The Bus

Put a lot of cheap interior space on wheels, however slow-moving, and people the world over — from Deadheads to plumbers — will find plenty of ways to fill it.

That's how Roger Cohen describes the Volkwagen bus, writing about its imminent demise when the last one of its kind comes off the production line later this month.

We had a green one, my second husband and I. Our possession of it got him a part-time job while he was still in graduate school (actually a Lutheran seminary, but that's another story entirely). Saul Alinsky - yes, that Saul Alinsky - hired him as his driver. I've told that story elsewhere.

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It was, indeed, a lot of cheap interior space on wheels and slow-moving as hell. We drove it to Texas one summer to visit my in-laws. It held my husband, myself, my son, my little brother, and a lot of camping gear. The speed limit in Texas was 70 and downhill with a tail wind and pedal to the metal, that bus couldn't top 65. We lived in the Valley of the Jolly Green Giant for a year, and I can still remember watching the speedometer crawl steadily down the dial as I drove up the valley wall, past the huge JGG billboard at the top, whenever I tried to escape to Minneapolis.

And cold?! The bus was just the thing for moving back and forth between Chicago and Minnesota and eventually to Wisconsin, but for reasons that must have made sense then, I was the designated overnight driver. I remember driving, smoking cigarette after cigarette (the good old days) to keep warm, while my husband and son curled up on the floor, blankets spread over them and the tiny vents funneling any actual engine heat directly to them.

There was a time when we lived in a little yellow house at the top of a long sloping driveway, which was a good thing because now the bus would only start by popping the clutch. Christopher (age 10) had to sit in the driver's seat steering the bus while I went around to the back to push it down the hill. When it started rolling, I'd run to the front, he would hop over to the passenger side, and I would have to turn the key and give her some gas before we reached the bottom of the drive. Then he would have to sit in the car with it running while I got groceries or whatever. Good times, good times.

That was in the 60's. I was still in the Midwest and had yet to discover the Grateful Dead. My bus never got painted. It never went to a show. Or - maybe it did, and I didn't recognize it. In the 70's, we traded it in for a Honda. Who knows what adventures it had after that. There's a few green ones here.

So the bus is coming to the end of the line? I just don't know about that. As Cohen says, a cheap interior space on wheels has done a lot more work than cart Deadheads from show to show. One of them got Alinsky to the airport. More of them have worked hard for poor people across the globe. You can still get a copy of How to Keep Your Volkswagen Alive: A Manual of Step-by-Step Procedures for the Compleat Idiot - we used to have one that even I could understand.

The glory of The Bus is that it was simple. Talented mechanics and proto-engineers the world over have kept them running with re-imagined parts in places and on roads we'll never know. Sometimes all you need is a handy hill.