Archive for April, 2010


Fredrick the VW Bus

“Take your cigarettes, take your jokes,
I’ll find someone else who smokes
or high or makes me laugh – a ha ha ha!”

Imelda May “Smoker’s Song”

On a hot, muggy August day, Moni, John, and Moni’s mother, Janet, drove me through Rockingham County, North Carolina where we passed fallow tobacco fields and abandoned log barns. John slowly brought me to a stop at a traffic light and behind an enormous, white Chevy truck. I caught a whiff of smoke drifting towards my air vents from the Chevy’s open window. I hate smoke. Smoke in my cabin is despicable. As my passengers read the bumper sticker affixed to its back window, “I Smoke & I Vote – Vote for Individual Property Rights,” and smelled the burning tobacco, they began to reminisce about attitudes around smoking from the depression days to present.

Cigarette manufacturers once marketed smoking as a glamorous and romantic pastime of mature men and women, not the delayed deliverers of a death sentence that society finally accepted after decades of debate. It took American citizens as long to acknowledge the dangers of first-hand and passive smoke as it took “Grandma” Moses to start painting. Through those years many died from lung cancer, emphysema, and heart disease. Still today, some teens and young adults feel “cool” when they smoke, but they are the minority.

Prior to World War II, few citizens from my homeland smoked due to a Nazi anti-smoking campaign. However, across the ocean and in the bread basket of Iowa, a farmer, who descended from German immigrants, enjoyed an occasional smoke. I enjoyed listening to Janet share this story, because the farmer is my namesake. Janet’s father and Moni’s grandfather, Grandpa Fred rolled his own cigarettes using Velvet tobacco. After a long day of working and while digesting a hearty supper prepared by Grandma Nan, he gently tapped the dried tobacco from the red tin onto a sheet of thin, white paper. With a few rolls and a lick, then striking a match on the bottom of the can, he gently inhaled and ignited the tobacco and paper. Just one cigarette in the evening relaxed this weary farmer’s mind and muscles.

In 1939, Grandpa Fred and Grandma Nan purchased a farm a few miles west of Paton, a rural community. On this farm, Janet spent her childhood years with her brother and sister. Wet prairies once covered this landscape until underground terra cotta tiles drained the soil for crop production. Corn, soybeans, and hay grew on the land; never southern crops like tobacco or cotton. Grandpa Fred dug post hole after post hole to fence in his cattle and pigs. One especially wet year, the water seeped from the saturated soil and filled the holes faster than Grandpa Fred could install a post. He questioned his sanity when, bending over, his Velvet Tobacco tin fell from his shirt pocket into the wet opening. Would this land ever support him and his young family?

Through three generations that land provided and still does to this day. Eventually, the farm’s success allowed Grandpa Fred to purchase packs of cigarettes. In 1944, Fred’s son graduated from high school, and, as a rite of passage to manhood, he offered Jake a cigarette. This habit lasted a few years, until Jake married Miss Shirley Powell in 1949. Shirley, a trained nurse, kept abreast of the latest health news. A 1950 landmark article in the New York Times compared the incidence of lung cancer in smokers and nonsmokers. This initiated the beginning of a long national debate over the health hazards of smoking. Grandpa Fred and Jake never waited for the publication of the historic General Surgeon’s report to stop smoking. The strength of Shirley’s word provided the impetus.

Post World War II, cigarette manufactures provided samples to hook new customers. As part of the Marshall Plan, free tobacco was shipped to Germany, as much as 24,000 tons in 1948 and 69,000 tons in 1949. During this time, Ben Pons was sketching and promoting the concept of a “transporter” vehicle which evolved into me, the iconic Volkswagen bus. The annual per capita cigarette consumption in Germany rose from 460 cigarettes per year in 1950 to 1,523 in 1963. With German citizens lighting up, the First Generation or Split Window VW buses came equipped with ash trays. Some models included a lighter on the dashboard, a simple open, metal cup with an exposed heating element. 

