimes there are some real humdingers, usually from some clown who think’s he’s being original, or funny:

Are you well-rested?

Have you been drinking?

You’re not going to go berserk on us, are you?

Are you sure this thing is safe?

Really.  How would they like me to answer that?

Usually, I deadpan with a straight face and no hint of humor, “Of course [Sir/Ma’am] I’m well-rested.  I don’t drink.  And I am the paragon mental health.  I’m never sick, I never daydream, I never get bored.  My marriage is the supreme example of stress-free, blissful, and mutually enriching coexistence.  My family never has any problems whatsoever.  My social life is always fulfilling and in perfect harmony.  I have no distracting interests.  I never wish I were elsewhere, doing something else.  I never get frustrated with politics, concerned about the state of the environment, or overwhelmed by the sheer scale of human suffering worldwide.  I have unlimited money, and endless time to do anything my heart desires.  But I have no desires, other than to serve you.  Oh, and yes — this thing is perfectly safe.  I personally inspect the entire aircraft between every flight, trailed closely by a team of award-winning, white-gloved mechanics in case I miss something (which never happens).  After that, I painstakingly debug millions of lines of code, so that this great flying supercomputer doesn’t pull a Microsoft on us.  I do this all to ensure that there will be no smoking craters on my watch, no mile-long smoldering smear of twisted metal, rubber, seat stuffing, hair, teeth, blood, and kerosene.  I endure an irregular sleep schedule, limited food options, lengthy and demonstrably unhealthy periods of sitting, recycled air, solar radiation, bedbugs, cooties, and hearing loss so that you can fly off on a whim to some depressingly tacky gambling enclave to overeat and blow the rest of your social security check.  Do you have any other concerns you would like me to address?  No?  Then, thank you for joining us today!”

I was standing at the gate in Boston’s Logan Airport one afternoon, waiting for my plane to arrive, when the cell phone in my pocket started to vibrate like an angry hornet.  I pulled it out of my pocket and brought it to my face.  One after another the texted photos came streaming in, images of a beautiful Ruby Red Volkswagen that couldn’t possibly be my own.  The same wide smile began to spread across my face.  I was positively giddy with it!

Then the phone rang.  It was James, wanting to know if I got the pics.

“James!  You are THE man!”

“Well, now,” he said, humbly.  “I don’t know about that . . .”

“James!” I shouted into the phone, “It’s freakin’ awesome!”  I wanted to elaborate but my lexicon of available words was somewhat limited by the fact that I was in a public place, in uniform, and people were starting to stare.  Also, James had once mentioned in passing that he sang in the church choir on Sundays, so I did not wish to offend his Christian sensibilities.  No chaste words without colorful modifiers seemed to express the way I felt at that moment as I struggled to to come up with something.

“Are you at home?” he wanted to know.

It took me a moment to remember where I was, where I was going, and when I would indeed be home.  This is not an unusual phenomenon in my line of work, even at less emotional times.  I told him I’d be back in town the next day.  We agreed that he would deliver the car then.

Is it perfect?  It is not.  There are a couple of runs in the clear coat, and a few minor blemishes here and there.  James pointed out most of them well before I had gotten over the initial impact of seeing this gleaming gem back in my garage.  He said he was disappointed in himself for these very minor flaws.  He explained that in his experience, he preferred to let the paint cure for some time before the final buffing, and that was why he was delivering the car to me in this less-than-perfect (in his mind) state.  At least this way, he figured, I could continue on with the rebuild.  When it’s finally on the road, I could bring it by (he insisted that I show him the final product anyhow) and he would gladly do a final buffing, and touch up the inevitable nicks and scratches I might inflict upon the new paint in the interim.  Sounds like a reasonable plan to me.

There were some other things I noticed upon closer inspection, after James left.  My biggest gripe is the coverage (or lack thereof) on the underside of the front hood.  Either he forgot it, or was running low on base coat by that point.  Either way, I plan to bring this to his attention.  I can always detach the hood and bring it to him.  James seems to be a man of integrity and I imagine he won’t hesitate to take care of it.

My other main complaint is that it’s just too damn shiny!  I laugh at myself when I say this, but to a certain extent, it’s true.  I knew beforehand that the full monty, two-stage job would shine like a bowling bowl slathered in Vaseline.  But I also figured that the base/clear combo would be more durable than single-stage.  As I aim to drive the thing, I’m all about the durability.  But strangely, in some ways I’m looking forward to it aging a bit, fading a little, and losing some of its luster over the years.  It is my belief that there are few man-made things that are more beautiful than a gracefully aged air-cooled Volkswagen.

James delivered the car on time (in about a month) and at the price he originally quoted ($3400).  Most impressive, however, is the level to which he finished the roof.  Until now, that had been one of the things I was worried about most, body-wise.  When I bought the car the roof was quite wavy, with gobs of Bondo spread on it like peanut butter.  As a matter of fact, it would not have surprised me if it was peanut butter, given some of the other Volks-felonies committed by a previous owner!  I spent weeks attempting to ensure that the car’s hallmark roundness carried though to, and included, the roof.  Most of the work was with hammers and dollies, a shrinking disc, very fine finishing glaze, and many hours of block sanding.  There were times when, in spite of my efforts, it seemed to be getting worse.  Desperation would set in.  Fitting an aftermarket folding “ragtop” actually began to seem like a good idea, in those times.  I even considered cutting the entire roof away at the pillars and replacing it with a donor.  (This last option, while possible, is a procedure far more advanced than anything I should attempt in my lifetime, ever.)

Then there were days (usually after a few coldies) when I managed to convince myself that I was actually doing good work.  I still can’t understand how one is supposed to use a guide coat for sanding back a curved surface, but that’s just me.  Actually, it’s not just me — James, it turns out, is a “touch” man too.  Granted, in those fingers are decades of experience I’ll never have.  But on those hopeful days, I knew my work was good because I could feel it.  With a shiny coat of whatever color I finally decided upon, it had to be damn near perfect.  In this, I decided, I was going to need professional help.  James did not disappoint — the roof is now round, smooth, and flawless!  I had been planning on adding a vintage-style roof rack anyway, but now I’m reconsidering.  May as well showcase that beautiful gleaming dome!

My only regret, really, is that I would have liked to do the paint myself.  I gave it much consideration.  I read books on the subject, and spent hours on the forums weighing the pros and cons.  I do not expect that my first attempt would have been anywhere approaching James’s work in terms of quality and durability.  But I would have liked to learn how to do it all the same, and I still do.  In the end, though, I decided that I just don’t have the space.  Also, with all of the equipment and supplies I’d have to invest in to create an ersatz paint booth in my small two-car garage, I’d probably spend close to what I paid James — and that’s not figuring the mistakes I would surely make.

Even James’s work would not quite be up to the standard required if I were restoring, say, a rare Aston Martin.  But I’m not and it isn’t.  For the price, I think I got a fair deal, and I’d go with James again.

~ Hindsight ~

“Ruby, if I’m honest, would probably not be my first choice.”

I said that in the “Colors” episode, in which I test the bounds of the readers’ attention span by considering — ad nauseam — the merits of almost every color available to Beetle shoppers in 1965 (and a couple that were not).  Indeed, red was never a top contender.  For one thing, I’m not usually a red car kind of guy.  In spite of the self-indulgent and embarrassing exposure in the pages herein, I do not like to draw attention to myself.  I love the car because I love the car, not because I want to scream, “Hey!  Look at me!  Why look at him when you can look at me!?!”

