Sunday, August 15, 2010

Diving into the Past

I found some interesting pictures in a box in the basement late last year and digitized them for preservation purposes.  I don't know too much about my family history, but these pictures help shed some light on at least one common interest.  All of these people were around during the very formative years of my life and I am certain each of them ultimately contributed to my interest in Volkswagens.

My grandfather and grandmother on my dad's side, 'Tex and Momsie', are both pictured here in front of their home in Milbrae, California, with what I believe to be a Euro spec '55 Oval Window Beetle.  They drove and loved this fine automobile for about three years in the mid-fifties.  I particularly like Tex's jaunty pose, with the right foot making full contact with the running board.  'The Folks' were definitely proud of this car--and as it turns out, my dad was, too.  My mom remembers a time where the two of them sat in this car and he took much time to point out the high build quality of that Volkswagen.  In painstaking detail.  I smile to think just how bored out of her mind she must have been.  Her eyes probably glazed over in much the same way my wife's do when I pontificate over some triviality on the Nautilus.  Honestly, I never thought of my dad as a 'car guy', but my grandparents certainly owned some classics over the years.  There was an MG TC and Nash Metropolitan, amongst many others, but the Volkswagen experiences were definitely the most remembered and longest lasting.  For better or worse, my dad got to drive them all.

Tex was a chef at various San Francisco restraunts and Momsie a nurse at the Shriner's Hospital in San Franciso.  I believe these to have been good times for the two empty-nesters, and what a great car to share those times in.  This was at the first of three Beetles these two would own, the third of which would not be so fondly remembered.  That third car was probably a '60, which I actually have no pictures of.  Sadly, my grandmother would die as a result of injuries sustained in the '60, effectively ending all families ties with the marque for nearly 20 years. The story goes that she worked a late night shift at the hospital, and on her way home that night behind the wheel of her beloved Beetle, traveling along a well known winding two lane road, swerved into the oncoming lane to miss hitting a possum and struck another car head on.  She passed on three days later and my grandfather, fully devastated by the loss of her, forever swore-off Volkswagens.  I heard this tragic tale re-told many times during my childhood, and it left a lasting impact on me on many levels.  The word Volkswagen was burned into my brain, Ralph Nader's "Unsafe At Any Speed" documenting their lack of safety, putting the final nail in the coffin for my dad.  Many times I remember him climbing on the bandwagon, berating the car.  There was obviously a lot of emotion tied to the incident and Momsie being the wonderful person she was had meant quite a lot to the entire family.  I was too young to know it then, but in retrospect I suspect that our family lost its 'anchor' that day in '64 when she passed away.

Meanwhile...on my mom's side of the family, my Aunt Irma and her husband Fred were just getting started with their Volkswagen Beetle.  The picture to the right and immediately below were taken in '60 in San Bernardino, California, before they moved north to Sonoma.  While growing up in Napa during the '60s, this was the Volkswagen I would get to know first hand during our family's numerous visits to their home. 

Comparatively speaking, Volkswagens need a bit more maintenance than their contemporaries and my Uncle Fred was definitely a do-it-yourself'er.  More often than not, upon arriving to their home in Sonoma we would find Fred out in the garage working over some aspect of the car, typically the engine.  My thinking is that he was adjusting valves and setting plug gaps...but he was more likely just trying to stay out of Irma's way by getting out of the house.  Out of his many apparent hobbies, driving my Aunt Irma nuts was but one.

Since in my mind's eye it was such a regular occurrance to find Fred working over the car, I pulled forward a visual picture of the engine compartment, containing that intriguing piece of machinery that needed tending to stay running well.  Fred was a retired machinist and welder and just kept his hand in by working on his car.  He loved to talk, tell jokes--and extoll the virtues of the Volkswagen automobile.  Nearly all of it sailed over my head, but what stuck and sunk in became the germ of an idea that I really should own one of these intriguing cars someday.  Much too soon and right when things were getting interesting, someone in the house would wonder where I'd gotten to and head out to the garage to rescue me and my impressionable mind, always by taking me quite well away from the fun.  I loved the backyard at that house in Sonoma, but exploring the garage and my Uncle Fred's projects are highly treasured memories.

I think what finally formed the foundations of my automotive bond with Volkswagens--and Karmann Ghias in particular--was the car my Elementary School Principal drove in the late '60s, a red Type 14 Karmann Ghia.  Walking past that car on my way to class was a ritual that was also a continual source of amazement for me.  I suspect the car was a '67, but what I remembered best was its shape and styling, the paint being very shiny and that the one time I dared look inside I found a black interior with a wood grained dash.  I have no picures of it, but I do recall the noise the engine made when it pulled up into the school parking lot one morning and recognized the Volkswagen engine sound instantly.

It wouldn't be until '83 that I would finally own my first Volkswagen, a '73 Type 14 Karmann Ghia.  Since then, I've duplicated my Uncle Fred's hunkered pose in garages and roadsides across America more times than I can count while maintaining the various Volkswagens I've owned.  Good maintenance practices aside, I also like to think of it as a ritual that carries on a sort of family tradition.