By: Holland McGraw
The road reached on and Boo was breathing in the cool night air of California’s central valley. The instrument panel light for the speedometer and fuel indicator did not work, so I had to use a flashlight to check my gauges. With that said I couldn’t complain. Boo was driving without problems, which made me think it was the hot air passing through his air-cooled engine or fuel restriction when going up an incline that was causing him to die.
I pulled into a gas station on the desolate stretch of highway and filled up. When I went inside to get a drink the young attendant complimented Boo.
“That’s a clean bug.”
“Thank you,” I replied.
“What year is it?”
The VW Beetle is a car that I have thought little of over the years, but it has slowly grown on me. When I was young and in high school, VW beetles were not all that uncommon. It wasn’t until recently that I began to appreciate their aesthetic appearance. The most interesting thing about this is that the car itself did not change, but everything around it has, making it look more attractive to me.
I drove through the night and stopped in the town of Corning, California at 3:00AM and rented a hotel room. In the lobby the weatherman was on. He was standing in front of a giant screen telling a story about the coming record-breaking heat wave with exaggerated arm movements. As I watched the chief meteorologist make pooling and sweeping motions with his hands and arms like a sorcerer casting spells, I came to the realization that I was in the middle of the perfect storm; an air-cooled VW beetle driving over the Siskiyou Mountains in 100 plus degree weather.
I only slept for two hours and woke around 5:00 to get an early start while it was cool out. I told Alisha to sleep in and assured her she would catch-up to me later in the day.
Walking out to Boo the sky was brilliant colors just prior to the sun making its appearance in the east. The air was a type of dry warm that hinted at the coming heat of the day.
I started Boo up and drove north. Driving through Redding, California, home of, Merle Haggard, a connection that is over a thousand miles apart and linked with a song and a thread.
The song, “Okie from Muskogee,” a city in Oklahoma where I washed dishes and cooked among other things in my late teens and early twenties. The thread, a “Sick’ em” t-shirt I sold to Merle’s bus driver at a venue he was playing.
Out of Redding and over the bridges of Lake Shasta was hair-raising as there wasn’t a shoulder to turn onto in the event of an emergency. As I ascended and descend through the mountain pass of the California, Oregon border Boo’s pedal began to give way. As he limped up the mountains with a speed that dwindled to 15 miles per hour just making the peak, only to stall on the descent from exhaustion.
Coasting down the mountain slope I would revive Boo with the twist of a key and pump of the pedal, just in time to tackle the next incline with all of the momentum and horsepower that he could muster.
We tangoed with the mountains for over an hour going back and forth, but finally, on a steep descent with access to a rest area, Boo died and could not be revived. We coasted into the rest area that lay at the bottom of a ravine. I called Alisha and gave her my location.
The early morning heat was upon us. When Alisha pulled up we decided to wait at the park. I was unsure as to the cause of Boo’s mechanical problems, but confident he would start again after a rest.
We laid out a blanket under a shade tree that was three feet from Boo’s stall. As we lay in the grass a man pulled in with his family to picnic. He walked up and told me a story in a calm, monotone voice.
“Wow…I used to have a bug just like that, but it was red. I was living in Texas and one day I was driving around…and it caught on fire. I didn’t have a fire extinguisher, but this guy in a truck pulled over and got an extinguisher from the back of his truck. He put the fire out and told me I had to buy him a new extinguisher, but I didn’t have any money. I was a broke teenager. Boy, that guy was angry.”
“Is it common for VW beetles to catch on fire?” I asked.
“Well, it does happen, I don’t know how often, but it does happen.”
I was debating as to whether or not I should have Boo picked up and towed to a garage or if I should keep playing the game of chance. While resting in the grass I’d occasionally walk over to Boo and see if I could get his engine to turnover. With every failed attempt at starting I began to lose hope, but just when I thought all was lost…he started with the turn of a key rattling and shaking.
We took off struggling over the steep mountain pass and Boo died as we entered the Rogue Valley. We coasted onto an off ramp and pulled over on the outskirts of Ashland, Oregon. Trees surrounded me, yet the heat of the sun broke through frying everything that was not shaded by the trees.
