Racing my VW and a final girlfriend

In the late fifties, VW’s were not imported into the US.  Every one of them had come from a serviceman returning from Europe.  My dad had shipped our family car (a VW bus) and mine at the same time.  His was destined for New Jersey so we could use it to cross the US and mine sent to Oakland.  On our trip across the country, every time a VW would come towards us, headlights would flash.  I only remember a total of about ten or eleven other VW’s on the entire trip.

Neither car had a gas gauge.  Instead, they were fitted with a control that you could activate manually which gave you about a gallon and half more gas.  You ran with the control set normally until you actually ran out of gas.  Then you pushed the control over into reserve and re-started the car; or coasted in gear until the engine fired again.  Given the mileage we both enjoyed (35 to 40 mpg) we could begin hunting for a gas station and be reasonably assured of finding one before finally running out of gas.

My car’s gas tank was under the hood.  It had a huge twist-off top and, when you dipped the specially calibrated plastic stick into it, you could tell with good accuracy how much gas you had left.  I had also discovered that if I were to put the spare tank control in the middle position I would “run out of gas” in about a mile or so.  This, I decided, was a Really Good Deal.  Other guys could try and fake running out gas on a lonely road, but I could actually DO it.

The ‘car club’ crowd ignored me completely as they just figured I had a toy car.  They had no idea that my little toy car could hit over 90 on a straight road and was finely tuned for Autobahn driving – where there were no speed limits – and had a great gear ratio that matched the simple thirty-six horse, four cylinder engine..  They pretty much left me alone after I showed up at the track on public day (where anyone could enter a car in the time trials) and blew the doors off half the guys in their stupid club.  I was consistently in the mid-ranges of time for a quarter, and, should we have been allowed to go side-by-side, I would have beaten them off the line every time.  Their heavy cars and giant engines produced tons of burnt rubber and failed to move them forward at the green light.  My little ‘toy’ car would grab the cement with a little chirp and accelerate immediately as I ran through the gears.  Eventually, my dad heard about the racing and told me to stop.  I did too, as I didn’t want to hurt the car – too hard to find parts in 1958 for a VW.

Our auto shop teacher was very intrigued by my car too.  He gave me permission to being it into the shop for a week and I allowed all his classes to look around, into and under it.  The engine was the most interesting to them.  I showed him how to change the oil, pull off the valve covers and adjust valves, and to generally take good mechanical care of it.

Before we left Germany, my dad and I both went downtown to the garage where we had our cars serviced and studied repairs every evening for two weeks under the stern eye of Herr Busch.  We must have done at least ten or fifteen oil changes and valve adjustments.  My dad even got to help rebuild an engine while I watched closely.  I got to pull an engine out, replace a clutch disk, and reinstall it.  In later years, I could do this operation in under an hour.  We both learned pretty much everything about those little cars.  Lucky we did because there was not one single VW repair shop in the whole San Francisco area.  Any parts we needed had to be specially ordered direct from Germany and would take as much as six weeks to arrive.

Eventually, my sophomore and junior high school years passed and I rolled into my senior year.   During that time I never really had a girlfriend.  I had a few girl friends, but none that really took my heart like Kathleen, Virginia, or Danni.  The local girls here were nice, but some were pretty vain and self-centered.  The world revolved around them and getting close to any one of them was really difficult as they tended to form cliques.  I even learned how to surf just so I could be on the beach with their well-rounded tops and bottoms (cowabunga!).  I did my first (and last) spinner when one of the girls’ tops got pulled off by the surf.

I nearly finished High School without a serious girlfriend until the last couple of weeks in my senior year.  I found that reverting back to my European manners was strangely attractive to my some of my female classmates.  One, in particular, whom I had observed from afar but couldn’t work up the courage to ask for a date for some reason, said “yes” when I asked her to a graduation dinner my parents were throwing for me at a little restaurant in Sonoma.

Because she still lives in the same area, I will call her Shannon.  She was a quiet girl and, I think, a little of an outsider like me.  She lived very close to the school so there was no opportunity to drive her home or anything like that.  I had to devise other reasons to see her.  I was really attracted to her.  I found that my manners also impressed her family because they wouldn’t let her go with me on a date until they had met me.  I really turned on the Old World charm for them.  I had to be on my good behavior because my parents had moved yet again to Montana at the beginning of my senior year and I was staying with friends of my family across town.  I wouldn’t do for me to make an ass of myself.

Shannon and I only kissed once, in the very romantic back garden of the old mill used as the restaurant.  It was a chaste kiss, but I felt it down to my toes.  I had resisted falling in love again because of the serviceman’s curse – “do you really like it here?  Then get ready to move.” I simply didn’t want to go through that again with her.  She was very nice, and fun to be with, but even if she felt nothing for me, I would feel sad to be once again leaving something of me behind.  We parted friends and still remain so even now.

T.O.M.

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