The BugShop: The Jesus Handle

This page last modified- 11/2/01

This is a true story.

But "storytelling", and writing of non-ficticious experiences for that matter, is a dimension outside of truth or fiction. I have always been a fan of colorful, descriptive writing. Bill Cosby, from his earliest 33 1/3rpm records that I can remember (stories about he and his brother sharing a bed, for one), was a big influence on me. His ability to tell a story that was totally true in every detail, but to fill it full of colorful metaphors and images and humor was something that I always admired.

I like to write that way. And I threw this text together when recollecting experiences with Beetles after being invited to contribute to a book called Bug Tales. And today, I received a complimentary copy of that book from the author. It is very well done and while I have yet to read all of the other 98 stories, I'm sure I will enjoy it. But the authors had to limit the length and verbiage of the submitted text for obvious reasons. It was part of the agreement and I fully accepted that. But I did want to offer my own unedited version here at the BugShop, and my "Stories/Rants" section was just the place.

I have been told that Houston Merck still runs his shop in Upstate South Carolina.....


Sometime in the mid eighties, I was tooling around the campus of Clemson University (upstate South Carolina) in my bright yellow '68 Beetle. I had bought it after high school graduation in 1980 and shortly thereafter, had it painted by a friend in his back yard for $75. This after spending countless hours scraping off the yellow paint that was on it when I bought it. Yellow, latex house paint, applied with a brush. On a hot summer South Carolina day, you could just nick a spot with you key, and then peel back a pretty good sized rubbery sheet. But with "real" paint on it, it looked pretty good and was serving me well as a classic college car.

One day tooling around campus with a friend I slowed, pulled to the right curb and then quickly turned the wheel hard left to make one of those E-ticket ride U-turns that only a Beetle could do. Barely halfway through the maneuver, I picked up the lowered nose of a white Toyota in my left periphery. There was a short sound of screeching tires and WHAM!, we were spun around in road another full 180 degrees. All I remember when we came to rest was that the radio had somehow come on full blast. I still haven't figured that one out.

Once it was clear that no one was hurt, I climbed outside to assess the damage. The Toyota had met us squarely on the left rear wheel. The whole left rear fender was collapsed onto the now airless tire. Trying to convince myself that it "wasn't that bad", I jumped back in the car, started it, put it in gear and tried to limp it out of the middle of the road. When I let the clutch out, there was a whirring sound and a slight grinding, but the car moved nary an inch.

A little while later, the University Tow truck, on break from yanking illegally parked cars, showed up. The driver asked "Where do you want it to go?". I though about saying "my parents house" in Charleston, some 240 miles away, but not having ever remembered seeing the tow truck even off campus, I figured that they were looking for a more "local" answer. I confidently said "It needs to got to Merck's VW in Central".

Houston Merck ran (and as I type this still does, I am told) a VW repair business at his home in Central. While part of my college possessions were a small set of tools and I had done some tune up stuff myself, I had enlisted Houston Merck's services before for a few odd repairs. Central is a small town (not a geographic region) about 5 miles from the University campus. Merck's VW, is along a rolling road in green foothills of the Smokey Mountains. You might easily pass it save for the little Beetle shaped "Merck's VW" sign that hung from the bottom of the mailbox.

Houston Merck lived in a modest house and just off his circular driveway was a 2 car garage sized workshop. Inside the shop, fan belts and bunches of valve cover gaskets hung. His property was meticulously maintained, and I recall he had a very clean looking white '67 Beetle of his own that took shelter under a carport near the house. Houston ALWAYS was working on something whenever I was there. He was methodical, businesslike, neither over-freindly nor cold. He listened to your problem, told you what it probably was, asked you to call him in a couple of days and that was that. I called him after the car was there.

