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Living with Bugs

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1955 VW Beetle. Image scanned from Volkswagen of America press photo.

At Reed College in Portland, Oregon, there was this girl, Carol Cunningham, who owned not one but two cars—an old Maxwell touring and a brand-new Volkswagen. This was in 1956.

I wasn’t much interested in Carol’s Maxwell, but I was very much taken with her VW. I studied that car inside and out, and I marveled at how well it was put together—better than a Cadillac, which, at that time, was still the Standard of the World. And yet, here was Cadillac’s total opposite—small, tight, sort of ugly, very much anti-Detroit, anti-establishment… a car perfect for a mildly rebellious teenager like me. Plus, with its air-cooled, rear-mounted engine, four-speed transaxle, all-independent suspension, it looked like an engineering marvel and a lot of fun to drive.

So, I decided I had to buy myself a Volkswagen, but in 1956, VWs were hard to come by. Dealers took deposits and put names on waiting lists. You sometimes waited six months for a new one. But lo and behold, a used VW popped up in the Portland Oregonian classifieds, a 1955 model. The asking price was $1,500, a hundred bucks less than a new one. Fair enough. I biked downtown to check it out.

The car was light blue with red upholstery, obviously a repaint. The body looked straight, though, and the interior was clean. I’d saved up enough summer money to buy the car, so I did, and I really liked it. It felt peppy despite the 36 horsepower. The steering was quick, and even the exhaust sounded encouraging in a wheezy, dyspeptic, slightly tinkley way.

Those were the days when VW drivers still waved to one another. We waved, I think, to affirm that we weren’t the only rebels on the road. Here, coming at us, was a fellow anti-establishmentarian. We, the bright, young pioneering VW owners, belonged to an exclusive club, a righteous corner of society that now congratulated itself with a smug little wave that said, in a quiet way, it’s us against them–“them” being our fathers and the people who made the rules; “us” being the underdogs (paranoid, yes), yet somehow cooler and more with it. Did I mention smug?

That summer, my best friend at Reed, Lowell Weitkamp, and I decided on a lark to drive up the Alcan Highway to Canada. But, first we thinned apples and picked cherries in the Yakima Valley to make enough money for the summer, and then we took off in my hooptie VW. I’d named it “Gregor Samsa,” after the cockroach in Kafka’s Metamorphosis (how clever; how collegiate).

At that time, most of the Alcan Highway was gravel, so the going was slow. Lowell and I bought a tent and camped along the way. As we approached Dawson Creek, about halfway up British Columbia, Gregor let out this terrible cracking sound, and the steering turned to mush—very rubbery and loose. We limped to the first filling station in Dawson Creek, put the car on a lift and discovered that the front suspension had broken loose from the floorpan. It’s a miracle we didn’t crash, but I guess we weren’t going that fast. The station attendant pointed us toward his friend who owned a welding shop, and for $25 we got Gregor welded up like new. We thought.

The summer ended, and I went back to a less-than-glorious junior year at Reed. That next summer, 1957, I drove Gregor down to Mexico City, where I’d enrolled at the new university hoping to make up some of the courses I’d flunked at Reed. For lodging, I found space at the Quaker dormitory in midtown called La Casa de los Amigos. The Casa catered to American kids who’d come down to Mexico to do good works in the countryside—sort of a precursor to the Peace Corps. And when the Quaker kids weren’t staying at the Casa, which was most of the summer, you could rent a bed in the dorm for $1 a night.

The Casa had a big dining room, and each evening a group of us mostly gringo student tourists would gather there, drink beer or soda pop, and chat. One evening I met this enchanting, absolutely fabulous girl from Brandeis named Iona, and I fell madly in love with her. Iona was pretty, she was smart and funny, and quite a good sketch artist. The next day, we walked around the city together, and she did these quick charcoal sketches of street urchins and then handed them their pictures. I was totally smitten.

Iona was traveling around Mexico with her roommate, Helen. And I’d met a very nice fellow at the Casa, a Swiss named Max Luber. Max was a few years older than the rest of us—tall, rather craggy, always in a good mood.

We four decided one day to have a picnic on a hill somewhere just outside Mexico City. The hill was said to afford a great view of the entire valley. So, we piled into Gregor and, with the aid of a map, found this not very tall, but fairly steep hill. We drove up multiple switchbacks and finally made it to the summit and, indeed, it did give us a panoramic view of the valley.