But look: it’s a forty-eight-year-old car.  Its mere existence is an attention-getter.  Even before I decided to tear the whole car apart, when I still drove it more or less as I bought it, I often found myself trying to tactfully extricate myself from conversations with strangers.  Really, if I were trying to avoid attention, I’d be better off with a gray Kia.  I’m just gonna have to get used to it.

Another concern was that I did not want to be suspected of trying to reconstruct the days of my youth — the days of my other red Beetle.  Those days, if you must know, were not the happiest of times for me.  But I don’t know who would accuse me of trying to revisit them anyhow.  Nobody who knows me now knew me then.  I did find myself thinking about these things nonetheless.

So why the change of heart?

I don’t know for sure, but it was probably several things.  First, my wife’s preference was for the red.  This might seem like a silly reason — after all, it’s my car — but I generally value her opinion in these things.  I’m not out to impress anyone, but it would indeed flatter me to hear her say — someday — that my Beetle looks great, and to ask if she could drive it.  Gladly I would throw her the keys, remind her to go easy (as if there were any other way to go with only forty horses in the stable), that it’s not her turbo six-speed Eos, and to please leave some gas in it.  I’d warn her about the idiosyncrasies it’s sure to have — a sticky door lock, or a sun visor that won’t stay up.  Then I’d watch her drive off — not out of worry, but out of great pride.

In the end, I decided that I had to be true to my vision for the project.  It’s a natural outgrowth of knowing my limitations, having realistic goals, and dreaming about a car that I could drive with pride and satisfaction.  Without formally stating or acknowledging this until now (though vaguely aware of it a subconscious level), my vision all along has not been to recreate the car as it left the factory in Wolfsburg that autumn day in 1964.  Instead, I am aiming for something that I feel is more true to the Volkswagen ethos: a well-used, but well-maintained “driver.”

I truly mean it when I say that in my garage, rather than a numbers-matching concourse winner, I’d have the car the way it might have appeared in, say, 1974.  Maybe a student owned it then, second-hand.  Since it was his his daily wheels, he would have seen to it that it was mechanically up to snuff.  Maybe he would have even washed it now and then, like if he had a date.  It had its quirks but it never left him stranded.  When he finally sold it a few years later — graduating from school, and into a nascent sense of entitlement to things like air conditioning, power steering, and modern highway speeds — he would be glad he had taken meticulous care of it.  Later still he would regret that he ever sold it.  For the rest of his life, even.

So maybe I am trying to go back after all.  Whatever the case, I decided that authenticity was paramount.  And nothing, I reasoned, would be more authentic than the  original color of the car.  So you see, in the end my decision wasn’t really a decision.

Now I sleep with the garage door remote on the nightstand.  I reach for it when I wake.  And this is what I can see without raising my head from the pillow:

And I know that my not-really-a-decision was the right thing when I drift off again, for a few luxurious minutes, my mind an unrippled pool of serenity.  Soon enough a cat pounces, demanding food, or my wife steps from the shower and fires up the blow dryer.  The aroma of freshly-ground coffee beckons.  Time to get to work.

A Visit From the Urethane Man

I paced the floor, my breathing very shallow.  I tumbled the iPhone in my sweaty hands.  I checked my watch, for no reason in particular.  I discovered that I wasn’t wearing a watch.

I stopped and raised the screen to my face.  We used to smoke but now we do this.  To give us comfort.  Voicemails, e-mails, text messages.  Facebook.  Twitter.  But there was nothing new.  Just like a minute ago.

I scrolled through my contact list and found his name.  How long had it been — a year?  And what did I tell him, at the time — that I’d need just a few more weeks?  A month, maybe?  I’d been so naive, then.  Would he remember me?  I hoped he would.  Then I hoped he wouldn’t.  I rehearsed what I might say.

I sat on the old red stool, checked the screen, got up again, and started a new round of pacing.

The whole charade was an awful lot like asking for that first date.

One key difference, back then, was that we didn’t have cell phones.  There wasn’t even such a thing as “caller ID” — the feature that would soon take all the fun out of prank calls.  So if you let it ring once, twice, and then lost your nerve, you could simply hang up with no worries about anyone calling you right back.  They’d never know.  You could even wait until she answered — to make sure that yes, indeed, the phone book was right — before hanging up.  All she’d hear was a moment of heavy breathing, followed by a click.  She’d be none the wiser.  Naturally, you couldn’t call back to follow through — at least right off the bat — and expect positive results.  Better to wait a few minutes.  Maybe even an hour.

Finally, when the stress was too much to bear, you’d go for it:

“Lisa?”

“Uh, yeah?”

“Lisa Moran?”

“Yes.  Who is this?”

“It’s, uh, Bruce.  So . . . howzit goin’?”

“Bruce.  Bruce who?”

“Jacobs.  I’m, like, in your study hall.”

[Awkward silence.]

“Uh, Bruce. Right.  The guy with the hat,” Lisa said, not sounding at all certain.  Actually, she was thinking of Brian, who had a penchant pushing the edge, fashion-wise.  One exceptionally hot day in late September, Brian had gotten himself sent home for wearing a denim skirt to class.  His reasoning was thus: hot day.  Shorts not permitted.  Skirts (below the knee) permitted.  Ergo: wear skirt.

That Brian borrowed the skirt from his twin sister (and that, truth be told, he looked only slightly worse in it than she did) made it all the more outrageous.  Some of the management may have secretly admired Brian’s chutzpah, but in their official capacities had little choice but to send him home.  Lately, though, Brian had taken to the less-controversial habit of wearing a bowler hat to class.

Unlike Brian, Bruce’s goal in life was to make himself as small and unobtrusive as humanly possible.  He would have liked to disappear completely if the ramifications of doing so hadn’t been so darn onerous (not to mention permanent).  This made it easier to stay out of trouble, but virtually impossible to get a date.

“No, I think you’re thinking of Brian.  I’m Bruce.  I sit in the back.  Next to the window.”

[More awkward silence — the worse kind of silence.]

“Oh,” said Lisa, suddenly illuminated.  “I know you!”  Bruce’s adolescent heart leapt in anxious joy (she knows me!).  “You’re the guy with the hair.”

The way Lisa said it, Bruce’s hair was even more preposterous than Brian’s hat, or his borrowed skirt.  At least, Brian could give the skirt back to his sister, put on a pair of pants, and go about his business as any other normal, happy, carefree American teenager, if he chose to do so.

If such a path of least resistance were available to young Bruce he would have surely taken it.  Such as it was, in his youth, Bruce often imagined that things would have been far more simpler if had he been terminally bald.  Instead, he was gifted with a very thick mat of dark brown hair that was virtually waterproof, and stubbornly impervious to comb, brush, curling iron, flat iron, bobby pins, lead weights, Dippity-Do, Dapper Dan, or men’s hair spray (the latter being distinguishable from its women’s formula only in its being redolent of gear oil instead of lilacs).  When kept short, no matter what Bruce (or his mother) attempted to do, his hair would look like he’d just been rousted from a dead slumber.  Some sections would be as straight as a Chinaman’s; but there might be a rooster-tail sticking straight up the back, for example, or a particularly stubborn tuft sprouting from just above his right ear.  It was always something.

Of course, this made Bruce fair game for taunting.

“Hey Jacobs — ever heard of a comb?”

[Harharharhar-fuckin’-har.]

Sometimes Bruce would simply wear a hat.  This was okay until the inevitable point at which he’d have to remove said hat, thereby presenting the world with a full head of hair in the exact shape of the hat, Yankees logo and all.  Plus, Bruce didn’t like hats.  Wear a hat?  He just didn’t wanna.

