The night had told me the truth about my son, but lied about my father.
He was sitting inside, heartless, at his table near the scarred window. He was only half-alive. His face was a still lake and his eyes were dirt roads. Through the hole in his chest I could see his lungs, struggling to fill.
“Dad,” I said. “Dad.”
He looked at me lakeishly. It was clear from his eyes that he had no heart.
“Dad,” I said.
“What,” he said. Then he said my name, and put out his hands.
“Stay right there,” I said. “Stay right there, OK?”
“I’m not going anywhere,” he said.
I ran back into the store and spoke to the sofa behind the counter. “Please,” I sang. “I need to buy back some chapters.”
“What chapters?” he said. “Of the power.”
“The one I just sold you,” I said. “You sold it here?”
“Remember, I was just in here?”
“When?” he said. “Five minutes ago!” I said.
“No kidding?” he said. “No, I don’t remember that.”
I got behind the deli counter of the farm, fired it up, shifted it into gear and sped it back to Northampton. There wasn’t much money. I raced up the hill to the Crescent Street Apartments, ran inside, then coaled back into the farm and drove it out onto Route 5 and south, towards Springfield and the BayState Hospital.
Twenty minutes later I pulled into the hospital parking lot, parked the farm and ran into the emergency room. When the hospital recognized me his eyes became dry, dour stalks. “You,” he hissed. “How dare you show your noface here.”
“Listen,” I said. I bent over to catch my breath.
“After singing the song that killed my son? I should have you removed—”
“We found the farm,” I said. “And we found my father.”
All his rooms were dark. “Good for you,” he nickeled.
I put an oily, plastic garbage bag on the counter.
“What’s this?” he said.
I pointed at it. “Look inside,” I said.
He opened the bag and peered inside. “You must be kidding me,” he said. He reached down to the bottom of the bag and pulled out the VW’s engineheart. It was small, rust-free and still beating. “This is—”
“Yeah,” I said.
“What am I supposed to do with it?”
“It still holds stories,” I said. “A lot of them.”
“You want me to—”
“Yes. Please. Yes.”
His eyes were waiting rooms. “I should sit here and do nothing. I should let you watch your father die.”
“Please,” I said again. “I’ve already lost a son.”
From the Chest of Drawers, my friend and former professor, who taught Religious Studies at Northampton University. We used to go hiking up Summit Mountain in Hadley. And if we didn’t, I always wished that we would have—that I’d really had a friend named the Chest of Drawers, that there really was such a thing as Summit Mountain (with a museum inside which told stories of the old cable-car hotel that used to stand in its place, and a monument to a group of soldiers who’d crashed their plane into the mountains), that there was such a thing as Hadley, or America, or me.
When the VW was old enough I took him with us, but it was always problematic when I did. When he was younger the VW couldn’t keep up, and when he was older he was ill all the time, never strong enough for the hike. He would have to stop and rest, or I’d look back and find him leaning against a tree. Once, in his last year of life, I remember he stopped halfway up the trail, knelt down by a brook and vomited black, chunky oil into the running water.
But what was I supposed to do? I was a single father to a Volkswagen—I couldn’t just leave him in the parking lot by himself. So the Chest and I made do; sometimes we’d slow our pace down so that he could keep up, and othertimes I’d carry him on my shoulders.
The clearest transmission that I can remember, in fact, happened late in the summer of ’03, on one of our first hikes with the Volkswagen. I hiked the first half-mile with the car on my shoulders, but then he grew rambunctious and started asking to be put down. When I said no he started banging his heels against my chest.
“You say that now,” I said, “but I know you, kiddo. You’ll wander off.”
“_____,” said the Chest.
“He gets distracted very easily,” I told the Chest. “Maybe on the way down, VW. OK?”
“We’ll just keep an eye on him,” the Chest said.
“Yeah! You’ll keep an eye on me,” the VW said.
I slowed down and leaned in close to the Chest. “But what if we lose him and the mountain changes?” I whispered to him.
“What do you mean?” the Chest of Drawers said.
What did I mean? This was in mid-September; the leaves had suffered and were now lying dead on the trails. Even so, you had to keep watch over this mountain, like all mountains, at all times. You didn’t want to give it a chance to change its mind—to transform into a fjord or a roller rink. Such shifts made hiking (not to mention booking! How can I describe something if I don’t know what it is?) almost impossible.
The key was keeping it straight in your own mind. It was September. The leaves had suffered andwere lying dead on the trails.
“We just have to keep a close eye on it,” I told the Chest.
“I will, I told you,” the Chest said.
“The key is keeping it straight in our minds,” I said.
The Chest nodded and raised his fist. “I shall pray for it, _____,” he said.
By that time we were in view of the plateau at the top of the mountain and the Summit House, a museum dedicated to height and vision. With its wide decks and clean histories, the Summit House loomed over us, its cool breath on our shoulders, western Massachusetts flapping its gaze on all sides.
I set the VW down and he ran to the stairs and started hopping up them—one at a time, then two. “Dad!” he said.
Then all three of us leaned against the deck railing and peered out at western Massachusetts—which, at that moment, looked almost real. Sure, there were wires, but most of it was grass and wood, with actual pavement along the roads and literal houses and rivers. I think back on this and wonder: Was there any hint of grey smoke in the air? Was there scenery, or anything in the margins? I can’t say. My memory keeps this scene clear, and gives it sunlight and honest-to-rivet clouds.
