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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Interestingly, most of the early Vanagons I see are in fact like turtles…brown, not green like the colorful example you found. I think many of them came in brown. The Vanagon is a vehicle I would dearly like to like. It seems practical. The occupants always seem like they’re having fun. The Westfalia ones remind me of the original Transporter (microbus) Westfalias…which remind me of the Corgi version I lusted after as a 1st grader – it had steerable front wheels!!! – but could never manage to score. Because “that’s too expensive for a toy!”.
But nearly every Vanagon I see is either parked (and looks like it has been parked for most of its life) or is sloooooooowly trying to keep up with traffic. Yeah, I know about the upgraded engines in later models, and how some people transplant Porsche engines into them (I don’t think I’ve encountered any of those on the road). Still, I just can’t see a Vanagon and not think of it as a moving (or not) roadblock. Which may be unfair, but so it goes.
It’s like how I love turtles. I’ve had them as pets since I was a small child – during which time my dad only threatened once to cook them when I was negligent in cleaning their tank…I cleaned the tank, the turtles were spared from the soup pot into which he had placed them to provide credence to his claim. (Still, I’ve never ever forgotten his threat. He had unique ways of making his points.) But as much as I care for turtles, I don’t take them out for walks. Dogs are much better for that. There are probably better modes of vehicular transport than a Vanagon.
Joe, great job as always, bringing all of the strands together.
Jeff, thank you very much. I’m thinking now about my own experiences with seeing Vanagons on the road or expressway, and in the most recent instance I can recall, the Vanagon was going probably 10 mph slower than most of the traffic on the highway. That by itself isn’t an issue, but when I think about people trying to pass, etc., then it might become more of a concern.
I remember my dad advising me that it’s best to go with the flow of traffic, though I realize that sometimes I’ve been happier in the slow(er) lane while a herd of speeding cars passed by. A Florida phenomenon. And yes, the turtle-in-a-soup-pot lesson is also one I would have remembered.
Joe, your ability to pack so much into 1200 words or less is amazing, particularly this morning. This was a great read.
Over the last few years I have come to appreciate these VW vans quite a bit. There is a two-tone brown one I see weekly on the east end of town and it always gets my attention. Yet I should keep admiring it from afar as my “just do it” personality would not gel with the “slow and steady” demeanor you speak of.
The turtle soup thing is tricky to navigate. My grandfather once had two hogs, named Nip and Tuck. I knew why they were there. I got to help butcher them (scalding a hog generates a highly memorable smell that sticks to everything) and it did not bother me to eat them. However, I wasn’t served a plate of bacon and told about it.
Thanks, Jason, and respect to you for the aiding in butchering the hogs. Even if your expectations were managed correctly so that you didn’t become attached to Nip and/or Tuck, that’s still not something that would be easy for what I’m guessing might be 95% of the United States.
To be clear, I might have suspected, or even might have been told, that we might eventually be eating that turtle. Maybe I was just hoping against hope that it didn’t happen. There was another animal we ate, the story of which I may have to save until later. Food was food, though, and when in Rome… I love west African cuisine and I remember eating some amazing dishes, and not necessarily asking a whole lot of questions. We also ate a lot of chicken, and many hens and roosters were out and about where we lived. I just never really got attached to them, though I loved watching them and hearing the roosters in the morning.
Here in Chicago and even in my neighborhood (Edgewater) and the one just north (Rogers Park), there is no shortage of pan-African restaurant options available, so I feel like I really need to check some of them out.
Joseph, What a beautiful story.
Your year in Liberia seems to have shown itself to be a life long gift. Not only in the aspects of a totally different physical nature, but perhaps most importantly, the strength of your father being so clearly revealed in that environment while back in the USA it was your mother’s world. I can relate to that as my mother ran the show under normal conditions but when the seas got rough (figuratively and literally), Doc’s quiet strength made itself known.
“… I want to like people, most of the time…”.
I get that. Dealing with most people is (IMO) is far more difficult than dealing with most things, and as we see throughout the world, people continue to do truly terrible things. It’s not too hard to think how scooting off in a self contained VW bus with a dog, cat, or parrot might make one’s world more agreeable. While that’s probably a dream not easily realized, at least it’s nice to think about it.
“…I forgive both of them…”
It’s hard to be a parent. It’s incredibly hard.
