In January of 1968, in the months that followed our family moving from the suburbs of New Jersey to Bolinas, my mother got it in her head that she should buy herself a new car. She had thought this out carefully and talked it over with several of the new friends that she had made in town, many of the conversations taking place down at Smiley’s Saloon and others over all-night burgundy parties in our living room, or early morning coffee the following day, with feet propped up near the open oven door in the kitchen of our Brighton Avenue home.
Accustomed to the turnpikes and urban streets of the east coast, Mom had tired of carting her four children around in the white 1960 Buick sedan that my grandparents in Wyoming had let her drive – a wide vehicle that was not made for the twisty roads of West Marin. Size wasn’t actually the issue, as we soon discovered, because Mom opted for something much bigger than the Buick. She wanted something that would let her get from one place to another – fast! Mom had her sights set on buying an Amphibious Vehicle: a half-car/half boat contraption with both wheels and a propeller that could ramble over the streets of Bolinas, including the treacherous mud holes of Poplar Road, just as easily as it could cruise across the bay and over to San Francisco.
In hindsight, an Amphibious Vehicle tooling around town wouldn’t have been the strangest car to grace the streets of Bolinas nor the least practical. At the time, smaller cars had been invented but had not yet become the rage that they later became in the 1970s. Mom maintained that it would be difficult to travel anywhere with four kids inside of a small car. She knew this from having driven three children around in a 1963 Ford Falcon back in New Jersey. Now the idea of commandeering a military assault vehicle appealed to her more than the idea of cruising in a sedan. And she couldn’t be talked out of it.
“The army has been making these for years,” our mother explained at the dinner table one evening. “All that we have to do is go to an army auction or maybe just to the army surplus store and buy an Amphibian. They couldn’t be that expensive because the one we would be buying would most likely be somewhat used – a leftover from the Second World War.”
Indeed, a vehicle that had helped assure U.S. success on the shores of Normandy would be helpful during any winter in Bolinas.
From January through March, during the wettest rainy season that Bolinas had seen in decades, Mom kept our hopes alive with stories about getting the Amphibian, which she said would be standard army-issue green in color and one that the entire family could fit snuggly inside. She told us of the big tires that could go over any terrain and brought home pictures of an actual Amphibious Vehicle, which made me more nervous than excited.
She began planning trips to take us on in the Amphibian including a journey to Mexico, cruising down alongside the Pacific. In April, the weather broke and Mom began talking about driving over the hill and getting the Amphibian. She didn’t want to take the three boys – just our youngest sister, who was still in diapers at the time. She left on the excursion over the hill with several friends in tow. That night, she returned to the house with her presence announced with the loud beeping the horn outside. My brothers and I ran to look and got the first sight of what was our brand new – Willy’s Jeep.
It appeared that at the last minute, one of her friends had talked Mom out of buying the Amphibious Vehicle and talked her into the more sensible jeep, which we tested out on some of Poplar Road’s deepest mud puddles the following morning before getting stuck in one so deep that not even the 4-wheel drive function for which she had bought the car could get us out. As I recall, we had to muster up the strength of several of her friends as well as a truck with a winch to pull the jeep out of Poplar’s most deadly mud puddle.
Later, we did take some adventures in the Jeep, like the trek across the continent one summer, down through Arizona and New Mexico before coming back up to the East Coast. We stopped in Wyoming to visit the grandparents and see the scenery that she had grown up around. I remember being terrified and even crying as Mom drove the car into the aptly named Crazy Woman Creek – where the water came up to the middle of the jeep’s doors. This time we made it through.
She later took us to Mexico (by train) and we eventually sold the house on Brighton Avenue and relocated (via sea and air travel) to the remote Island of Bali, in Indonesia, where we lived for a while amongst the natives, swam alongside giant turtles and fed corn to a colony of wild monkeys. Our family was gone for nearly a year – a year without any schooling. But when we returned the school passed us from grade to grade thanks to the education they knew we had received.
Driving around in the Jeep wasn’t the same as it would have been taking the Amphibian across the bay to the city. But at low tide, I bet that we could have made it across the channel to Seadrift – if Mom had gotten the gumption to do it.