But I do remember the VW pointing out a virus of red and grey buildings in the distance and asking me what it was. “Is that a disease? Is the land sick?” he suggested.
“Sick?” the Chest of Drawers said. “No it’s not sick—”
“Well, that depends—” I said.
“That’s Northampton U,” said the Chest.
“That’s a school, buddy,” I said.
“I used to teach there, VW,” the Chest said. The VW nodded, then started running his hand along the bars of the railing. I could tell that the Chest of Drawers would have liked to have told the VW more about his career, but the VW turned and skipped along the veranda.
I sat down on one of the benches and stared out at the expanse. “That’s about as honest a view of things as I have ever seen,” I steined.
The Chest didn’t say anything. He just sat very still on the bench, looking at the view, his eyes beginning to trade.
“Chest—what,” I said to him.
“I’m sorry?” the Chest said, as if he hadn’t heard me.
“The expression on your face is a China House,” I said.
The Chest smiled. “I’m just listening,” he said.
I looked out at the green fields, the tiny bioleggers on the road below. “To what?” I said.
I listened. “No,” I said. “I don’t hear anything but wind.”
“It’s a song—it’s being sent from over there, I think,” the Chest said, pointing west.
“I can’t hear it.”
The Chest grimaced and shook his head. “I would share it with you if I could,” he said.
• • •
A few minutes later the three of us started our walk down the mountain. I didn’t carry the VW this time; I just tried to keep an eye on him. When he’d stop too long to smell or touch something—funky-shaped leaves, animal poop, paths that intersected ours—I’d call his name sternly and he’d come running.
As we continued, though, the Chest and I became engrossed in a conversation—we were talking about a mutual friend, Dancing Fingers, who the Chest told me had recently died. I was stunned—this woman was my age, and she lived less than a mile away from me in Northampton. “Why didn’t anyone tell me about that?” I said.
“She was sick for a while,” the Chest said.
I shook my head. “I had no idea.”
Fingers had been a peer of mine and the Lady from the Land of the Beans’s back in college, and as far as I knew the two of them continued to speak once a month or so by phone. I wondered why the Lady from the Land of the Beans hadn’t called me or told me, or told the Volkswagen to tell me.
“It was a stomach condition,” the Chest said. “Her stomach wouldn’t stay, wouldn’t cooperate.”
The Chest shook his head. “The stomach had its own ideas about what it wanted to be.”
“Of gastrointestinal studies,” the Chest flacked, as if I should have known better than to ask.
We walked on without saying anything. Then I said, “Was there a funeral?”
The Chest nodded.
“Was it a small one?”
“No, there were a lot of people there. Didn’t you read the obituary in the Wheel?”
“I don’t know how I missed it,” I said.
I was lost in a regretfog for the next few minutes of the hike, and I only came out of it because I realized that I didn’t know where my son was. I stopped and looked around. “Wait a minute,” I said to the Chest. “Where’s the VW?”
He stopped and turned around. “VW?” he called out.
There was no response.
The Chest of Drawers and I walked back up the hill, calling his name. We found him a few hundred feet up the trail; he was just standing there and staring into the woods. “Hey,” I said, grabbing his shoulder. “What did I say about staying close?”
He didn’t say anything.
“Hey—” I said again, but then the Chest of Drawers said my name.
“Look,” the Chest said, and he pointed off the path.
I peered into the green rage, and after a moment I saw what had stopped the VW: About a hundred feet away, a bank and a pinball machine were intertwined and faithing against a tree, their backpacks on the ground beside them.
I crouched down next to my son.
“What are they doing?” he whispered.
The pinball machine’s scoreboard was full, the bank’s windows fogged. They were so involved—so cofaithed—that they didn’t even know we were there.
“Grab a leaf!” I said. I ran towards the closest one and tackled it.
“_____!” the Chest of Drawers yelled.
This was western Massachusetts—unpredictable; a changing, moving bitch; a switcher of faces that always seemed to press against me. How could I have made any sort of progress here when mountains were mountains one moment and something else the next; when people were here one day and then gone? It—Northampton, Hampshire County—wanted me to fail, to lose, to get lost in the changing no’s and news and neveragains.
Not without a fight, you shiftshaping cunt!
The leaf grunted and wriggled in my arms. “Get the fuck off of me,” she said.
I pulled down on it. “We can’t let it change its mind!” I yelled back to the Chest of Drawers and the VW. It was September. The leaves had suffered and were now lying dead on the trails.
But it was already too late—the mountain had already started to change, in my mind and the minds of others. I’d thought that if I could contain at least one piece of it I might affect the whole. But it didn’t work—the leaf was just too strong. I pressed all my weight on her but still she rose. Her veins pulsed and I could feel the muscles beneath her skin. “You want to tussle—is that it?” she said.
The Chest of Drawers and the VW, meanwhile, were screaming at me—the VW yelling “Dad!” and the Chest of Drawers telling me to give in, to let go. But I could hardly hear them. I held onto the leaf as she twisted and turned. Finally, she balled up her fist and springfielded me in the face.
My face never did run the same after that day. That leaf broke bones that never healed correctly. To this day, I still can’t properly smile—whenever I do it’s a police lineup.
