Gently at first, (but or and), then with some purposeful vigor, my Birkenstock covered foot pumped the brake like an adolescent boy having his first sexual encounter. Unsure if this back and forth up and down motion would bring this old beast affectionately referred to as THE BUS to the stop I intended, perhaps I should have tested out the old bus on a smaller hill before I decided to take it for a journey over the three bridges to some far away campground in Connecticut to meet up with my father for the fourth annual Portuguese Campout. I probably said a few Hail Mary’s as I tried to slow down like I was driving a crane or some big piece of yellow machinery on the highway during rush hour.
It was like a kiddie roller coaster, Wind flying, all windows open, the vroom vroom of the gurgling I think I can, I think I can engine, four speed, baby blue, piled in, the four of us, two superchick friends along with our two eight year old sons on our way to a Connecticut campground in a 1982 Volkswagon vanagon- my first weekend camping trip in “the bus” as my brother called it. Stepping into any volkswagon, the ones with the engines in the back not the new bullshit ones that they call vw these days is a jog your memory kind of experience. The smell of an old VW is like nothing else probably from all of the heat that never seemed to work and the frosting on the windows you had to scrape because the Germans couldn’t seem to understand that a defroster was actually something needed to help the cause. Add to the recipe of aroma, kids sleeping and camping and of course the likely pot smoking and beer drinking that occurred and voila, a VW smell that I can summon just by thinking about it.
Popping the tall thin stick shift, similar to the shape of the microphone Bob Barker used to hold on the Price is Right except about a foot longer into neutral as we coasted down the hill, there is some magic to the sound of a VW standard. There is a unique knuckle cracking sound reminding me of the Barbie dolls I used to bend and shape from standing pose to a sitting one modeling the latest evening dress you begged your mother to buy for you. Crunchy knuckle popping sounds as I pushed and pulled the shifter into fourth gear realizing that the brakes do indeed work and we are going to make it to our destination alive.
The stereo system probably worth more than the van because it was installed by my twenty one year old brother, blasted Bob Marley and Peter Tosh on the cassette tapes he had recorded when he first bought the van. That was when he was a healthy stunning strapping young man with the world as his oyster ahead of him. As my dear friend, Ro with her spicy Madrid, Spain personality and I began our journey south in the heat of a steamy hot August day, we looked at each other with the same thoughts. Would this van make it to our destination? I had it checked out at the local garage before we left, but with these computer laden cars these days, I wondered if garages even understood engines pre-computers. I had the environmentally irresponsible leaking oil pump topped off with more oil, and I made sure the bus was as full on gas as we could imagine. Imagination was the only way to gage it since the actual gas gauge had stopped working well before my brother had bought the bus just a few years before. We said whatever quiet prayers we could summon knowing that we were divinely protected by my brother who had given this van to me as a gift back when he was still able to make these decisions.
This blue bus with the pop up top that we weren’t quite sure how to pop up, loaded with everything a party of six (our husbands would be meeting us) could possibly need for our family camping trip would be our vehicle, our home and our refrigerator for the next three days. Speed and power weren’t its personality traits as we began our first climb up the Mt. hope Bridge realizing quickly that the three hour trek would likely take up about four hours as we had to downshift to first gear just to get up the incline. And we still had two more bridges to climb before getting to the flat and easy ride of ninety-five south. Then there was the descent. As the free fall that was the downside of the uphill climb we had just battled approached, I am sure my friend Ro would have been praying the Rosary if she happened to have had them in her pocket. Like a rollercoaster ride downhill the van was in its happy place, not having to work so hard to get us upward, I could almost feel its relief.
Old volkswagons have their own personalities that between driver and car feels almost like a spiritual connection. I realized quickly that this would be a great time to test out the brakes, after all we did have our two children in the back innocently playing cards like the Vanagon intended when it installed the two movable and German pragmatic tables that could easily swivel to the brown and pale blue patterned couch back seat they were sitting in.