"Spider gear's gone", he said. At that time, I wasn't sure what a "spider" gear was, but I never questioned him. He explained the the force of impact traveled down the axle and destroyed the differential in the transmission. He said he could put a used transmission in there for $200, and that it would take a couple weeks. He said I needed to get him another tire, he had another rim he could sell me. I asked him about the fender to which he adamantly replied "You know, I don't do body work". I persisted and told him that I just needed to be able to drive the car and that I could get the taillight and all working again.

"Well, you know, I have a cousin coming to visit this weekend. I think he likes to mess around with these things a bit. I'll see what he can do."

2 weeks later I called him and he said the car was ready, but there was a problem.

I told Houston that I hardly expected a Lexus ride from my $500 car, but he insisted that I bring the car back when he got another transmission and he would replace it free of charge.

I asked about the fender.

"Oh yeah, Carl had quite a time with that one, but we got it fixed", he said.

When I asked what he had done he told me that cousin Carl had chained my car to a big pine tree on the side of the yard and hooked his pickup to a chain on the fender bolts, a few at a time. I cringed at the thought of my poor Beetle chained to a pine tree and being yanked around by Carl's pickup.

"Hope you don't mind blue" Houston said, "it was all we had". He was right, he didn't "do" body work.

I got a ride up to his place, paid him and picked my yellow car with a blue fender. It was actually better than I expected, but I decided stop at the local hardware store on the way home and pick up a couple cans of yellow spray paint.

Once I got on the road, I understood what "howl" meant. Starting in the lower end of third gear, a low rumbly sound came from the back end. As you picked up speed, it rose in pitch to a roar and as you got into fourth and got to highway speed, it was a full bore "howl". Windows up, windows down, radio on full, it didn't matter. All you heard was a deafening howling from the rear end of the car. At first I thought it was just amplified by the rear cavity of the cabin, but then I started noticing people turning and looking at my car as I approached. Before they could actually see it.

A few weeks later, Houston called to tell me that he had another transmission and that I should bring my car back. I was glad, the howling was starting to give me headaches and I found myself asking my friends to drive more than I used to. Houston told me that he had just bought a 70 Beetle "for parts" from a fella for a couplafew hundred (that is a word in SC, "couplafew") and that to his surprise, it had a swingaxle transmission (they were replaced by IRS trannies in '69 in the US market). He said I should come out, and go for a ride in the car so I could see that it didn't "howl" or jump out of gear. I told him that I trusted him but he insisted that I go for a ride in the car. Later I figured out that he probably wanted to make sure that I didn't try to get him to put a transmission in for the third time.

I got a friend to follow me out to Houston's and told him that I had to go for a ride in this car then I could go. Houston and I strolled to the back part of his property, the part that was not-so-meticulously maintained. The part that looked like a small junkyard. I was curious about what a "couplafew hundred" would by you in a driveable Beetle, but didn't see anything that looked driveable in the group of cars we were approaching. As I was walking by a faded yellow Beetle, Houston said "here we go", and yanked open the door.

I'm still not sure exactly what about this car made it look undriveable, but something did. It just had that listing, tired look. Tires were low on air, windows filthy. Houston opened the drivers door and plopped into the seat, the car groaned a bit. I opened the passenger door and upon seeing almost a good square foot of the green grass below the car in front of the passenger seat, opted not to sit down until I received further instructions. I thought maybe he would start it and then let me drive it. There was some grass visible under his feet too, as he furiously pumped the gas pedal. He turned the key and the engine sounded like a wheezing, whining 5 year old totally exhausted. Just as the cranking speed slowly waned away to what seemed like the "that's it, battery's dead" sound and Houston was flailing even faster on the gas pedal with his foot, there was a pop, a sputter and with a puff of gray smoke, the engine started up.

"Hop in" he shouted over the drone of the fast idling engine. I sat down gently in the seat, it seemed to give and leaned to the right a bit. I looked down and carefully found enough solid metal on the floor to rest my feet. The seat was wet and the whole car smelled like an old wet blanket.