The other alternative was to let his hair grow out.  This did have the effect of evening things out a bit.  The standouts were less noticeable with a big bushy do.  An added bonus was that with a free-flowing and wild mane, observers would not infrequently remark upon Bruce’s striking resemblance to the late Jim Morrison.  Being a great fan of The Lizard King, Bruce seemed to have found his solution.

The one big problem here was his rather conservative parental units, who — just as his hair was “getting good,” as Bruce saw it — would in no uncertain terms remind him that he needed to get that hair cut.  (Later in life, it would be Bruce’s job — with its ludicrously outmoded “grooming standards” — that would prevent his bushy mane from running halfway down his back.)  But his parents were otherwise pretty cool, so if Bruce protested it was just to make a point (the whole “You are not the boss of me!” bit) and off he’d go to the hair control expert.

So yeah, Bruce was the guy with the hair.

“Did you call and hang up, like, five minutes ago?” Lisa wanted to know.

“Nope.”

“Four times?”

“Wasn’t me.”

“Okay . . .”

Bruce wanted to change the subject, but not knowing much more about Lisa than what she looked like (from behind, mostly) and her phone number, he couldn’t think of anything to say.  So, he figured, he might as well get it over with.

“So, like, I was wondering.  Um, do you wanna, you know — go out with me some time?”

How do you think this conversation (if you could call it that) ended?

Good.  Then you have spared me the indignity of have to recount it.  Suffice it to say, Bruce hung up the phone, pulled the gnawed #2 pencil out from behind his ear, and placed an “x” in the phone book next to “Moran, Clarence P. and Catherine M.”

It was starting to get late, but Bruce figured he might at least get through the N ’s and O ’s tonight.  Right off the bat, he knew of several N ’s, but could only think of two, maybe three girls whose last names began with O.  He was, thank you very much, dimly aware of what those two letters spelled when joined together; but since he was now officially halfway through the alphabet with nothing to show for it, he already knew whose side luck was on.  Definitely, though, the P ’s would have to wait.  Even with the D he was getting in algebra (maybe especially with the D he was getting in algebra), Bruce could say with confidence that P (along with its sinister sidekick, Q) represented that frightful state of limbo called the unknown.

At least I had a game plan.  It wasn’t a very good one.  But at least it was a plan.

Back in January, in my State of the Volksie address (see sidebar for link) I said, “I am hellbent on having the body in paint by the end of spring.  So June, roughly, at the latest.  I won’t even mind if, by mid-June, the body is done and I’m simply waiting for a slot on the paint man’s schedule.”

Late on the afternoon of May 31st, I put the sanding blocks down and pulled off my mask.  With compressed air I blew clouds of dust from the surface and out into the driveway, where they were whisked away by the springtime breeze from the west.  I ran my hands along the warm metal quickly, slowly, left to right, right to left, back and forth.  I crouched down and looked along the surface at a low angle, then backed away to assess it from a distance.  I walked a few circles around the car, sunwise and widdershins.

Nothing in particular told me it was done; but on the other hand, nothing told me it wasn’t.  It was somewhat anticlimactic, really.  I seemed to have arrived at an ambiguous, neutral state.  There were no glaring flaws, nothing keeping me awake at night anymore.  But it wasn’t especially impressive to behold, either.  It presented itself simply as it was: a very nice Beetle body, completely naked except for a splotched coating of cheap spray-can primer.

Somehow, I knew it was time.  My work was done here (for now).  I stripped my latex gloves off and went in the house to get a beer and my phone.  Then I came back out to the garage, pulled the old red stool out from under the bench, and had a sit-down.

I can’t remember when or why I painted it red, but I must have at some point.  It was black before, I think.  Yes, you can see it here and there, where the red is starting to wear off.  Before that it was white, and before that it had a dark natural stain.  When I was kid, I remember my grandfather sawing the legs a little shorter, six inches maybe.  But I can’t say why he would have done that.  Probably something my mother put him up to.  I remember we had four of those stools.  This one is the only survivor.  I believe it will last forever.  I should paint it again soon.

A one-eyed coon dog I’d never seen before trotted into the garage and just stood there for a moment, panting, like he’d come from a great distance to give me an urgent message.  For all I knew he might have been one of those hounds that can sniff out cancer, imminent earthquakes, or stock market crashes.  But if he was trying to tell me something, I don’t know what it was.  He just stared at me with his one eye — a watery blue orb like the home planet we share, but in miniature.  Then he left.

Finally I touched the name on the screen and put the phone to my ear.  He did not answer but I left a message on his voicemail.  I reminded him who I was, and that I was very interested in (finally) having him come out to have a look.  I left my phone number — once fast, and then a second time, slower, to make sure he got it.

I decided from the get-go not to be an obnoxious Yankee about it.  I would not get frustrated if he didn’t call me back within an hour, or even a day.  This is the South.  Things take time.  I could simply enjoy a break during the interim, to obsess about something else for a change.

But I wasn’t going to play any games.  Honestly, I was quite nervous about the whole affair, as this was one of the very few things I would be “outsourcing” (the others being machine work, media-blasting, and powder-coating).  It was also the first time a professional would see my work.  When the car is clad in shiny new urethane, people will not ask who did the body work.  They will ask who did the paint.  Reputable paint men know this and will not touch a car that doesn’t meet their own standards for this very reason.  I had visions of the would-be paint man, upon seeing what I’ve created, politely (or not-so-politely) declining, retreating to whatever bar it is that after-hours paint men frequent, and regaling his fellow isocyanate huffers with gut-busting tales of incompetence and ignorance.

If this explains my reasoning, it should also explain why I didn’t call Contender #1 a second time.  After over a week with no word, I called Contender #2.  Who also never bothered to call back.

So my patience was already wearing thin when I called Contender #3.  As usual, I got a voicemail.  That’s fine — I hardly expect a highly-regarded painter to be sitting around his office sharpening pencils and waiting for the phone to ring.  So I left a message, but wasn’t optimistic.

Lo and behold, “James” called me back within an hour, and we talked for twenty minutes, at least.  Like Contender #1, I’d spoken with James some time ago, and he said he remembered me.  In fact, he had come recommended by a guy in the local VW club.  Why I didn’t call James first, I can’t really say.  I’m just slow like that sometimes.  Anyhow, James sounded interested in my project, and he was personable on the phone.  Also, he was older, without being old.  (Another decision I’d made was that since auto painting is an art, and there being no substitute for experience, I didn’t want some over-medicated, Red Bull-chugging, post-pubescent with the attention span of a gnat mackin’ on my Volksie!)

James said he’d love to have a look, and would call me back by the end of the week to arrange something.  At that, I saw no reason to mention, by the way, that I would be out of the country for the two weeks after that.  I was hoping, actually, that the car would be in the lucky winner’s shop during that time.

When I boarded that plane for Barcelona, I was excited to be going; but there was a bit of a sour note in that I had not heard back from James.  But I’m not one to be glued to my smartphone while I’m on vacation.  I feel sorry for those who can’t forsake being “connected” long enough to pay attention to the world around them.  This may sound cruel, but it’s all about choices, isn’t it?

We spent the first week in a small village on the Costa Brava, in a stone cottage amongst the olive trees.  I just enjoyed life for a while and didn’t give much thought to the ever-important calls I might be missing or e-mails I wasn’t reading.  When we returned to Barcelona, however, we stayed at a chic hotel that my wife found online.  There was a rooftop bar with a first-rate view of La Sagrada Familia, the cathedral-in-progress that’s pretty trippy even without the booze.  And of course they had Wi-Fi in the hotel.  As we lounged in the room one night after a whirlwind day of sightseeing, satiated by too many tapas and Estrellas, the temptation to borrow my wife’s iPad was too great.