As I began pumping the brakes gently, because instinct takes over and quickly transforms the driver into realizing there was no power anything except my own muscles, I pumped a bit more to give myself plenty of stopping time. At the time I was married to a union man who drove a crane for many years and drilled into my head how much extra time trucks need to stop. This vanagon felt like a truck even though it was only a four cylinder lacking all possibilities of zest. I am not sure if the vanagon was ever supposed to have power which is kind of amusing since the fast Autobahn is actually in Germany. But Germany has always been a bit of a conundrum to me anyway.
As Ro and I sat in the bucket seats that I had covered with bright pink and yellow and orange hippy like flowers, listening to the sounds of reggae with the backround purr only a VW of yesteryear can provide, we found ourselves sweating and fanning trying to figure out why with the windows open we were so bloody hot. Neither of us were menopausal age so we couldn’t blame it on hot flashes, it was unbelievably hot. Not even a slight coolness was blowing through the windows and that neat little triangle window cranked open to force the air towards my burning face.
We headed towards our destination to meet our husbands and my father at the annual Portuguese camping trip I was excited to introduce my friends to. This was the third or fourth one I had attended and we were about to join about thirty Portuguese people from Fall River my father and his business partner, Albert, knew on an extravaganza hard to imagine.
My father and I were the only non-Portuguese people on the trip, even my son could claim a small percentage in his genes thanks to my former husband. This trip was filled with friends and families and potatoes and fryalators and cooking oil. Women in aprons peeling one hundred pound bags of potatoes, slicing onions and creating hot stews of rabbit and goat fresh from the local butcher. The sound and greasy delicious aroma of the gigantic drum of hot bubbling oil for the handmade malassadas on Sunday morning are a permanent fixture in my brain. The women in their aprons (or smocks rather) using ingredients from the four basic food groups flour, eggs, sugar and yeast from the recipes of the old country to prepare basically everything. Their husbands drinking brandy with their morning coffee as they prepared the provincially made spicket for the pig roast is a life experience you have to see to believe. How does a nice Jewish girl who started out in the Fall River Highlands find herself in this tribe on a random weekend in the hot August summer? My wacky father, that’s how. Who always wanted to come from a family who were more like the characters in My Big Fat Greek Wedding instead of the demure and boring family of the groom in the movie, waspy and dry. My family, my father’s side was the quiet and reasonable pragmatic, aka safe, Jewish family who played by the social rules. Not my father, he was a rebel from the time he was born to my grandmother when my grandfather was drafted thanks to Pearl Harbor extending his time. The world itself was rebellious and I am sure that energy leaked into my father’s genes in the womb of my unsuspecting grandmother in Brooklyn NY in 1944.
As we continued our sweat fest fanning ourselves, legs as open as we could legally allow them, faces red from the heat, we were excited to get to our destination and jump in the pool that awaited. I don’t think either of us were ever so hot and the thought of having to sleep in this stifling heat was not really something either of us were looking forward to. There likely wouldn’t be much sleep anyway as this group of men, women and children were a noisy bunch and from dusk to dawn and everything in between there was eating, drinking, more eating and drinking, playing cards, soccer, and lots of laughter.
When we finally landed, eager to get unpacked and started on this weekend of humor and familial bonding, we jumped out of the hot van into a cool breeze. We looked at each other to try to decipher why the damn van was so hot. In the old volkswagons there was always a joke between owners when people found out you had one. “Does the heat work?” If the answer was yes, there was likely envy promptly giving the vw more monetary value. In a VW if you were one of the fortunate to have heat, the heating system was either on or off, no in between. The vanagon was one of the lucky ones; it had working heat. I quickly realized that the reason it had been so caliente was that the working heat was stuck in the working heat position for the entire trip. Ro and I looked at each other with the sweat pouring off of us like we had just run a marathon and began what was to be a three day laugh fest and we haven’t stopped since.