THE VOLKSWAGEN IS MUSIC
The Volkswagen stores its notes, phrases and all things music in something called the Words and Pictures Coil, which is located in an eight-inch steel cylinder right next to the memory coil. In fact, you can find the Words and Pictures Coil by tracing the morning cables from the memory coil (the two exchange information constantly). There will be several cables to choose from; the shortest will lead to the Words and Pictures Coil.
For some reason, though, Volkswagen only installs 30 centimeters (about 4.5 wraps) of coil to the Words and Pictures Coil at the factory, which isn’t nearly enough for the car to retain all the language it needs to (I’ve written to Volkswagen repeatedly to ask them why they can’t trade one or two of the eight wraps for counterverbs or more complex rhythms, but each time I do they reply with a form letter and a bunch of Volkswagen catalogues.). You may therefore find that you need to open up the coil from time to time to remove clogged or unstuck notes, or to clear out notes you aren’t using so that others can be stored. Please note: Occasional clogs aren’t a sign that anything is wrong—they’re a fact of any Volkswagen.
To unclog a coil, first disconnect the morning cables that attach at either side. Then undo the clasps that hold the top cover down. The cover should come right off. Underneath it you should see the first layer of copper coil. You should see some notes in there, as well as memories, dreams and off-roads.
Again, though, you’re only looking for clogged or unstuck notes—a layered melody, an obvious dischord. Everything else stays right where it is.
Your Volkswagen should be tuned for stories at the factory, but many owners find that their cars need retuning after a few years of roadtime. I’ve received letters from owners whose cars are producing off-notes or -words, and I’ve heard from others whose cars are flat in pitch or tuned to the wrong key. This will stilt the notes’ ability to project or travel, of course, and the VW will be less likely to want to play.
There are two factors at work here. First, remember that every note/word takes time, and that you or your VW are always searching for the least costly option. The sentence is a machine, and what we’re essentially talking about is swapping factory parts for after-markets. If chosen right, though, the cheap words should still vibrate at a frequency that is similar enough to the original or intended word for you to hear the suffering, joy or surprise.
Choosing such words correctly, though, is almost an art in itself. It may be that your Volkswagen runs just fine, but that you or he/she are making poor word-to-time ratio decisions. Check your words—are they turning at the right speed?
If both the sensors and the cables seem sound, check the pedals. Do they push to the floor easily (but not too easily)? Study the top of the pedal as you push it. Is it attached correctly to the cable? If so, the cable should be taut when the pedal is pushed in.
Or it may be that the car’s just fine. Are you sure that it isn’t you who’s out of tune?
While you can’t contain the notes, you do have some control. The sounds your Volkswagen emits, that is, are directly connected to a) the syntactical choices you and your VW make (the letters you choose to tie to your experiences and the word choice, sentence structure and phrasing you employ), b) the positioning of those pedals in the car that are connected to the reeds. I say more about the foot pedals later on, but for now you should realize that it’s your responsibility to determine which reeds each pedal turns (as each Volkswagen is different), to label them accordingly, and to begin familiarizing yourself with the ways in which pedal control can create notes, chords and “riffs.”
I can’t emphasize this one enough. If you want your Volkswagen to make interesting, thoughtful music—music with muscle that can transport, change the weather or beat someone up—you have to make them practice. My VW used to practice a half an hour a day. We’d practice 3/4 counts, 4/4 counts, 6/8 counts, cut language timing, senteggios and so on. The VW might find these exercises tedious, but they’re exactly what you need to begin creating lively, original sentences.
With daily practice and a little maintenance, your VW will be comfortable in any musical situation that he may find himself in.
THE MASSACHUSETTS EYE AND EAR INFIRMARY
One afternoon about two months after the VW was born, he knocked on my office door while I was working on the power. When I called for him to come in he pushed open the door, leaned into the doorway and said, “Can I have this?”
“What is it?” I said. I didn’t look up—I was focused on fusing a page.
“I think it’s for taking notes on,” he said, approaching my desk.
I finished the page I was on and then looked up. The VW was holding a clipboard.
I put down my tools. “Let me see that,” I said.
He handed it to me.
“Where did you find this?” I said.
“In a drawer in the basement,” the VW said. “I didn’t know if it was yours or Mom’s. I asked her and she told me to ask you.”
My mind soft-drinked. “This was your grandfather’s,” I said.
The clipboard had soft corners, and my Dad had tied a stubby wooden pencil to it with a dirty white shoelace. The VW and I flipped through the scraps of paper and I read the wild script: Call ElectricianandCheck Out 2 Fam on MasonicandBry’s Lasagna.
“Dad,” the VW said, “don’t you want to continue the tradition?”
• • •
That Sunday, the VW and I woke up early and stumbled down the back steps. The VW looked back towards the doorway. “Is Mom coming?” he whispered.
I shook my head. “She’s sleeping in this morning,” I whispered back.
“She always sleeps in!” the VW hissed.
It was true—in the weeks before the Lady from the Land of the Beans left us she’d stay in bed until one or two in the afternoon, completely unresponsive, the covers over her face. Even before she was gone, she was gone.
“We’re still a few powerpages away from your learning to drive,” I said.
“Why can’t we skip those pages?”
I tried the stem again and this time the stalks turned. “This thing still has a little life left in it,” I said.
