For many of us of a certain age, the Volkswagen Beetle was a ubiquitous sight on the landscape of our adolescence. My family owned a yellow one–I’m guessing it was a 1960 model–and it carried the four of us many miles on vacations, excursions, and trips to visit our grandparents and other relatives. When my parents had gotten all the good they could out of it, they passed it on to my husband Bill and me to drive as a spare car; and then we passed it on to my sister, Betsy, and her husband, Doug.
That little VW Beetle served us well for over a decade. With the motor in the back, it could take us anywhere, regardless of weather or terrain! I guess that’s why I was so delighted when Mark, the artist who is working with me on the exterior design of my new book, presented me with the above option for a cover of Over the Mountain. I knew at once that this was the one I’d use.
Now that we’ve settled on the cover, Mark and his wife, Lorna, will work together to combine the interior and exterior design. Lorna finished up the interior formatting and sent it to me this morning, and it looks wonderful. The next step will be to download the finished cover and text onto the CreateSpace web site for publication. Hopefully, the book will be available in print and Kindle format some time in March. I’ll keep you posted!
Another reason I like the cover Mark created is that the VW Beetle plays prominently in the life of Harriet Oechsner, the main character in Over the Mountain. Here’s a sample, told in Harriet’s own words:
After I got my license, I almost lived in the car, thinking of any excuse to go out. My parents didn’t say anything for a month or so, and then my father called me aside and said, “You can drive the Pontiac for necessities, but if you want to ride around for the fun of it, you’ll have to learn to drive the VW Beetle. It uses way less gas, whereas the Pontiac guzzles fuel.”
In requiring me to master a stick shift, I felt that he was virtually making me learn to drive all over again. I was miffed at this inconvenience and complained about it at church one Sunday to Brad Norton, a tall, thin senior in my youth group.
“I have a VW Beetle, too. Why don’t you come over to my house tonight for supper? We’ll go out afterward, and I’ll teach you to drive mine,” he said.
He was cute enough, and I agreed to the date. Besides, I really needed to learn to manage a clutch, because my dad was not swayed in the least by all my arguments against his new rule about using the Pontiac for essential driving only.
“Sorry, Harriet,” he’d say. “But if you want to take the car out just for pleasure, you’re gonna have to master that clutch.”
Brad lived in Crestline Village in a split-level brick home with a nicely manicured lawn. I’d never been to the Nortons’ before he took me there that night, but I knew his parents from church. Mrs. Norton had been Lulu’s Sunday school teacher, and Mr. Norton served on the finance committee and had been a deacon.
Mrs. Norton greeted us at the door. A petite woman with a sweet smile and a gardenia scent, she hugged me and invited us into the kitchen.
“We had a big Sunday dinner, so I just fixed us some Chef Boyardee pizzas for supper. I hope you like ’em,” she said.
“Oh, yes, ma’am,” I said. “We have ’em at our house a lot on Sunday nights. Mother puts a roast on to cook while we’re at church, and we have our big meal in the middle of the day on Sundays, too. Then we either have waffles or pizza for supper.”
“Well, they say the mixes don’t hold a candle to the pizzas you can get up north in places like New York. But since I’ve never tasted one of those, I just swear by Chef Boyardee.”
Mr. Norton, a heavier and taller version of Brad with silver hair, sat on a bench on the far side of the kitchen table, smoking a cigarette and drinking a glass of iced tea. He smiled broadly and nodded at me. Mrs. Norton indicated that Brad and I should join him on his side of the table, where there were three place settings.
“I’ll sit on this side so I can get to the extra pizza in the oven and serve it when we need more,” she said.
“Oh, I can sit on that side with you and help,” I said. “Do you want me to toss the salad for you and put it in the salad bowls?” Mother had ingrained in me from early childhood to always offer to help any time I took a meal in someone’s home.
“No, you come on over here and sit by me, you pretty thing. Betty’ll do the serving.”
