Me: Mom, was the Volkswagen in this picture ours, or was it Grandma and Grandpa’s?
Mom: I don’t know; does it have a rusted-out hole in the floor?
Tales of Transport: the People’s Car
Our Volkswagen Beetle did the job of people-moving for many years. At the farthest corners of my memory is one small incident. I’m sitting with my little sister Mary in the back pocket of the Volkswagen Beetle. Older siblings Murray and Kathleen are in front of us in the back seat, and Mom and Dad are in the front seats. Suddenly there’s a tremendous noise. All our luggage, which had been tied to the roof (there was no room for it in the car), flew off.
This incident ushered in the era of my family’s last and best vehicle: the Volkswagen Bus. Our “new” used bus was once owned by a rock band. Ripped fabric was stretched across the ceiling. This, our parents told us, is where the hippies hung their guitars.
Road-tripping without Guitars
For several years in a row, during a whole summer month, my parents packed us all into the bus and pointed its nose at some faraway place on the continent. Mom outfitted us in dark-coloured clothing and cut our hair short; then, all set for simple living and uncomplicated fun, we hit the road, the highway stretching enticingly in front of us. To this day the Woodie Guthrie lyrics “As I was walking that ribbon of highway; I saw above me that endless skyway; I saw below me that golden valley…” take me back to the feeling of travelling.
While the bus was on the road, my three siblings and I played, coloured or read books on the blanket-covered middle floor (the bench seat that normally occupied that spot spent the month in our garage at home). Mom reports that we never got too ambitious during our journeys: we’d eat breakfast at our campsite picnic table surrounded by the scent of trees, water and the propane stove, and then hit the road for a few hours, stopping for the day when the next promising campground presented itself.
Lunch and bathroom breaks occurred at simple highway rest stops beside streams and forests; Mom or Dad would open the bus doors and we’d jump out and run like crazy. At breaks we got store-bought cookies! This was a vacation-only treat, and the four of us kids took turns being the ones to choose which kind we bought. I tended to go for the creamy centres.
If an attractive enough sightseeing opportunity presented itself, we’d stop;
…otherwise we kept moving until we got to our campground, where we’d jump into whatever body of water was on offer.
At night, our pup tent served as the annex to the bus.
Dad, Murray, and Kathleen slept there; Mom, Mary, and I slept in the bus on the piles of blankets. We bus-dwellers were subject to mosquito bites, but we also avoided the scenario in which Dad leaped into the bus in the middle of one night during a downpour, declared “we’re swimming in an island of water”, grabbed a bunch of towels, and leaped back out.
We repeated the daily pattern until we arrived at our destination: the east coast one year (there were relatives), the west coast the next (relatives there too), and then south to Florida (a big rocket ship there).
Florida Road Trip (Not a Disney Story)
In 1969, I was 7 years old and Disney World was still two years from opening. I remember this trip better than the others. I remember the sightseeing stops we made, like Colonial Williamsburg with its costumed occupants and Cape Hatteras with the giant waves. The closer we got to Florida, the less we had to worry about mosquitoes as they were dealt with by the DDT-spraying airplanes that buzzed over our campground.
On this trip I became aware of those other Volkswagen Buses: the brand new shiny ones with sinks, stoves, and cloth-covered bench seats that could be turned into beds. Some of them even had canopies that opened on top and served as skylights. These vehicles were splendid and comfortable – and full of children that were not me. Yes, I was jealous of such luxury.
Once we reached Florida, we spent several days camping in the subtropical heat among lush subtropical vegetation, enjoying the daily subtropical downpours and swimming in the campground pool. Then one day we drove to a large flat place and parked – along with hundreds of other cars as far as the eye could see.
Far away, across a large body of water, stood the Apollo 11. And beside us in the giant parking lot was one of those shiny Volkswagen Buses! That one splendid vehicle holds as strong a place in my memory as the big rocket ship.
I think we must have waited there in that bright, unshaded space for a long time. At countdown, every parking lot occupant was perched on the roof of their vehicle. Hundreds of radios broadcast the countdown, and when it reached its end, the splendid rocket across the water rose in a cloud of steam.
We watched it until it was out of sight, and then kept watching for a long time hoping to catch a further glimpse.
I suppose the next thing we did was inch our way out of the massive parking lot. I only remember what happened four days later when the moonwalk was scheduled to happen; for the first time in our travelling lives we stayed in a hotel: my parents were there for the TV… I was there for the slide into the swimming pool!
Late that night the six of us, tucked up together in the two beds, watched the moon walk on TV. Mom had to elbow me awake so that I could see “…one giant leap for mankind.” But I did see it; I actually do remember the grainy black and white image of a man in a spacesuit climbing down a ladder onto a surface that I knew to be the Moon. I saw as much as I needed to, and then descended again into sweet dreams of more time in the swimming pool.
The Last of the Family Vehicles
At the end of our Florida trip, the bus broke down, causing a delay that resulted in Mom and Dad taking turns driving day and night to get Dad back on time for work. My siblings and I slept on the bus floor while we travelled. A couple of years later, on a cold night in Old Montréal, the bus broke down for good. This ushered in the era of the no-vehicle family. In a city with a good Metro, in a suburb where everything was walking distance, in a family full of growing kids with strong legs, my parents quickly concluded that we didn’t need a car. Planes, trains, and rental cars became our vacation vehicles from then on.