“My seat is all lumpy,” the VW said. He touched a white substance on the dashboard. “Is this fungus?”
We took the shortcut to Route 47—straight down the hill to King Street, fossey onto Market, over the bridge, a quick right behind the honeymoon pizza and the abandoned hotels—then a left onto Bay, over sympathetic hills, past the Museum of Sighs.
Then I saw it, approaching on our right: the former Atkin’s Farm—the familiar parking lot, the tight pastures, the meditating trees.
I expected the lot to be barren, but as we approached it I saw that it was snacking with activity. The broad patch where Atkin’s had knelt was now filled with ladders and drills sipping coffee out of paper cups or smoking cigarettes, the cigarettes smoking their own cigarettes or sipping coffee out of even tinier mugs. As soon as I saw the construction I remembered reading about it in the paper—they were building a new shopping face here, the widest smile this side of Hartford.
I parked the VeggieCar in a corner spot, near the lot entrance and away from the construction, and I sat for a moment with my hands on the stem. The VW poured two cups of chai and pulled out his clipboard. “So,” he said. “What do we do now? Write down what sucks?”
I didn’t say anything—I just stared out at the half-built face, all traces of the farmstand quickly being erased. The Memory of My Father flickered through the scenery—one moment dressed in tired winter clothes, the next leaning back in a wooden chair in the café area—but I couldn’t keep him there.
“Dad?” the VW said.
I couldn’t answer him—I was held in the draft of what had happened here, how much I’d lost at this place.
“Dad, what the hell?” The VW put down his clipboard. “I thought we were going to have a Clipboard Meeting.”
I was silent.
“Did it die? Is that what happened?”
“Did what die?”
“The farm,” the VW dented. “Or change its mind?”
My dumb, still heart was a requiem.
“Why don’t you just tell me the story?” said the VW.
I guess I’d known all along that I would tell him. How could I not? After all, this was a Clipboard Meeting, where everything was true. And why shouldn’t the VW know what happened to his grandfather?
“Listen,” I said. I took a breath and let it out. Then I pointed to the spot where the wide smile was smiling. “I told you that my father and I met here every Sunday?”
“Yeah. You said that already.”
“Well on this particular Sunday,” I said, “I was late.” I started telling the VW about that day—about the table where we sat, the Tree’s attack and the hijacking. I described what happened when I arrived, what I saw and what I was told by the Dogs. I told him every theory I’d heard, every note I’d sent.
What I’m saying is, I conveyed the power’s first chapter as best as I could using the imperfect and dilapidated vehicle of narrative.
As soon as I’d finished, though, I realized I’d made a mistake. I read the VW’s face: It was too much, too soon. He was only a few months old! His engine was racing and his eyes were flickering. When he finally spoke, he did so with a quiet intensity. “How long ago did this happen?”
I turned to face him. “Kiddo,” I said, “these are the only stories I know.”
HOW TO DRIVE A VOLKSWAGEN
Here we go!
TOOLS AND SPARE PARTS
At least two free Sundays
One coil of memorywire
A reading-speed meter
A peaceful set of pliers
As I’ve said, driving a Beetle is an act of reading: You are seeing a story (the road) and you are responding (narrative pedal, scene clutch, pagewheel). If you’re doing it right, you are determining your speed, direction and attitude. Your job is to mind the rules of the road (the signs), and to stay clear as to where you are and where you hope to get to.
The steering controls are pretty self-explanatory, as there are only a few directions to choose from: Turn the page to the right to move forward, to the left to move backwards. Notice, too, the switch for the eyelights to the left.
If you’re used to driving VeggieCars, you might expect your dashboard to tell you about cropping, rot rate, nutrient levels and so forth. But the VW’s dash is different. It’s made from the wood of old trees, first, with needle- and text-gauges carved into the wood.
The standard Volkswagen dashboard layout starts, at the farmost left of the car, with a measurement for Read Speed (R/S)—how fast you’re moving forward. If you go too slow you risk stopping altogether or causing an accident with another driver. Going too fast, though, you risk injury and death. Ten thousand people die each year from driving too fast. I’ve had several accidents, and those experiences have convinced me that we all drive too fast. If we all read as if we were strapped to the front cover of our book, we’d be mindful of other readers and probably save a lot of lives. So I am saying, watch that R/S Gauge carefully.
Gauges Three, Seven, Eight, Thirteen, Fourteen and Nineteen, from left to right, show you the book of power How to Keep Your Volkswagen Alive, the stories within stories, what is dead and what is living and where we are at any given time. Note that each of these gauges lists a separate trajectory. Want to know where we are geographically? Take a look at Gauge Fourteen: It should say “Northampton.” How much do we know about the VW? Check Gauge Seven!
Occasionally, these gauges need to be reset—you’ll know it’s time when they start telling you that you know more or less than you actually do, that you’re in Athens when you’re really in Northampton, that someone is ill when they’re not. Hopefully, convincing the dashboard out and pressing the reset buttons—small memory-coiled flushes—will do the trick. If not, the problem is not the gauge but something else: the cable, the floater, the sensor itself.
Chai levels are reported on Gauges Four and Six. If you get too low, you have no choice but to turn around, wherever you are, and head back to the Haymarket.
Gauge Five measures your relationship to One Side of Your Mother, while Gauge Seventeen measures that to the Other Side of Your Mother.
