The Bug Catastrophe
March 31, 1972, was a day to remember. Well, for me anyway; hopefully most folk who were around then will have forgotten all about it by now.
But not me. Nope. I sorta wish I could, but alas, it was not to be.
Now, I have never quite figured out how Easter gets scheduled. As I recall, it has something to do with the phase of the moon related to an equinox or something equally Druid-ish. But it always falls some time in March or April. In 1972, it landed pretty much smack-dab in the middle: Easter Sunday that year was on April Second. Perhaps appropriately the day after April Fool’s Day.
Well, I had really looked forward to that weekend, because I had been invited by Half-Breed Pete to spend the time with his family in and around San Luis Obispo. Sunday was to be spent on an outing popularly known by all associated as a “McDermott Fun In the Sun” day. ‘Way out in the hills. Far from any other people. Like a picnic on steroids. But instead of cold chicken and baseball, we would barbecue and shoot our old cap ‘n’ ball rifles and pistols (think muskets). Skinny-dipping in the creek. Beer and iced tea. Good, clean, wholesome fun.
So on Friday, March 30, as soon as I got off work I zipped home to the Kappa Phi Delta house. A quick shower, then loaded up the white ’69 Bug with my duffel bag, sleeping bag, fifty caliber Hawken and it’s accouterments, and a fresh bottle of Jack Daniels as a gift for Pete. I was on the road by three o’clock. Yippee!
The first part of the trip was wholly unremarkable. Traffic was not bad, the weather was really nice, and I had Johnny Cash crooning on the 8-track. Bottle of root beer and bag of peanuts at hand and life was good. Just zipping along, happy as a lark (for some reason larks have long been recognized as being happy birds. Dunno why, but I won’t argue the point).
About an hour and a half and ninety-some miles later, something happened. And it was not so good.
There I was. In the fast lane, sailing along and happily singing along with Cash’s Folsom Prison Blues, when it happened.
A definite explosion from somewhere aft of the back seat, accompanied by a rear wheel locking up.
Instinctively, I stomped on the clutch pedal. This mechanically disconnected the obviously seized engine from the transmission, freeing the locked wheel and stopping the fishtailing. I now had control again – sort of. Speed was rapidly bleeding off; after a quick glance at my mirrors I decided that my best chance of survival lay in the direction of landing the Bug on the starboard shoulder. Unfortunately, there was a semi-truck in the slow lane. Fortunately, I calculated that I could make the cut safely; I did, with ol’ Oscar Mudflap hanging on his air horn cord with one hand and giving me an “attaboy!” salute with the other. At least, that’s what I assumed his gesture was; I was a mite too busy to study it closely.
Leaving a rooster-tail of dust, I managed to negotiate my way along the shoulder until I finally brought the li’l buggy to a stop.
I sat calmly, and as the cloud settled I forlornly watched the traffic whiz on past, as Johnny wailed “Well, I know I had it coming, I know I can't be free... But those people keep a-movin', and that's what tortures me!”
In due time, I crawled out of the car and walked to the stern. With a sigh, I steeled myself and opened the engine compartment hatch. With most of the engine concealed beneath sheet metal shrouding, I didn’t expect to see much. But what I did see made my heart sink. The only visible sign of something amiss was two tendrils of smoke rising from the air cleaner intakes like a dragon’s nose.
Not good. Not good at all. The mechanical portion of my little analytical brain did a quick assessment and concluded that the engine had swallowed a valve. Nope. Not good.
So, I sat on the rear bumper and gazed northward, hoping to soon spot a Highway Patrolman who would undoubtedly stop and render aide.
I waited. And when I got tired of waiting, I waited even more. I sat on that bumper for well over an hour, only rising occasionally to pace a few yards so my heart could pump blood back into my butt. I was unwilling to retire to the comfort of the car seat for two reasons – I didn’t want to be sitting there facing the opposite direction if some idiot veered off the road and plowed into my poor li’l automachin; also, I wanted to be able to spot any oncoming CHP car so I could wave ‘im down before he just passed me by.
Ultimately, I’d had enough. I rose from my narrow bumper-bench and opened the passenger-side door. I rummaged about in my duffel bag in the back seat, and retrieved that lovely, welcoming bottle of Jack Daniels Tennessee Whiskey. Pete wouldn’t mind; I was sure he’d understand.
I resumed my perch on the stern bumper, broke the tax seal on the bottle’s cap, twisted the cap off and treated myself to a long gulp. And of course – just as I lowered the bottle from my appreciative lips, there was Mister Highway Patrol-Man pullin’ up right behind me. He climbed out of his ride and clamped his hat atop his head as he fixed me with a steely-eyed gaze. Eight steps to stand in front of me, gave me an icy glare, and demanded “Just what in the HELL do you think you’re doin’, Boy?”
I returned his harsh glower with a small and sad smile.
“Well, I’ll tell ya what I AIN’T doin’. I ain’t driving!” I replied.
“Officer, I’ve been sitting here over an hour waitin’ for ya. And now, I was NOT drinking earlier. Darned engine blew. I almost got myself killed to death by a couple of semis. And like I said, I’ve been sittin’ here and finally decided to have myself a swallow.”
His countenance softened somewhat as he glanced at the black labeled bottle, which was essentially still full – minus only a single (albeit large) sip. Then he looked over my shoulder at the amazingly still smoking engine. Shoving his hat back on his noggin, he scratched his forehead, and with a shake of his head said “Damn. That’s tough, kid. What’re you gonna do?”
