Sometime around 8 p.m. on a Friday in 1984, an ancient, blue Volkswagen Beetle carrying three members of the same Long Island family — father, who was driving; mother next to him in the car’s snug front bucket seat; daughter who had just turned 18 — broke down in the busy westbound lanes of the Queens Midtown Tunnel.
Hailing from the quiet South Shore community of Blue Point and heading to the city for a night on the town, the trio could not have known what awaited as they sat stranded and unsettled in their clunky little car or how life would change as a result …
Don’t you love stories that begin that way?
They’re always about mass murders unsolved after decades or Ponzi schemes that snagged thousands of unwitting investors and eventually led to the downfall of the scoundrel behind the scam.
OK, the Volkswagen yarn is not nearly so dramatic and, to tell the truth, it didn’t exactly change the life of anyone — not my wife, Wink, daughter, Kristin, or me.
But it was a memorable night, relived often when we sit down and talk with one another about the old days — you know, anything before, oh, 2015.
On the occasion of our daughter’s birthday, Wink and I thought it would be a grand initiation into semi-adulthood if Kristin joined us at a favorite honky-tonk hangout, the great Lone Star Café on 13th Street and Fifth Avenue in Greenwich Village.
For those who may have missed it, the Lone Star — now long gone — was a boisterous, good-times place with a 40-foot polyurethane iguana on the roof, plenty of beer (we stuck to Cokes that night), a friendly crowd and a cavalcade of country singers.
When our bug died in the fierce traffic of the Midtown Tunnel, possibilities seemed limited to:
1) Death or worse with attendant tabloid headlines.
2) A glum ride back to the ’burbs on the Long Island Rail Road, all hands disheartened and defeated.
But no! Wait! Here comes the rescue part.
Within minutes, an MTA wrecker with bumper the size of a billboard appeared behind us.
“Steer,” said the driver by way of introduction and — ba-boom! — the truck smacked the VW’s backside. The lane ahead by then was clear. With a jolt, we were on our way.
Out of the tunnel, the truck shoved us to a side area. We locked up and, forlorn, said goodbye. The chances of seeing our Beetle again, I figured, were slim.
“Hey,” said Wink, pointing to a phone booth. “Let’s call Dave.”
That would be Dave Behrens, our dear pal, my Newsday colleague and another VW owner.
“Be right there,” said Dave.
Up he pulled in his beige bug.
“Drop me home, and have a good time.”
We did: drove Dave to his place on the Lower East Side, spent a grand night at the Lone Star, stayed with my mother in Brooklyn, found the Beetle intact the next day, lucked into a repairman who got it running (fuel pump, I think), told Dave to come retrieve his car. All’s well that ends well, right?
Now the news angle: Sad to report, Volkswagen is killing the Beetle.
They stopped U.S. distribution once before — in 1979 — then brought the bug back in 1998. With a peppy engine and a shape that was kind of a cross between a sand dune and a soap bubble, the snazzy newcomer was a far cry from the first 1930s “people’s car” commissioned — ignominiously enough — by Adolf Hitler. Der Fuhrer’s original didn’t have so much as a fuel gauge.
This time the bug looks kaput for keeps.
Industry analysts say motorists continue entranced by sport utility vehicles and that VW wants to expand its share of that lucrative market.
Progress? You tell me.
The blue bug wasn’t our only VW. We had a white Beetle, two microbuses and a cream- colored camper we took across country with four kids complaining from Suffolk County to Big Sur and back.
They don’t make the bus anymore — a re-imagined electric model is supposed to be on the way — and, with a sigh, I tell myself it’s a different time. Like our friend, Dave, who died last year, we were an eager audience for the famous VW ad campaign that chirped: “Think Small.”
Now I watch the heavyweights — those mighty SUVs — muscle through downtown traffic or squeeze into narrow parking spaces or assert their alpha male advantage on the LIE.
Think Small? Weren’t those the days?
For more stories about retirement, visit newsday.com/Act2.