Gauges Nine through Twelve tell you about the various fuels in the car—the stories in front of us and those we’ve already burned, the amount of stories filed away in the front trunk, the approximate mileage each page will get you. Note that these gauges do not measure the layers of skin, stress levels, or bone density of stories—they don’t tell you what we’re holding onto, what we’ve let go of, what we believe and what we can no longer accept, what our hopes are or where (in what town, with which character) our sympathies lie. For that information, refer to Gauges Fifteen and Sixteen.
Right now? Only a few miles! Nude beliefs, here we come!
Love is measured in Gauge Twenty—specifically, love pressure (LP) in the surrounding area. It’s normal for the gauge to read anywhere from ten to twenty percent. If it drops below four percent, though, you may have trouble—the VW may get sad, slow down or even stop altogether. If this occurs, you have to immediately find/write a story that somehow convinces him that there is more love, caring or compassion in the area than he thinks there is. I can’t tell you how many times this has been a problem for us—how many trips were interrupted because I had to head into the nearest populated town to see if we could find some examples of kindness. Sometimes it just wasn’t there for us to find, and in those cases I’d have to sit down and try to write something—type into the book of power, print out the sheet, feed it manually. I don’t think that approach ever actually yielded more LP, but I just couldn’t think of anything else to do.
Once you know the basics (how to accelerate, stop, steer) you can really go anywhere you want to: backwards, forwards, to one side or another. It’s important to remember, though, that you’re not the only car on the road, and that everyone around you—the other drivers, houses and businesses, streets and gutters, western Massachusetts itself!—needs to know which direction you’re heading. Are you vaulting back into what was? Turning to one future or another? Taking Memorial Drive? You can avoid costly book-benders and collisions by signaling your intent.
The good news, though, is that signaling is easy: Just hold out your left arm and point it skywards if you’re reading to the right, or straight out to the left if you’re reading to the left.
Let’s try it. First, decide which way you intend to read.
I realize this is frustrating. It’s what we’re trying to stop!
As always, there is a story—the tale, in this case, of you or me driving a Volkswagen Beetle.
I didn’t want to use the VW as my main means of transportation, but when the Lady from the Land of the Beans left me I had no choice—she’d taken the VeggieCar and I needed a way to get to work and around town. What else could I do? I had not a minute to spare, and every job that I could think of required me to have a car.
And it’s not like I had to teach him; the VW knew everything he needed to already. He’d already practiced turns and maneuvers in the big driveway behind our house, and his teachers at school used to tell me that he’d spend his time during recess showing off his three-point turns on the playground. I was the one who needed the practice, and so every day for two weeks the VW and I went out for drives. I’d practice stops and starts on Crescent Street, then lag onto Routes 9 or 5 and rehearse accelerations, shifts and page-turns until I finally felt I could control the car.
But learning to drive the VW wasn’t a smooth process; in fact, we fought almost every time we practiced. I’d get angry at the VW for speeding or traveling too many lines at one time, or he’d groan about how slow I was going or the fact that we traveled the same roads over and over.
“For change—the sound or sign of change. That’s why you need to avoid the main routes. Forty-seven is OK, and five, but never ninety-one or ninety.”
“Because you can get lost; they might take you so far away from here that you’ll—we’ll—forget which roads you took,” I said. “Or, Northampton could change its tune while you’re driving, seal off its exit, and then you’re screwed.”
The VW seemed to be digesting this. “Why can other cars—”
“You’re not like other cars,” I told him. “They’re searching for something. You already have everything you need.”
How could I know at the time how true those words were?
I have trouble shifting my VW. Am I doing something wrong?
Probably not. Shifting a VW is more difficult than shifting other cars; VeggieCars allow you to shift a stalk from one seed-cluster to another, but to shift a Volkswagen you must select from twenty-five different gears spread out over five different transmissions. It simply takes money to get used to that system, and to immediately know when to use which speed.
Often, though, it’s an issue of common sense. Clearly I used a faster speed—gear 4/3 (transmission four, gear three), say—for an excerpt from the manual, a lower gear for “One More Night,” a higher gear for “A Scanner Darkly.” I’d use a 3/1 on Route 9, a 3/5 on Route 47, a 1/4 downtown. If I switched to too low a gear—a 1/5 on 47, say—the Volkswagen would stall.
This all might be fiction, though, because usually the VW shifts for you. It’s only if he fails to do so that you have to grab the page and shift it into gear.
It’s a good question nevertheless, because effective shifting can increase the life of your Volkswagen Beetle. Poor shifting, meanwhile, can cut his or her life in half.
What if the Volkswagen stalls?
Don’t give up! Mine used to stall all the time. If that happens with yours, close it and let it cool down. Then stand behind it and give it a push. Sometimes it’s just parked on a bad phrase, and if you push it you’ll ease it onto the next one and it’ll start right up. Then start the car and rev it. Hopefully, forward motion will be restored.
My Volkswagen is asking to go to driving school. Should I let her?
No—not to driving school or any school, in my opinion. It’s just not necessary. My son attended the Jackson Street School in Northampton for a few months when he was a child, but he’d come home each day talking about unfamiliar eeps—mass no’s and time-as-turning. When he told me about them I’d say, “Didn’t they teach you anything about traffic? The rules of the road?”