Virtually all of the e-mails were junk, or somehow not as important as they otherwise might seem.  There was one that got my attention, however: a note that said a private message was waiting for me on the website of the VW club back home.  What could that be?  Being quite shy about my work, I’m not exactly the most active member of the club.  Come to think of it, I’m not even an official member of the club.  That is, I pay no dues. I’m not aware of a secret handshake.  And — far as I can remember — I’ve never been hazed.  But sure enough, the message was from one of the club members (the one who recommended James to begin with), who explained that James called him and said he was trying to reach me and thought that maybe he had my number wrong.  I sent a message back, saying that I was out of the country but would get in touch with James when I returned.

I powered up my iPhone as we stepped off the plane in Miami.  The fact that there were only two voicemails (both from James) after two weeks without my phone could be indicative of either (1) my being a free-and-easy, rolling stone kind of guy, who shuns modern contrivances in exchange for an enlightened, unencumbered lifestyle, or (2) my being a complete loser with no friends and no important roll to play in life.  I choose the first interpretation, but you can make your own assumptions and to hell with you.

I called James the next day, and that afternoon he stood in my garage, assessing things with a professional eye.  A compact man with salt-and-pepper hair and crows feet bracketing his eyes, I found James easy to talk to, with a good sense of humor (he’s gonna need it!).  Best of all, I am pleased to report that he had (mostly) complimentary things to say about my work!  Of course, he noticed some minor flaws that I was going to mention anyway — small things, really, that I have no idea how to address.  But he expressed a carefully measured confidence that those were indeed trivial things that he could easily handle.

James is a two-stage man, something I had not originally been too keen on.  Maybe that was why I didn’t call him first.  A modern, two-stage urethane paint job (base coat/clear coat), if done properly, is way nicer than what a Volkswagen would have left the factory with.  As a matter of fact, I think it makes most “stockers” look over-restored.  But James convinced me that the two-stage deal would be far more durable; also, many of the inevitable minor scratches that accrue over time can often be buffed out.  These were strong selling points.  Plus, I sincerely doubt anyone will ever accuse my Beetle — no matter how well it comes out — of being overdone.  Paint aside, it will still be the product of a rank amateur.

Of course we talked about color (the details of which you are simply going to have to wait for).  Then, inevitably, we talked about price.

As good as I was feeling about James and the work of which he seemed confidently capable, the new dread that descended was that, with this unexpected discussion of a real, bonafide, fancy-pants two-stage paint job, the price would be way out of my league.  It was true that, over time, I’d stuffed the coffee can with well over what I thought I might need for paint.  But that didn’t mean I wanted to spend it all on that.

As the discussion came around to this, I could feel my knees getting all springy-like, as if steadying myself for the crushing blow that his price tag would levy upon my person.  The suspense was threatening to topple me over as he hemmed and hawed, answering my questions with more questions.

“How much?  Well, how much are you willing to put into it?”

I mumbled and confessed my ignorance.  The only other time I’d had a car painted was at the local Earl Scheib back in ’86 or ’87.  If I recall, the one-day scuff-and-squirt special that was inflicted upon my 1975 Beetle was something like $300.  Nowadays, the primers, sealers, surfacers, reducers, bases, clears, and God-knows-what-else would cost at least that much.

“What were you planning on spending?” he wanted to know.

Really, I don’t think he was trying to milk more money out of me.  He seemed like an honest guy.  A family man (as a matter of fact, his grandkids were waiting patiently in the car).  Maybe he could sense the tension I must have been emanating, and was genuinely concerned that I might actually collapse in a pathetic heap on the concrete floor.  Maybe he could tell that, for me, this was a matter of love.

Come to think of it, maybe the whole thing was like getting that first date in more than one way.  Not only had there been the stress of the nervous and clumsy phone calls.  Now, I would find myself in a role similar to the father of the (obviously quite desperate) girl who actually said yes.

Just when I thought I (literally) couldn’t stand it anymore, James gave me his bottom line.  Surprisingly, it was a bit lower than I’d expected.  Why?  Setting aside humility for a moment, I like to think that his price reflected the fact that, in his professional estimation, very little body work would have to be done.  Lord knows I put enough time, sweat, and lost sleep into it.  Other than that, I can’t really say (was he going to let the grandkids have a go at it?).  The price tag is not, in my admittedly inexperienced opinion, suspiciously low.  But the margin might come in handy, I thought.  There might be nasty surprises.  This way, I’d be ready for them.

All I had to do for the next several minutes was to start breathing again, and wear the best poker face I could muster.  I asked him to recount, one more time, what all he’d do, what kind of products he’d use (PPG Deltron, mostly), and what his time frame was (about a month).  And he patiently explained it all again, adding that I could drop by his shop anytime, and that he’d even trailer the car himself.  And when he’d covered everything, and finally fell silent, I said, “Okay.”

On Friday, June 29th, James and his son came with a trailer.  I cut James a check for half of his quote.  Then they took my Beetle away.  One minute it was there — where it had been sitting, in the very same spot, since October 2009 — and then it was gone.

In the meantime, I’ll be peering from behind the curtains, keeping an eye on the street, watching to ensure that he brings her back safe and on time.

Show Buzz: Bug-a-Palüza 14

Merriam-Webster’s online dictionary defines lollapalooza as “one that is extraordinarily impressive” or “an outstanding example.” To most of us younger than, say, forty-five, the word might be more likely to conjure memories of a certain series of outdoor music festivals. I still have an unused ticket for the first Lollapalooza concert, in 1991, which at the last minute I decided not to attend because then — as now — I had an aversion to crowds, events, hooplas, or any sort of organized mayhem.

The same reservations resurfaced when I learned about the 14th iteration of the Bug-a-Palüza Volkswagen show to be held at Camp Jordan in East Ridge, Tennessee, and saw that my calendar was clear on the weekend of April 21st-22nd. Don’t misunderstand me — I love my classic Volkswagens! But still, there were the voices of doubt: That’s a lot of driving. I need to be working on my own car. I’ll be shunned like a leper. They’ll recognize me for the charlatan that I am. It’s supposed to rain. I need to do laundry. Bullshit umlauts piss me off.

Some of these concerns were valid. In the previous few weeks, I had been putting way more miles on the Subie than I cared to think about. It was indeed supposed to rain. My festering, fermenting pile of laundry wasn’t getting any smaller. And yes, being somewhat familiar with the rules of German grammar (and not a fan of 80’s heavy metal bands), bullshit umlauts really do piss me off.

On the plus side, I’d be attending as a spectator. No advance tickets were necessary. And East Ridge (near Chattanooga) is about three hours away. I could just go up for the day. If I felt like it. I went to bed Friday night with no clear plans.

I rose before dawn, fixed a pot of coffee, and sat down at my laptop with a bowl of granola. There was indeed some weather brewing. But it looked like it might push on through by the time I got there. I read the news. I checked my e-mail.

As the caffeine kicked in my mind started to wander. I thought about the journalists I’d always admired, and thought about my own journalistic duties. No, it wouldn’t exactly be a gonzo affair — like launching through the desert in a rented Cadillac convertible loaded to the gunwales with party favors, or chronicling the madcap hijinks of a busload of Merry Pranksters on a cross-country blitz. But I needed another reason, it seemed, to do this thing, other than simply because I really did feel like it. So I decided to look at it as a reporting mission. I grabbed my backpack, camera, and rain jacket, kissed my not-yet-awake wife bye-bye, and was out the door by 6:15.

