Our next-door neighbor when I was a kid, Virgil Butler, was a quiet man. He was a retired house painter, and a widower, neither state being conducive to a lot of chit-chat.
Virgil was a nice man, in his shy ways, and loved to talk to me about his dogs, Blue Tick hounds named Max and Maxine, whose pen I'd wander over and visit at the back of his property, next to a stand of wild cherry trees. He'd given up hunting, but Max and Maxine were the honored remnants of his pack of hunting dogs. He'd tell me tales about one particular hunt or another, and the tales seemed to run together and flow into one another over time as he recalled the pleasures they had brought him, and which lived on in the now elderly Max and Maxine.
Dad and Virgil were pretty close friends, and Dad and I helped him around his house as he aged, with yard work, and generally treating him like he was a favorite uncle. We went fishing together on summer Sunday afternoons, then took Virgil out to lunch. He and Dad would always be pulling some kind of good-natured joke on each other, hiding each other's gardening tools, or moving the birdbath to the middle of the driveway. One time, Dad went out on a Saturday morning to find the Chevy jacked up, with one of the wheels missing. It was sitting on the porch swing. The pranks were escalating! Virgil became more animated and happy and engaged, and I began going over not simply to see the dogs, but also because I knew Virgil would come out to visit.
Those wonderful old dogs--and Virgil and Dad's increasingly elaborate pranks--were the primary source of animation I saw in Virgil, until he drove home one day in his new Volkswagen Beetle.
In those days, the late 1950s, VWs were an oddity, something you saw in pictures in LIFE magazine, or once in a while on the road, but I'd never seen one up close. Neither had most of our neighbors, so lots of us ambled over that day he appeared with his Beetle.
Virgil lit up like a kid at Christmas. He had driven an old Buick since before I was born. That he would get any new car at all was a shock. That he'd get a German car was even more startling. Plenty of people still had bad feelings toward Germany because of the war, and some mechanics wouldn't work on German cars, or Japanese cars either.
But there was Virgil's VW, and he was excited. He talked to us all about the fine engineering, the good affordable price, and the excellent finishes. He showed us the fine little engine, which was in the REAR, of all places. The battery was under the back seat. It had what we'd now call a sunroof, but it folded back like an accordion, made of some kind of pliable fabric. Finally, he talked about the mileage he would be getting, over 30 miles per gallon! Virgil said more that day than anyone had ever heard him speak in all the years they'd known him. We all climbed in and looked around. It was fun!
Lots of questions were asked and answered. My Dad asked where the fuel gauge was, and Virgil just smiled slowly, with a proud smile none of us had ever seen. He then pointed out a little lever on the floor. It was pointing straight up. "if you feel the engine sputter like it's running low on gas, you just nudge that lever over to the right, and you have another gallon of gas from the reserve tank. That's another 30 miles!"
More questions ensued, with more proud answers. We all finally drifted off toward home. Virgil's new car was the talk of our little village. People from all over town came to look and sit in it and talk about it. Virgil was mighty pleased. He brought a chair out to the front yard so he could see the folks driving by to see his wonder-car. Virgil had always been respected and liked in a quiet way, but now, Virgil was Popular!
And he was getting his 30+ miles per gallon. How he crowed about it!
One evening about dark, Dad told me to come with him. We went out to the shed where we kept the lawnmower, and Dad got the gas can. He told me to be quiet, and we went over to Virgil's VW. Dad added about a gallon of gas to the tank, and we went home. We repeated this about twice every week for a couple of weeks.
Suddenly, Virgil was becoming even more excited! He kept close track, and he was now achieving 47 miles per gallon! He swelled up like some over-ripe tomato, ready to bust open. He'd walk over to neighbors' yards and stop them to tell them about this miracle. He called the VW dealer to tell them, and they were pleased but expressed some skepticism. But Virgil had the figures. He carried around a little spiral notebook with all the numbers showing his calculations. They sure seemed accurate and the figures added up. He walked around with the calculations in his shirt pocket, ready for display and discussion.
Just about the time everyone in town knew about the Miracle Mileage, Dad and I went over at our usual time one night, but this time Dad brought a length of narrow hose. He proceeded to siphon about a gallon OUT of Virgil's gas tank. We repeated this a couple more times over the next couple of weeks. Once, when Virgil had parked the VW not in front by the street but around back by the garage, Dad and I almost got caught. We were back there at work with the siphon, but we were close to Max and Maxine's pen. They heard us and put up quite a howling, really carrying on. Virgil's back door flew open and out he came with a flashlight. Lucky for us, he put his attention only on the back of his property, by the hounds' pen, and after a couple of minutes went back inside. I think Dad and I held our breath for the whole couple of minutes.
A few days later, the chair disappeared from Virgil's front yard. He was not to be seen outside his house. When he did happen to go outside to get the mail, the neighbors would come over to talk about the VW, but Virgil would end the conversation and go inside. When we picked him up for fishing, he seemed pretty low. The practical jokes on Dad faded, then ceased.
Dad asked Virgil what had him acting so blue, knowing already what the answer would be. Virgil slowly pulled a new set of figures out of that shirt pocket, and just handed them to Dad, looking down at the ground. "16 miles per gallon, Jim. 16! I don't know what happened. I've taken it to the dealer. I've crawled around looking for leaks. There's no explanation. I guess I bought a lemon."
I think Dad decided in that moment that enough was enough. He gently revealed what he'd done--charitably leaving me out of it. He explained the whole thing, the adding of gas, the siphoning of gas. It slowly dawned on Virgil how he'd been had.
Virgil's eyes blazed for a few seconds. I'd never seen him mad, but he was mad now! Then, after only those few seconds, those eyes softened, and the corners of his mouth began to curl skyward. What a magnificent prank! He laughed and laughed, until tears ran down his cheeks. He slapped his knees. He threw his head back. He saw the elaborate care that had been taken with the joke and realized that all the trouble Dad had gone to was not evidence of malice, but was in tribute to their friendship. He also, I suppose, felt some relief that nothing was wrong with his car. Dad, I think, also felt a good bit of relief.
Virgil began calling people on the phone to tell the story. His chair went back out in the yard. Visitors were regaled with the intricacies of the prank done by his close pal Jimmy. I think he even went to the VW dealer and told them the story. And Virgil's VW was just as advertised, a well built, inexpensive car that got really good mileage. Things were better than ever.
A couple of weeks later, Dad went outside on a Saturday morning, and the back of his Chevy was jacked up with two jacks, and both rear wheels had been removed.
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