There have been many vehicles in my life. Over the years 50 years I've been driving, I've owned a Ford Fairlane, a Mercury Monarch, a green Plymouth 2-door, a blue Chevy pickup, a RAV4 and, currently, a Toyota Matrix. But the one that stands out in my memory was a orange and cream colored 1972 Volkswagen bus with which I zigzagged around our great dominion for several years, that same bus in which I camped and cuddled, cursed and cried, clutched at dreams, and clawed my way back from despair.
The bus carried Ontario plates: AMU 836, which was easy to recall after my friend Del pronounced "A Monstrous Uterus." (Yes, mnemonics really do work…even after 40 years.) I think she said that on the trip we took from New Brunswick to Ontario in the dead of winter at 25 mph, after someone jump-started the 4-volt battery with a 12-volt, and burned out half the wiring.
Everybody has one big love affair in their lives. Mine had a messy end which left my heart in fragments, my ego shattered and my spirits scraped raw. I spent a month or more shut up in my bedroom curled in a fetal ball of groaning agony. Then one day I got out of bed and rejoined the living. I landed a contract with CBC-Radio to do interviews for a program called "This country in the Morning." And I bought the Volkswagen bus. It was February when I took to the road. The day I set out, it began to snow and I drove more than 800 miles through slush and salt and sleet unable to find the windshield washers. Instead, along the way, I got out and washed the windows with clean snow.
During a visit with my parents, my Dad made some alterations to the bus. He took out the middle seat and built a plywood box that fit neatly between the driver’s seat and the back. On top of that were two ½ inch pieces of 2x6 plywood and two 4 inch thick foam pads. At night it pulled out into a comfortable bed. In the day time, I put everything away in the box, and it all folded neatly to one side, making a couch for napping. It allowed me to walk back and forth to the driver’s seat without climbing over seats.
The engine was in the back of the bus. Above it was shelf which made space for a propane stove and cooking gear. I could flip up the back window which kept the rain off, while I boiled the kettle. Or took a sponge bath. At other times I kept a big covered pail of soapy water where I tossed my underclothes. In the summer I could rinse them in a stream and they would dry as I drove down the highway. About once a week I would stop at a motel and take a rest.
The CBC radio work was both good and bad. I had some 60 pieces aired and met fascinating people including a murderer, a trapper, a well-driller and an undertaker whose first job was preparing bodies of people who’d died in the Halifax explosion for burial. Some tapes I made were better than others. I learned the hard way that a cold cassette recorder tape would make voices sound like the Chipmonks when it was played inside. I learned that some of the most verbal people would freeze at the sight of a microphone, and that the best stories came from the most unexpected places.
The main problem with that job was that I never knew when or where my pay would show up. If I was in Halifax, say, my cheque could be sent to Vancouver or, maybe, Ottawa. Most of the time I was lonesome and felt disconnected from everybody and everything that was familiar to me. The only way I knew if I was still employed by CBC was if I heard my voice on the radio.
I traveled for over a year before moving back to Toronto. Then I quit. After some time off I took a series of nothing jobs--secretarial, clerical, driving a coffee wagon--just to pay expenses.
Then I developed kidney problems and spent a couple of months in the hospital. One day when a friend came to visit me in the hospital, I learned that the landlord was using my bus to bootleg booze and possibly other illegal items on Sunday mornings. I decided the safest place for my bus was at home with my parents on the farm. So when a nephew happened to be passing through, I asked him to drive it home for me, which he did.
What he also did, unbeknownst to me at the time, was find a frisky lady friend. Apparently my orange and white bus was spotted regularly, parked on woods roads, in lay-bys, behind abandoned buildings, etc. etc. One time they got the bus stuck and they’d had to call on a nearby farmer to pull them out onto the highway with a tractor. When I showed up a few weeks later and began driving my bus around town I was at first perplexed by the snickers and smirks, the winks and nudges that I met wherever I went.
The bus was easy on gas. The seats were comfortable. But it was light and when I met a transport truck it would get sucked into the tail-wind. Going through the mountains strong gusts of wind would move the bus sideways , even when I had a strong grip on the steering wheel. At 50-55 mph, it was a great ride, but I never felt safe at higher speeds.
I enjoyed the freedom that bus provided. I recall stopping along the north of Lake Superior, opening the side door next to the water and letting the waves rock me to sleep. To pass the time on long trips I would sing every line of every hit song from the 1940s to the present day.
In Toronto it was cheaper and more convenient to used the streetcar to get to work, so the bus sat in a parking lot. I worried about vandals and checked on it often. The bus remained there for nearly a year before I got tired of paying for parking. I put an ad in the Toronto Star and it sold the following day.
Except for this photo and my memories, all that’s left of the Volkswagen bus is the middle seat which now has its place of honor in my late brother’s sugar shack in the woods behind my house.