Curbside Musings: 1984 Volkswagen Vanagon Camper – Land Turtle

1984 Volkswagen Vanagon Camper. Edgewater, Chicago, Illinois. Thursday, November 4, 2021.

I have an elevated appreciation for autonomy and self-containment, especially following lots of time spent alone during the first year of the COVID-19 pandemic.  Basically overnight, what was previously only my residence and crash-pad had to become also my workplace, health club, place of worship, cinema, and more, all out of necessity.  This summer has felt like a solid return to form, including meals out with friends, nonessential brick-and-mortar shopping, a road trip, beach time (the Chicago beaches were closed for all of 2020), in-person worship, and other activities that were either off-limits or severely curtailed last year and the one before.  As I have slowly and cautiously let my guard down and stuck my neck out, I have been rewarded in rich and satisfying ways.  I am no longer feeling like a turtle feeling claustrophobically stuck in my shell while progress appeared to move verrrrrrrry sloooooooowly, though steadily in the right direction.

1984 Volkswagen Vanagon Camper. Edgewater, Chicago, Illinois. Thursday, November 4, 2021.

I love going to the zoo and spending time with other creatures that aren’t humans.  I’m not a misanthrope, and I like people most of the time.  Or, maybe I should clarify that I want to like people, most of the time.  This becomes more of a challenge with each passing year of my life and increased knowledge of what truly terrible things some of us are capable of.  With birds, fish, amphibians, and other animals and creatures, there’s such a purity to them and their basic needs.  It’s almost as if by the relative simplicity of their minds, they benefit from not even being capable of devious or awful behavior, even if they need to eat other animals to survive, acting as links in the food chain.  When a dog loves you, you do not question its motives.  When a cat rubs against your leg as it purrs loudly, there’s no mistaking what it means.  Some species of birds are capable of feeling emotion toward their owners.  We feed these pets, yes, but there are no strings attached to that kind of love.

Joe Dennis in upcountry Liberia, c. 1983 - '84.

In my grandfather’s ancestral village in upcountry Liberia.  c. 1983 – ’84.

The year I spent during elementary school living in upcountry Liberia in my grandfather’s ancestral village made me feel strong connections not only to that part of my family tree, but also to nature, in very powerful and moving ways.  Even through my pining and whining for a return to the States and my next meal at McDonald’s and trip to Toys ‘R’ Us, I can recall, even almost forty years later, what it felt like to be staring up at enormous, majestic trees, down at exotic plants along wooded paths, at six-foot hills made by bug-a-bug termites, and along the beautiful, red clay banks of the Mowi River in Lofa County.  I realized, even at that young age, that I had never seen such a beautiful forest before and probably never would again, at least in that exact state in which it existed.

Joseph Dennis with Dad at breakfast. Flint, Michigan. Mid 1970s.

With my late father, the professor, at breakfast.  Flint, Michigan.  Mid-1970s.

I can’t remember the sounds of the forest quite as vividly as the sights, but that might have had something to do with the fact that I was thinking about not dying and was often really scared of unknowns.  I was an American kid, through and through.  It was my dad who was the parent in control during my family’s one year spent in Liberia, versus the rest of the time, with my mother often treating all of us as if we existed only in her orbit and service, and for no other purpose.  I trusted Dad completely, with my very life, and I felt if he said I was safe in that equatorial rainforest amid the unfamiliar insects, birds, and animals, that I was indeed safe.  It was one time in my life when I really felt protected by him, even if I saw him as being mostly powerless against my mother.  I forgive both of them.

On several occasions during that year, a few animals were brought to our concrete block house, with my brothers and me being given the chance to get to know and play with them.  One of these instances included what I remember to be a large turtle, but with the hindsight of adulthood, it was probably just a healthy, regular size for an adult.  I had never been that close to such a big turtle before, and it fascinated me with the slow, deliberate way it craned its neck out and moved across our checkered-tile floor.  Not too long after we had it, we discovered it was a she, as an egg or two had magically appeared under the couch.  By this point, I had started to think of it as a family pet, along with our two cats.  A short while later, we ate a stew prepared by Miriam, our relative and household helper.  At some point during that meal, it surfaced that we were eating that turtle, which we had been keeping for food.  This was an absolute nightmare for this empath, and though I don’t remember crying about it, knowing myself, I probably bawled and just blocked out the memory.

1984 Volkswagen Vanagon. Edgewater, Chicago, Illinois. Thursday, November 4, 2021.

So, turtles.  I spotted this ’84 Vanagon with custom “TURDLE” license plates in my neighborhood last fall (plates since replaced), and I wondered why it is that turtles are often associated with the color green.  Going back to my childhood books, turtles are almost always depicted as being green, but in my mind’s eye, I can’t think of what an actual green turtle would look like.  Of course I’ve looked up pictures on the internet as I wrote this, but most of the turtles I see pictures of are some variation of brown.  Nonetheless, and much like most beverages and candies that have artificial “grape” flavor are purple (most of the grapes I eat are green), I’m okay with the idea of green turtles being the standard when being being depicted in popular culture.

1984 Volkswagen Vanagon print ad, as sourced from the internet.

Nineteen eighty-four turned out to be the high point of Vanagon sales in the U.S., with over 21,300 sold in the States.  This number represented an increase of close to 45% over the prior year, driven in no small part by the introduction of a water-cooled, 1.9L “Water Boxer” engine with 82 horsepower, up 15 horses from ’83 for a 22% increase.  With the standard four-speed manual transmission, it could get to 60 miles per hour from rest in the mid-seventeen second range; With the optional three-speed automatic, it took an additional four seconds.  This is before passengers and cargo were factored in.  This thing would certainly be a turtle on the expressway, especially on an incline.  I searched YouTube for footage of drag-racing Vanagons, but came up short.  The vivid exterior color of our featured van appears to be factory Escorial Green.  If a vehicle is going to be this slow, it might as well be extremely visible.

1984 Volkswagen Vanagon Camper. Edgewater, Chicago, Illinois. Thursday, November 4, 2021.

Like a turtle with its protective shell, a Vanagon Camper could serve much the same function for its owner, allowing him or her to plunk down wherever, and then move on when needed, almost perfectly self-contained.  The Volkswagen Transporter in many of its iterations over the years has held a certain allure for me, even in spite of the cultural stereotype of the patchouli-scented VW “hippie van” with flowers painted on the side.  Slow and steady wins the race, so Aesop had reportedly said in one of his fables we all learned about in elementary school.  Speaking of which, this might have been something I learned about during home-schooling in ’84 via correspondence course while in Liberia.  Sometimes it has taken the most random sighting, of a vehicle or otherwise, to send me down some rabbit hole of my memories.  I considered it a beautiful coincidence that this Vanagon was from the same year I had first made friends with a turtle.

Edgewater, Chicago, Illinois.
Thursday, November 4, 2021.