22 August 2010

Danger Mouse

When I was younger, I wanted to live a life of adventure and danger (though I did not actually want to be an Air Force Ranger, contrary to the lyrics). I wanted to swash, and I wanted to buckle. Climb mountains, swing from vines, leap tall buildings in a single bound--you name it. At some point in my twenties, something vital about my life crystallised for me one night as I navigated my 1967 VW squareback down the back roads towards an apartment I dearly cherished.

No, I did not lose control and plummet into the icy waters of the canal. I didn't even slide into a tree (try to remember that in a VW, the engine is the back, leaving nothing between you and what you are about to hit but two thin layers of steel and....well, a lot of air. Oh--and the gas tank. Can we say "design flaw"?) If memory serves me, I simply looked at the gas gauge.

A word or two here about the instrument panels of air-cooled Volkswagens. They are deceptively plain. The average Volkswagen comes with two lights: a green one, which means there is a problem with the oil pressure and you should turn off the car immediately--even before steering it to the side of the road out of traffic. Since there is no cooling fluid in a VW, the oil is the only thing your engine has going for it in terms of not turning into one solid block of molten, frictionless, basically useless metal. A green light means trouble. A green light says YIKES. OUCH. HELP. DANGER. I've been lucky enough through several years of Volkswagen ownership (including a '65 split-windscreen bus of notorious instability) to never actually have to test the green light strategy.

The other light on a VW's dash panel is the red light. Generally speaking, the red light means "Um, excuse me, I don't mean to interrupt you, but there's something slightly amiss here." It doesn't really get more specific than that. It could mean you're not generating enough voltage. It could mean that somewhere in the spaghetti system of wiring, something is touching something else in an inappropriate manner. It could mean you've blown a fuse or six. It could also just mean your Volkswagen is bored and wants attention. The bus used to do that, going up the west side of mountains in Montana and Wyoming after dark. Any time I tried to push the speed above 45 mph, the light would come on. After several panicked stops to consult my Idiot Guide, I eventually discovered that when this happened nothing in particular was wrong with the bus. It was just its way of saying hello.

(This, incidentally, is why it takes a certain brand of crazy to own a pre-67 bus, and why my particular vehicle was christened the Kobiyashi Maru. Sometimes the only way to pass the test is to cheat. What is being judged here is simply your reaction to being doomed to failure. Mine was to buy a Honda.)

The gas gauge--which on the bus never worked at all, no matter how many times I repaired it--is in most other models not actually a gauge. It's more like a suggestion. Contrary to the manual, the "R" does not actually stand for raus, the German word for "empty." In actuality, it stands for "random." In the squareback, once the needle moved past 1/2, weird things began to happen. The needle would start to shimmy, fluctuating back and forth between R and 1/2 in ever widening arcs. Or, it wouldn't. It would sometimes sit at 1/2 for a good week before plummeting firmly to R. This was not the result of a faulty float in the gas tank. It was just what happened.

That night, chattering and tappeting my way south along the canal road, it occurred to me to wonder why I thought always being on the verge of running out of gas was an acceptable version of living on the edge. It wasn't that I had had to purchase a cell phone against my preference, because I was so likely to be stranded. It wasn't that many of my most frequent routes had limited cellular signal anyway because of a quirk known as geography. It wasn't even that, as a general rule, I carry my vagina with me while traveling and despite having been lucky so far it was only a matter of time until the person who stopped to render aid was a chain-saw wielding lunatic rapist who ate small children and microwaved kittens in his spare time. It was just that I was done living like this. The adventure was no longer fun. I wanted to get into a car and know I would eventually arrive at my destination. I wanted to be able to plan without adding three hours for unseen roadside activity involving my socket set. I wanted someone else to change my oil for a change.

Don't get me wrong. I still have the Volkswagen. During my disaster of a marriage, my husband frequently pressured me to sell it, arguing that we really needed the chunk of cash that was parked under a blue weatherproof cover in my parents' front yard, slowly oxidizing to itself. Even when I asked him by way of comparison why selling his motorcycle was never an option (knowing it was his parents' graduation gift to him when he finished culinary school and thus off-limits because of emotional attachment) he never quite got it. The last spring we were married we spent Easter weekend trying to get it back in running order, even if not driveable. It turned over happily, but even after hefty (and lung-clogging) doses of carb cleaner, it wouldn't stay running long enough to settle into its characteristic stuttering purr. But no matter. I still wasn't selling.

My husband ended up leaving me less than six weeks later. I guess his theory was, if you can't get it running in an afternoon, might as well pack up your tools and go look for another model. But not me. I know that someday, when I have the time, the money, and the emotional stability needed for such ventures, I'll clear off the square of Astroturf in the trunk hatch (don't ask), open the engine compartment, put on my striped Exxon work shirt that for reasons too convoluted to explain says JOEL on the pocket, lay out my tools, and begin a full resto. The difference next time is that I won't need it. Rather than being my daily driver, it will be my weekend excursion car. It will be fun. And by god the horn will work this time, whether or not I'm turning left.

But I will have another set of wheels, one chosen for practicality, reliability, sturdiness, and for god's sake its crash rating. I want this one to take me safely all the way home.


Roan said...

..and perhaps that red light might mean a piston exploded, as in my case. I drove a 1964 VW Bug during my high school years. On this particular day, I wasn't supposed to be driving 9 people to the county fair. I was supposed to be at the library studying. On the way back, that cute little red darlin' kept going slower and slower, even though I pushed the accelerator harder and harder. Luck was with me. I made it back to the library parking lot, where I went inside and called my dad to tell him it wouldn't start after I finished my study session. ;)

Loved your extremely well told story, brought back some wonderful memories. I say never get rid of it. I wish I still had mine.

Kaimoana said...

When living in Brisbane I had more than a handful of friends who drove old VW buses and oh boy it was always an adventure.

gautami tripathy said...

Liked reading it..
moth or mammoth

Ann (bunnygirl) said...

What a fun essay, like a love letter to your cranky old VW.

My dad had a VW bus when I was very small. We made several long trips in it. Many years later I thought about buying a Bug (the old kind) because a friend had told me parts were cheap and they were easy to work on. My Dad said no way, and gave me some money on the condition it go toward a new car. I drove that new car for thirteen years, so I guess things all work out.

Elizabeth said...

Love the tone of voice you carry throughout. The love/hate relationship between vehicle and owner is great and all of the asides, just make it better.