As usual I eschewed the interstate, instead plotting a course through the winding two-lane roads of the north Georgia mountains. I actually enjoyed the drive, and it didn’t bother me that it was almost 10 a.m. by the time I arrived at Camp Jordan. I had driven through some heavy rain en route, but the low clouds in East Ridge must have been the trailing edge of the weather. By early afternoon I was glad I to have remembered the sunscreen. My rain jacket remained balled up in my backpack.

When I pulled up, the gates had already been open for the better part of two hours. But as I walked toward the show grounds, there was still a steady stream of air-cooled Volksies rolling by. As soon as I heard that wonderful, wheezing, whistling, tea-tin-full-of-pennies parade I knew I had made a good decision. If there were just one thing I could keep with me in my memories of that day, it would be that sound.

The general setup was like this: the perimeter of the show ground proper was set off from the rest of the sprawling sports and recreation facility by temporary fencing. The parts swappers and sellers were on the far left end of a large parking lot, with the show cars arrayed on the remainder of the pavement. At right edge of the parking lot was a pavilion where they were grilling up hot dogs and burgers. Beyond that was a soccer field where the campsites were set up — dozens of VW campers and Westfalias, from early split-windows to later-model Eurovans, doing what they were designed to do. A stage was set up in a position that seemed to dominate the entire show. An emcee yammered into an overloud sound system in between songs streamed in from the local classic rock station.

Since show cars were still arriving, I decided to try get an edge on the competition and spend some time browsing among the parts for sale. I had vague notions of finding a pair of original steel wheels (I have two good ones, and two that are a bit banged up) or a non-doghouse, “fresh air” fan shroud (with the cooling flap mechanism intact). But really I’m in that in-between stage of my project where I have most of what I need to finish the body work, and haven’t yet determined what I need for the rest of it. I’ve got enough t-shirts, models, books, and pint glasses. I’m not into rare accessories.

I did come close to buying a driver’s door. I already have five or six — I’ve lost count — and didn’t really need one. But it caught my eye as a two-year-only door (’65-’66) that would be right for my car. Most non-VW people would probably be surprised to learn that as similar as the Beetles appeared year after year, incremental changes were made that make finding correct parts challenging, at times. For example, the window frames were made slightly larger in ‘65, so a door from a ’64 wouldn’t work. And in ‘67, the latching mechanism and other innards were different. 1967 as whole, in fact, was an especially tricky year, with a whole host of one-year-only body parts. So I could have it a lot worse.

The door had “$30” written on it, so I figured I’d have a closer look. The old guy running the booth stood over me as I inspected it closely. I ran my hand over the skin rapidly in several different directions, and was surprised at how smooth it was. I set it on its side and inspected the bottom for rust holes, inside and out. Solid and clean. Drain holes clear. Next I leaned it back against the folding table, and grabbed each hinge and jiggled. A little bit of play. But for $30, well . . .

“A man who knows what he’s lookin’ for,” the old man observed, chewing on whatever it is old men seem to be perpetually chewing on.

I was carefully checking the inside surface of the door, basking in this complement (though saying nothing), when suddenly I noticed it: a tiny pinprick of light shining through, right smack dab in the middle of the door. Then I could see that the factory tar board glued to the inside of the door was quite ratty, and (barely) concealing a hidden colony of rust gremlins. My guess is that the door scrapers — which were no longer installed, as this was a bare door — had rotted away at some point, like they do, and moisture had kept the tar board damp on a regular basis. I was surprised at this, given that the usual rust havens seemed solid. But I’m learning that rust is very, very cunning this way.

So I politely declined and moved on, congratulating myself on being more discerning and more disciplined in my parts shopping. I’m proud to say that the $200 cash that I had allowed myself remained in my pocket for the duration. Still, it was fun poking around. I also determined that attendance at future swap meets will be all but mandatory once I get into the mechanical side of things, and have a specific list of much-needed items.

My stated purpose of the visit might have been for the sake of journalism; but if I’m honest, I just came to gawk. I took over 400 photographs in four hours. If you are not already convinced by my previous postings that I’m certainly no photographer, you will be presently. But if you’re like me (and God help you if you are), for a show report you want more pics and less talky-talky. So here I’m offering just a small selection of my favorites, with commentary that you can choose to ignore if you wish to be that way.

I regularly read the magazines and spend way too much time on the websites. This and the only other Volkswagen show I’ve ever attended (Daytona WinterJam 2010) hardly makes me an authority on current trends. Still, it cannot be denied that patina continues to rock the scene. There were several examples represented, many of which were already lowered, narrowed, and clear-coated to a bowling ball luster. I see a similar future awaiting this example:

Of course, original examples in patina and dust bring to mind the Holy Grail of all air-cooled VW aficionados: the “barn find.” Sometimes I think this term is abused. Any idiot can take a ratty old Beetle, cover it in dust, and call it a “barn find.” Also, I’m not so sure that it’s worth something simply because you found it in a barn. Define “barn.” Define “find,” for that matter (did someone “lose” the car at some point?). There term is so common nowadays, one might be forgiven for thinking that there are more “barn finds” than there are barns. Skepticism aside, this one made as good a case as any:

Another element that caught my eye in several instances was the use of folk art or found objects to dress up otherwise bland (or worse) cars. I’ve seen burlap coffee sacks used as upholstery. Sinister looking, ornately carved talismans as gear shift knobs. One-off hood ornaments emulating the Winged Nike, but with bigger boobs. Bamboo strips used as headliner material. One such element much in play at this show was the use of beer bottle caps.

If some of this is not always to my personal taste, I can at least admire these efforts at personalization, as long as the level of execution matches the creativity behind it, and as long as it’s not something that would irreparably alter an otherwise sound car. To me, it’s all part of the fun of a classic Volkswagen.

The oldest car I identified that day was this stunning example, a 1951 Beetle in pastel green. I heard it before I saw it. I was standing in his allotted space with my cheap Nikon pressed to my face, snapping away at something else, when I noticed the dreamy purring of a warm, expertly-tuned four-banger behind me. I stepped aside as my jaw dropped and a puddle of drool gathered on my lower lip. To be sure, I’m not certain that I would even want to own a Beetle this fine, this old. From what I understand, these cars in stock configuration are a whole different driving experience, with its 25-horse (!) engine and non-synch first gear. This wouldn’t be a factor anyway because I’d be worried sick about driving such a gem in the first place.

The newest Beetle present (not, mind, a New Beetle, nor a New New Beetle) was a 2003 Mexi-Beetle. With its lustrous, purplish-blue paint, repositioned front turn signals (incorporated into the bumper), and lack of chrome trim, I recognized it well before its owner, sitting in a lawn chair and enjoying the emerging sun, quipped, “Betcha can’t guess what year this ‘un is!”

I wondered if he was going to ask me to pull his finger next. “It’s a Mexi-Beetle,” I said flatly.

“An ’03, to be exact!” he said, proudly.

It was indeed a fine example of the last model year for the air-cooled Beetle, and the owner had every right to be proud. He gave me its short history — the typical “old lady who only drove it to church on Sundays” spiel. But with its ridiculously low mileage (I can’t remember the actual number) and immaculate condition, I believe it. It was strange to contemplate this car, 52 years newer than its very similar pastel green ancestor across the parking lot, and roughly the same age as my Subaru.

One of the first cars of the show to catch my eye was this Type 4 (above). You almost never see these anymore. I admired how remarkably straight and rust-free this example was. I wanted to ask more about it, but the owner wasn’t around. If it were mine, I’d keep it in tune, protect it, and leave it just as it is — a remarkable survivor of a dying breed!

