This is the first in a nostalgic series dealing with the untimely demise of our little VW Bug's engine, out on Highway 5, back in the mid-seventies. I have been writing this piece in my head for a while now, so here we go.
“I’m goin’ home
And when I want to go home
I’m going mobile
I can stop in any street
And talk with people that we meet
Keep me movin’
Keep me movin’
Keep me groovin’
Just a hippie gypsy
Come on move now
Keep me…” The Who, Who’s Next
I was jerked awake from my seat in the back of our little ’64 VW, no mean feat after having been poured into the little Bug, a couple of hours earlier. We had been chilling at a wedding all afternoon, hanging amongst old high school chums, and had stayed longer than intended.
The festivities had run into early and then late evening, and we had still not wanted to split. Younger bro Tom had volunteered to take the wheel, newly acquired driver’s license securely in place in his wallet, and I was told he did a bitchen job.
I was feeling no pain.
Everyone at the shindig thought I was dope, with my fiery red beard, its length matching the exact period of time from my having been released from my incarceration in the US Army, in October of 1973.
I had been attending San Jose State since the move up north, working at an auto parts house pretty much full-time and receiving benefits in the form of the GI Bill, more-or-less $300 a month.
A couple of hours after splitting the scene, zooming down the off-ramp from Highway 5, at the Bakersfield turnoff, intending to switch drivers at the first gas station he encountered, Tom had down-shifted from fourth into third gear while we were still traveling a bit too fast and the old bug shot its wad. The result was a sound which defied explanation.
It was as though we were being overtaken by a 747, a noise that exploded from the engine compartment with such violence, that when it stopped just as abruptly about fifteen seconds later, the ensuing silence was eerie.
When we finally drifted to a standstill, we were only a football field or so away from a Flying A Service station, which we knew would have a phone.
I know. Weird. Out in the middle of nowhere, there was a phone, which is a good thing because cellies had not yet been invented, back in July of 1975, and we were stranded a couple hundred miles from our home in south San Jose.
“Whoa, Nelly! Steady as she goes,” I mumbled to myself, as I staggered out of the back seat, and booked off in the direction of the phone booth. I had the remains of our life savings in the right front pocket of my jeans, about three bucks in quarters and loose change, having had enough bread to fill the gas tank before we left L.A.
Gas was $0.59 a gallon, which meant it cost just under six bones to fill ‘er up. Our little Beetle got 40 miles to the gallon, and could do the 400 miles with the ten gallon tank filled to capacity.
“Matchu? Heavy City, Dude. My bug is all bent out of shape. Can you dig it?”
It probably wasn’t necessary for me to holler, but Bakersfield WAS pretty far away from Los Angeles.
“Huh? Say WHAT? What time IS it?” I hoped he was feeling better than his voice indicated.
“Sorry about that. It’s 11:15. Were you crashed, Man?”
No, he was just vegging on the couch, waiting for a call from his older brother, long since split from the scene because he bagged a new crib six hours’ drive north. Relocating from La Puente in the San Gabriel Valley, up to San Jose, at the southern edge of the Bay Area, meant for little communication in the days prior to the internet.
Matt hung loose just long enough to make his point before responding, “Don’t be a spaz! You didn’t wake me-I had to get up to answer the phone.”
“Ha ha,” [I think.] “Far out! Listen, Man, I know this is hairy, and I promise to repay you, but do you think maybe you could split your scene and turn me on to a tow? Something’s not jiving with the Bug. We’re stuck.”
“Bummer, Man. But I can totally book up and bag you guys. Do you think my lil Datsun truck can handle the situation? It’s only a four-banger.” Matt had only just acquired this little truck, and ironically, when he sold it in December of that same yer, he took the 600 clams he got, and used it on a down payment on twenty acres of land, up on our ridge in Mendocino County.
All I could say, is what I had heard so many times before from our father, “If it doesn’t, we’ll always think it should have.”
With these philosophical words hanging in the air, defying any coherent definition, I added, “But we gotta keep the fuzz off our tails. Can you rustle up the tow-bar (We owned one outright, because we'd had to) and boogie over to Jack’s and put the grab a set of running lights?”
Continuing on, I said, “Now, here’s where it gets gnarly, Man. You gotta head up Highway 5, to the Bakersfield turnoff. That’s way out on the desert, Man. Are you down with that?”
“I’m solid. Where are you, again? Bakersfield?” I mean, it’s not as though we could text him every fifteen minutes to keep track of his progress. Once he hung up the phone, we were on our own, sitting in the darkness with the highway traffic flowing past, waiting.
“You can’t avoid it. It’s the only sign of humanity for twenty miles in either direction. The sign says, “Bakersfield.” Do you catch my drift?”
“Out-a-sight! Seize you in a few hours!”
Sitting out on the desert, the temperature in the mid-eighties, was a surreal experience. There had really been no choice. We had no money, no towing insurance and no one else to turn to. Seriously, if Matt could not have come through, we may have ended up sitting alongside that curb, up to and including the present moment.
Tomorrow: War Admiral