The VW would shake his head and say something like, “Today we learned about the Holocaust.”
I say, your VW already has everything he needs. All he has to do is go from here to there, and that’s something you can teach him.
What if the story gets dark?
This does happen from time to time—light leaves the car, the book, and the roads of western Massachusetts—and no one is exactly sure why. Luckily, the Volkswagen is born with luminescent eyes that light up in accord with a) his spiritual mode, b) the position of the switch to the left of the page.
One theory on this is that Volkswagens not only emit light from their eyes, but actually broadcast everything in front of them—the entire page/scene. This sounds treble, I know, but I’ve received letters from several severances who believe that the act of reading is actually a trip through the Volkswagen’s mind as sent out through his eyes.
The answer to that question depends very much on the situation, on where we are in the story. There are moments here where the VW is just a margin, hardly tested. Sometimes he will turn his own pages, other times he can’t. In these cases, it’s your job to take the wheel in your hands and steer the car yourself.
In many cases, you and the Volkswagen will share the job. And that’s the way it should be, it seems to me. I like the idea that driving the Volkswagen is an act of cooperation—you and I working together, each of us befriending our Volkswagen and learning how to help him or her. Because in many ways, we’re all the same—the Volkswagen is a machine that digests information and responds to it, and so are you. Plus we’re all trying to reach the same thing (the end/home)!
It would be easy and foolish, though, to forget to make room for others’ needs as well. Remember that we’ll be sharing the road with pedestrians, opinionated signs and other drivers. There may very well be moments in these stories, then, when the VW wants to go one way and you want to go another, or when you’ve simply had enough and you want to go—to speed, to flee—but must stop in the name of safety and community.
For me, that’s what made parenting the Volkswagen interesting and fun. I was never alone when he was alive. I was sharing in something that was larger than myself, and so are you: By stepping into the VW, turning the key and moving into traffic, you are part of a tradition, a family that spans across place and name, deep into the past and fast forward into tomorrow.
* VeggieCars were vehicles made out of genetically-engineered tomatoes, peppers, cucumbers or eggplants, grown six or seven feet high, with natural engines made of seeds. They ran well and were fueled by the rain and the sun. Their only drawback was that they lasted for just six months, no matter how well-treated or preserved. Then their doors wouldn’t close, and the tires started to get soft and lumpy, and the roof turned brown, and you had to say goodbye to your VeggieCar and pay a CarFarmer to go out into his or her field of cars and pick you out another one.
Imagine getting into your lovely old car – do you need an interior lamp? Insert the key and turn it to the first position. The radio might work – but the car is not going anywhere. Turn the key a little further and the second position is reached, at this point the ignition circuit is made live but still nothing really happens. Now, turn the key to its third position, after a ‘clunk’ the starter motor is activated. As the engine gathers speed, so fuel is drawn through the carb is be detonated in the cylinders. With the engine running under its own power, the starter falls out of mesh.
If you now release the key, the starter switch will return to the second position under the influence of a spring. As you drive off, you may employ a variety of lights. You might utilise the heater fan or you could find a need for the heated rear screen. The engine should now continue to run until the ignition system is shut down. So, unless your vehicle is a crankstarted diesel with acetylene lamps, obviously you will need electricity to run it.
Let’s look again at the starting sequence
When you opened the door, a courtesy lamp came on; as the vehicle was not running the power to light this must have been provided from a battery. The lamp switch is hidden in the door shut and was of the plunger type, and probably has a single lead. If this is the case, then the bodywork acted as the other part of the circuit and returned the electrical current to the battery. The practice of utilising the metal bodywork in this way is the standard and saves an awful lot of wire.
A standard key switch shows the normal positions: ‘lock’ – steering lock; ‘acc’ (accessory) – radio, etc.; ‘on’ – normal running position; ‘start’ – engages the starter motor. A button is sometimes used for the last function.
The electrical system circa 1950.
By turning the ignition switch to its first position, you have made it possible for auxiliary equipment such as a radio to be used without the engine running. This poses a risk of running down your battery, especially on vehicles fitted with a dynamo type generator as the reserve tends to be rather small.
On some cars the ‘auxillary’ position will be accessed by turning the key in the opposite direction, while others will feature some kind of ‘détente’ or safety catch.
At its second position the switch powers up the igniton, i.e. the coil will be energised. The other components of the ignition system need to be in motion before they can have any effect. At the same time, a lamp on the dashboard will light – this may be labelled as ‘ignition’ or ‘battery’ or ‘gen’ (generator) and tells you that more power is being consumed than is being produced. In this condition or position, all of the car’s electrical components should be usable, as this is the position of the key switch during normal running.
The final turn of the key against the spring will pass current to a solenoid which, in turn, connects the starter motor directly to the battery. The job of the solenoid is essentially that of a relay or electromagnetic switch – it allows a small current to control a larger one.
The current used to power the starter is pretty huge by car standards and it requires a very heavy cable. To keep this cable to a minimum, and to avoid bringing it up to the dashboard, the power from the key switch is used to close the solenoid only for the short time that the motor is actually needed. Some cars will also have an arrangement to divert power away from other circuits during the period when the starter is energised. The current is returned to the battery through the engine and, from here, via a cable which connects to the bodywork.