With this next example, you’re really getting close to the “r” word:

When most people think of a Karmann Ghia (myself included), they usually think of the car that was based on a Beetle chassis, but with an Italian-designed body executed by a German coach builder. There were plenty of those on display. But this one is a Type 3 Karmann Ghia, of which only 42,505 were made (for comparison, remember that there were over 440,000 “normal” Karmann Ghias made, and around 22,000,000 Beetles). So I’d call it rare, especially given the relative numbers. Some people think they look like Corvairs. In my opinion, a Corvair is weak tea to this Italian-style double-shot of espresso! Being for the most part a stocker, I was unsure, at first, about the Sprintstars and the slightly lowered stance. But once it sank in, I decided it worked quite well. The interior did need a little bit of tidying. But like the Type 4 above, there is little else I would do with this fine car.

Speaking of interiors, my vote for “Best Beetle Interior” would be this one:

It’s colorful without being gaudy. Personalized without being kitschy. “Lived-in” without being trashy. Works for me!

A close second would be this one:

The owner was sitting nearby as I completed a slow circuit of this beautiful Bahama Blue ’65. The exterior, it turns out, was all original, with just a few minor repairs over the years. The paint still took a high polish very well. But when I stuck my head in the window I immediately appreciated the simple, uncluttered, clean and original look of it.

“Who did your interior?” I asked.

He beamed and replied that he did it himself. He was quite humble about it, and was quick to point out some minor flaws that I surely would never have noticed myself. Since these were the results of his very first attempt at it, he shared with me his experience and gave me some pointers. I told him I’d be quite satisfied to have mine turn out half as nice.

I’ve been a bit mum about the Buses so far. But if you know me by now, you know it was only a matter of time. As far as interiors go, my “Best Bus Interior” award goes to this late-70‘s example:

It was bone stock, immaculate, and in a color scheme that was specifically created to enhance the experience of any psychedelics used within. Although this benefit would be of very limited use to me anymore, I could definitely, indefinitely live in there.

This Bus actually won awards in two categories of my own creation, the other being that of “Vehicle I’d Want Most to Take Home.” Again, I’ve always wanted a Westfalia, and the color is spot on. I admired this Bus so much that it was only later, after reviewing the photos, that I noticed the overspray on the canvas. But by then it didn’t matter. My decision was made, and such a trivial thing was no reason to reconsider.

This doesn’t necessarily mean that the green Westy was my favorite vehicle of the entire show. I hate to make decisions, so on that one I simply won’t. But I will nominate the next Bus — a ’66 21-window — for the “Vehicle Which Most Made My Knees Weak and Loins Ache” award. There is nothing more I can say. So here is the pic:

I seem to be fond of reminding everyone that I’m a traditionalist, a “stocker” who rails against deviants who stray too far from what rolled off the assembly line fifty years ago — a finished product with Porsche lineage and teams of German engineers behind it. While this creed continues to guide the work on my own car (in no small part, it must be admitted, because I have neither the imagination nor the know-how to venture too far outside of that box), I’m coming to appreciate those who dare to be different — and have the ability to pull it off.

I’m not sure, exactly, what “it” is. The French call it je ne sais quoi, or “I don’t know what.” But French is a fern language. What ferners speak. Socialist ferners. Besides, I can’t really call the award in this category the “Je Ne Sais Quoi” award. The “Ich Weiß Nicht Was” might be more appropriate, but just doesn’t seem to roll off the tongue as well. In fact, nothing in German rolls off the tongue. If it does, you’re pronouncing it wrong. And you might injure somebody.

Here’s one example of what I mean:

In my book, this badass Bus has “it” for sure. But on that day, the standard bearer for what I’m talking about was this totally nuts Beetle:

It’s something I wouldn’t dare conceive of myself — even if I could. Nor is it a car that I would be particularly interested in driving, or parking in my garage. But in some strange and unidentifiable way, this crazy ride was bending my mind. It was too radical to comprehend, yet too intriguing to ignore. Closely — but not too closely — I examined it from every angle, as if it had just plummeted from the sky and plunked down on the pavement, steaming hot and radioactive from its hurtling flight across the Milky Way.

Once I stepped back and took a few parting shots with my Nikon, I found myself thinking that somehow — in a way that was shaking my heretofore inviolable ethos — this Beetle was just, I dunno, right. So I hereby bestow the “Just Right” award upon this bonkers Bug from another dimension, a place where heaven and hell have agreed to call it a draw, and the inhabitants of both party down like it’s 1999 for all eternity forever and always amen.

I would have much preferred to end the honors here, on a positive note. It is my habit to try to wrap things up with a warm dose of gemütlichkeit (note correct use of umlaut here) for all parties concerned. Alas, it was not to be. At some point (during the 1980’s, from the looks of it) an act of such beastly perversion was perpetrated that its repercussions continue to be felt, decades later, upon my person — in the form of insomnia, loss of appetite, tremors, tics, and a particularly stubborn case of the willies. I’m afraid that these symptoms will not relent until I get this out in the open, and thereby relieve myself of this burden. So without further ado, I must present the “WTF?” award for a creation that is one part Dr. Porsche, two parts Dr. Leary, and three parts Satan.

Thank you. I feel better already.

All in all, Bug-a-Palüza 14 lived up to its Merriam-Webster soundalike — and then some. To think that I’d had doubts about the whole thing now seems ridiculous. The wide variety of Volkswagens assembled for the event was indeed “extraordinarily impressive.” I should mention that in my coverage I’ve left out innumerable examples. As a matter of fact, I admit that I’m guilty of giving short shrift to entire classes that were present in force — sand rails, buggies, and water-cooled VW’s, just to name a few. It would have been great to stay the night, camp with friends, and dig the rest of the scene the next day. All I’d need is that green Westy. And friends. But part of the fun of this event was that there was something for everybody.

Reflecting on a day well spent, I find that it was just the kick in the pants that I needed. If you have been a regular follower, you have no doubt had it up to here with my manic ranting about all things Type 2: splits, bays, single cabs, double cabs, Westies, Kombis, Transporters, Sambas, Vanagons — the whole shootin’ match, and then some. While nothing has changed in this regard — I still fully intend to own one someday, somehow — I do realize that much of that obsession is simply due to the fact that I don’t currently own one. Shakespeare said it best, but I’m not foolin’ anyone by quoting Shakespeare. So I’ll go with W. Somerset Maugham, who said it second best: “Passion thrives not on satisfaction, but on impediment.” By that measure, I don’t have to look further than my own garage.

We are beset by impediments from many directions. Some don’t have the time to devote to such an undertaking. For others it’s money. A few simply lose steam, as evidenced by the number of half-finished projects that appear on my eBay alerts. I make no effort to hide my own biggest impediment — a lack of skills. To the contrary, I think that I’ve been somewhat successful in turning this shortcoming, via these pages, into a different skill, one that is often overlooked: the ability to not take oneself too seriously.

Naturally, I find myself comparing my impressions of this show with that of the only other I’ve attended, the WinterJam show over two years ago. To take nothing away from Bug-a-Palüza, WinterJam was bigger (spread, in fact, over multiple venues) and longer (four days versus two), with a far larger array of swappers, and a main show that was staged at a more attractive venue (in a park-like setting around a lake). But that’s not what I’m talking about here.

At WinterJam I was completely bowled over and overstimulated. Every car present was better than mine would ever be, in every way. Each was a gleaming, chrome-bedecked reminder of my own incompetence. I still had a great time, but more in the way that I might enjoy an amusement park or a good movie. It was reminiscent of the very first time I got my adolescent hands on a Playboy. I thought: that’s impossible. Wonderful! But impossible.