During the 1950s and 1960s, cigarette advertisements portrayed different images of smokers. For males, they used the James Dean rebel image. These testosterone driven young men were not the stereotypic VW bus owners; instead, they raced around in American muscle cars. Their shiny, ebony hair was slicked back with Brylcreem, “a little dab’l do ya,” with one strand curved downward across brilliant blue eyes. They wore black leather coats, which like their hair, reflected light. During warm weather, they wore white, short-sleeved t-shirts, sculpted and tattooed biceps protruded from the rolled-up sleeves that held a pack of smokes. Cigarettes dangled at a slant from sexy, partly-opened lips and the burning tip glowed as ashes gently fell past their six-pack abs towards the earth. If you smoked their brand of cigarette, you might transform into a stud with women hot on the heels of your patent leather shoes.

A shapely 36-24-36 woman, padded if necessary, complimented the beatnik. Slender, long fingers with scarlet painted manicured nails lightly grasped a cigarette. The bee hive hair-do stacked up like Marge Simpson’s blue hair by use of a whole can of hair spray. Amazingly, few women set their hair aflame while lighting their cigarettes. Smoke billowed from pencil thin lips, past rouge-colored, high cheek bones, and to dreamy long-lashed eyes. This image portrayed one cool broad who rode sidled against her studly man, his arm resting on the open window, in his convertible sports coupe with fuzzy dice swing in front of her face.

Still prior to my birth and during that time, Moni recalled playing with her siblings on an Iowa farm while Janet tended to a large garden and worked the farm. The closest Moni came to the cigarette manufacturer’s image of a “hot” woman was when the frigid Canadian air swept across the prairie. Her lungs felt the shock of inhaling sub-zero degree air and then her exhaled breathe condensed, resembling smoke. During those moments, Moni fantasized being a jazz singer, smoking Virginia Slims between sets and flirting with band members. Moni’s dream dissipated as quickly as the vapor of one’s “breath.”

Nearly every child cleverly acquired cigarettes and secretly attempted their first inhale. Only once did Moni experiment with smoking cigarettes. Bernice, a family friend who played organ in her father’s band, was the closest person to a jazz musician that Moni encountered as a child. Moni’s two older siblings “borrowed” a few coffin nails from Bernice while the band busily practiced. Then they snuck outside with their contraband.

As typical, Moni tagged along with Becky and Bobby to the grove of trees that sheltered their old farm house from the northwesterly winds. Huddled in a circle with nerves on fire, they struck their matches, placed the Camels between their lips, and drew long drags. Surprisingly, there was silence; nobody choked, coughed, or gagged. These children were smoking in the same manner as Bill Clinton claimed to have smoked marijuana while in college, but for the youngsters, it was the truth. That aborted attempt to inhale tobacco ended Moni’s smoking career. Intuitively, she knew that a life of athletics waited her instead of night-life in smoky bars. These early decisions ultimately shaped Moni’s personality to appreciate a VW bus, like me. I continued to listen carefully to their stories during our country side drive.

Smokers ruled for decades. People thought this accepted and legal vice helped sooth one’s frazzled mind. Moni’s parents never smoked, so she seldom breathed what become known as “passive smoke.” While visiting her best friend Cindy, who lived a few doors down the block, a haze enveloped the house when her step-father studied at his desk. As a young man, Mike married a lovely divorced lady, helped parent her two young children, worked full-time, and attended college to become a math teacher. This man knew stress and cigarettes helped him through those years.

