It was June of 1971. I had just graduated from high school, and it was time to buy a car. What a relief to have high school behind me. There were two groups of people at my high school – Mormons and druggies. I was neither. I rode my bike to school, and it was the only one parked in the rack. That’s how “out of it” I was. By my senior year it didn’t make any difference to me. In November of that year I had decided I was going to drop out to go to work at the Peruvian Lodge in Alta. The guidance counselor told me maybe it was not such a bad idea for me. I could get a GED and go to college later. My dad disagreed. He had dropped out of Brown University to come west to ski at Alta, and didn’t think a similar path was the best idea for me. He cried, and begged. I reconsidered, postponing the idea until I had finished my first year of college. All I wanted to do was play outside – ski, swim, ride my bike, hike, back pack – just work up a sweat under the sun – so I went to work at Alta’s Rustler Lodge in November 1972. The deferral worked. The Rustler was a much nicer place to live, with more interesting co-workers. In fact I married one. And I did finish school later. But that’s not what this story is about. This story is about my first set of wheels.
I occasionally play Jeopardy with my students, using it as a review tool before exams. One of the answers in the “miscellaneous” category is, “Being a ski bum, driving a green VW in 1972.” The students have usually had at least half a semester with me before we ever play Jeopardy, so I figure anyone who is paying any kind of attention, could figure out the answer is, “What was Dr. Jacobson doing?” But one semester, a student in the back row answered, “What is a loser?” I gave it to him. It was the only reasonable answer he’d given all semester. It was a finance class. What was I doing there, teaching finance, when what I thought was the coolest piece of my life was that I had driven a green VW and been a ski bum? That’s also another story.
I loved my green VW. It was the perfect car for me. It was cheap to run and great in the snow. That’s pretty much all I cared about. It wasn’t that it never broke down, it did. But not that often. Its first break down was spring 1973 near Monticello, Utah. We had gone to Canyonlands after the end of the ski season – a very long season, with feets of spring snow coming just at the time we were completely over the whole white landscape fix. Canyonlands was great – warm and sunny, if somewhat barren to my alpine-scenery trained eye. Why would the bug balk at this great vacation? I can’t tell you what was wrong with it. When it stopped running, I called home. My dad travelled in southern Utah for work. I thought he might be nearby and come to the rescue. But my mom told me she had no idea where he was, (these were the days when no one really knew where anyone was, not even the government for the most part) and that the 27-year-old boyfriend I was with should be able to figure it out. After all, she said, “At that age I had been widowed and had two kids.” She had a point. But I think I was hoping my dad would foot the bill for the repairs. No such luck. We figured it out. The green VW ended up in a Monticello back yard, next to a swing set for a couple of days getting interrupted attention from a back yard mechanic who also like to play with his kids. We stayed in the cheapest motel and as I remember did nothing. Not because we weren’t creative. There’s just nothing to do in Monticello. But the back yard stay worked. After that, the green bug ran flawlessly for four more years.
It went up and down Alta canyon every day. One Christmas Eve it made it up the canyon in a huge, four-wheel-only snow storm with a little help from me jumping up and down on the bumper. I was three months pregnant. Good thing I didn’t write a Jeopardy question about that! The bug made many flawless trips back to southern Utah and even climbed what I thought was the impassable switch back dirt road to dead horse point. I was sure we were going over the edge of the narrow road to our deaths, hundreds of feet below, but we didn’t. The bug met the challenge. It went all over Utah and Wyoming for camping trips, and it went to Houston when we left the Wasatch Front in 1977 with our young son, Tim, for an interesting one-year interlude of madness (also another story). But that’s where the green VW died.
Tim’s dad, my husband, was driving the VW to work. I was being a stay-at-home mom much to my delight, even though my only wheels were, once again, my bike. Unfortunately, one day, out of the blue, the green VW stopped running. The repairs were too expensive. So the green VW ended up at Space City Auto Parts, and Tim’s dad had to charge a moped at Sears to get to work. It was a sad end. Tim’s Fischer Price figure was lost in the wheel well, and the bug didn’t get to go back to Utah mountain country when we returned just a few months later.
Since then I’ve had a lot of cars. Some brand new, some old beaters. When I needed to buy two so Tim and I could each have one, the quality and reliability plummeted. But none of these cars has the memories of the green bug, and none of them has ever been the subject of a Jeopardy question. Maybe it’s because it was my first – firsts linger in our memories. Or maybe it was because it was green and fit who I was, a greenie, a Sierra Club member even though my dad called me a “damn communist” when I joined. I’ve never thought of any other of my cars as being in any way connected to me, to who I am. But the green VW lingers in my mind, with memories of skiing and camping and being Tim’s mom.