Note: A preview from my upcoming autobiography, Life’s Too Short to Smoke Cheap Cigars (Or to Drink Cheap Whiskey.)
“You don’t really believe that crap, do you?”
Jon Hooper was pointing at the TV screen. A rare sub-zero winter evening found us indoors, watching television in Jon’s living room.
“You mean about the Volkswagen floating?”
“Yeah. No car is that tight.”
I reflected that Jon’s perceptions in this matter were probably less than completely reliable, given the size of the rust holes in the floorboards of his ancient van.
On the TV screen, a Volkswagen beetle bobbed sedately in the waves.
“Well, you can see it right there,” I pointed out. Jon responded with a snort.
“I’ll believe it when I see it for myself.”
Then Spring Came.
At that moment, I had no idea how that statement would bear bitter fruit. In my innocence, I simply took another slug from my Coke bottle and reached for another slice of pizza. I thought no more of floating Volkswagens for some time.
In due time, of course, spring came. The snow melted, our short season of mud passed on to the season of wildflowers, the redwing blackbirds returned to the creeks, and our thoughts turned to fishing. To that end, Jon and I organized a Mississippi River catfishing trip. One Friday afternoon in late May, a fleet of cars and trucks pulling johnboats on trailers left from our high school parking lot to cover the thirty-odd miles to the Waukon Junction boat ramp.
As coincidence would have it, one of those cars was a Volkswagen Beetle, driven by our classmate Bradley Stickleman.
I’d forgotten all about the controversial VW commercial we’d seen long ago on that frigid winter night. Jon hadn’t.
In a flurry of movement, johnboats were dropped off car and truck roofs and backed into the river on trailers; vehicles moved back and forth, outboard motors fired up, a general air of joking and camaraderie hung over the parking area. Coolers, tents and sleeping bags were loaded into the boats. Tackle boxes, fishing rods, and coiled trotlines joined the camping gear. We planned to make a weekend of it, fishing from an island in the backwaters, stringing trotlines at night to increase our haul of fish.
Jon seemed to be taking an inordinate interest in the parking area as I walked up behind him.
“What’s up? What are you looking at?” I noticed him staring at Brad Stickleman’s car.
“Nothin’, Jon demurred. “Tell you later.”
Brad Stickleman was one of those unfortunates life had cursed with a disability. This disability was worse than paraplegia, worse than cancer, worse indeed than any mere physical issue. No, Brad’s disability was social.
Brad was, unfortunately, what was known locally as a “Dork.”
Dorkage was an almost impossible stigma to overcome. But to give Brad credit, he tried. He tried tagging along on fishing trips; he tried volunteering to throw the first roll when we toilet-papered someone’s house. He tried everything he could think of to fit in, but to little good.
After all, this was the late Seventies, the era of the Muscle Car, of chrome, long hoods, and big-block V-8 engines. In these heady days of thunderous horsepower, Brad could never overcome the stigma of driving a pale blue Volkswagen Beetle. Little did he know the destiny Fate – and Jon – had in mind for his Beetle.
Darkness was beginning to fall as the tiny flotilla of johnboats left the vicinity of the boat ramp, bound for a large island in the heart of the Mississippi backwaters. The evening resounded with a chorus of sputtering outboards. We had the music of the boats, the river, the setting sun, and a boatload of fishing gear. What more could a group of seventeen-year old boys ask on a Friday night?
A little experiment in automobile design, perhaps. At least that’s what Jon had in mind.
A large wooded island near Mud Hen Lake was our destination. Two boats ran trotlines from our base island out to two other, smaller islets while Jon and I started a bonfire from driftwood.
“Where’s Dork-boy?” Jon asked, referring to Brad.
“He’s out in Dunk’s boat,” I answered. Duncan Dunkleman had been coerced into taking Brad along to set trotlines.
“Good. You and me, we’re going to take a little trip later.”
I could see Jon’s teeth gleaming in the gathering darkness. “You’ve got something up your sleeve, don’t you?” Jon’s practical jokes had a reputation for inventiveness, not to mention ruthlessness.
“Sort of. I’m just curious about something.” He tossed a large chunk of driftwood into the growing blaze. I wandered over to my old metal cooler, extracted two bottles of Coke, and tossed one to Jon.
“You’re never curious about anything, ‘less it’s what stewed badger might taste like,” I pointed out. “You’re up to something.” I knew Jon as well as anyone, probably better. That fact wasn’t always to my advantage.