This time around, instead of ogling each car in dumbfounded wonder like a lusty thirteen-year-old, I was able to see with a more critical eye. This is not to say that I could replicate the work evidenced by the finest examples present that day. This would take years and years of experience — which, at this point, would be all but impossible to attain given the natural years that statistically remain to me. But in the vast majority of cases — even, and especially, in ones I admired the most — I could discern slight flaws that took nothing away from the total impact of the car. If anything, this gave me hope. It taught me that I’m not the only one who isn’t perfect. Although I have worked for countless hours in solitude, this affirmed that others have walked the same path as I, have faced their own impediments, and trusted the process enough to see it through, with something wonderful to show for it. It made me feel like part of an unspoken, unnamed brotherhood (and sisterhood — you bet!).

With this newfound inspiration, I hereby announce my goal: next year, I will arrive at Bug-a-Palüza 15 in the very same ’65 Beetle that currently resides — in a woefully incomplete state — in my garage. Even if I park it in the spectator lot, I’ll be air-coolin’ my way over the hills and through the woods to East Ridge next year. You heard it here first.

I just wish they’d do something about that bullshit umlaut.

Book Report: A less-than-professional opinion of Paul Schilperoord’s The Extraordinary Life of Josef Ganz: The Jewish Engineer Behind Hitler’s Volkswagen

It was all fun and games until the death threats started.

The local newspaper is so thin that in a downpour it wouldn’t keep you dry very long. You could swat a yellowjacket with it, but the result would just be one pissed off yellowjacket. You could have it read by the time you walk back from the end of your driveway. For this last reason I’ve resorted to the online version while I wait for my coffee to reach sippin’ temperature. By the time I’m actually sipping, I’m usually caught up on local events and have moved on to the broadsheets.

But one Friday morning couple of weeks ago I had downed two and a half cups, hot, and was in high dudgeon by the time I clicked “submit” in the “readers’ comments” section of the local site. I had been reading about a group of local cyclists who were harassed by a driver. There’s much more to the story; but this sort of thing happens from time to time, and those of you who know me as an avid cyclist will not be surprised to learn that it is always of great personal concern to me.

The thing that got me so fired up was not so much the article itself, nor the general tenor of the others’ comments. It was simply the fact that the comments were so damned predictable. “Bikers” should ride on the sidewalks. (Unsafe anywhere, and actually illegal in town.) They look like a bunch of morons in their brightly-colored spandex. (As if camouflage or golf attire were haute couture.) They need to register, pay taxes, and pass a test. (I figure, for every car trip I’m not taking, I should get a refund on the taxes I’ve already paid because — surprise, surprise! — I’m a driver too!) They’re arrogant. (So?)

In my response, I addressed these points and more. I was a staunch defender of my rights. I waxed eloquent (in my own mind, at least) upon my conviction that the freedoms we claim to value so highly in this country should include the simple act of being able to ride a bicycle without cowering in fear. As long as I’m law abiding and courteous, I asserted, I expect the same from drivers. If this is too much to expect from the citizens of this town, this state, this country — and if I’m someday struck and killed by an angry or careless driver — then you can bury me with what’s left of my bike. I clicked “submit,” closed my laptop, and drove up to Asheville with my wife for the weekend.

I’m fully aware that my first mistake was reading the asinine comments in the first place. Anyone in need of even further evidence of our collective inability to conduct a considerate, civilized, and intelligent sharing of differing opinions need only visit any online “community” whose individual members are permitted to hide behind the anonymity of a “username.” Joining the fray, of course, made me no better than the rest of them — even if my opinions on the matter happen to be the correct ones to have.

Checking the browser on my smartphone for responses once we got to Asheville was probably not a good idea either. The overall gist was that numerous readers seemed all too eager not only to oblige me in my burial wishes, but to expedite the necessity thereof. One even cut to the chase and promised not to bother himself with washing my blood from the pavement. Another ventured to guess that I must be “one of them Subaru-driving liberals,” proving himself to be perceptive, if nothing else. I’ll never know if there were any who came to my defense because I’d had enough. I surrendered. I shut my phone off for the remainder of the weekend and tried not to think about it.

Of course I have this luxury. And I don’t know that you could really call these anonymous taunts “death threats.” Something tells me that none of us would be so self-righteously bold sitting around a table, sharing a meal and a beer.

But Josef Ganz knew about death threats in a very real, very threatening way. He did not have the luxury of shrugging it off as silliness and getting on with his life. Newly released in January was the English translation of Paul Schilperoord’s 2009 book, The Extraordinary Life of Josef Ganz: The Jewish Engineer Behind Hitler’s Volkswagen. Of course you can guess where the author is going from the title alone. But that doesn’t take anything away from the telling.

Tradition tells us that Ferdinand Porsche’s design team, at Hitler’s direction, came up with what would become the Volkswagen Beetle. This book does nothing to dispute that, per se. But Schilperoord’s years of research into how, exactly, that design came about led him to a man who died in 1967 in Australia — broke, broken, and mostly forgotten. The narrative of Ganz’s life is, as stated, quite extraordinary.

Ganz’s heyday — short-lived as it was — was in Germany in the early 1930’s. As early as 1922, the newly-minted engineer was calling for a small car with an air-cooled, rear-mounted, horizontally-opposed engine and swing-axle suspension. Much of his impetus came from a sense of national pride. A decorated German naval veteran of World War One, Ganz feared that his country’s automotive industry was getting left behind by American pioneers such as Henry Ford. He saw a lack of innovation, as the same stodgy automakers continued to manufacture the same underwhelming designs, which were only affordable to the elite few. Clearly, what was needed to get Germany back on its feet was a massive program to produce a reliable, economical, and affordable “people’s car.”

I’ll save you the math: 1922 was ninety years ago, almost three decades before the first Volkswagens came ashore in the United States, and over eighty years before the last of the original Volkswagens rolled of the line in Mexico.

Josef Ganz’s challenges to convention were easily ignored until he became editor-in-chief at Motor-Kritik, one of the most influential automotive publications at the time. Not only was he in a strong position to advocate tirelessly for his ideal “people’s car” (the term Volkswagen, in the generic sense, was bandied about with ever-greater frequency), but he and his staff pulled no punches in their often brutally honest critiques of the latest designs coming from the established German automakers.

There were a few — like BMW, Daimler-Benz, and Adler — who recognized the inspired genius for what he was, and each employed Ganz as a technical consultant while his work at Motor-Kritik continued. At Adler, he was given free reign the create a prototype for a Volkswagen, which Ganz called the “Maikäfer” (or “May Bug”). True to his ethos, it was an air-cooled, rear-engined, swing-axle design. It never went into production, but he drove it as his personal car for years.

The Maikäfer, 1931

Later, Ganz utilized several of his many patents in design work for Standard Fahrzeugfabrik to create the Standard Superior, which actually did have a successful production run — for two years, at any rate. Like the Maikäfer, the Superior adhered (for the most part, as it was not a one-man effort) to Ganz’s requirements. It is also interesting to note the striking similarities between this car and a certain, slightly later design — from a very well-known engineer — that would become an international icon and be manufactured in record-setting numbers.

Standard Superior, 1933

Hitler himself admired the Jew-designed Standard Superior at a major international motor show in Berlin in 1933. And herein lies one of the biggest ironies of the story: Hitler and Ganz — at least from a technological standpoint — wanted the exact same thing. Both men advocated for a mass-produced, reliable, and easy-to-maintain means of personal transportation affordable to the average German worker. To meet this last criterion, the car would have to cost less than 1,000 Reichsmarks. The Superior, at 1,590 RM, wasn’t quite there. But it was the closest thing yet.