“Well, first thing I’m gonna do is ask you if you’d be kind enough to call me a Triple-A truck. Once I get ‘er towed to town I’ll figger out the next step.”
“Awrighty. I’ll call it in for ya.”
He returned to his car, made the call and filled out some paperwork. He exited his cruiser and “tagged” the VW’s aerial with a yellow card to signify to any following police types that there was already an official record of the derelict on file.
“Okay, son. I called it in for ya; the truck’ll be here in about a half hour or so.
“Good luck, and stay safe!” he hollered out his window just before he peeled out with a spray of gravel and dirt.
Well poop. I had myself another gulp of whiskey then put the bottle away. When the tow truck arrived about forty-five minutes later, I had my butt parked back on the bumper reading a Louis L’Amour novel. The driver and his teenaged son had me hitched up in no time, and with me squeezed between ‘em we were off to San Juan Bautista, only about five or six miles to the south of us.
Driving along, the gentleman apologized for being late; it seems that they’d just been headed out for some event when the call came. Indeed, they were both dressed in dark, almost-new Levis and white shirts – de rigueur “formal” for rural communities.
“Do ya know where ya want to go?” he asked.
“Sure don’t! Can you think of some place I could leave the car for a few days? I won’t be able to get back to town ‘til next weekend” I explained.
“Why sure, I reckon! We’ll pull into Sam’s fillin’ station – I’m sure he won’t mind!”
Fortunately, he was right; ol’ Sam was a pleasant enough fella. I explained that it’d be a week before I could retrieve the car, and he said “Just push it right over there against the wall, and it’ll be right there when you come back next Saturday!”
I thanked him immensely, then found myself a phone booth and called Half-Breed Pete.
“Mac! I need a rescue! Come git me!” I beseeched, and told him what happened.
“Damn! I can’t!” he said. “I got the heads off the motor in my car! I was hopin’ to ride around with YOU this weekend!”
“Well man, that ain’t a-gonna happen. Button that thing back together and H E L P!”
He pondered a moment, then said, “Okay. But it’ll prob’ly be after midnight before I can get there.”
I quickly calculated that it would likely be later than that – by now it was nearly seven o’clock, and after he got his car put back together it was about a hundred fifty mile drive.
“Okay, I’ll be here!” I said, and gave him directions to Sam’s fillin’ station. “I’ll probably be sleepin’ in the car!”
So. How to kill seven hours in San Juan Bautista. I looked about, and spotted a friendly-looking watering hole right across the street from Sam’s. I rummaged about in the trunk, and found my copy of John Muir’s Idiot Manual – “How To Keep Your Volkswagen Alive - A Manual of Step by Step Procedures for the Compleat Idiot.” (By the way – written by the John Muir the hippie VW enthusiast, not John Muir the naturalist)
I crossed the road, found a stool at the bar, ordered a draft and settled in to begin researching how to repair my destroyed engine. I was comfortable enough, but after a while, I realized that nobody else in the establishment was speaking English. Hm. I started to feel a bit out of place, so I plunked down some bills to cover the cost of my beer and a generous tip.
After walking outside I did a quick survey – and by golly, there was another tavern down a short block on the other side of the road. Perfect! I’ll try this one!
I moseyed in, found another vacant stool, ordered my second draft beer, and went back to researching the revival of my air-cooled engine. Unfortunately, about halfway through my beer, I realized that I had a really creepy, uncomfortable feeling. My scalp tingled, ears twitched, and the hairs on my arms stood up – and it wasn’t even cold.
With my head still bent over my book, I raised my eyes only and slowly peeked about.
Uh oh. This ain’t good at all.
The place was fairly full of people – the men all wearing jeans and Western shirts and cowboy hats. The women were dressed in whatever the female equivalent was back then.
And they were all staring. At ME!
Their expressions were anything BUT friendly; in fact, in retrospect, I’d say there was a fair amount of malevolence in their looks as they glared at the San Francisco Hippie that had DARED enter their world. I then knew exactly how that fella in Charlie Daniels’ song Uneasy Rider felt when he found himself in the Dew Drop Inn.
I quietly slipped off my stool, left some dollars on the bar, and slunk on out the door. Mama may have raised a foolish kid or two, but I was glad I wasn’t one of ‘em!
With a sigh, I wandered back on down the road and was gratified to find the stool I’d had earlier at the first cantina was still empty. I settled in, much more comfortable now than back with the proud redneck crowd.
Over the course of the evening, I got some reading done, got some beer drunk, bought a few rounds and had some bought for me. All in all, it turned out to be a fun evening, right up to closing time; I was one of the last to leave.
I stood on the sidewalk, and took a deep breath. Well… nothing to do now but head back to the Vee Dub and settle into the driver’s seat and wait for Mac. Stepping off the curb, I began my purposeful stagger across the road. But as I neared the middle, I heard a distant roar and stopped.
I know that sound!
I faced the direction of the sound and eventually spotted two white dots that soon transformed into a pair of fender-mounted headlamps affixed to a 1938 Chevrolet Master De Luxe Sedan.
It was the MacMobile! Salvation! A very tired Jim McDermott – aka Half-Breed Pete – had come through! A few minutes to transfer my luggage and gear (including a no-longer-virgin bottle of Jack Daniel’s Tennessee Whiskey), secure the Bug, and off we went. The weekend was saved; the Fun In the Sun day was still gonna happen, with a good time to be had by all – ending with a Greyhound trip for me back to San Francisco, my Thompson/Center Hawken (with all its accouterments) broken down and stuffed into my duffel.
But that – and the Bug’s rescue – are another story. Or two.