According to the radio, the VW bus – or mini-van or Vanagon, depending on one’s era – will no longer be built anywhere in the world. Brazil, the last manufacturing hold out, recently announced that they were ceasing production of their version, the “kombi.” Along with a host of others mourners worldwide, I feel a unique association with this oddly functional vehicle that came to define special chapters in my life.
My “lost but not forgotten” VW era spanned the entire 1970s, but it was the first several years of that turbulent decade in particular that hold vivid and powerful memories for me.
Disco had not really taken off yet and brandished its confusing mélange of Disco Duck (Billboard’s #1 hit single October 16, 1976), the Brothers Gibb (“Bee Gees”), and Barry White, all singing together in radio dis-harmony.
The Cold War was in full swing with clearly identifiable lines of alliance, if not transparent actual battle fields between proxy wars and elaborate espionage rings. There were no personal computers or Internet, and 8-track tapes, records, and phones constrained by monstrously long cords were status quo.
My parents didn’t have much money (Dad was a social studies teacher and Mom had just finished a degree as a Librarian), but they felt unfulfilled by the “Leave it to Beaver” attempts at community and connection on Long Island. They packed up the family in 1970 and we moved to Athens where my father could teach at the American Community School (ACS).
After just two years and not ready to leave, the tenure system recalled my father to New York. Two years satisfied the requirements for another leave of absence and in 1974, when I was 12, the family moved back to Greece for a second overseas stint, this time for four years.
A VW bus would be waiting for us, a required piece of equipment for a family of six with the travel “bug” (bad VW joke aside). The rotted-out floor boards by the sliding door and under the accelerator gave character to the bus, and I never ceased to be amazed at how a bad clutch could be easily bypassed with the starter engaged in first gear and some aggressive shifting (learned by watching my father).
I changed my first flat on the VW (and my second, and third, etc…) and also developed a shrewd imagination when loading the thing with far more than it should have been able to carry. I suspect that my spatial orientation skills were first learned packing the VW, an ability to fit shape to hole that served me well in my flying career.
We had acquired the car in a swap with a teaching friend in a similar tenure rotation situation, but on an opposite cycle from us. We had left our VW half of the bargain in Long Island for his family’s use.
We had done things differently on our first move to Athens in 1970. During that ordeal we had shipped over our VW, one of the two involved in the 1974 swap, which was an expensive and difficult process. We had made the best of it by camping from Athens to Scotland on our return to the States before sending the bus on its uncertain way by ship.
Our bus was a stock model and did not have any of the camper options such as a pop up top. My parents spent time and money modifying it so that in the event it rained and we were unable to pitch our tent, all six of us could theoretically sleep in crammed splendor inside the amazing vehicle.
It started raining in Salzburg, Austria and didn’t stop until after crossing the English Channel when the hovercraft came to rest in Dover.
Those first two years in Athens, living under the rule of a military Junta unhesitating in its use of force for coercion, were lively and we all learned a lot. And we went everywhere in that bus; and I mean everywhere.
During the weekends we would explore the countryside or coast, looking for long forgotten ruins of antiquity and a place to relax. During longer breaks from school and the summer, we would drive the VW through the mountains, her four straining, air-cooled cylinders struggling valiantly and always successfully to make the next ridge. Those were my favorite trips.
As mid-day approached, we would look for a stand of olive trees to make a shady picnic area. The bus would be parked on a narrow shoulder with right tires trampling the wildly fragrant sage and thyme growing free. With the famous “emergency brake” set, lunch was served: fresh bread, bought at the last village passed, still warm from the bakery and slathered in butter and whatever fresh produce had been on sale at the market.
I didn’t have much patience with sitting still once done eating. The scorching sun broke open the natural fragrance of the surrounding fields’ spices, including oregano, and the cicada proffered a steady background percussion that quickly put the rest of the family to sleep. As for me, adventure beckoned.
The moment my food was gone, I would ask for permission to walk ahead, to scout out what lay around the next bend and beyond. At ten years old, it was just me walking for perhaps an hour to ninety minutes as my parents took siestas and my sisters and brothers joined them or played by the bus.
Each turn and twist triggered my imagination, and with good reason. Occasionally I would run across a small hunk of hand-finished, but time-worn marble, hidden in the overgrown weeds on the side of the road. I would try to envision what sort of people had put it there and why, one thousand – almost two thousand, maybe – years ago. The winding, steep dirt roads usually running a sheer cliff’s edge had been broadened and graded, but were often essentially the same paths used by travelers for millennia.
Very rarely a vehicle would pass during that time, usually a bus full of local villagers going to or from a market or on a visit to relatives. I would step far back into the brush to avoid being run over by the bus bursting with silent men and yakking “Ya-Yas” – grandmothers inevitably wearing mourning black from head to toe – turned the hairpins with axle springs squealing and dirt and dust flying in the sun’s dry heat.
With imagination fired by hard-back comic book stories of Tin-Tin published in Scandinavia, but written in English, I would sally forth onto the roadway encountering pirates, wild animals, you name it.
I relished the freedom and the sheer excitement of what lay around the next corners of road and imagination. Those walks instilled in me a trust in the future and an adolescent lust for adventure still with me today.
It seems at times that I spend my life trying to replicate that feeling, walking ahead and forging the trail until that VW would finally turn the corner and come into view behind me, my parents letting out long sighs of relief at catching site of me. As worried as they would get, they never said no to my walks, and I am incredibly thankful to this day for that trust.
It was a different world in every respect: my age, the state of international affairs, my family, even my definitions of responsibility, freedom, and adventure. They were wonderful and wondrous times, a pastel of life framed by the old familiar metallic rattle of our VW bus.