|Painted VW van in Brazil. Andre Penner/AP|
If we hadn't had our red and gray VW van, covered with flowers and peace stickers, we may not have travelled from Madison, Wisconsin, to Toledo, Ohio, in 1968. That beloved van carried our 3-year-old daughter Elissa and 3-month-old daughter Michelle, our German shepherd, and our possessions, consisting mostly of the hundreds of books gathered during our days as history graduate students at the University. We clocked up hundreds of miles, many memories, and lots of laughs in that bus.
When we rolled up the driveway to our new home on Robinwood Avenue in the Old West End a few years later, our retired neighbor, Mr. Shifflett, in his 70s, was heard to say to his wife, "Goddamn hippies moving in, Gertie."
That VW van must have meant something different to them than it meant to us, but we soon became the best of neighbors and friends in spite of it. As we struggled with plumbing, electrical and other problems in this our first house, we would call Mr. Shifflett to the rescue. Time and again. He loved it. Gertie whispered to me that she was glad we were there, to keep Bert busy. "He needs to have things to do," she'd say, as she puttered in her beautiful garden, and helped me start mine. We were glad to help out. We kept him busy.
We kept our VW van busy, too, hauling and crawling and carrying us from here to there. We held onto it through breakdowns, failing brakes, travelling accidents in winter storms, heater problems, our engine overheating on the highway to Rochester, and finally some fuel pump or transmission issue that led us to think the unthinkable: maybe we should trade it in for a station wagon.
A station wagon? For a VW bus? Yeah, it did sound awfully suburban. "But the kids are growing, we have Tryg now (our huge Norwegian Elkhound), and we need something bigger to take on family visits and our summer trips to Nantucket."
We traded in the VW van, but not the spirit of the van. That stayed with us a long time. So did the music associated with it, for me the tunes of the Who, Dylan, the Beach Boys, the Grateful Dead. The music and the memories. We'd see a red and gray VW van on the road and one of the kids would yell, "There's our van!"
Actually, I have a feeling the VW vans will be with us in person for a long time, too. They can't just disappear from the landscape of our lives.
After all. there are still millions of them on the road somewhere. I see them, colorfully painted, in Mexico. I envision them in Brazil, in Africa, all over the world where they fix cars up and keep them going. Heck, they're still on the road from Madison to Toledo.
It's hard to imagine a world without them: the iconic van on wheels rolling into eternity.