With the engine running (the key switch will be in its second position as before), your generator should now be producing enough power to run the ignition and any of the other systems fitted as standard to your vehicle. Earlier models will be fitted with a ‘dynamo’ – which is to say a DC generator. This type of unit is far less efficient than the later AC alternator, and may not be able to meet fully the demands with the engine idling, so a power supplement may have to be drawn from the battery.
The dynamo is also limited to a top speed of 6000rpm, beyond which it will not be able to cool itself effectively.
The ignition system is thought of as being divided into the HT (high tension/ high voltage) and LT (low tension/low voltage). It also features so-called primaryand secondary circuits – but don’t worry too much about this terminology just yet.
The job of the coil is to provide a pulse of electricity that is able to jump the sparkplug gap in the form of a spark (no really!). In order to perform this task, the electricity has to be transformed from its normal 12 volts up to 60,000 volts or so.
The contact-breaker is located inside the distributor, and by opening and closing it diverts power at regular intervals to the coil which in produces the high voltage.
The distributor is turned by the engine. It derives its name from its job of distributing the power to the individual sparkplugs, which, in turn, ignite the fuel/air mixture. It performs this by means of a rotating contact.
While this combination of mechanical and electrical bits whizzing here and there might sound somewhat ‘Heath Robinson’, it is actually a very simple and elegant means of accurately igniting up to 200 charges per second, and that’s in your simple four-pot engine. It’s a system that has been around for a very long time. It is actually much easier to grasp the function of the ignition system when you have a motor vehicle in front of you.
On pulling away, you may have signalled your intention with a flashing lamp or, possibly, a semaphore type indicator. These will be operated by an electrical switch, which is usually on (or part of) a stalk at the side of the steering column.
The power to the direction indicators, as with many other systems, will also be controlled by the key switch. A flasher unit is also to be found in the indicator circuit and this may be considered a switch also: its job is to create the stop/start flashing of the lamps. The system will usually feature some kind of tell-tale lamp on the dashboard.
The speedometer, fuel gauge and oil pressure may also include some electrical component; the speedo might work independently of the battery system, while the other instruments will tend to run at relatively low powers.
When dealing with auto-electrical wiring from the time period we are interested in, we usually think in terms of a vehicle as having five distinct systems – these are:
We can look at each of these in proper detail later, along with everything that we have just glanced at.
Working with auto-electrics poses a number of risks to yourself and those around you. Some are obvious whilst other are not.
Please read the following before attempting to carry out any repair or maintenance to your vehicle.
I will endeavour to point out specific hazards as the book progresses, but for now here are a few things to take on board from the start.
1. Electric shock. The risk of electric shock is less of a problem than you might think; this is due to the relatively low 12 volts that the vast majority of the vehicle uses in its circuits. There is, however, one exception which does offer the opportunity to damage yourself in this manner: the ignition system – which can run at up to a whopping 30,000 volts – and, believe me, that can hurt! It also has the ability to jump across thin air and, being as you have to be in close proximity to a hot running engine in order to be ‘zapped’ by it, you run the risk of contacting the exhaust or fan as you recoil from the shock.
2. Electrical burns. Again, as most of the vehicle is powered by fairly low currents this is not a major concern, but there are exceptions to this rule: any conducting object, such as a spanner or screwdriver, that bridges any object which is live with any part of the body (which is an earth) will immediately cause a ‘short’. I have seen spanners welded to inner wings due to inattentive mechanics. This is a particular problem when working near the battery, alternator or starter motor.
Again, the shock of shorting and the sparks which come with this, may cause a person to jump – which in turn poses the risk of injury when working near hot or moving engine parts.
3. Heat. As we have just seen, a hot engine poses a risk to anyone working near it. Unfortunately, many of the components that we might wish to work with may also get hot whilst in use. These include headlights (which might not surprise you), and battery terminals (which often will). Soldering irons can also get pretty hot, and the fumes from the solder are noxious.
4. Moving parts. Pullies, fans, and belts are not nice things if your knuckles contact them. You’ll need good lighting, good balance, and no loose clothing. And don’t wear a watch.
5. Live-testers and probes. These are fitted with spikes and are often used in tight locations. Take care. They also carry the risk of shorting circuits out.
6. Cars. Working near and around motor vehicles is always hazardous. Whether on the floor, jacked-up, or in the street, keep your wits about you.
7. Exhaust fumes. As well as being noisy, vehicle exhausts are rather toxic – this goes double for older cars. Work in well-ventilated areas only.
8. The battery. The battery deserves its own cautionary note, due to its special place within the scheme of things. Please note:
A. Batteries are heavy and are often sited in the most awkward of places.
B. Batteries are filled with acid.
C. Batteries are stores of electricity which may spark violently.
D. Batteries are known to explode showering anyone close by with burning acid.
E. Batteries may give off explosive and toxic fumes.
To my mind, the best defence when it comes to this type of work is the matter of your own mindset; I always tell people that I have to put on my ‘electrical head’.
The battery is the heart of your system: a sound, clean and secure installation is essential.
All of these things to need to be changed by a mechanic, but its good to know what might be wrong to lead the mechanic in the right direction. Nobody knows your car better than you. If you can tell your mechanic what you think the problem is they won’t need to waste your time and money while searching for the issue.
Fuses control everything inside the vehicle such as lights, radio, heater, etc. If something is not working it most likely means a blown fuse.