Cindy and Moni participated in competitive basketball during their high school years. Both girls played forwards when Iowa girl’s basketball was played six-on-six with three forwards and three guards each playing on half court. One winter night, Mike drove Cindy and Moni to their game in his sporty white and black Chevy Malibu, a car they considered very cool. No VW buses drove the streets of Farnhamville, Iowa, thus, unable to recognize a truly cool vehicle. Unlike mine, the Malibu’s heater filled the interior with warmth as quickly as Mike’s Kent cigarettes produced a dense cloud of smoke. The car took on the appearance of a crowded, smoke-filled bar with the rockabilly singer Imelda May belting out “You’re smotherin’ me baby, I can’t even breathe when I’m with you.” What a ghastly image, I nearly sneezed when listening to Moni share this story.

Moni suppressed a gag and glanced toward Cindy whose chest rose and fell effortlessly and implied, “What’s the problem?” After what felt, to Moni, like a drive across the nation in a Volkswagen bus, they arrived at Rockwell City. Mike placed the gear shifter in park, while Moni leapt outside and inhaled the fresh Artic air deep into her lungs. Using a strategy that Coach Mitts never considered, Moni and Cindy stepped onto the court with their smoked aroma blonde and black hair, respectively. The opponent’s guards gave them a wide berth, enabling them to continually swish the ball through the net and easily win the game for Cedar Valley High School.

John’s family lived in a piedmont city in the tobacco producing state of North Carolina, where smoking was as common as drinking RC Colas with peanuts dropped into the bottles. The Greensboro citizens smoked like the steam engines that once chugged through their downtown and stopped at the Elm Street depot. Cigarettes were manufactured in their home town and the adjacent cities of Winston-Salem and Durham. John’ parents smoked unfiltered Chesterfields. Ash trays with lipstick stained butts dotted their home. Puffs of explosive air were heard as Bob and Margaret attempted to free their mouths of tiny bits of tobacco.

All three children began smoking as teens. One sibling, Tom, and his neighborhood friend found an open package of cigarettes. Tom, with his mass of red hair and devilish grin, humped down and scampered into a large culvert under a city street. There, he and his buddy inhaled their first tobacco smoke and became the first Ninja turtles. Over time, the Bates family broke their smoking habit as evidence of health hazards surmounted. Society, in general, was slower to accept the warnings and change their behaviors.

The “War on Tobacco” began in 1964 with the publication of “Smoking and Health: Report of the Advisory Committee to the Surgeon General.” The report concluded that smoking caused lung cancer in men and might in women. In 1965, Congress required a warning printed on cigarette packages. The first one, “Caution: Cigarette Smoking May Be Hazardous to Your Health,” was understated even though clear evidence showed that smoking WAS hazardous. The small print made the warning difficult for older adults wearing bifocals to read. In Canada, a nation with socialized medicine, the government required the warning to fill half of the package space.

With the bad press, cigarette manufactures stepped up their efforts to promote smoking. Cigarette representatives left samples in the lobbies of men’s and women’s dormitories on college campuses. Joe Cool Camel introduced the habit to young smokers. Additives supplemented the tobacco to make smoking more addictive. Even Germans promoted smoking. Advertisements for the 1967 Second Generation or Bay Window VW buses stated, “Designed for smokers – by a smoker.” The multiple ash trays included in the cabin enabled both driver and passengers to light up as they drove to wilderness camp sites and vacation destinations. However, many bus owners from the sixties and seventies were more inclined to smoke illegal substances that caused irresistible hunger attacks.

Progress slowly inched along each decade. In1970, Congress banned cigarette advertisements from radio and television, which restricted Joe Cool Camel to magazines. The warning on packages gained more credibility when rewritten to “Warning: The Surgeon Has Determined that Cigarette Smoking is Dangerous to Your Health.”

After waiting too long for the federal government to provide leadership and tighten up smoking regulations, local municipalities began their own initiatives. On a November morning in 1989, Greensboro’s citizens astonishingly read the headlines that their city made national news by narrowly passing the toughest smoking regulation in the nation’s number one tobacco producing state. The ordinance banned smoking in elevators, grocery stores like Harris Teeter and Food Lion, and department stores like Belks and Thalhimers. Restaurants with seating of fifty or more were required to set aside at least twenty-five percent of their occupancy for non-smokers. On January 1, 1990, upon entering the threshold of restaurants, customers were greeted with, “Smoking or non-smoking section?”