After lunch, Max said he’d race us back down the hill—he on foot and Iona, Helen, and me in Gregor. You’re on, I said, and off we went down the hill, Max scrambling through the underbrush and us whipping around the switchbacks. In the end, Max beat us to the bottom and stood there panting and grinning.

The four of us hung out together at the Casa for a week or so, and then one day we decided to drive to Taxco, just to see the town. So, we climbed into Gregor again and headed south. We’d checked out of the Casa, stuffed our bags in the car, and we were totally footloose. I didn’t much like my courses at the university and simply stopped going.

We got to Taxco and had such a good time that we decided to keep driving south, down to Acapulco. When we got to Acapulco, we rented a couple of rooms in a hostel high atop a cliff overlooking the bay. The city stood opposite, with boats bobbing in the water below. The hostel was not five-star by any means. The two rooms cost $5 a night, and the view was magnificent. Iona and Helen stayed in one room, Max and I in the other, all very proper.

But the next night, late, neither Iona nor I could sleep, so we decided to walk down these long flights of stairs that led to the water. The moon was out, stars and the city twinkled in the distance, and the whole scene was redolent (I like that word) with romance. Iona and I got halfway down the cliff and stopped on a landing. We were alone—no one above or below. I looked at Iona and she looked at me. My Reed girlfriend, Susan, came to mind, but in the flash of that moment I thought to myself, “To hell with Susan,” and I leaned over and kissed Iona on the lips. Wow! And that was the beginning of the summer romance of my life.

The four of us stayed in Acapulco a few more days, and then Iona and I managed to politely extricate ourselves from Max and Helen. They went their way, we went ours. Iona and I spent the rest of the summer together, touring Mexico. Iona wanted to visit all the murals of Rivera and Orozco, and that gave the trip a good theme. I’m not sure we saw them all, but we did visit quite a few.

At the end of the summer, Iona went back to Brandeis and I went dejectedly back to Reed, where I promptly flunked out. Perfect! That gave me a chance to drive Gregor from Portland to Boston to catch up with Iona. I made the trip twice, in fact, because I had to go back to Reed to pick up stuff I’d left there. By waking up at 4 in the morning and driving flat out until 8 at night, I could cover 750-800 miles a day, meaning I made it across the country in 3½ days. Top speed in the VW was 65 mph, and this was years before the interstate highway system, so I had to slog through every town along the way and averaged about 50 mph. I’d stop only for gas, a snack, and a bathroom. Such is the power of love.

Soon after I connected with Iona in Boston, I drove down to New York and enrolled at Columbia. After that, I’d drive up to Boston weekends. Things didn’t go well, though, and I soon found out that Iona had gotten reinvolved with an old boyfriend. She eventually married him. I was heartbroken. It really hurt.

And to add injury to insult, Gregor’s front suspension let go again, and this time I had the Manhattan Volkswagen dealer do the welding. The repair cost not $25 but $125, and I sold the original Gregor, my 1955 VW, as soon as I could.

The author’s father with Gregor II, a 1958 VW Beetle. Photo by author.

In its place, I bought another Gregor, Gregor II, a gently used 1958 VW, again for $1,500. I bought it from a nurse who was shipping out to Saudi Arabia with Aramco. Gregor II was black with red leatherette and absolutely like new. Meanwhile I’d met JoAnne, my bride-to-be, and life looked infinitely brighter again.

I wooed JoAnne in Gregor II, and I think one of the events that impressed her took place on a rainy evening near Columbus Circle in Manhattan. We were headed down toward the Village, to a movie, and entering the roundabout I could feel that one of the VW’s rear tires had gone flat. I got out, looked, and sure enough, flat as a pancake. With Jo in the car and me getting soaked, I grabbed the laughable VW jack and tools, and proceeded to change the tire. I think that impressed Jo mightily, because she told me later that the men in her family couldn’t drive so much as a nail, and here I was the white knight in a downpour. Easy points.

Jo and I managed to make a lot of weekend trips in Gregor II. We visited Jo’s parents in Boston, drove down to Washington and Philadelphia, and had just a wonderful time in each other’s company, thanks largely to Gregor II, because we both had roommates in our own Manhattan apartments.

Jo and I got married with that car. It helped me land a job with Foreign Car Guide, the arcane little VW magazine. We kept Gregor II for several years, drove it to Texas after we left New York and finally to California, where I’d gotten a job with Motor Life magazine. I finally sold Gregor II and replaced him with a 1962 Buick Special sedan that we named “Ralph,” in deference to its white-bread personality. Jo and I had a couple of kids by that time, and my rebel days were pretty much over. But not entirely.