ANOTHER ICON GONE WEST
Seventh Edition, Vol. 1
Getting one of those late night phone calls or now days, a text has always made me blurt out loud “uh oh, what happened now” and last night was no different. As much as I appreciate the quick notification of the pending demise of someone close, I dread the conversation that follows that late, after hours ringing phone. The conversation is never of a cheerful content and is usually followed by “I’ll let you know” or “I’ll keep you posted”. This, is usually followed by the flood gates of one’s tear ducts and the clogged nasal passages that coincide with such emotional upheaval. I am no exception. I’m pretty tough, generally, but when it comes to the loss of someone close, be it a human or even one of our dogs, I have a hard time keeping it together. I do understand the cycle of life, but I don’t like it. Especially, losing someone who has had such a huge impact on my life. There are a lot of these types of people that I have known over the years that are no longer with us. These people were either there for me in some special way, or had taken an interest in me because I took an interest in them, or what they did. The list is longer than my memory, but there are a few who stand out in my mind that essentially molded me into who I have become.
Of all of those people, the one that I’m talking about today is Jerry Wood. I met Jerry way back in 1978. If you’ve read my blogs from August 2017 “I Learned About Air-Cooled Engines from That” and “My History & Story involving VW Restorations”, then you already know the background between the two of us. For you non-aviators, the term “Gone West” is an aeronautical reference to the setting sun of one’s life. It is indeed a dark day for a bright beaming ray of sunshine that has finally set on a mentor and good friend.
Jerry was an air-cooled VW guy for most of his adult life. He became friends with Les Choat of Les’s Auto Salvage in Compton California in the early ‘60’s, and eventually went to work for or with Les depending on the level of responsibility he was willing to accept at the time. Jerry was very instrumental in the “Burro” racing cars Les, Tiny Thompson and others raced in Baja back in the day. Building all of the engines and transaxles for those early racecars.
Jerry was a fairly quiet, somewhat reserved guy in that he rarely got mad at anyone, but there were a few unfortunate souls over the years that managed to push his buttons in the right sequence, resulting in the immediate dismissal and subsequent request to leave his presence. Jerry pretty much got along with everybody, but had little patience for those whom would argue the finer points of the internal workings of the VW, and especially those whom expressly voiced their opinions that they knew more about the car brand than he did, and would subsequently “Chunk ‘em to the street” as he would say. (I’m the same way. Maybe this is where I got this trait from).
Jerry wasn’t one of those globally well known figures in the VW world like Gene Berg, Lee Leighton, Don Rountree and such. Nope. He didn’t get any fame or recognition for his progress in lowering quarter mile acceleration times in drag racing, or building race cars that would endure countless hours of abusive operation in the blistering heat of the desert of the Baja Peninsula. Nope! None of that stuff. But, what Jerry did do in the VW world was to quietly keep the many of the VW cars, vans and trucks running around the San Bernardino mountains and the rest of SoCal, on the road. Even today, some of Jerry’s engines and transaxles can be found in the back of many of his customer’s vehicles. (Including a few of mine). While Gene, Lee and Don were out setting and breaking records, Jerry was busily working in his little shop in the back of his house in Big Bear Lake, California building air-cooled VW engines and transaxles for the everyday driver of these vehicles. Over the years that Jerry has been in the VW industry, the sheer numbers of engines and transaxles that he has built are probably staggering. I can remember my first summer working at Jerry’s Engine Shop, I must have taken apart close to least sixty complete engines myself. Multiply that by forty or so years and it becomes apparent that his contribution to the VW industry and to the people of this community is not something to take lightly. So while the technological and historical advancements Gene, Lee and Don made in the sport side of the VW industry, Jerry was humbly keeping the daily driver on the road since the mid 1960’s. In my opinion, a record like this is far more a noble and noteworthy feat than setting any speed or endurance record.
Jerry not only taught me the ins and outs of the venerable Volkswagen brand of vehicles, he also inspired me to really get into the heritage and the ever evolving product improvements this brand of automobile experienced through its’ forty-three years of air-cooled manufacturing history in Germany. The history of the VW reads like the infamous Phoenix. Rising from the ashes of a bombed out factory, the result from the defeat of the Third Reich at the end of the Second World War, to become the best selling automobile in the history of the world. Selling more than twenty-one million units from 1938 to 1997 is quite a fascinating story.
Jerry also taught me many other valuable lessons that are more relative to life itself than to the art of automotive repair. He taught me the value of money. Things like how that buying a new care was not a sound financial investment because of the depreciation aspect of new car acquisition. “It would be better to save that money and go on a vacation”. (Which he and his wife would frequently do and would be gone all summer). “Plus, it’s always cheaper to fix the old one. If you can”. And, I can. I may have more Volkswagens’ than my fair share, but Jerry got me addicted to this brand of vehicle years ago and I just can’t help myself. When people ask me why I have so many VW’s, I just tell them “It’s Jerry’s fault”!
Jerry inspired me to better myself and to reach deep down inside and find that drive of perfection. “Do the best work you can and you’ll never have to explain yourself” he’d say. I inherently have that drive, and routinely produce that perfection he spoke of. But times have changed since that lesson was given. Perfection and honesty is a human trait that seems to have been forgotten or is no longer taught. And I do find myself sometimes having to explain myself to people who do not understand that drive or even appreciate it.
Jerry sometimes stepped in as a father figure to guide me into becoming the young man I was slowly turning into. He and his wife fed me and offered me a place to stay if I needed it. He was always there when I needed help whether it be fixing my car or fixing a predicament I had gotten myself into. At times, he made me feel as if I were the son he never had.
Jerry taught me a trade and gave me the confidence to further my career in the VW industry. Armed with that knowledge and confidence I did manage to carve out a pretty good business and reputation in the local VW industry, as well as in the aviation industry. Like him, I’m not world renown, but my work has been seen all over the world. His guidance and generosity is something that I will always be grateful for. For if not for him, who knows where I might have ended up.
So, as the sun has now set on Jerry’s life, and he has joined the company of Gene, Lee and Don, I’m sure that those guys are sitting around a table somewhere, swapping old stories of those good ol’ days when you could buy a brand new VW at the local dealership, and the question of “how long can this VW fad go on” is still pondered.
Rest in peace Jerry and the rest of you guys. Save a seat for me at that table, I’ll see you in about thirty to forty years and I’ll let you how that “fad” went.