With technical know-how and Motor-Kritik as his mouthpiece, Ganz had a way of drawing attention to himself. Which, of course, was exactly what he was trying to do. But as sound and logical as the message was, some were threatened by the messenger. The problem was that Josef Ganz was influential and persistent, controversial yet respected, aggressive yet well-liked. And Jewish. In other words, short of being a gay gypsy, he couldn’t have been more of a threat to the Nazi’s twisted ideals for an industrial savior.

Ganz apparently chose to ignore the more sinister implications of Hitler’s rise to power until this was all but impossible. It started with the lawsuits and countersuits that would dog Ganz until the very end of his days. Really, I can’t help but think that at a time of quickening technical innovation, trying to pinpoint exactly who thought up any given idea first, and what, exactly, constituted a patent infringement played out like a dizzying, cross-border version of “who’s your daddy?” Then there was the behind-the-scenes collusion among the more established players that led to the quashing of the stillborn Maikäfer, as well as the premature demise of the Standard Superior.

Then, as anti-Semitism became official government policy, were the arrests on trumped-up charges, antipathy in the courts, visits from the Gestapo, and one occasion where a would-be assassin was driven away by Ganz’s loyal German Shepherd. The police couldn’t have cared less. Gradually, starting with BMW, his consulting contracts were unceremoniously terminated. And due to new restrictions on press access, Ganz was first stripped of his editor-in-chief role at Motor-Kritik, and then forbidden to publish anything, anywhere, at all. Finally, by 1935, Ganz had fled Germany, never to return.

Borders offered little protection from his persecutors. The lawsuits were par for the course; but there were also the Gestapo, as well as visa troubles, that forced Ganz to stay on the move — Switzerland, France, the Soviet Union, Denmark, Liechtenstein. At one point he even held a diplomatic passport from Honduras — though he’d never even been there. But if any place could be called home in the years that followed, it was Switzerland. At least there he was able to find consulting or engineering gigs from time to time. There was also some promise, with the support of the Swiss government, of putting a version of Ganz’s Maikäfer into serial production in Switzerland, and possibly under contract in France and Poland as well.

But like shit, war happens. Perhaps it’s not so strange that the book offers few details about what occupied Ganz during the actual fighting. After all, I can’t imagine that those dark years in a nominally neutral country with little direct interest in weapons development were exactly ripe for technological advancement. Perhaps the author faced a dearth of documentation pertaining to his subject during this period because there simply wasn’t any.

The end of the war offered little relief to our hero. The complex web of lawsuits continued unabated, many of which seemed the product of little more than spiteful nastiness on the part of Ganz’s detractors. His health began to suffer from the stress. And though the twenty-year relationship with his girlfriend survived exile and a world war, the strain would eventually prove too much.

So in 1951, Ganz decided he’d had enough. He boarded a ship — alone — bound for Australia, determined to create a new life for himself. For the next several years he would do some engineering work for various companies, mainly GM’s Holden subsidiary. But the overall picture that Schilperoord paints is that of a broken, deflated man. Ganz’s health continued to decline, and he suffered a series of heart attacks that left him disabled. Towards the very end there was a degree of renewed interest in his contributions on the part of Heinz Nordhoff, the iconic director of Volkswagen, as well as the Australian press. But when Ganz finally died in 1967 he had little money and even less recognition.

The scope of this book seems to transcend any one genre. Primarily it’s a biography, but it would also be at home on the history shelf. One could even call it a real life thriller, with its page-turning plot twists, international intrigue, and nail-biting brushes with peril. There is even the role of the evil arch-nemesis, played by one Paul Ehrhardt — an erstwhile colleague of Ganz’s who became an agent for the Nazi Sicherheitsdienst (SD), led the smear campaign against him, and pursued him far beyond Germany’s borders. Pathetic weasel that he was, Ehrhardt reminded me of the bad guy in that cheesy action movie you’re loath to admit you paid good money to see, the guy that keeps coming back — the guy that just won’t die, already! So it’s really no surprise that we find him consulting with the Tatra company in lawsuits that followed Ganz all the way to Australia, years after the war. Only Ehrhardt’s own death in 1961 put a stop the nonsense. If this were Hollywood, though, we’d fully expect a sequel in which he rises from the grave in a tattered Nazi uniform, with dirt caked under his fingernails and a worm-eaten briefcase full of legal papers.

If I’m going to play the role of critic, then I suppose I’ve got to come up with some criticism. Right off the bat, I thought an index would have been nice. I’m a slow reader, and I read for details. Schilperoord’s research and footnotes are obviously extensive. He throws a lot of details at you. This doesn’t make the translation any less readable, but many times I had the urge to refer back to a (nonexistent) index when I couldn’t remember where I’d seen a certain character come up before.

A broader issue I had was with the assertion the author makes, on page four of the introduction, that “it is no exaggeration to say that the immensely popular VW Beetle would never have existed without Josef Ganz.” Don’t get me wrong. I always admire the chutzpah of anyone who dares to challenge conventional wisdom (which could apply to both Ganz and Schilperoord, but here I mean the author) and therefore I tend to lend a sympathetic ear to such arguments. Schilperoord no doubt is far more the scholar on the subject than I am. But judging the book solely on the merits of this assertion, I feel that it falls short of the mark. There were to simply too many fingers in the Volkswagen pie to attribute the result to one single man.

To call this Ganz’s baby would be to ignore not only Porsche’s efforts, but that of other eminent designers such as Hans Ledwinka, Béla Barényi, or Edmund Rumpler. Without question, Ganz was one of a select few with both the influence and the ingenuity to do this thing; without question, the Nazis and the established German automakers did their very best, for years, to ensure that Ganz got as little credit as possible. After reading this book, and understanding the undoubtedly huge impact Ganz made on the automotive industry at the time, it is only natural to ask if the Volkswagen would have happened without him. But would it not be valid to ask the same question with regards to Porsche — or Hitler himself for that matter?

I think it is instructive to compare what Porsche was working on in 1938, versus what Ganz was doing over the border in Switzerland. Both designs were with air-cooled, rear-mounted engines and swing-axles. But I believe photos tell a bit more of the story:

Ganz driving prototype for Swiss version of Volkswagen, 1937
KdF-Wagen, 1938

We can speculate all day long about what might have been if Ganz’s environment were more accommodating, if history were on his side, and if he could have seen his ideas come to fruition with the full government support that Porsche enjoyed. Sensationalist claims aside, this book is informative, interesting, and highly readable. All of the previous histories of the marque seem incomplete without this story told.

On a personal level, reading this book — and, specifically, examining the dozens of photographs contained therein — led to the sudden realization that I’m missing something. Something that each of my esteemed heroes of the Volkswagen pantheon had. Something that I do not currently have but could easily cultivate. Ganz had one. Porsche had one. Even that legendary rocket scientist-cum-hippie Volkswagen mechanic and author John Muir had one.

Josef Ganz
Ferdinand Porsche
John Muir

Few people would henceforth wear one in the style of Ganz. Just as there have been very, very few children born since 1945 named Adolf, the style was summarily retired after the man who made it infamous slaughtered millions and died by his own cowardly hand. But beyond that, I figure, as long as I am in compliance with the grooming standards outlined in the employee manual (as well as in Chapter 1, Section 25.0, “Personal Appearance and Uniform Requirements” of the Flight Operations Manual) I’m free to do as I please in that regard. It would be a hell of a lot easier than getting an engineering degree; which, in turn, would be a hell of a lot easier than selling the whole idea to my wife. So this might be one mojo I’ll have to manage without.

Ganz demonstrating very early prototype for Ardie motorcycle company, 1930.