Prior to Chris’s restoration of my interior, I possessed two ash trays, fully equipped as a smoking section. I don’t like the smell of smoke and, thankfully, none of my previous owners smoked. My dashboard supported one tray and the wooden paneling next to my back seat another one. Because Moni, John, and Chris don’t smoke, legal or illegal substances, Chris covered the back one when he installed my new paneling. Until recently, John and Moni stored knobs that fell off me in the front ash tray. On our first trip together, three knobs fell off my windows. I frequently heard Moni say, “Oops, there goes another one.” Then, I heard a sliding sound and one more knob tossed in the tray. Since then, John became technologically savvy and a power outlet that drives a GPS unit and cell phone replaced my front ash tray. I’m happy that my cabin is now a no smoking section.

Smoking attitudes since my 1970 birth in Wolfsburg, Germany slowly changed. The Bates family drives me to outdoor music festivals in North Carolina and Virginia. I watch the music fans and campers walk past me and seldom do I see a person smoking or butts littering the ground. For music fans, the last smoking battle was finally won in 2010.

Since the 1980s, Moni and John attempted to enter a local music venue called The Blind Tiger. Each time they approached the entrance where an employee sold tickets, smoke billowed outward like the roar of an irate tiger. After breathing the bitter smoke, their money remained in their billfolds and they sought out other entertainment. Smoking in commercial establishments changed on January 2, 2010 when the North Carolina General Assembly and Governor Beverly Perdue passed a state-wide smoking ban in restaurants and bars. The Blind Tiger remains in business as a smoke free bar.

The following month, Moni and John drove me to the Blind Tiger and parked me near the front door. I wondered about the size of that Tiger as I watched them and throngs of music lovers enter. Around ten o’clock, I heard the Martha Bassett’s voice singing “Why Don’t’ You Do Right,” the same song that those smoking dudes heard Peggy Lee or Etta James sing on their fifties car radios. Inside, Moni and John heard Martha comment, “I’ve never seen this many people in the Blind Tiger before.” That sure indicates that smoking bans are not bad for business, even in bars and music venues.

Soon after Martha and her band completed their set, I heard Amelia’s Mechanics begin their sound check. The large crowd attended this special evening as a CD release party for this local, female band. Both vocalists, each named Molly, sang and strummed into their microphones and communicated with the sound person. Then with a perplexed expression, one Molly spoke into her microphone, “I’m sorry, but we’ve been told that you all must leave.” The audience kept chattering and thought it part of the sound check. Again, Molly spoke, “Really, the Fire Marshall has asked that every body leave because the numbers are over code.” With more encouragement, the folks began to stream outside. I watched as the masses streamed outside, lined up on the sidewalk and snow fell softly upon them. I spotted John and Moni and wished they would take me home. After all, it was midnight and with this snow, I could end up in an accident. I must admit, I felt young being out so late and missed the days of living with Chris at NC State.

The Fire Marshall counted heads and folks kept streaming into the outdoors. Eventually, the officials allowed about half the folks to return and, unfortunately, John and Moni, again, disappeared into the building. I waited outside where I watched a black fellow sell hot dogs from his sidewalk grill until snow completely covered my windshield. Around two o’clock, Moni and John, with smoke free hair, consumed hog dogs. After sweeping the snow from my windshield, John safely steered me home to my warm garage.

Through their lives, Moni and John witnessed the change in attitudes toward smoking, Moni from a Midwestern state and John from a Southern tobacco state. In each region, it took too long for the nation to accept scientific research and promote healthy life-styles. Many people who once smoked to sooth their nerves, appear hip, and pass the time, now seek out other means to address these traits. But for today’s college students, there is no single behavior that replaced smoking as the icon of a past generation and their image of “coolness.”


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