This week I asked writers in my memoir classes to put together 500-word essays about the best thing they ever bought, borrowed or stole. Essays came back about a yoyo, a wedding dress, college educations, a maternity dress, a black walnut dining table, condos with lake views, a black leather jacket, artwork, a stylish mmauve jacket from Paris and more — I’ll leave it to you to guess which of those were stolen, borrowed or bought!
By far the one thing most of them wrote about was…their first car. This one, called “The People’s Car,” was especially fun, and the writer has generously agreed to let us publish it here.
by Sharon Kramer
One of the best things I ever purchased was a 1962 cherry red Volkswagen Beetle. You may remember, it had a motor in the back, was air-cooled instead of air conditioned (whatever that means) and was said to be water tight. The myth was that it could survive being completely submerged in a lake.
The important part was what it didn’t have. Except for minimal fenders, it hardly had any chrome, and not even a whisper of a tail or fins. It didn’t have a powerful v8 engine and could get 32 to 40 miles per gallon of gas — which was only 30 cents, by the way. In place of angles there were curves. It didn’t look like an American car.
I had just graduated college, was still living at home and had a job with the Chicago Public Schools for what I thought was a significant amount of money: $5,250 a year. With my great job, and no rent to pay, I decided I could afford a car. I didn’t know anyone who owned a Beetle, but I thought it was cute. It looked like it was fun to drive. And, it was.
It wasn’t until much later that I realized I’d made several major decisions in life because of the cute factor.
I never thought owning a Beetle was part of a movement or the beginning of the 60’s rebellion but soon realized it was more than a way to get from one place to another. When I passed another Beetle on the road, there was waving, shouting and horn blowing. I was part of something, I just wasn’t sure what.
My parents were opposed to the car. “How could you buy a car that was made in Germany? Don’t you know that the Volkswagen was Hitler’s idea?” At age 22, I regarded their opposition to anything as a signal for me to fall totally in love with someone or something. I named my car Schroder. All Volkswagen Beatles had names and for some reason mine was a “he.”
Driving a Beetle wasn’t exactly like moving to San Francisco or joining a commune, but it did make a statement. Driving Schroder said that I was against the war in Viet Nam. It said I was a non-conformist and against capitalist values. It said that I really wanted to own a new age bookstore instead of working for the Chicago Public School System.
I don’t know what became of that car. I think I had it for three or four years and then I got married and traded it in for a car that would do better in a below-zero Minnesota winter and had a heater that worked.
I always regretted selling Schroder as I seemed to be exchanging my youth and optimism for a conventional life of husband, children and working as a teacher. Saying goodbye to Schroder was the first of many struggles I would have between passion and convenience. It marked the end of thinking things were so simple that instead of standing up for what you believed, you could let a car say it all.