First Encounter

FIRST ENCOUNTER

By John LaTorre

This is a chapter from a book currently in progress. The book, as yet untitled, will describe some of my adventures with the four Volkswagen buses I've owned. Bear in mind that this is a first draft; the final version should scan a bit better. Your comments are welcome; please send them to jlatorre@midtown.net

I grew up in Germany in the fifties and sixties, so Volkswagen buses were no strangers to me. They were commonly used for delivery vehicles, people-movers, and ambulances. I must have seen a thousand of them around Frankfurt, and they were in no way remarkable. In my teen-age American mindset, I guess I lumped them together with all the other strange little vehicles that I had never seen back in the States -- the VW bugs, the strange three-wheeled Messerschmidts, the Isettas that opened from the front, the boxy little delivery trucks. They weren't quite real cars, the way the big American Packards and Chevys were. They were more like larger-than-life toys.

I didn't know till afterwards that my own father seriously considered buying a VW bus in 1961. He went so far as to test-drive one, but found it altogether unlike any other car he had driven, and opted for a 1961 Citroen ID-19 instead. As cars went in those days, the Citroen was fairly uncommon, with its duck-bill profile, its ability to level itself under loads and even raise its ground clearance at the pull of a lever, and its front-wheel-drive configuration – all rarities in those days. We took the Citroen back to the US in 1962, with its trunk loaded with two years worth of spare parts. At the time, ours was one of less than a half-dozen Citroens in the Washington area, and we would wave insanely whenever we passed another one, and they'd wave insanely back at us. The family (including the Citroen) returned to Germany in 1964, where it gave two more years of service. On the way back from a trip to Paris that year, it somehow must have sensed that it was once more in the land of its birth, and decided that it was time to die. We had no sooner crossed back into Germany when blue smoke began pouring through the firewall, and by the time we poured in the last quart of oil pulled into Frankfurt, the engine was irredeemably damaged, and my father junked the car. It probably had about sixty thousand miles on it.

That wasn't the only foreign car my father owned, although it was the only one he bought new. We had an Opel for a while, and an old Mercedes on which I learned to drive a stick-shift. But when my father finally returned to the US to retire, he bought a new Pontiac Ventura and never owned another foreign car.

By that time, I was back in the US and going to college, where I managed to get through three years at the Johns Hopkins University without doing an awful lot of studying. Instead, I found myself busy with running a coffee-house, handling its publicity, tutoring inner-city kids, doing some draft-counseling, working at a campus radio station, and generally learning about everything but what I was supposed to be studying. My grades plummeted, and I flunked out.

I worked at an electronics wholesaler to earn enough money to fly out to Berkeley, California and live there for a season while looking for a job. This was in 1970, and jobs were scarce, particularly for college drop-outs with no real work experience. In May, my father called to tell me that I'd gotten an offer from the Baltimore City Health Department to be what they called a "Health Educator Aide" on the rat eradication program that was going into full swing at that time. If I could get to Baltimore my mid-June, I had the job. So I photocopied about a dozen "ride wanted" posters -- the kind with the tear-off tags at the bottom -- and posted them on Telegraph Avenue and in various hang-outs on the University of California campus.

On June 4, 1970, I was eating supper at a church-sponsored soup kitchen when I was called to the phone. My brother's girlfriend was on the line; she told me that some people from Palo Alto had seen my ad and were on their way to pick me up. I was down to the $85 I had saved for Greyhound bus fare in case I couldn't get a ride, and had been left in the lurch twice before by rides that didn't materialize. Hence the soup kitchen; I could no longer afford the seventy-cent "Gross-burgers" and Cokes I'd been subsisting on, and was saving my stash for the Big Trip. This ride was the last gamble I intended to take because time was running out on the Baltimore opportunity. So I went home to pack and wait.

At 10:00 p.m., a dark green VW camper pulled up to the driveway and bleeped. I shook a few hands, caught a glimpse of some faces, roped my luggage to the rack on the top of the bus, and in two minutes flat we were on the road.

My traveling companions turned out to be four people of my approximate age. There was Ed DuBose, big and black; his wife Shelley, very white and blond and small; Joel, an itinerant musician, and another person whose name I've forgotten. There was also a black puppy named Striker, after the student strike at Ed's college.

The trip across the country took eight days. Our interracial couple drew a lot of stares, most of them unfriendly. Cops stopped us in Utah. They had two roadblocks on the way, and rousted us out of the bus with shotguns. The cops at the second roadblock told us they were looking for two robbers, and they thought Joel might have been the one with the beard. The other robber was thought to be a Chicano. Nobody looked like a Chicano. They let us go.

That bus was a split-window camper, probably an early sixties model. Its engine was most likely the 1200 cc engine putting out forty horsepower. With the load it was carrying, it went through Colorado doing 15 mph up the hills and 30 downhill, but it was reliable and gave us no trouble, until we hit Missouri. At that point, the oil filler cap was removed from its pipe. Ed was sure it was sabotage, presumably by some gas station attendant, but it might have been Ed himself forgetting to replace the cap when he topped up the oil. I'll give him the benefit of the doubt here, with the proviso that untold years of hate-stares might have skewed his perceptions of the world. At any rate, the engine started singing its death song about a hundred miles farther down the road. We opened the engine compartment. The crankcase was dry, oil had spewed all around the engine compartment, and we were in deep trouble. We threw our last cans of oil into the engine and proceeded painfully down the road. We somehow got as far as Columbia, which was a college town; we had hoped for a warmer welcome there than our busful of hippies had received elsewhere along the way. The bus made it to the college's residential area where it stopped at the first house and died.

By incredible chance, the house was occupied by a Tanzanian researcher named Tumaini Mcharo, his American wife, and their children. It was his wife who answered our knock, listened to our story, and called her husband. Suddenly, we had the best possible friends in that town.

Mr. Mcharo turned out to be more than that. He made us his personal guests, and we pushed out bus onto his lawn to keep it from being towed by the campus police. He loaned us his car, saying that he preferred to walk the mile to his office anyway. He and his wife kept us fed, washed, and entertained. I still remember his smile when we said that after all the Christian Americans we had encountered in Missouri, only he -- a non-Christian foreigner -- had shown us the slightest compassion. He replied that he believed we were all brothers, and that we must help each other because that is what brothers do.

When Ed removed the engine from the bus the next morning, he found that the trouble was too serious to attempt repairs and started to look around for another engine. We located a wrecked VW bus with a fairly decent 1500 cc engine in it, and arranged for a local garage to transplant that engine into our bus. Shelley wired home for $300 to pay for it all, and in two days we were on the road again. The new engine started over-heating once we were back in mountain country, so we would stop at the rest stops and open the hood to let the night air cool the engine off while we walked the dog.

In Harrisburg, I parted company with the expedition and caught a Trailways bus just leaving for Washington, D.C. By that time, I had already made the acquaintance of a book called How to Keep Your Volkwagen Alive: A Manual of Step by Step Procedures for the Compleat Idiot which had been of valuable use during our engine mishap, and which was pretty much the only reading material I had other than Frank Herbert's Dune books. A notion had formed in my mind that a VW bus wouldn't be a bad sort of car to own, and that this book would help me keep it on the road. I didn't know it then, but a seed had been planted that would be in flower the very next year.