Wednesday, June 04, 2014

In Conversation With...Mike Smith

First published in The Oxford Journal on Wednesday, May 28, 2014, by Sara Jewell Mattinson.

Every so often, you meet a person whose life experience is a series of “Well, that’s another story.” 
I met Mike Smith at church on Mother’s Day (he was there with his mother, Grace Smith) and after  the service, we somehow ended up talking about the 1972 VW Beetle he drove home from the West Coast. This, of course, led to a longer conversation a few days later. 
There is the time he crashed his parents’ car shortly after graduating from Acadia University but that’s another story (although it wouldn’t hurt to tell you that wearing a seatbelt saved Mike’s life). There is an explanation for how he came to be living and working in Toronto while owning a house and barn on eight acres in Collingwood but that’s another story. And there is the premonition of his father’s death while working up in the Northwest Territories but that’s another story. 
Yet that brings us to the story of Mike and the red VW Bug.
After fulfilling his two-year commitment in the management program with the Northwest Company in Fort Franklin, Mike was ready to come home but first, he wanted to visit family living in British Columbia. 
“The day before I was to leave, I pulled into a mall parking lot and there was this red VW Bug sitting there with a For Sale sign on it,” Mike says. “My uncle has this habit of saying, ‘Did you see anything you like better than you like yourself?’ so I said to him, ‘Before you ask, Husky puppies and a Bug for sale.’ We finished dinner and he asked if I was going to go and look at it.”
We all know how that was going to end. Mike bought it but didn’t tell his mother that he was now going to be driving across Canada in a 1972 Beetle that he’d just bought and that, according to his uncle, needed some work before he’d even let his nephew leave the driveway.
Even though this happened in March 1998 when Mike was 28 years old, the details of the cold, the noise and the weather remain as vivid in his mind as if the trip happened last year. 
He left Vancouver Island in sunshine, hit rain on the Lower Mainland but as he made the ascent into the Rockie Mountains, the rain became snow 
“I’m putting along in this car and I see SUVs in the ditch and transports gearing it to get up and I’m passing them all thinking, How crazy am I? What have I gotten myself into?”
At the top of the Coquihalla Highway, the woman in the toll booth told Mike he had the perfect car for the drive. 
“Really?” he asked her.
In Regina, he bought a new car radio. By the time he reached Quebec, the muffler was gone but he felt he had to push through the province because his French wasn’t good. He got lost around Montreal and had to backtrack from the wrong side of the river. 
All of this without a heater because the previous owners had removed it. 
His only morning in northern New Brunswick, the car wouldn’t start and he needed a boost.
“I was barreling through New Brunswick but I knew something was wrong with the car when it took so long to go up a hill and going down was regular speed. But by that time, I knew I had to be home that night. At the Oxford exit, the wipers turned on then died. Between a blown head, bad muffler, cracked windshield, no heat and no cup holder, I could have put that car in the ditch right then and walked away from it.”
But Mike has loved VW Bugs since he was a kid   so he fixed the car and had it serviced and drove it around Nova Scotia for a couple of years. He discovered car shows which he attended with friends in the Valley who had a yellow VW Beetle. 
It was on the way home during another epic road trip, this time to a car show in Maine in 2000, as plagued by crises as the trip from the west coast (but you know that really is another story) that the worst happened.
The engine in Mike’s beloved Bug caught fire.
He hasn’t driven it since and he still hopes to fix up the car which is languishing in his barn.
“I’ve had at least five people ask me to sell it,” says Mike, “and one of the reasons I’ve kept the car is that the morning after I arrived back with it, my nephew Braden said, ‘Cool car, Uncle Mike’. I’ve loved this car ever since I bought it and it will get on the road again some day. Now Katie, my niece, has told me that she’d like a yellow Volkswagen convertible.”
Mike has lived in Toronto for 11 years but just as there was a moment in 2002 when he realized he didn’t want to be here anymore, he expects there will come a time when he doesn’t want to be there any longer. 
“I come home twice a year,” Mike says. “It’s my recharging. I go four or five months then I gotta get home. You go home and realize how quiet and relaxed it is. Some of the people I know in Toronto say ‘Why are you still here and not there?’ and it’s job-wise. This [Collingwood] is home and always will be but for some jobs, there just isn’t the market for them.”
But wait, I can’t forget the rest of the story.
A few years back while foraging in his mother’s attic, he found a photo of his grandmother [Grace Simons] standing in a front of a Beetle, which turned out to be an uncle’s car. To Mike, this was discovering the Holy Grail of his family; this explained why the kids were crazy for Beetles. 
“I parked my car in the same spot and got Mum to stand in the same spot as her mother and I took a picture, of the house then and now with the two cars.”
What a perfect ending. But the story’s not over yet.
“I’ve had too much fun with this car to give it up,” Mike says.

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