Jon extracted an ancient, rusty Swiss Army knife from his overalls pocket, pried out the bottle opener, and spiffed the cap off his Coke bottle. He tossed me the knife as he took a long pull on the bottle.
“You know that Volkswagen commercial?” Jon asked. “The one where they put the Beetle in the water?”
I popped the cap off my Coke bottle and pitched it into the nearby trash box. “Yeah, so what?” I folded the opener blade back into Jon’s Swiss Army and tossed it back.
“I always thought that was a bunch of crap.” Jon squatted next to the fire.
“So, don’t you wanna find out?”
“Not really.” I was beginning to see where this was going.
“Well, I’ve been wondering about that for quite a spell now. I figure the commercial’s lying, but I intend to find out, and you’re gon’ ta help.”
“Me?” I’d learned to steer well clear of Jon’s experiments.
“You. I need someone to ride on the car.”
“ON the car?”
“Trust me!” I’d heard that one before. Still, hanging around with Jon was usually anything but boring. It could occasionally be terrifying, but never boring. I decided, against my better judgment, to go along for the ride.
And Then This Happened.
A couple of hours later, the trotlines were set, hot dogs and beans had been cooked and eaten, a couple of the guys had set off for the other side of the island to spend the night rod-and-reel fishing. It was almost midnight and sounds of snoring emanated from scattered tents and sleeping bags. Apprehension had kept me awake. I was reclined in a grassy spot a few feet from the coals of our earlier bonfire when Jon popped out of the trees.
“OK, let’s go. Dork-boy’s over on the east bank fishing.”
Jon’s old johnboat was pulled up on the bank fifty yards or so from the bonfire. We clambered in, accompanied by the usual hollow metallic thumps our shoes made on the boat’s bottom. Jon yanked the cord on his elderly outboard once, twice, three times before the motor sputtered finally to life.
The flaw in Jon’s plan was too obvious to overlook but overlook it we did. The sounds of a johnboat being put into use are like no other sounds in the world, at least to the initiated. Brad Stickleman was a Dork, but he wasn’t stupid. On the other side of the island, he heard Jon’s motor kick over. We found out later what had aroused the suspicions of the nocturnal fishing party.
“Hey, who’d be taking off in a boat this late?” he asked Dunk Dunkleman. Dunk scratched his head. “Sounds like Jon Hooper’s boat. I guess Jon’s heading out to a fishing spot.”
“Jon knows good fishing spots out here?”
Dunk laughed. “Jon knows good fishing spots everywhere.”
“Well, why don’t we go follow him then?”
Dunk considered that course of action for no more than a moment. “You know, that’s not a bad idea. Come on, we’ll take my boat.” Dunk and Bradley gathered their fishing gear and began to retrace their steps across the island.
Meanwhile, Jon and I had sputtered out of the backwaters, and entered the side channel that separated us from the boat ramp. Jon, at the handle of the outboard, took his bearing from the small yard light that Allamakee County had put up to dimly illuminate the boat ramp’s parking lot.
“So, what’s the plan?” I called from the bow.
Jon had to shout over the laboring outboard. “I’m gonna see if a Beetle really will float!”
“You’re kidding!” I shouted back.
Jon held up a roll of hemp rope in reply. “No kidding. We’ll just tow old Dork-boy’s Bug out into the river and see if she really floats. If she does, we tow it back to the ramp and push it back to the parking lot.”
“And if it doesn’t?”
“You mean the evidence will be in the mud at the bottom of the river?”
“Something like that. Oh, hell, it probably will float, anyhow. No problem!”
“Yeah, that’s what you said last winter when you tried the build a plywood glider.”
“Hey, that would have worked if you’d have kept the nose up a little more.”
We passed the rest of the trip back to the ramp in silence but for the sound of the roaring boat motor.
On the other side of the channel, Brad and Dunk had piled their gear into Dunk’s boat and were chugging along after the receding mutter of Jon’s craft.
“Sounds like they’re heading back towards the boat ramp,” Dunk noted, frowning. “We’ll bend to the north of that last big island, catch them when they cut around north. I bet I know where Jon’s headed. There’s a creek comes into the river right up there, I bet they’re looking to fish the outflow.” Dunk altered course to lie in wait on the northwest bank of a small island a half-mile from the boat ramp.
We hit the boat ramp without incident.
Brad’s VW was parked in the last row nearest the river. It was the work of a moment with a bent coat hanger for Jon to pop the driver’s side door open. “Climb in,” he instructed, “And I’ll push. Let’s get it right down to the edge of the water.” With that accomplished, Jon rolled under the car’s front end with the rope. A couple loops around the front bumper, a couple half hitches, and Jon’s latest foray into scientific experimentation was almost ready.