Thank you for this great post.
Thank you so much. I consider this such high praise from one of the contributors whose series of autobiographical essays was essential reading.
Absolutely, yes – I understood then and now what a gift that year in Liberia was. I am so thankful that I was of an age that I could actually appreciate it and was capable of fully-formed thoughts about what I was experiencing.
Point well-made about parenthood, and one of which I’m aware, even as a nonparent myself. I look at my siblings and their own families, and I’m inspired by their dedication to their children (and in my sister’s case, grandchildren) and placement of the highest importance on loving them unconditionally, which one simply cannot fake. My siblings got it right. I think our dad did, too.
Wanting to like people is probably more of a universal state of being in recent times than I feel like it has been through most of my 50+ years on this orb. Or maybe it’s the 50+ years part that’s making this the case rather than the particular time we’re living in. I may never know the true source of this newly recognized mindset.
As for non-human companionship, I find great value in it, which was recently brought home to me in a rather unique way. I just returned from 5 days away visiting friends who have a frantic life running a residential cleaning business while also running a thriving pet sitting side hustle at home. Whenever I visit we spend our time together staying very close to home, as their charges require attention, care, feeding, etc. My friends open their home to a random pack of dogs who don’t know each other and are in a foreign environment (although many if not most are recurring guests). Because my friends are on the go for much of the time in their primary business I end up spending the majority of my time alone at their place just hanging with the dogs. Over a number of years of frequent visits I’ve come to really appreciate my “kennel vacations” for the break it gives me from most day-to-day human interaction and the perspective it provides. While there may occasionally be a rogue hound who just doesn’t play well with others and needs to be alone, it’s amazing how all these furry strangers form a community and get along so harmoniously. Being a member of the pack for a few days has come to be a cherished time-out in my life, and I look forward to these trips almost as much for the revolving cast of canine characters as for time spent with good friends. Upon returning to my own life and work I find myself thinking frequently about the interactions I’ve witnessed and been a bit player in, and those memories can be very helpful in dealing with the humans I have to cope with. And that’s all I have to say about that.
Also, I’d hate to have to drive that van across a bridge on a windy day. I’d imagine with that profile it’d be a real white knuckle moment.
Your description of being a “member of the pack for a few days” and the harmonious way the collected dogs get along together is so inspiring and could serve as an example to people. The sense of belonging and family (however defined) is a need that I suspect extends far outside of humans – and added to a sense of being cared for, I imagine that many of your friends’ temporary boarders come to enjoy their stay despite missing their owners. It sounds like a wonderful experience for you and a different, very meaningful kind of engagement with other life.
I’m reading this sitting in our van at Port Orford having breakfast, looking out at the trees and the sliver of ocean view from its window. I can hear the dog snoring in his little bed nook directly under my bed, which is now the day couch. I am in deep and abiding love with our van. And Stephanie, who is sitting across from me. And the dog. They’re really all I need; everything else is bonus.
Thank you once again for your insightful essay. People are hard. Families are harder. I’ve had to disengage with my remaining siblings, as they couldn’t stop acting out childhood power trips and grudges. Once my mom passed away two years ago, what little was still keeping us in contact just seemed to dissolve. i realized I was putting up with it for her, to make her think we were still all close. The glue dissolves all-too easily.
So I work hard to keep things as positive as possible in my current family, which is not always easy with my older son. But I know it’s not easy for him either, so I just focus on the positives and try to brush away the negatives.
The VW Vanagon is appealing in principle, but not so much in actual reality, kind of like other people. They’re now quite old and were always finicky. They are insecure and need a lot of attention and love, and don’t always reciprocate in kind. At the Promaster van forum I frequent, there are a number of ex Wesfalia owners who can’t believe how much less profoundly less demanding a modern van is compared to their former VWs. But they do have their loyal and devoted fans.
As I’ve gotten older, I have much less patience with the foibles of other people. That can be seen as being anti-social or just being more selective. I prefer the latter. Time is short; I’d rather be on a hike or doing some interesting work than dealing with people who have to act out their various issues. I just don’t have the patience any more.
Paul, thank you so much. My dad was very much the family glue, as you described with your mom in your case, and the house of cards basically fell down absent his truly empathic and caring presence after he passed away. I miss my dad, but it’s no longer the painful sort of wishing he was still here as earlier on, but rather wishing I could pick his brain for some nuggets of wisdom as I face certain challenges.