I opened my phone to call Alisha, but I didn’t have a signal. I walked around off the road and into ankle deep foliage until I stood at the edge of a cliff and got a signal.
“Hey, where are you guys?”
“We’re in line at an espresso stand getting something cold to drink.”
Alisha went on to explain that the cars AC was nullified by the heat of the day and the dogs were panting and in danger of overheating, all the while I was melting on the side of the road.
I gave her my location and asked her to find a local mechanic because my signal was either weak or nonexistent.
Alisha found a shop located at the far North end of town in an old gas station that was frozen in time. They sold gas but also fixed cars in a building that had 1960’s accents. Arriving with the tow truck I was informed by a heavy set man in a sweat soaked transparent t-shirt over the buzzing of a steel fan and whizzing from an impact wrench that it would be at least an hour wait time.
Tow trucks were bringing cars in one after another like medics carrying soldiers in from the battlefield. Mechanics stained in oil and drenched from the heat popped hoods, adjusted hoses, topped off radiators, gauged tires and diagnosed problems. Hours after I had arrived a mechanic called my name and brought me to the side of the shop under a makeshift shelter. He popped Boo’s hood and had me turn the ignition while he gave him a squirt of carb cleaner. With one simple turn of the key Boo came to life.
I jumped out and ran around to the engine,
“Could you tell what was wrong?”
“No, everything seems to be working fine,” he replied.
“It seems I have the most trouble when I’m driving up hills. I think it has something to do with the fuel being restricted.”
“Well, the hoses look fine. Sometimes the fuel hoses swell over the years, but yours look good and there is fuel in the filter.”
He continued to poke around and said, “The trouble is it’s hard to diagnose a mechanical problem when the car is running.” He looked at me and said, “We’re going to have to keep it over night to see what’s wrong.”
The thought of staying overnight and possibly longer was soul crushing, I had this strong internal urge to push forward and get home, like a settler from the past traveling on the Oregon Trail. I thanked him, but replied,
“I need to go.”
He refused to charge me because he wasn’t able to pinpoint and fix the problem, but I insisted he take $20.00 for his time and effort. With the shake of a hand and push of the pedal we were gone.
Cutting through the Rogue Valley the sun was setting. As we began to climb Boo stalled. I coasted into Grants Pass feeling defeated; life changes aren’t always a smooth or simple transition. Alisha and I got a motel room and found a local mechanic who would look at Boo the next day.
That night I walked to a gas station from my hotel room and bought two beers, a Miller High Life and a Sierra Nevada. I believe that contrast makes life worth living. How can you appreciate the good things in life when you’ve never had anything bad? Parched from the heat of the day the High Life was fulfilling. My body reacted to it like a dry sponge to water and though it is not good beer, for me it evokes feelings of nostalgia. To understand this read my blog, High Life. The Sierra Nevada, now drinking that was a thing of beauty, like an amazing sunset or fireworks on the Forth of July.
The next morning I contacted my auto service and they sent a tow truck out to pick up Boo. The driver was a heavyset man in his 50’s or 60’s. When loading Boo he had to open the driver side door to steer him onto the back of the truck.
Driving through Grants Pass I complimented the town on its beauty. We took a left turn and Boo’s door swung open. The driver quickly jumped out at the red light and secured the door.
“Gees, I sure am sorry about that.”
“Don’t worry, it’s fine.” I replied.
“This really is a beautiful town, have you always lived here?”
“For the last 20 years.” He replied.
“Has there been much change in the town since the recession?”
He went into a rant, “The problem isn’t the recession, the problem is people don’t want to start at the bottom and work their way up. Everybody thinks they deserve what people like me have got. Do you know what my first wage was?”
“TWO DOLLARS AND TEN CENTS!”
Proving a point with a wage earned decades prior told me little about ones willingness to work or their hardships due to the wage. So I asked a question that would put his wage into context.
“How much did a Coke cost back then?”
His eyes widened and he straightened his back. I could see his brain reaching franticly for an imaginary number.
“Seventy Five Cents,” he replied in a smug tone as if it was a fact.
