Wednesday, July 08, 2009

The Microbus With A Theme Song

In 1980, my father bought a used 1979 Volkswagen bus (van). It was two-tone brown with a four-cylinder pancake engine mounted in the rear. Just like many VW's of the time, it sounded like a reved-up sewing machine. It had "armstrong" power steering (the stronger your arms, the more powerful the steering) with a flat steering wheel. The front seats were mounted on the wheel wells and it had a built-in citizen's band (CB) radio. I have a lot of fond memories of that van.

We drove the van to Vermont to visit relatives many times. The van got its theme song on one such trip. When we fired her up to hit the road, her song was playing on the radio (although, it wasn't her song yet). When we piled in after a pit stop and a fill-up, her song was playing on the radio. After lunch, we turned the key, and there was that song. Over and over it happened that way. It seemed that every time we started up the van, her song was playing. Dad remarked that it must be her theme song and it stuck. Thus, the theme song for the VW bus was "On The Road Again" by Willie Nelson.

Another time I remember was around Thanksgiving. One of my uncles was getting married and we all piled in the van to head North. In November in the Northern United States, it has a habit of snowing. That van had a tendency to embarass other drivers in the snow and ice. While they were spinning their wheels or sliding backwards, it was the little microbus that could. All you had to do was to let the van do the work. We'd cruise by and wave at the silly people in their fancy cars and four-wheel-drive vehicles.

There was once during that trip that we were the embarrassed ones. I don't recall what state we were in. Pennsylvania, maybe? We drove into a sleet storm in the late afternoon. The further we went, the slicker the road became. I was lying down asleep in the back seat and my sister was riding shotgun. I have no idea what precipitated it but there was an over-correction and, despite traveling relatively slowly, we started to spin out. The centrifugal force was enough to rouse me and I sat up to see the world rapidly spinning by. We ended up doing a double 360 and landed in a ditch. We came within inches of plowing down a mile marker sign. My sister can still tell you which mile number it was because, when it was all over, she was staring right at it big as day.

We tried the CB but, as usual for a CB, its urgent need circuit kicked in and we weren't able to raise anyone. We were lucky enough that someone in a Scout or Bronco or some similar off-road-type vehicle happened by in the next half hour and pulled us out. The near miss with the mile marker (and the spinning) convinced dad that it was time to stop for the day. We weren't far, relatively, from the next town but it took us a while to get there. I don't think dad broke 25 MPH until we stopped for the night.

We took her to Disney world once. We left on Christmas day. We had opened gifts and been to church. We were going to take a little time and leave later that afternoon but an ice storm was moving in. Mom decided that we'd better get out while the getting was good. Our original plan was to head across on I-40 then turn South. Had we done that, the storm would have followed us and we'd have probably repeated the wedding trip fiasco. (would that be a Fusco fiasco?) The weather was just starting to inch its way into Tulsa so we hit the road and headed straight South through Dallas. Mom was right. Had we stayed, we'd have been stuck.

What's relevant about the van in this case was that it gained a permanent navigator. My brother, John, had received from his girlfriend (later to be his ex wife) a small Disney Christmas tree ornament in honor of our trip. It was a small, stuffed Gus Gus (a mouse from Cinderella) with a string looping off his hat to hang him on the tree. John had first crack at Shotgun and, on a lark, hung Gus Gus from the sun visor clip on the passenger's side - facing outward. Dad dubbed Gus Gus the navigator and there he stayed. When we sold the van, Gus Gus got transferred to the new car. To this day, Gus Gus holds that place of honor in my dad's van. Ah, the silly things we do.

When I was old enough to drive, I had the privilege of practicing my driving skills in the van on occasion. On one such occasion I was driving to school with dad in the passenger's seat. We got to and on the Broken Arrow Expressway with no trouble. As I passed the 15th street exit and started taking a wide curve, a small convertible (something like an MG) came up the on ramp and started to move right over into the traffic lane without so much as a glance. I could tell he/she never looked because the top was down and I was taller than his/her car.

So there I am, a relatively inexperienced driver in morning rush hour traffic being pushed over by an idiot in a sports car. I couldn't speed up because there was someone in front of me. I tried to slow down a bit but the gap didn't widen enough and the MG wasn't going fast enough to slip into it. My initial thought was to just move over but there was a car to my left. I was boxed in.

I adjusted my speed and moved over as slowly and as much as I could to avoid having this dumbass take a suicide swipe at my broadside. As the curve straightened out, I was out of options. There was now a gap beside me but it was still partially occupied by the back end of the car that had previously been pacing me. I finally made my move at the last second and ended up clipping the back part of the car with the front part of the van.

In a panic, I looked at dad and said, "What do I do? Should I stop? Do I need to pull off?" He looked as flustered as I was but observed that the other car, now several lengths in front of us, was showing no signs of stopping so I should just proceed as if it didn't happen (easy for him to say). It's a wonder there wasn't a great deal more mayhem, death and destruction on the BA that fine morning.

That poor van went through long family road trips, stalling/starting problems and even an engine fire. Somehow, Walter the mechanic kept it running. It served us well for many, many years. I'm pretty sure it was my dad's first van. He took a brief side-trip with a VW Rabbit but to this day still insists on driving a van.

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