The early day Volkswagen busses, vans or whatever they were properly called were noisy magnificently wonderful, contrivances. Nothing like them was being made in American factories. With two rows of seats behind the front seat you could pack six adults and a fair amount of luggage behind the rear seat. Or, you could remove the middle seats and have a multi-purpose space that was big enough for little kids to play in happily while on long trips. The now ubiquitous “Iron Maiden” children’s car seats and seat belts had not yet been invented. And if you had something large to haul - that space was almost big enough to accommodate a small pony. Of course the bus wouldn’t have had enough power to make headway with that much weight aboard.
Our First Volkswagen Microbus
The early VW busses didn’t have bucket seats. The driver and passenger sat on a bench seat with the back of the seat forming a wall between driver’s compartment and the rear of the bus. That feature led to one of my funniest, and, I am sure to some people most questionable, experiences as a school band director. What took place on that late spring day in 1962 would, today, be very likely to end my teaching career at best or put me behind bars at worst. But the people and circumstances in those more innocent days were very different from what they have been for the past several decades.
In the `60’s most school band directors started kids on instruments in the 4th or 5th grades and kept the ones that made the grade as students until they graduated high school. By the time they reached high school we had spent so much time with them that we were a third parent to many of them. One of my surrogate kids was a boy named Mike R. Mike was an excellent drummer and a solid “A” student who had never had to be disciplined in school. In short, he was a good kid from a good family. There comes a day, though, in the life of many a “good” person, young or old, when they want to “take a walk on the wild side.” In fact, that temptation was the inspiration for an old country/western song called “Lucille” in which a fickle Ohio farm wife says: “I’m hungry for laughter and here ever after I’m after whatever the other life brings.” Although he certainly didn’t go for “the here ever after” thing that day of irrestible temptation to explore what was on that other side came, for Mike, late in his Senior year in high school. By that time I had been his band director/teacher for eight years – almost half his life.
I owned the first of several VW busses at that time and I always parked near the door to the band suite. Since I frequently had to haul sousaphones, drums, music stands and other kinds of instruments and equipment from place to place I kept the middle seat out most of the time. Now just as parents don’t always know what their kids are up to or considering I had no idea Mike what Mike was contemplating. It’s important to realize that like most well-behaved kids Mike’s idea of what constituted being on “the wild side” was a whole lot tamer than it would be for those kids who were “Frequent Flyers” in the school principal’s office.
The class period for band rehearsal came right before lunch, and although schools kept close track of who was in school and who was absent, the one time in the day when attendance wasn’t taken was during lunch. Mike obviously had been planning and plotting. He knew I always parked in an out-of-the-way spot near the back of the building. (Band roooms are always put in a far corner of the building near the shops and other noisy classes." He knew that I usually kept the middle seat out of my VW and, finally, he, knew that no one took attendance during the lunch period. As for me, I usually “brown-bagged” my lunch and ate on the way to my next assignment.
When the day came that Mike put his plan into action I ended rehearsal, stuffed what I needed for my next teaching assignment into my briefcase, got into my bus and started driving. I hadn’t gone more than a block when I heard an almost ghostly voice behind me say “Mr. Carriker,” in almost a whisper. Totally startled I turned my head and was face to face with Mike. Partly to catch my breath partly to let the adrenalin settle down I pulled over to the side of the road, stopped, and asked Mike what was going on, what was he doing here?
At that point he said in almost a plaintive tone of voice, “Mr. Carriker, I’ve never skipped school and I want to know what it feels like.” After the moment it took me to digest what Mike was saying I just couldn’t help but appreciate the comedy in the situation. Here I had an Honor Roll Senior with whom I was exceptionally well-acquainted, whom I knew to be dependable and honorable using me and my car in a carefully planned plot to do what we called in my high school days, “Play hookey.”
And this is where things took a turn that would get a teacher of today into the hottest of hot water. But keep in mind that this took place 50 years ago. We lived in a safer, more innocent world. I don’t remember the conversation between Mike and I but I know that I determined that he simply wanted to throw over the traces once in his school life. I was sure he wasn’t going to do anything malicious with his “Ferris Bueller” afternoon; he just wanted to know what it felt like to be “a bad boy” if only for a couple of hours; doing something relatively innocuous. I couldn’t resist. I was barely 30 myself. It hadn’t been that many years since I had been where he was. I told Mike to sit on the floor behind me and keep his head down until I got to my next teaching assignment at which time he could “make good” his “escape.”
The next day Mike showed up for band as usual. He had gone to the principal’s office that morning and confessed that he had skipped school the previous afternoon but he made no mention of how he had “pulled it off. He was given after-school detention for a couple of days as punishment, which I am sure he accepted as being the only right thing to do. As for he and I - we never spoke of the episode again.
Was it the right thing to do? Given the student involved, the trust that existed between he and I and the time in which it happened, I think so. I lost track of Mike shortly after he graduated. I often wonder if he was caught up in the maelstrom of Viet Nam and perhaps killed. If so, I am doubly glad that I helped him enjoy a very modest excursion into a world he had never experienced. If Mike avoided that terrible fate then I wonder if he has or will someday, tell his grandchildren about the day he and his band director became co-conspirators.