“You know, I’ve got this thing for bottles and history. I like to research the different beverage companies and collect artifacts from there past. I don’t get paid to do it; it’s just a strange hobby of mine. I recently learned that the standard price of a Coke was .05 cents for 70 years. They say that the last Coke that sold for a nickel was in 1959. It’s hard for me to believe that Coca Cola would go from charging a competitive price for 70 years to charging .75 cents when your two dollar and10-cent hourly wage was at least the minimum.”
“Well, you know I’ve always liked Pepsi, so I may have confused Coke with Pepsi.”
“Really, .75 cents for a Pepsi. Then a Coke would have probably been more than .75 cents because Pepsi has a history of being less expensive than Coke. Pepsi is one of the first companies to market a product to lower income Americans. They advertised Pepsi as the Big Nickel telling how they would get twice as much for a nickel compared to other beverages.”
We didn’t talk the rest of the trip. When we arrived at the mechanic’s house the driver joyfully jumped out of the rig and enthusiastically unloaded Boo.
The garage door was open and the owner walked out to greet me. I explained the problems I had been having. He sat down in the driver seat, turned the key and Boo came to life shaking and rattling.
I threw up my arms in defeat and said, “I don’t know what to say,”
“I’m going to take it for a ride,” said the mechanic.
Fifteen minutes later he was back and said, “It drove great, I’ll bring it inside the garage and check a few things.” He had two guys working in his home garage that he’d turned into a shop.
“So you’re up from California, huh. I used to live down there, had a large shop in Bakersfield.”
He pointed to some articles that had been taped to the wall. They were written about him for various VW and hotrod magazines in the ’80’s and ’90’s.
“I drove up here to visit some relatives in a baja bug and broke down twice. The first time I needed an alternator and the second time it was my carburetor. Once I saw this place, I knew it’s where I wanted to be. I went back, sold my shop, packed my tools and started one in town.
The recession took my shop, so I moved it into my garage and now we’re working out of it.”
I replied, “My wife and I run our photography business out of our house. The overhead of commercial property seems impossible.”
“Yeah, lately we’ve been building engines for customers and shipping them to Australia and other states in the U.S.”
“So, what are you doing up here?” he asked.
“I picked this bug up in San Diego while I was working and am driving back to Seattle.”
“Why didn’t you just rent a truck and tow it back?”
“Geese, where’s your sense of adventure. Not to mention I’d miss out meeting fine folks like you.”
He and one of his young mechanics started laughing. The young mechanic told me,
“I’ll be up in Seattle next summer. I’m in a band and we have a gig up there. We might need pictures, do you have a card so I can get a hold of you?”
I reached down in the passenger seat and picked up a business card that was lying on top of my book, “Modern Fossils.”
“What’s that?” asked the assistant.
“It’s a book I wrote that explains changes in our society through glass bottles and conceptual art, you want it?”
“Sure,” he exclaimed.”
I handed him the book and he quickly flipped through the pages, “Of course the pictures are good?”
“Of course,” I replied.
“The owner of the shop pushed himself out from under Boo slapped his hands together to knock the dust and dirt off and gave me the total.”
I shook hands, said thank you, and gave him an extra 20.00 dollars. “This is for you guys to get a beer together after work.”
They were all jazzed about the prospects of beer after work, in the assistant’s words, ”20.00 dollars, that’s good beer!”
“Yes, that is good beer,” I replied. I pulled out of the driveway and cut through the mountain pass. After about two hours of driving Boo’s pedal began to flutter. We headed off the main highway and onto a side road heading north.
To my amazement the road ended at a river and we had to take a ferry to cross. A service that seemed both primitive and surreal with steel cable that acted as a guide from bank to bank. It had to be one of the last of its kind in the U.S. Crossing the river made feel as if I were a modern day Huck Finn on an unplanned and strange adventure with his wife and dogs.
Off the raft and driving North Boo died on the outskirts of a small college town just south of Portland. We coasted into a neighborhood and stopped along a curb and under the shade of a tree. I popped the hood and the engine looked as it always had.
Across the street a man walked out of his house looked at me, cocked his head and walked back inside the house. Boo and I were in an old 1950’s track development one house after the other, but unlike California’s post war homes these had a yard with trees, green foliage and that North West charm. In the front yard was a 1970’s VW camper bus that sat underneath the shade of a tree.
