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VW TO THE RESCUE: Gwenyfar finds respite in rewiring the Kafka

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“Call it a Volkswagen Roto-Rooter,” Jock grinned. He pulled the trigger on the cordless drill, making the long flexible appendage spin, and chuckled.

“Seriously, sweetheart, I cannot believe it worked,” I shook my head in disbelief.

“What do you mean? Of course, it worked! We were going to solve this; the only option was to figure it out.”

“No,” I shook my head again. “I mean, I cannot believe it worked on the first try.”

“Well last night was actually the first try; this is like the second or third,” he corrected.

Six years ago we bought Kafka, my ’65 VW Bug. We knew then he needed to have the wiring updated. At the time, I was busy with (among many other projects) restoring and getting my VW Bus on the road. Jock reasonably insisted at least one vehicle had to be functional: They couldn’t both be in pieces in the garage at the same time.

So the restoration of the Bug has limped along, as we address small pieces that can be fixed in a single day. For the most part, my poor car has continued to deteriorate.

“The mobile death trap” became Jock’s name for it: no mirrors, no turn signals, a headlight that someone backed into … the list goes on. But taking a VW apart and rebuilding it does require a certain amount of covered space.

In the epic game of Tetris that is my life, the plan prior to COVID was to finish the last room in the bed and breakfast this year, which would move a lot that has been stored in the garage out of the garage, so Kafka could come and undergo a full ground-up restoration. The reality now, in the land of COVID, is I have neither the money nor the time to finish the last bedroom this year—nor maybe even next, to be perfectly honest. After much hemming and hawing, the idea of a makeshift shelter in the backyard, with three sheets of plywood on the ground, became a possible work area for Kafka. The advantage is my canine lovelight, Hilda, who adores handyman work, can now supervise all aspects of the rewiring project.

“Volkswagens are a lot like archeology or historic homeownership,” I explained to a neighbor recently. “You are happier not knowing, you are happier not opening the wall and finding out what is back there.”

This conversation took place the day after we discovered the people who had done the initial restoration of Kafka in the ‘90s as a drag-racing vehicle had filled the cavity between the firewall for the engine compartment and the interior of the vehicle with the expanding insulation foam commonly known as “Great Stuff.” This wouldn’t be a problem, except the main part of the old wiring harness was encased in it, between two sheets of metal, and there was no way to get it out and fish the new one through.

Nothing with Volkswagens is ever simple … or a one-day project.

The following evening Jock unveiled his Volkswagen Roto-Rooter plan. I looked at it skeptically, but at this point, every possibility was on the table. After a few minutes, he asked for the fish tape. I handed it to him dutifully and went to the exit point to try and pull it through.

I honestly did not compute what I was seeing; it seriously took several moments to process that it had actually come through the foam. My brain tried but failed to come up with an appropriate reward to offer Jock; the Medal of Freedom is not in my power to bequeath. I just stood there dumbfounded with my mouth hanging open. Nothing with Volkswagens happens this quickly or easily, or on the first try.

By now the main harness is in the car and the wires for the headlights have been threaded through to their respective locations. The current goal is to get one step accomplished each day I am able to look at the project. Any day the bookstore is open for business is not a day I can really work on the car; it’s hard to put into words the physical and emotional demands of opening a business to the public during a pandemic take a toll. Like a lot of small business owners, I have been in a tornado of action and effort since early March, trying to keep things afloat. Rewiring Kafka and spending time with Jock and Hilda turns out to be the most therapeutic activity possible right now.

Who knew?

In a land of purely chaotic and theoretical questions from an illness that is wreaking havoc on public health, discourse and relationships, having a complete physical, three-dimensional project, with measurable accomplishments is a breath of fresh air. We have been discussing this project for quite some time. One possibility we considered and debated was converting Kafka to an electric vehicle when the rewiring came to fruition. He is a small, lightweight vehicle, and with advances in battery technology, it seemed a good time to have that discussion. There are actually conversion kits already available for classic VW’s to convert to electricity. We scoped them out, drew some plans and diagrams, and did some initial pricing for parts and supplies.  The estimated price tag came to about $10,000, not including time and Jock’s beer budget.

“The math doesn’t work out,” I noted when we got that number.

“How do you mean?” Jock asked.

“I spend about $100 a year on gas. I’m not likely to live long enough to recoup the expense.”

“No, this project has to happen because of emotional investment and commitment, not from a financial motivation,” Jock responded.

“OK, sweetheart, I hear you, and I love the environment, but rewiring Kafka as is comes to about $300. Do we have an extra $9,600 lying around right now? I’m not trying to be rude because I fully acknowledge that my old gas engine is not great for the environment, but compared to many Americans, my driving is pretty limited: I tootle from here to the river, and the farthest I typically drive in a week is to the Harris Teeter on Oleander.”

Really, past 23rd Street, I start to get vaguely lost and confused.

“I’m not arguing with you, I’m just saying the price tag won’t be the motivator.”

Jock is convinced his next pickup truck will be an electric vehicle; it might be a conversion of the one he currently owns. $10,000 is certainly less than the cost of a new electric vehicle right now.

This has been of the crux of the argument surrounding fossil-fuel consumption in vehicles for years: The economics for the average consumer have not been realistic. Biofuel was more expensive than regular gas until they came on par with each other, or biofuel became cheaper. It wasn’t going to take off in a meaningful way.

The distance that a Tesla can travel on a charge and the availability of charging ports is vastly different than what was available 15 years ago. Many Americans drive great distances either for work, family or vacations, and weigh the distance they can travel on a vehicle charge when considering a purchase. For us, the questions revolve around a trip to southern Ontario from North Carolina; Jock drives there on average twice a year (not this year; the border is closed due to COVID).

While we are trying to navigate the entirely uncertain and confusing terrain of our brave new world, it is oddly comforting that the frustration of Volkswagen repair has turned out to be a dependable and safe space to park my brain and emotions. But I could not be more grateful.

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