The flirtation, which had come from Mr. Norton, the middle-aged father of my date, took me completely off guard. I laughed nervously and looked around the room to see if there was someone else who could possibly have spoken. Then I saw Brad wince.
Mrs. Norton raised her eyebrows and shot her husband a disapproving glance. “Now, you behave yourself, Bradley.” And then she smiled up at me and added, “It’s so nice to have a young lady around this house who thinks about offering to help. But no, honey, you’re our guest tonight, and I don’t expect you to wait on these men.”
I didn’t understand then that her remarks were probably the veiled attempt of an exasperated and humiliated wife to control her husband’s roguish behavior, at least in her own domain, the kitchen. However, I later overheard Mother tell my dad “That sweet Betty Norton certainly has her hands full with her rounder of a husband who cannot keep his hands to himself.”
It was evident that Mr. Norton didn’t intend to surrender his spot at the end of the table, and as the table abutted the kitchen wall on the other side, the only way to get to our seats was to slide over him and onto the bench beyond.
He stood and moved the bench back slightly for us to go through. Brad stepped aside for me to go first, and I tried to slip by Mr. Norton without making any more physical contact than necessary. As I passed, he pushed his knees into the back of my thighs, causing me to fall forward, and then he grasped my upper arms to steady me. “Careful there, darlin’, I don’t want you to fall.”
I was wearing a sleeveless blouse, and I could feel his long fingers, damp with condensation from holding his tea glass, gripping my skin like a cold metal vise. I shivered, and the image of Little Red Riding Hood and the big bad wolf passed through my mind.
“Thanks,” I said, pulling away and sliding as far as I could to the end of the table, leaving plenty of room for Brad to create a safe buffer between his father and me. I could feel my cheeks blazing, and when Mrs. Norton filled my glass with tea, I took a big sip to try to cool off.
The Nortons were big Alabama fans, and as we ate our pizza, we talked about Bear Bryant and his winning record in football, and whether they could repeat the success of the 1961 season and go undefeated again. After we finished the pizza, Mrs. Norton brought us scoops of Neapolitan ice cream topped with sugar wafers and served in glass sherbet dishes.
Brad stood up and told his parents we’d be on our way and that he wouldn’t be in too late. His father got up to let him pass. Brad kissed his mother and retrieved his car keys from the counter.
As I passed through, Mr. Norton draped one long arm over my shoulder and flexed his bicep, squeezing my head onto his chest. I could smell his Aqua Velva cologne, mixed with the scent of the Lucky Strikes he’d been smoking. To this day I almost gag at the smell of Aqua Velva. Embarrassed by his attention, I laughed nervously and tried to free myself from his grip without making a scene.
Brad saw what was going on and came over to pull me away. “For God’s sake, Dad. Leave her alone.” When we got out of his house, he shook his head and said disgustedly, “I’m so sorry.” I could tell he was mortified over his dad’s behavior and didn’t want him to feel any worse, so I tried to make light of it.
“It’s okay. He didn’t mean anything by it,” I said, and I meant it. But I sure was glad my father never acted like that. I felt more tolerant toward him, even if he was forcing me to learn to drive a stick shift.
Brad drove us over to the Kmart parking lot, which by that time was almost empty. I practiced gently releasing the clutch in first to keep from jolting forward or stalling. Brad put his hand over mine and helped me learn the positions in the gearshift.
“It’s like a big H,” he said. “First is forward, second is straight back. To get to third, you move across the bar of the H and up to the far right. Then for fourth you pull straight down from third gear. Now, when you want to go in reverse, you push down on the knob and move it to the right of fourth gear.”
Once or twice he’d put his arm around me and talk into my ear.
After a little while, I got the hang of it and was buzzing around the parking lot like an old pro. Brad let me drive home, and when he walked me to the door I let him kiss me good night. I figured he deserved a kiss for putting up with that awful father of his.
