Did I ever tell you the story of the night I spent in jail? And did you know I do not drink coffee, ever?
My folks were heavy coffee drinkers but I never liked the taste as a kid. We spent one rainy afternoon on the boat on the Chesapeake, sitting at the dinette playing cards, my folks with coffee in their tall Aladdin™ tumblers and me with Pepsi™ in mine. The tumblers were all red. You know what comes next, right? Yeppers, I grabbed the wrong one and took a healthy chug. Even the Pepsi™ didn’t kill it. I do not drink coffee to this day.
Just to get away from all the battery acid at home, I went to college in Hoboken and ended up just six blocks from a Maxwell House coffee plant. I love the smell but still can’t stand the taste.
Back to jail.
My first car was Triumph TR-3A which got me through senior year in high school and my freshman year in college. I might still have it if my roommates hadn’t decided to float test it in the Hudson.
Enter Thunder Bug.
My beautifully restored 1950 Volkswagen Beetle had 27 coats of hand rubbed ember firemist paint (a 1967 Cadillac lacquer), hand stitched leatherette seats, and a 140-horsepower Corvair engine under the sleek, vented hood that exceeded the original body lines by no more than six inches. It had the split rear window and “semaphore” turn signals that flopped out of the B-pillars. It was occasionally persnickety.
A few Volkswagens were imported into the United States in 1949 by Ben Pon, but they didn’t gain much popularity. In 1950, Volkswagen Beetles started arriving into Dublin packed in crates in what was termed “completely knocked down” form, ready to be assembled.
Despite the 33 horsepower engine, the Beetle was designed for “sustained high speeds” on the Autobahn. Assuming 72.2 mph is considered fast.
I always wanted more. 140HP was about right. Thunder Bug could, um, break the speed limit anywhere. Even on the Autobahn.
The American deluxe Beetles got hydraulic brakes in 1952, and lost their semaphores in 1955. Mine had mechanical brakes and semaphores.
I’ve pretty much always been a gearhead which is a good thing since most of my cars have required a certain amount of wrenching. Even Thunder Bug. Maybe especially Thunder Bug.
One dark and stormy Sunday night (Really. It was November. Near freezing. Pouring rain. Bitter.) I was on my way back to school when Thunder Bug coughed twice and died on the four-lane 202 in Somerville, New Jersey. I coasted to the side of the road and popped the hood. Did I mention it was pouring? I had no flashlight so I was feeling around the engine compartment for something that felt familiar when my world lit up. It was so bright, I thought the stadium next door had blown up except there was no stadium next door.
It was a Somerville cop. Patrol car with high beams and twin million candlepower spots.
To set the scene, I was a college kid with a hot rod. I was probably unkempt. I was definitely unshaven. I was absolutely soaked. It was about 1969. College kids and authorities didn’t mix well.
He was smart enough to stay in his car where it was warm and dry. I wandered back and we spoke through his slightly lowered window. I ‘splained what had happened. He volunteered to stay and “light the scene” for me while I troubleshot the car.
I spent the next half hour alternating between his (warm, dry) passenger seat and tracing wires and fuel lines in the (cold, wet) work space under the hood. We determined it was a dead fuel pump.
“You can’t leave it here on the road overnight,” he said.
“There’s a car parts store right over there. If you think we can push it into the lot, you can leave it there.”
Did you notice the “we”? He helped get the car down into the parking lot.
“I can’t let you stay here,” he said. “Do you have any place to go?” Only later did I realize he was afraid for my health if I had slept in the car, not worried about my transiency. I told him I was on my way to school and had neither family nor friends in Somerville.
“I guess I’ll have to put you up then. Get in.”
So we rode back to the police station. He got me a couple of blankets and showed me the closet where they keep the cots. The closet had, um, bars. And a door that locked from the outside.
Fortunately, I got a single.
They didn’t lock the door.
And they gave me an extra pillow to go with the extra blanket.
Still, I didn’t sleep well. I had to keep kicking the door to make sure it was unlatched.
Reveille came early Monday morning. As my night watch rescuer was going off duty, he brought me in a take-out cup of black coffee. I hate good coffee and this was cop coffee. Best drink I’ve ever had. I drank it all down. And then he took me back to Thunder Bug. The rain had stopped.
Good cops they grow in Somerville, NJ. Good cops, indeed.
Next up, my ride in a New York City paddy wagon…