When we’re young, irrational thoughts of doing something crazy often find their way into our minds. The idea that something can’t be done becomes a challenge to be met. I occasionally find it somewhat amazing that adolescents survive to see their elderly years come to fruition, but as we age we seem to become wiser and more cautious. In 1962, Gary, a nineteen year old boy living in the small Ozark town of Noel, Missouri had not yet entered those wiser and more cautious years of life.
Gary worked at the Ralston Purina Poultry Processing facility located just outside of Noel. He was an ambitious sort but had not yet devised a plan regarding his career path, however he knew one thing for sure; he wanted to buy a new car. There were many things to consider, not the least of which was the cost of such a large purchase.
The Volkswagen Beetle held some Svengali-like allure over the young man. The television commercials seemed to air relentlessly and were fascinating, and enticing. How could anyone not want to buy a Volkswagen Beetle for only $1999? They were small, nimble and offered in a wide array of attractive and enticing colors.
One commercial in particular stressed the almost invincible nature of the little car. Volkswagen aired a commercial which depicted an enormous crane lifting a Beetle into the air, then releasing it allowing the car to fall violently to the ground. The commercial’s narrator remarked that amazingly the vehicle was undamaged and it was, without a care, driven away.
Volkswagen commercials also announced with great pride that the Beetle was covered in thirteen pounds of paint and constructed of steel with all the seams sealed, making it practically water-tight. Volkswagen aired a commercial illustrating a confident owner driving the Beetle into a pond and triumphant music played while the car floated smoothly on the surface. The narrator did however caution that although the Beetle could easily traverse puddles it was not recommended that the car be driven into named bodies of water. The sales hook for Gary came when he intently watched a television commercial showing a Beetle powering its way across that famous body of water separating England and France, the English Channel.
Gary bought his factory color coded L456 Ruby Red Volkswagen Beetle with K357 Silver Beige leatherette interior in the fall of 1962 from a Joplin, Missouri Dealer. He vividly recollects, even to this day, the drive to Noel in his first new car. When he arrived in Noel he drove to his friend Clark’s home where Clark, and another friend Rufus, were in the yard talking. It was one of those conversations young people have about boredom and a lack of things to do.
As the three looked over the shiny red Beetle, Gary proudly described every inch of the car in great detail. There were very few frills on the car but Gary described the engine, transmission and, oh yes, the thirteen pounds of red paint. Suddenly, and coming from nowhere, Clark asked, “will it float”. Gary was proud of his purchase and replied, “of course, one was driven across the English Channel”. Rufus expressed his skepticism when he said, “Let’s find out”.
After discussing several options it was decided Gary would drive the car to a popular swimming access beach near the bridge on Main Street in Noel. Gary would then navigate the Beetle downstream on Elk River for about a half mile. He would exit the water at an area known as Wayside Beach. Gary got into the Beetle and Clark and Rufus followed in another car.
Clark and Rufus parked near the Main Street bridge and watched as Gary cautiously slid the red VW into the water. The two looked at each other with wide-eyed amazement and laughed while Gary gave a fleeting wave of his hand as the car passed under the bridge. It was one of those nautical waves that passengers standing on the decks of departing ships offer to those left behind. Gary put the car in fourth gear and as the rear wheels propelled the car turned boat a turn of the steering wheel transformed the front wheels into rudders which guided the water vehicle in any direction desired.
The car performed as if it were half car and half boat during the ten minute excursion but as the car neared the exit point Gary began to notice water entering the vehicle’s cabin through the heater vents. Fortunately Gary drove the Beetle onto the dry ground and sharp rocks at Wayside Beach before any disastrous turn of events took place. Clark and Rufus laughed and expressed their amazement while both had to admit the VW lived up to its billing.
The three parted ways that afternoon and Gary drove the red Beetle to his house knowing a well-deserved cleaning would be needed. Every inch of the thirteen pounds of bright red paint was shined. The black tires were wiped clean and the minimal amount of chrome was polished. Gary never told Clark or Rufus about the small amount of water on the floor and he blotted any evidence of its existence from the Beetle’s interior.
Gary drove the red Beetle very little for the next three or four days as the water soaked brakes were almost completely useless. He never told Clark or Rufus about that.
Gary owned the VW for about one year and drove it with pride until he and the Beetle had a regrettable accident. Gary survived the mishap relatively unscathed while the Beetle was not as fortunate as the car had rolled over several times. But, as the commercial promised, the little car was almost indestructible and Gary drove the wounded little red Beetle home from Grove, Oklahoma.
Gary’s career path would ultimately bring him back to the river and, even now, he harbors a fondness for Volkswagen Beetles, especially almost indestructible buoyant ones covered in thirteen pounds of Ruby Red paint.