In my own recovery, about which I’ve dropped a few nuggets from time to time in my essays, going “no contact” has proved to be an essential, absolutely indispensable element of staying sober and an ultimate act of self-care. Dr. Ramani (Darvasula) and her series of YouTube videos on all facets related to clinical narcissism have been absolutely lifechanging for me.
Hearing Dr. Ramani basically tell me my life story without actually having met me has floored me on multiple occasions, and the knowledge I’ve gained about myself and my relationships with others (both specific individuals and in general) has been almost as beneficial to me as sessions with my actual therapist. I had to make a choice to prioritize and love myself over those to whom I had misallocated my trust (which I have realized only in recent years that I had done so). I’m a work in progress, but hopefully, my more personal essays from recent years have reflected the benefits of eliminating things (alcohol) and people (former friends, a few exes, and toxic family members for whom I’m still okay with holding some love in my heart from a necessary distance) who are bad for me, and adding in more of the good. I’m on the right road.
I don’t think I’ve ever ridden in a Vanagon, though I have ridden in quite a few of the previous generation Transporter, including in both Flint and Monrovia, Liberia. I don’t remember feeling particularly unsafe as a passenger, but we weren’t on high-speed roads, either. I liked the plaid interior and sink in my friends’ parents’ Westfalia. They called that one the “Sweet Pickle” like the children’s characters from those Avon products of the ’70s.
You know, I’ve never thought of that… but yeah. Why is that? The Turtle Wax mascot… Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles… even my kids’ elementary school had a turtle mascot that was bright green.
Well there are some exceptions… such as the University of Maryland Terrapins:
And my favorite automotive-related turtle mascot… used by Offenhauser Engines, I believe in the 1960s.
The turtle is red… and fast. A true outlier in the world of turtle mascots:
I was hoping someone would note the brown Maryland Terp, being a UMD alumnus myself.
Just as grape-flavored candy seems to always be red, apple-flavored candy seems to almost always be green, even though red apples are considerably more common than green ones.
Eric, that is one aggressive looking turtle! I’m sure if the one we have in our house looked mean or menacing, I might have been glad to have eaten it just to be able to stop worrying about getting bitten by it in the middle of the night while walking to the bathroom! Hahaha
I worked till 8.00 on Monday as I am expected to put in time once a week to close our manufacturing facility after overtime finishes. Outside, as always, was a ghostly queue of Toyota and VW minibuses waiting to take the staff to their homes. On a busy night 250 people might need a taxi ride home. We contract with independent taxi operators to take folk home when they work overtime as there is no direct public transport at that time and its dangerous in many parts of Cape Town after dark anyway. None of the minibuses are grand, they are owned either as independent vehicles or by owners who have two or three. All the Toyotas are around ten years old, slightly past their sell by date. All the VWs are of the featured car’s age, and still going strong. These vehicles are going on forty years old and still earning a living, incredibly tough vehicles. I’m sure they need regular TLC but the fact that going on 50% of the taxi fleet is old VW’s is testament to a solid structure and easy to fix engineering.
As for dealing with people, the older I get the better I am at handling other’s nonsense, but the less appetite I have for doing so.
I was able to paint a visual picture of what you described, from just yesterday (it’s Tuesday evening in the U.S. as I type this). I suppose your illustration of 40 y/o Vanagons still in active duty could be reinforcement of the idea that with the correct maintenance and care, many vehicles would last much longer than in the hands of the average owner and weather conditions in a different part of the world.
And people wear me out sometimes. I re-proofread this article before I went to bed last night, and was struck by my own pessimistic tone about people. It was not inaccurate, but I’ll just restate that I want to be able to give people the benefit of the doubt and care, but with safeguards and boundaries in place. I’m convinced the world could be such a better place with some @$$-kicking empaths in places of power who aren’t just “feely-feely”, but are also strong, self-aware, and ready and willing to stand up to nonsense. Feeling empathy is one thing, but effecting actual change is another. There are just too many narcissists taking, taking, taking, and sadly, it seems more and more prevalent and simply accepted.
I was expecting this to be about Turtle Top, a company that sells vans and buses with raised roofs in this style, though I’ve never seen a VW conversion van from them.