The other end of the rope was fastened to a handle at the rear of Jon’s johnboat, and we were almost ready to begin. This, however, is where my role in the enterprise was supposed to expand.
“Now, when I get the boat motor going, you reach in and kick the shift lever to neutral. Then hop up on the roof. That way you’ll be able to see if any water comes in. Here, take this.” Jon handed me an ancient metal flashlight.
“What if it sinks?”
“That’s why you’re gonna be on the roof, see? You can just paddle away, and I’ll pick you up.”
Jon yanked the cord, and the motor roared to life again. He let out the throttle carefully, taking up the slack in the rope. I stood on the open door frame of the Bug; when the rope went taut, I stuck one foot in, kicked the shift lever into neutral, and scrambled onto the roof. I slammed the door shut just as the car entered the black muddy waters of the Mississippi.
Dunk and Brad had been listening from their ambush hide on the nearby island.
“There goes Jon’s boat motor again,” Dunk pointed out. “Whatever they’re doing, they’ll be on the way now.”
“Hey, that sounded like a car door.” Brad had heard the slamming door.
“So? Jon probably got something out of his van.”
“No, that sounded like MY car door. Head over to the boat ramp!”
Dunk fired his outboard, aiming the boat at the boat ramp’s light.
I didn’t hear the second outboard over Jon’s motor. I doubt I’d have noticed a jet airliner flying a foot over my head, preoccupied as I was with holding on to the roof of the bobbing, floating Volkswagen. I sprawled out on my stomach, both hands clamped on the edge of the windshield, my feet scrabbling for a grip on the downward slope of the roof at the rear of the car.
“Hey, Jon!” I shouted. “It floats. Get me back to the bank, already!”
“In a minute,” Jon called back. “I’m just going to tow it around a couple times.” He spun the boat towards the open water, yanking the rope taut with a twang, almost spilling me in the dark water as the VW lurched forwards. From my precarious perch, I was treated to the sight of a white wake foaming up from under the front bumper of a car.
“Look inside, tell me if there’s any water on the floor!” Jon called out of the darkness.
“You kidding me? I’m not leaning over the edge of this thing! It’s as slippery as snot on a doorknob!”
“Come on, don’t be such a wuss!”
Just then, a faint beam of light played over the scene, as the drone of another outboard became slowly audible. A querulous voice wailed out of the darkness:
“That’s my caaaarrr!”
Dunk’s boat roared up to the scene just as Jon chopped his boat’s throttle, allowing the boat and the car in tow to bob to a halt.
“You idiots! Pull over there next to my car!” Brad screeched at Dunk. Shaking his head, Dunk complied. As the boat pulled alongside, Brad pressed his face against the driver’s door window.
“Is there any water on the floor?” Jon called, his quest for knowledge unabated.
“I can’t tell! Anyone have a flashlight?”
Without a word, I handed Jon’s antique flashlight to Brad. He switched the anemic beam on and played it around the interior of the Bug while I tried to get a better grip on the edge of the windshield.
“I still can’t see anything!” Brad announced in a voice edging on panic. “Hang on, I’m going to try to get a better look.” He reached for the door handle.
“Stop!” I shouted at him. “Stop!” Jon and Dunk screamed, simultaneously. Lost in a haze of rage and panic, Brad didn’t hear a thing. He yanked the door open.
What was amazing about the whole thing, as I look back over the years, was the speed at which everything happened as soon as the door popped open.
At the very moment Brad pulled his car door open, some instinct possessed me to release my grip on the Bug’s roof. A good thing, too, as the car filled with water and sank in the span of time it would take for a beam of light to travel the length of a gnat’s wingspan. A swirl of dark water pulled me under, but only for a moment. The water was only about ten feet deep. As soon as the car hit the bottom, I floated to the surface, bobbing up between the two johnboats. Dunk held Brad back from trying to push me under again, and Jon dragged me out of the cold, muddy water.
“We’d have been just fine if you hadn’t opened the door, Dork-boy,” Jon informed Brad, somewhat unnecessarily. Brad tried to leap at Jon, but Dunk held him down.
“You #$*&%#)!!” Brad screeched. The force of his outburst sent Dunk’s boat drifting away from Jon’s and caused a flock of blackbirds to flush in alarm from the cattails on the island a half-mile distant. “You sank my car! I can’t believe you sank my car!”