The man walked out of his house again and stopped where the grass meet the curb.
“Hey, how’s it going,” he yelled from across the street. He was a heavyset man and stood about 6’ 1”.
“Been better,” I replied.
“I’m having trouble with my bug.”
“Oh, well my buddy Psycho, he lives in that bus under the tree there, he’ll probably take a look at it. He can fix anything.”
“That sounds great,” I said.
About five minutes later a guy who stood about 5’ 8” with short spiked black hair came out in the front yard with a plate of food and sat next to the bus in a lawn chair and started eating.
Alisha pulled up next to me and I told her about the prospects of having someone look at Boo, but felt confident he would start up again either way.
The man eating his food stood up and walked to where the grass meet the curb and said, “I’ll have a look at your bug as soon as I’m finished eating.”
Ten minutes later, Psycho had his hands in Boo’s engine telling me to turn it over; all the while his buddy who owned the house periodically came out to talk with us. It became apparent that Psycho’s friend was intoxicated as his words; behavior and body language became increasingly distorted with every visit from the house.
“Oh…puppies! I love doggies,” he exclaimed.
He went over to Alisha’s car and began petting Dottie, Coco and Rocket through the window.
“Hey if you guys can’t get it started you can bunk at my place…hahaha.”
“Oh no, we wouldn’t want to impose on you. If Boo doesn’t start we’ll get a hotel room for the night,” I assured him.
His odd behavior created an uncomfortable tension and his friends name, “Psycho,” made everything all the more strange in the 1950’s picture perfect neighborhood that now had a Steven King like twist.
I looked down at Psycho shaking his head. He pulled out a plastic flask filled with a liquid of some sort and took a swig. I wanted to give him the benefit of the doubt and believe he was drinking an herbal tea of some sort, but people don’t swig tea.
“He gets like that and I can’t control him.” Said Psycho.
“I’ve tried everything, I’ve even videotaped him so he can see how he acts, but nothing works.”
We were about an hour south of Portland, making us four hours from home. I told Alisha that she should go home and I’d call her when I was on the road, there was no need for her to stay any longer.
She agreed and left for home. When I returned to Boo, Psycho told me to turn the key and step on the gas. Boo came to life.
Psycho walked over to the window.
“We can’t work on your car here, my friends a mess and he’s just going to get worse. My mom’s house is just up the road. I have some tools up there where I can check your car out.”
We drove about four blocks and parked outside an older white house that was built some time in the 1920’s or 30’s. As he began taking apart Boo’s carburetor he told me his story. He joined the Army and was stationed in the Midwest where he married and had children. After the Army he worked as a VW mechanic and eventually bought his own shop.
“Yeah, I got into Volkswagens because I believe in them. These cars can run forever if they’re treated rite and cared for. A lot of times mechanical problems can be fixed without buying a new part, they’re made to run.”
“In the end it was this church, we went to this church,” He started shaking his head. “They started telling us how to live…this and that; it all just fell apart, now I’m back where I started, home.”
“I got to ask, how did you get the name, Psycho?”
“Psycho, it’s my stage name.” He’d been working as a TV show extra during the day and moonlighting as an exotic dancer at night.
I looked down and Psycho had disassembled my carburetor and laid it out on a rag.
“See that, that’s enough to give you problems,” He found some carbon in one of the steal fittings, cleaned it out and slapped it back together. I thanked him and reached for my wallet pulling out $40.00. Psycho shook his head and said, “I’m good, you don’t need to pay, hell, I don’t know that I even fixed anything.”
“Well, you may not have fixed it, but you’ve spent over two hours working on my car, I really appreciate it.”
Then Psycho said something I will never forget.
“People should help each other.”
“I don’t want you to take this the wrong way,” I said.
“I’m not a rich man, I don’t have a lot of money, but you’re living in your friends front yard and I think this money could help you out. It’s not like I’m giving you a gift because you just spent more than two hours trying to help a total stranger with engine trouble.”
With the exchange of money sealed with a handshake I headed North in the setting sun with visions of a happy homecoming to my wife, dogs and a moon that greets me as it rises over a hill in the East.
To be continued….