I never drive by a Kmart parking lot now without thinking of that night I learned to drive a straight shift. It was my ticket to freedom! Now I could take the family car out any time I wanted to, and I did just that.
The only problem was that our yellow VW Beetle was especially hard to get in reverse. Once, I was parked at a shop in Mountain Brook Village and tried to back up. I remembered the H from Brad’s instructions—how to shift to fourth gear, pull to the right, and then push down to force it into reverse. But it kept popping back into neutral, and there I sat.
Finally I had to find a pay phone and call Mother to come over and help me. She must have worried about me when I was out driving, because her voice was filled with alarm when she picked up the phone and realized who was on the line. When she found out the reason for my call, she laughed with relief and said, “I’ll be right there.”
As I said earlier, Daddy had given me the job of taking Louisa to her chiropractor appointments, which, by the way, were totally useless. She continued to suffer with hay fever, and nothing would make it better until the frost came and killed the ragweed. She would complain about the adjustments the doctor had made and said he almost stood her on her head on the table. It would take her a day or two to get over the soreness, but she’d paid for those sessions. They were nonrefundable, and she wasn’t about to quit until she used them up.
Daddy also kept me on the road with small errands around town. One Saturday, he sent me to the men’s clothing store in Mountain Brook Village and told me to pick up two sport coats he’d bought on sale and had altered. I got the sport coats, laid them across the backseat of the VW, and then headed out to Eastwood Mall to meet Josie.
I found her at the music store with a pair of headphones on, dancing and singing, “Heeeey, hey, baby! I wanna know-oh-oh—if you’ll be my girl.”
She pulled off the headphones and handed them to me. “Listen! It’s Bruce Channel’s latest hit. I’m definitely getting this for my collection of forty-fives.”
We wandered around the mall for an hour or so, testing out the perfume and makeup at Pizitz’s cosmetic counter and stopping by J. C. Penney so I could pick up a pair of panty hose.
When I returned home, Daddy was finishing up mowing the backyard. He killed the motor on the lawn mower and walked over to the car.
“Did you get the sport coats?” he asked.
“Yes,” I said.
“Where are they?”
“They’re in the backseat.”
“There’s nothing in the backseat,” he said, taking off his work gloves and peering through the window.
“Well, that’s where I put them.”
“Did you go anywhere afterward?”
“Yes, I went to the mall to meet Josie.”
“Did you lock the doors to the car after you parked at the mall?”
“Well, it looks like someone opened the door and took them.”
I panicked. “Oh, no. That’s awful. Can you get the money back for them and buy some more?”
“I’m afraid not,” Daddy said matter-of-factly. “I can only file an insurance claim if the car is broken into. Since you didn’t lock the doors, we know it wasn’t a break-in, and the claim wouldn’t be valid.”
“Oh, Daddy, I’m so sorry. You trusted me to get your sport coats, and I completely let you down.” I really did feel awful and began to cry.
He was calm and completely unruffled. He sighed. “They’re only things, Harriet, and things don’t matter nearly as much as people. I’m just glad it was the sport coats that got taken and not you.” He patted the top of my head and turned to put the lawn mower in the garage.
Hearing my father say that made a lasting impression on me, and I felt much worse than if he had shouted recriminations or even struck me. I can’t say his remark caused me to become less materialistic, because if someone had lost my new clothes, I would never have forgiven them. But it was a lesson on priorities that I took to heart, and it sure did teach me to lock the door when I got out of the car.
The VW Beetle shows up in other scenes of Over the Mountain as well, as do many other references and symbols of the sixties which are likely to fill those of a certain age with nostalgia. And, if you’re not of that certain age, you’ll get a glimpse of a simpler time when we did without smartphones and GPS, and you’ll probably be grateful you didn’t live back then.
Soon the book will be available to read in its entirety. Whatever your age, I hope you will enjoy reading it as much as I enjoyed writing it.