“Hey, Brad, don’t worry about it,” Jon assured him. “See, I’ve got the other end of the rope right here. We’ll just tie it onto my van, and we’ll have your little car hauled right outta there.”
Brad launched another verbal attack, which discussed Jon’s and my ancestry in some detail before going into a rather lurid description of our personal hygiene, eating habits and other things I won’t go into here, in case children or persons of delicate sensibilities may one day read these words.
Fortunately, Jon’s rope was long enough to reach to the concrete boat ramp. He had to back his ancient Dodge van almost into the water, but we finally got the rope tied securely around the back bumper. The old slant-six engine started with a roar (the muffler had fallen off two weeks previously) and, thanks to some deft work with the clutch and accelerator, Brad’s Volkswagen gradually emerged, muddy and dripping, from the black waters of the Mississippi.
Still dripping and cold from my dip in the river, I dug in Jon’s van for matches and started a fire while Jon united the rope and turned the van around so that his headlights shone on the Volkswagen. A flapping sound led him to discover a ten-pound channel cat flopping in the back seat.
“Hey, Brad, ‘least you caught a fish,” Jon pointed out, holding up the big cat. Brad, strangely, didn’t find that comforting at all.
A contrite Jon organized the salvage effort. A bucket from Jon’s van caught the oil/river water mix drained from the Bug’s crankcase while Jon and Brad went over the interior with a few old feed sacks and a worn, aged blanket. By the time the sun peeked over the bluffs to the east, the VW was almost presentable, I was almost dry, and the local shops in nearby Lansing would be opening. Jon and Bradley set off in the van to buy motor oil, leaving Dunk and me to keep watch over the resurrected VW.
Dunk took a seat on the front bumper of the Bug. “So, what were you guys thinking about, anyhow?”
I took a seat on a concrete parking stop. “Hey, don’t ask me. I got dragged into it. You know how Jon is.”
“Yeah. Wanted to see if it’d float, didn’t he?”
We didn’t take note of the fact that the Bug was still parked on the sloping boat ramp.
“You know how Jon is,” I repeated. “He saw some commercial last winter, and, well, you know.”
A faint creak sounded from the Bug, which we ignored. Dunk adjusted his position slightly to a more comfortable spot on the bumper.
“Well, I hope the thing starts up again once they get some fresh oil in it.”
“It wasn’t under water more than a few minutes.” I was certain that no lasting damage had been done. Yet. “I bet it’ll fire up.”
Another loud creak came from the Bug. Dunk shifted again, looked back at the car for a moment.
“You know if the brake’s set on this thing?” he asked. Too late. With a loud clunk, the Bug slipped out of gear. Dunk slid off the bumper, landing on his backside as the VW rolled backwards down the boat ramp.
“Catch it!” I shouted, leaping off the parking stop. Dunk scrambled to his feet, and both of us went plunging after the Bug, but our efforts were in vain. Gaining speed as it went, Bradley’s Volkswagen rolled down the ramp, landing once more in the dark waters of the Mississippi with a loud splash. There was a final gurgle of dark water, and the Bug disappeared once more into the muddy water. Only the trail of Jon’s rope, still attached to the front bumper, revealed the Bug’s fate.
Dunk shot me a stricken look.
“Uh,” he offered, “I think we really ought to get back out to the island. Our gear’s out there, and we need to get those trotlines in, right?”
“You bet we do. I’m not hanging around here!”
We sprinted for Dunk’s moored johnboat, and in a matter of moments we had made tracks for the channel and safety.
In the End…
Brad’s Volkswagen was, amazingly, resurrected once again from the muddy Mississippi. He drove it through that summer and fall, and indeed for several more years, the sewing-machine sound of the air-cooled engine echoing through the hills. When he left for college two years later, it was in the same blue Bug, now packed to the ceiling with his personal effects.
It was only the following winter, though, that found Jon, Dunk and me sitting out a blizzard once more in front of Jon’s television, taking in a popular TV show of the day.
“Say,” Jon pointed at the screen. “That’s a load of crap. You can’t tell me a Dodge Charger would ever make a jump like that without busting in half.”
“I don’t know,” Dunk objected. By an amazing coincidence, Dunk drove a 1971 Charger. “They’re pretty tough cars.”
Jon looked over at Dunk.
“Wouldn’t be interested in finding out, would you?”
A vision flashed through my head, one of myself clinging to the roof of a Charger as it leaped Coldwater Creek where the bridge had washed out the previous summer. Suddenly the four-mile walk home in a blizzard seemed like a good idea.