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The death of a Bug

February 25, 2011

Vehicles represent different things to different people.To some, they're signs of wealth and success.

To others, they're symbols of power - maybe the muscles the owner himself never had.

To still others, they're the essence of adventure - they can conquer any terrain, from the Mojave Desert to the Himalayas (even though the most daring thing the owner's ever done was beat out some other zhlub to a parking space at Walmart).

But to me, a car is one thing and one thing only - transportation. I got all my cars used and drove them till they couldn't be driven anymore.

Of course, I was lucky. First, all my cars were winners from the get-go. They may have had a bunch of miles on them, but they were solid and mechanically sound. I knew people who got stuck with lemons, but fortunately, I wasn't one of them.

Second, the only person who ever worked on them for almost 30 years was my genius mechanic, Vern Friend. Over those three decades I may have had a bunch of breakdowns, but my cars never did.

And third, I always took scrupulous care of my cars. I changed the oil frequently (one of the cheapest but most important maintenance operations), had regular tune-ups and preventive maintenance, and made sure little problems were corrected before they became big, if not fatal, ones.

But no matter what you do to maintain your car, when you live in the Adirondacks, eventually you're going to lose and road salt's going to win. No matter how sound the engine, the drive train, the steering and the CD player, the body is going to get devoured by salt.

It was the fate of all my other cars, and my current one is seeping rust from the seams - a sure sign, according to all the car salesmen I know, that it's bleeding to death, with its demise right around the corner. While I don't believe in resurrections, either spiritual or vehicular, you can bet I'll get my car around this corner and a bunch of others before it meets its crusher.


The rave fave

The car I got the most time and mileage from was my all-time favorite, my '67 Beetle.

As far as I'm concerned, the '67 Beetles were the classics: They were the last year with the wire bumpers; they had the best combination of power and steering; they had the cleanest lines.

Mine came to me with a story. Originally, my sister-in-law got it as a college graduation present from her father. She had it for a few years but never really liked it that much. Then she married my brother, and in short order they found themselves with twin daughters, two cars and a draft notice. They stashed the car till my brother got out of the service. Then they figured it was superfluous, and in 1973 they sold it to me for a pittance.

The car was a beaut. It had only 30,000 miles, was in perfect shape all-around and had a good karmic vibe about it. I drove it trouble-free till about 100,000 miles, when - in typical old VW fashion - the engine blew. All my friends told me to get rid of it. I ignored them, paid Vern $250 for a rebuild and drove it another trouble-free 80,000. (My friends, meanwhile, had each gone through two other cars, at least.)

The body started to rust out big-time, and I did the body work on it - with a Dopey twist: I never put a final coat of paint on it, so it was "finished" in classic Rustoleum red.

It held up fine for another couple of years, but finally the salt did it in. There were holes aplenty in the floor; in fact, this was the only car I ever knew that when you went over a puddle, the windshield got splashed from the inside. That was fine with me - I just made sure to close my eyes when I hit a puddle - but finally the chassis separated completely from the floor. It could still be driven, but it'd never pass another inspection. Plus if I slid off the road and hit a snowbank, the odds of me getting sliced in two were about the same as FDR winning his second term.

Still, from the outside, it looked A-OK, and here's where, even if I got no more literal mileage out of the car, I got some of the figurative kind.


Dead car sitting

The whole time I'd had the car, there was a VW freak in town who kept bugging me to sell it to him. I always told him no way, and he'd say the same thing, namely to promise that when I was getting rid of it, I'd sell it to him. Then I'd tell him the same thing, which was by the time I got rid of it, there'd be nothing anyone could do to drive it.

Finally, in the Waterhole one Friday night in 1982, after I'd declared it officially dead and it sat it in my driveway waiting for the junk man, I ran into that guy.

"Hey, your '67?" he said. "You wanna sell it?"

"No," I said.

"Why not?" he said.

"Because it's shot, that's why."

"You only think so," he said.

"No," I said. "I know so."

"Uh-uh," he said. "My girlfriend's old man has a garage, and I've figured out how to restore old Beetles."

"Yeah," I said. "And I've figured out how to fly by willpower alone. Only thing is, I can't actually do it."

It didn't matter what I told him. He kept insisting he knew how to perform necromancy on dead cars, and finally I just thought, what the hey, if he wanted it that badly, who was I to stop him.

"OK," I said, "you can have it."

"How much you want?

"I dunno," I said. "I never thought about it. But the engine's good, and it's got a new battery."

"How about 50 bucks?" he said, reaching for his wallet.

"Yeah, sure," I said.

He took out some bills.

"Uh, look, man, I only got 25, but I'll get ya the rest next week."

"Fine," I said, taking his money but still feeling uneasy about it. "But I've gotta tell you, there's nothing you can do with that car."

"Don't sweat it," he said. "I'll pick it up tomorrow."

And sure enough, the next morning, he showed up with his truck, hooked a chain up to the Bug and hauled it off into the sunset.

Mid-afternoon, I got a phone call from him.

"Hey," he said, "I've gone all over the car and there's nothing I can do with it. I mean, the body is completely toasted."

Yeah," I said. "Just like I told you all along."

There was nothing but silence on the other end.

"But you've got a decent engine and a new battery outta the deal," I said. "So it wasn't a complete loss."

There was more silence then the click of him hanging up.

I saw him around after that, but he never spoke to me.

He also never gave me the other 25 bucks.

Neither of those things surprised me in the least.



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