My dad’s ‘73 Volkswagen Bus was sky blue with a white top. It was old and a little creaky. The top was a bit rusty, and the side door was difficult to slide shut. One of the bench seats was missing in the back, so we often sat on the floor without seatbelts. This was by no means a nice ride, but it was something that no one else seemed to have. It was uniquely ours.
Like most kids, I compared myself to my friends and others who went to school, and also like most kids, I measured my worth based on my observations. We were never poor or went hungry, but my things tended to be a bit more frayed and worn than everyone else’s. Now I am ashamed to say that I was often embarrassed of the things my family did have. But the bus was not one of them.
I spent a lot of my childhood in that bus. My mom didn’t drive it, so any time I was in the bus, my dad was too. It was and still is an object that in my memory is inextricably connected to my dad. On Friday nights, my dad drove me, my brother, and our friends, wrapped in towels and dripping wet, home after a night of swimming at the pool where he was a part-time lifeguard. He drove my brother and me to sports games and to after game pizza celebrations and commiserations with our teammates. When it was just me and my brother riding in the back, we dropped pebbles and whatever we could get our hands on down the holes where the bench should have been.
The Volkswagen Bus, also called the Type 2 Microbus, first appeared in the US in 1950. Though out of production since December 31, 2013, the Volkswagen bus remains an easily recognizable icon of 1960s counterculture. It appeared on the cover of Bob Dylan’s 1963 album, The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan, and The Who put it into song in “Magic Bus” on their 1970 album Live at Leeds. Some of the same stereotypical features of the bus carried over into the 21st century. In the 2006 film Little Miss Sunshine, the yellow VW Bus was just as much of a quirky dysfunctional character as everyone else in the story. And Yusuf Islam (Cat Stevens) recaptured some of the artist hippie undertones from the sixties on the album cover to Roadsinger in 2009.
But these are only a few examples of how the bus has manifested in more recent popular culture. There are, for example, literally dozens of album covers that feature the bus. Through its various permutations, the bus has become a stand-in for acid trips, flower power, and free love— a material embodiment of a stereotype that is detached from any real culture or history.
The bus spans decades of political turmoil and social justice activism, and it is that part of the bus’ history with which I connect my dad, though this hasn’t always been the case. He was staunchly anti-imperialist and anti-racist and sought political reform through on-the-ground organizing. But as a kid, I had only a vague impression of the history that my dad had been a part when he was younger. Without knowing it, I was viewing my dad and his experiences through a simplistic stereotype because I valued its edginess over something real. After all, growing up in red state Texas, a dad like mine was, much like the bus, something that no one else had.
Not until I was a teenager did I start to understand the enormity and complexity of this history, and my dad’s part in it, which I had once romanticized in my head. Organizing is hard and often thankless work. The wait to see results of the work is long and mostly indefinite. Progressive social and political change is built upon learning how systems of oppression operate and the history of these systems. In learning this, my dad started to emerge to me as a fully realized person.
My dad sold the bus before I became a teenager, but as both a physical artifact and as a memory, the bus is now an instrument through which I can make sense of parts of my relationship with my dad—and in turn, myself. He was my first introduction to Marx and leftist politics in my teen years, and the first time I heard the phrase “social justice,” it came from him. As an older straight white man, he has always been an example that being “from a different time” is not an excuse to perpetuate injustice.
“Changing minds is so hard, and you still might never do it,” he told me many years ago, not to discourage me from trying but to prepare me lest I feel like giving up. I think about the weight of those words and their meaning often. Like when I started social justice work full time three years ago, and again after the 2016 election. I was reminded of them as I marched in the Women’s March in DC, and yet again when I watched the worst of this country clash with the best of it in Charlottesville, Virginia. I also think about the bus, which has become the ballast of perspective that allows me to situate the present in a larger cultural and political history— an indication that our seemingly extraordinary present moment is not without precedent. The bus is a material reminder that history, both my own personal history and a collective cultural history, can provide a way forward.
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