Living Columns & Blogs

Volkswagen Beetles and earrings are all part of growing up

The first Volkswagen Beetles were imported into the United States from Germany in 1949. Almost immediately these small, practical ”Bugs” were staples on every college campus.

In the spring of 1952 a student at Gonzaga University in Spokane disassembled a Volkswagen Beetle belonging to his dormitory Prefect (supervisor) and reassembled it in that worthy’s cell-like dorm room. It filled the whole room, nearly touching the walls on all sides.

Nobody would say who did it. It almost had to be an engineering student, the reasoning went. Who else would have the time, the know-how, and be crafty enough to pull off such a stunt?

I was working in the public relations office at Gonzaga in those days.

My duties included creating a daily bulletin on an ancient mimeograph machine. The resulting smeary document consisted mostly of recurring “Report to the Dean’s Office” notices with the names of suspected miscreants. No one turned themselves in, though, and the car stayed where it was.

An enterprising student gave tours for 50 cents of the first floor, including the window the car parts were thought to have been passed through. In the meantime, the Prefect slept in the closet next to the bathroom. Finally the bulletin carried a notice that full amnesty would be granted to the culprit, if he’d only get the car out of the dormitory and back in the parking lot where it belonged, so Mr. Burnside could get a good night’s sleep.

At that point, Roger Wilhelm, an engineering student, admitted to being responsible. He did report to the dean’s office and that, children, is how I met your father.

When I told this story to my grandson, he was very surprised to learn that his grandfather, who died long before the young man was born, wasn’t just the strict military authority figure who had always been described to him. He was once a student with the world ahead of him who built tiny airplanes powered by houseflies, constructed intricate dams at the shore of the ocean, turned handsprings all the way down the beach, and took apart Volkswagens.

Does college help us decide whether we’ll grow up or just forget how to stay young?

One of our sons came home from his first quarter of studies with a shaky GPA and a sapphire stud in his left ear. Maybe it was his right ear. All I know is, it certainly wasn’t there when he left home. Men did not wear earrings in those days unless they were pirates. I took one horrified look at him and slammed the door in his face.

He stood outside and called, ”You took that very well, mother.”

When he came home at Christmas he didn’t have the earring. I tactfully suppressed my glee as I asked about it. He mumbled something about a discussion with a truck driver – a big truck driver. In the course of the dialog, as I understand it, they exchanged insults including jabs about the boy’s family life with his mother. “I didn’t even know he knew you,” my son said. The truck driver acquired the earring by pulling it free. My son decided to try to keep the one ear he had left intact.

College broadens the horizons.

As each student goes out the door on their way to forming a new life, a parent has got to be immensely proud and completely terrified. My grandson started classes last Monday. “He’s officially in college! “ exults Facebook. He plans to be an engineer.

Young people going to college today, like my grandson, are generally part of what is called Generation Z, and a lot of people of my generation wring their hands about the strange ways of the young. However, a different opinion comes from Anna Liotta, the author of “Unlocking Generational Codes,” who trains businesses on how to work with intergenerational employees. She is optimistic about the future. She calls these young people “Globals” and in a recent interview on my Generation Gap internet radio show (see what I did there?), Liotta said that Globals care deeply about the world and want to help others. They think of themselves as citizens of the world, and value experiences above possessing things. They give her 100 percent hope for the future, she says – and 100 percent confidence in her own prospects for job security, while she teaches the generations to understand each other.

The Chicago Tribune reassures that “people who earn bachelor’s degrees and work full-time can expect to earn 84 percent more than their peers with a high school diploma over their lifetime.”

Maybe, but can they take a Volkswagen Beetle apart and put it back together again?

Dorothy Wilhelm is a humorist, speaker, newspaper columnist and author. Her latest book is “True Tales of Puget Sound.” Contact her at 253-582-4565., PO Box 881, DuPont, WA 98327, or