VW added a water-cooled engine to the previous generation T2 van/bus as well, which was built in Brazil (and elsewhere?) and sometimes exported to other countries where that generation was sold decades after it was dropped in the U.S. and Europe. It’s weird seeing the T2 with a huge grille and radiator out front, usually painted black. I have to believe VW’s ad agency was careful with the wording of the ’84 Vanagon ad above, as VW had for so long extolled the benefits of their air-cooled engines and suddenly they’re like “yeah, water cooling is better”.
I recently began a project to digitize old family slides, prints, and negatives that have been stashed away in a box since I was a kid. I didn’t know what was even on them. Everything shot on Ectachrome looked like the photo with your dad, faded red and white monochrome, whereas everything shot on Kodachrome looked like it was shot yesterday. Somehow even with the faded colors that photo still looks right, like old sepia-toned print. My dad, who passed away about five years ago, was the photography buff in our family and took most of the pictures. He had an excellent knowledge of the technical aspects of photography, like when to stop down the lens or use a fast shutter speed, but he wasn’t a people person that could coax natural-looking expressions from his subjects. I remember he would take pics of me, always would say “Smile!” and look at the camera. I have about 500 photos he took of my relatives, and nearly every one is of someone with a forced smile looking like a statue, posing for the camera, or two or more people staring at the camera. There’s almost none that portray people interacting with each other, like your dad holding you by the kitchen table. That’s what I aim for when I photograph people, especially couples or small groups. I do my best to become invisible, and to have my subjects look at and interact with each other, not me the photographer. That goes double if one of the subjects is a dog or cat.
Those photographs, slides, images, etc. you have are a treasure and I hope you’re also able to share the digital files with other members of your family who might appreciate them. Like you, I can appreciate the candid shots over posed photos, though I feel like both approaches have merit. Seeing unposed shots with those kinds of natural interactions, especially when it comes to images of friends and family, are the ones that are best able to help me feel what was going on in that moment.
Great thought provoking article and interesting comments.
(Bumper) Stickers are always popular at VW shows in the UK, one of my favourites has a profile of the T3 with the slogan ‘If it was meant to go fast it wouldn’t be shaped like a brick’.
It was never easy to drive mine at 70 mph on the rare occasions it wound up to that speed, I never liked the idea of how unstable a high top might be. I certainly wouldn’t want the South African 5 cylinder 2.6 litre petrol engine with a 100 mph top speed.
Thank you so much. Now that you mention it, I’m not sure how safe I’d feel in a vehicle with such an apparent high center of gravity like one of these Vanagons while going 100 mph!
Thanks for another great Tuesday morning read, Joseph. I don’t think about turtles much, but aside from the slowness and “carrying its home with it” aspect of turtles, and snails, which correlates with the VW bus, your story made me think some more. When I was a kid, small pet turtles were popular, and unfortunately considered rather disposable. Quite unlike Vanagons now, at least in the US. In fact T3’s, whether tintop vans or Westfalias’s, or even hard high tops like this one (AdventureWagen?) are very common in my town. Other than full-size and Toyota pickups, they’re perhaps the most common 1980’s vehicles on the streets here. So this may be splitting taxonomic hairs, but it got me feeling that Vanagons are more like tortoises than turtles. Slow, but very long-lived. By the way I’m surprised that plate made it past the California DMV censors.
Thank you, Dman. And I confess that it never occurred to me that I might have looked up the differences between a tortoise and a turtle before finishing my final draft of this essay. I can say with 95% confidence that the creature we ate in Liberia was a turtle.
You remind me that we all need different things from different people. Sometimes those people can provide what we need, sometimes they can’t. The Vanagon is like that too. They don’t much interest me but others can’t get enough of them.
That said, there are days when a little self-contained camper would scratch an itch for me. And I prefer my turtles made of caramel and nuts and covered with chocolate .
Sometimes those people can provide what we need, sometimes they can’t…
100%. There’s still a very real grieving process to go through, especially when it involves emotionally letting go of a sibling. Nobody understands your life situation quite like someone who was in it with you as it was happening.
I give thanks regularly in my morning prayers to my Higher Power that not only am I not in a gutter (which probably could and should have been my reality), but also for times of genuine peace and contentment and a richly blessed life.
And give me chocolate torties all day. I used to be able to eat an entire half-pound bag of them in one day.