We rolled slowly down the grassy lawn, onto the driveway and out onto the road. I remember noticing how nice the pavement was on the back roads of Central, and I wasn't looking out of the window. As we got going, Houston pressed the brake pedal, and it went all the way to the floor. I looked at his face for some kind of response, but it didn't seem to phase him, he went into second and peered intently down the road. He pumped the brake pedal a couple more times, but each time it touched the back of the fire wall with a metallic thud. Suddenly, there was a groan and the sound of metal tearing, and my seat tilted toward the right some more, the backrest was now touching the door. I looked down and could see a bit more if the road whizzing past. Houston still kept his stern businesslike look out of the dirty windshield, and we hit third. He finally broke his silence, took his hand off the gear shift and said "See!?". "Great!" I said, "Perfect". I could now feel the strange sensation of wind blowing up between my legs, and the car was starting that rhythmic bounce of a vehicle on less-than-balanced tires. As the bouncing intensified, suddenly there was another groan and tear and the front part of my seat jolted forward as now the front edge of the seat rails tore away from the floor. I grabbed the "Jesus" handle on the dash and pressed hard with my feet. I prayed that they wouldn't tear through the floor as I had the feeling that if I lifted them up and let go of the dash, the whole seat would rotate forward and down, the seat and me would do a header down onto Smith Memorial Highway in Central SC and I would get a nice look at my new tranny as the back end of the car passed over me.

Just as I was about to register a concern with Houston about my seating, he slammed the car into fourth and pressed the gas pedal to the floor. Without taking his eyes off the road, he shouted as we both now bounced violently along, "See! This is where most of them go bad. They jump out under load in fourth... this one is fine!". I nodded and looked up. We were going a tad over 50 and there was a sharp turn coming up. I wondered if Houston had remembered the results of the brake pedal test I had witnessed just moments earlier. I wasn't sure what he had planned, but I had come to the conclusion that the brakes in this car were in similar condition as the floors. "Awright then," he said as he got off the gas and slipped the car into neutral, "grab the wheel". I stared at him, puzzled, "Right here!" he said, a little more urgently pointing the right side of the steering wheel but never taking his gaze off the road.

At this point, I figured he had a plan. I had no idea what it was, but the calmness of his voice led me to believe that he knew what he was doing. I gingerly lifted my left hand off the Jesus handle and grabbed the outer edge of the steering wheel. Still without taking his eyes off the road, and the upcoming curve, Houston took both hands off the steering wheel, and reached down and grabbed the emergency brake handle. He pulled it up slowly but firmly. In hindsight, my diagnosis of this car is that in addition to its other shortcomings, only one emergency brake cable must have been intact because as the brakes (err, "brake") engaged, the car lurched toward the embankment on the right. Instinctively, I grabbed the wheel with my other hand, and shoved it to the left. As I did so, the seat violently fell even more forward and I think my right shoulder hitting the dash was all that kept me from exiting the vehicle without use of either door. I saw myself as child, running through a sprinkler in our front yard back in Virginia. Houston didn't take his gaze off the road or both hands off the emergency brake handle until we had come to a full stop. He looked over at me and started to comment on the performance of the transmission, but changed his topic when he saw my whitened face. "See? Damn nice tra.... oh, I guess that seat's about to finally let go, huh?"

Yeah, I think that would be a safe statement.

Houston pointed out to me that he didn't need me to hold the steering wheel anymore, and I happily let go. I settled back into my seat, pressed really hard with my feet, pushed on the dash with both hands and managed to get it back up enough that the front edge wouldn't be in danger of making any unsightly scuff marks on the nice pavement. I noticed that my head and hair had actually cleaned little grime off the right part of the windshield.

Houston put the car in first, checked for traffic, and made a careful U-turn and started heading back up the road to his shop. "Well there ya go. I think it'll work for ya nice, and it don't make no noise either".

After a brief pause, I said "Yep, it is a LOT quieter than that other one. But ya know, I think I heard some gear noise in second. You mind driving all the way back in second so I can listen?"

I pressed my feet down harder and the seat groaned back at me.

Copyright© 1999; John S. Henry