It’s Friday the 13th as The Observer writes, the Dow Jones is a dumpster fire, a deadly virus is sweeping across the land and a 73-year-old, truth-phobic toddler is flying the jumbo jet on which we are all passengers for at least the next 10 months. Given that, allow Your Old Pal to hopefully brighten your quarantine cell, secluded cabin or hermetically sealed containment unit with a tale of the good ol’ days:
When The Observer was a lad getting ready to head to college at good ol’ UALR back in 1992, having secured a scholarship to the joint kinda outta the blue after managing to pull off a high ACT score despite our solid 2.1 GPA in high school, our Dearly Departed Pa found a 1965 Volkswagen Beetle with 41,000 actual miles on it, sitting under the shed of an aging hippie couple. It was cream colored, with an ivory interior, and other than flat tires, a splatter of rust on the hubcaps and a few door dings, it was in absolutely mint condition inside and out. Pa, who was a roofer, traded a small job for it. He was always looking for a horse swap like that.
We took a trailer and some fresh tires to get it, but on a longshot, we cleaned out the gas tank, put a hot battery on it, poured some gasoline in it and shot a little starting fluid down the carburetor. Hit the key and, lo and behold, she fired right up, slipped smoothly into gear and pulled out of the ruts where the car had sat since at least 1978.
As we changed the tires and looked it over and got it fired up, mentally preparing for the daredevil drive home with spongy brakes and a who-the-hell-knows electrical and fuel delivery system, the two oldies who had owned it regaled us with stories about how the Beetle had been purchased from a VW dealership when they lived in Southern California. It had been their second car, rarely used, mostly because the wife didn’t like driving a four-speed stick in L.A. traffic, though they had driven the car on several trips to see friends in Mexico. Finally, just before we all waved goodbye, they told us about how in the early ’70s, when the scene in L.A. was getting, like, real weird, man, they’d ventured across the scorching desert, through Texas to Arkansas, where one of them had originally been born and raised, a flower child in training, way back in the beehive hairdo days.
When we got the car home, The Observer rolled it up in Pa’s dirt-floor shop and set about getting it squared away: the brakes flushed and bled, the engine sorted out and the oil changed, all the mouse turds and spider webs vacuumed from the spotless, time-capsule interior, spick and span just like the outside. One of our most vivid memories of those days was that when we got the radio fuse replaced one night and turned on the key, the little radio glowed to life there in the shop, The Observer sitting in the driver’s seat, 18 years old, covered head to toe in grease and grime, and the dial was tuned to color coverage of an Arkansas Travelers game at old Ray Winder Field, the signal swimming in and out on the static-y AM airwaves. The other thing we recall was that when The Observer pulled out the perfect, VW-label rubber floor mats to vacuum under them, in each rear floorboard of that car, someone had razored out a hank of the square-weave wool carpet and then blowtorched a rectangular hole into the metal below, into which had been welded a lidded steel box, each just big enough for a goodly amount of the item of your choice. Perfect for extra storage while visiting friends in Mexico.
Because of the Beetle’s German heritage and the paint job that made it look like a scoop of melting vanilla ice cream, the car’s name was Hermann Böring. Hermann ran like a little sewing machine, but would absolutely freeze your ass to death in the winter, which you wouldn’t expect from a car designed by folks in snowy Bavaria. The Observer drove it for two years, until just before we met Spouse. The engine developed a knock, and back to slumber it went, stashed in a stall in Pa’s 1,000-bale hay barn out in the dark heart of Saline County. There it stayed until just a few years before he died, when The Observer sold it to an admirer for much, much less than it would be worth to us now so Spouse and I could rent a U-Haul and head for the Iowa Writers Workshop in the frozen north. The Observer really loved that little car. Still do. Some of them just stick with you, ya know?
Another weird thing we remember about Hermann Böring, and the entire reason Yours Truly thought to tell you this story, if you can believe it: That car had a German-spec ignition switch in it, and on the ring of chrome around the switch into which the key inserts, the position you had to put the key in to crank the car and make it run was marked “Fahrt,” which is apparently German for “Journey” or “Go.” Every damn time The Observer’s brother got in that car to head somewhere, every single time, he’d say: “Let’s Fahrt!” That bugged the young man we used to be to no end. But it sure brings a smile to a graying old face now.
Stay safe, friends. Wash your hands. Other than the toilet paper hoarders and Trump, The Observer smiles upon you all, and wishes you good fortune and health.