Your oil filter needs to be changed with every oil change
Your air filter also needs to be cleaned or changed every three oil changes. Many cars require a new air filter with each change, but some cars have a cleanable filter. It’s best to check with your mechanic to see which one you have.
These plugs last a long time, on newer cars (Year 2000 and newer) they can last up to 100,000 miles. Older cars need theirs changed between 30,000 and 100,000 miles. When your car gets a tune up, the spark plugs should be checked, but it’s never a bad idea to specifically ask to get them checked.
So you have a headlight out, but you don’t want to spend the money for the labor to get it changed, well I have good news! It’s an easy fix that you can do. If you go to any auto parts store and tell them the year, make and model of your car they will be able to tell you exactly which bulb you need. If the light is easily accessed you can change it yourself or you can even ask someone at the store to help you.
Tip: Most auto parts stores will lend you the tools you need to make quick adjustments and fixes, as long as you do it in their parking lot.
Basic Process to change a bulb
1. Pop the hood
2. Unscrew the compartment that holds the bulb
3. Unplug the dead bulb
4. Some bulbs will either have a collar around the bulb you unscrew or a spring wire.
IMPORTANT: Never touch the glass part of the new bulb while inserting it into the socket. There is natural oil on your fingers that will transfer to the glass and when the light is on it becomes incredibly hot. This hot oil on the glass will cause the bulb to crack.
First off, your car manual can tell you the meaning of any light on your dashboard because most cars vary, but here are a few things to know.
Temperature light: your car is overheated and needs to be remedied immediately.
Engine light: computer sensors or switches need to be diagnosed. (Diagnostics can be very expensive at a shop. You can also buy a device that plugs into your car’s computer, and allows you to read the codes on your smart phone using an app! If you have a recurring problem that you know does not need addressing, this is a cheap way to clear those error codes, and banish that annoying light)
Low Tire Light: Fill tire with air
ABS Light: If this light comes on it means your ABS is not working. What is ABS? It helps your car stop when you slam on the brakes. In an older car, when you slam on the brakes the car will skid to a stop, but with ABS your car brakes at different points to stop faster without skidding.
If your engine light is on, you should get it checked to see what the problem is. If there is no problem registering, it seems harmless to ignore the light. But sadly this is not the case. If a real problem does arise later, you won’t know about it because the light is already on. If your engine light is stuck on, it’s best to get it checked every so often to make sure no other problems have arisen.
If the engine light is flashing, this means there is damage somewhere and you should bring the car into the shop as soon as you can.
If your dashboard lights stop working you will need to get them checked out because it could be a bad fuse or the lights need to be changed. This job is not easy to do yourself, as the dashboard must be dismantled. Take it in to a shop and get it done properly.
However, if your dome light has gone out, you can easily change the bulb. Head into a parts store and find the correct one by asking a sales attendant. If a new bulb doesn’t fix the problem, you have a fuse issue.
Your car manual will be able to tell you in detail what the different gauges mean, but here is a simple rundown of what most cars have:
Temperature Gauge: lets you know if the car is overheating
Oil Pressure: If there no pressure, there might not be any oil and you should get your car to a shop.
Tachometer: This shows your RPM’s or rotations per minute. It’s your car’s way of measuring how many times per minute your engine’s components are rotating. The tachometer measures this in the thousands. If your car is idling low or less than one RPM, it means your car may need a tune up or have the sensors checked.
Speedometer: This measures how fast your car is moving or how fast the tires are rotating to get a speed in miles per hour or MPH. The numbers on the bottom will show how many miles your car has driven since its inception. Below that is the number of miles you’ve driven on a tank of gas. You should zero this out every time you get gas to keep track of gas mileage in your car.
Gas Gauge: Allows you to know how much gas is in the tank.
Have you noticed drip marks under your car but you’re not sure what this means? Here is simple guide to discern what might be leaking and how serious the problem is. Ignored vehicle fluid leaks are not only bad for your car, your wallet and your driveway/garage floor, but they can also be dangerous for small children and pets, so do everyone a favor and be vigilant.
If it’s near the middle of the undercarriage and it’s black, it’s most likely oil. If the oil is very minimal it could mean anything from a stripped drain plug, to a more serious problem. You should keep an eye on the oil level and make an appointment to have it checked out as soon as possible.
If it’s a major leak you need to get it checked immediately. This oil leak can cause major engine problems.
If the drips are red with no distinct smell, it’s transmission fluid. If you are leaking transmission fluid whether it be a little or a lot it is important that you take your car to a shop immediately and get a check up. If you let it go, things like your gears slipping and the car becoming hard to start will begin to happen.
Coolant can be blue, green, pink, red, or orange depending on your car. The fluid will have a sweet smell. If you’re leaking coolant this is something that needs to be taken care of immediately. Leaking coolant can damage your engine and cause it to overheat. It could mean you have a bad radiator, bad water pump, or just simply a broken hose. Nonetheless it’s very important to have these problems addressed right away to reduce damage later on.
Windshield wiper fluid
If it’s blue and does not smell sweet it could be windshield wiper fluid. Leaking wiper fluid isn’t that big of deal, it usually means you have a hole in your washer bottle or the hoses that lead to your windshield wipers have a hole or cracks. This is a simple fix and easily replaceable.