We got up early, cleaned up, had breakfast in the haute cuisine establishment of “Eats” out on the highway, and puttered west towards St. Louis. About noon, a fairly strong wind developed that held out speed down to around fifty miles per hour. At that speed it was a judgment call as to whether you used fourth gear of third gear. Fourth gear bogged the engine down until you eventually had to shift to third anyway. No matter what you did, you always held the gas pedal to the floor.
In most cases, this would have been a nice thing to cruise along at forty-five or fifty but there seemed to be an awful lot of people lining up behind us. Occasionally, my dad would drive close to the side of the road and let cars pass us. Every time a big truck passed though we’d get a huge boost in speed from the suction created by the trailer. My dad would slap the bus into fourth gear and let himself be dragged along the road by the draft. Eventually, the truck would outrun us and we’d be back to forty-five in no time with more irate drivers behind us.
Every time we stopped for gas we were asked the same thing: What the heck kind of car was that? Where do you put the gas? Where’s the engine? Things like that. My dad would get creative at times and tell people that it ran on water, or that there was really no engine and we just stuck our feet through the floorboards and ran. When he got serious though, the mileage would always impress them. So far on our trip the lowest figure we had was in the mountains of New York where we got only 32 miles per gallon.
Eventually the wind died down and our speed picked up. At a Western Auto my dad picked up what he called a swamp cooler. It was supposed to fit in the window of a car and, using an evaporative process, cool the interior. Our major problem was that we didn’t have any windows that opened up and down. All of ours slid left to right. He finally ended up grabbing a screwdriver and completely removed one of the side windows so that the cooler could fit in and not tip water all over the place.
He added water and once we started down the road we were amazed that it actually did work. Naturally, everyone fought for a seat next to the cool(er) output from the device. Mom pulled rank and got the first stint, followed by me, then the “other ranks”. I spelled my dad (the first time this trip I’d been allowed to drive) so he could see how well the cooler worked. He pronounced it a good idea.
I drove for about an hour or so, zooming down gentle hills and zipping up them until gravity took over to slow me once again. I probably ticked off the drivers behind us when I did that because the only time they could pass was on the down slope – and I was getting the most our of the slope. They had to really kick it in the butt to pass. I waved merrily at their friendly gestures as they went by. What the heck, we still had German plates on the bus so who cared.
We took lunch at a small roadside rest stop nestled in a grove of trees. My sisters amused themselves by feeding the squirrels that would gather looking for handouts. They (the squirrels, not my sisters) got quite pushy until the largest one of the bunch decided that “no more bread left” was not a good answer. He ran up my sister’s leg and stared her right in the kisser chattering all the time. She reacted badly.
Towards late afternoon we hit Saint Louis. My dad had been trying to get there before rush hour and we thought we might have made it until he realized that we were going into the city against traffic coming out. When we got to the center and began moving the same direction it was stop and go all the way. Hot, sticky, not a breath of air was the order of the day and we sweltered in the heat until we reached the western outskirts. Once we transited from US40 to US50, westbound again, the traffic thinned and my dad’s temper eased a little. We had missed a turn and ended up in a series of one-way streets that all appeared to be going the wrong direction for us. There was no such thing as ‘going around the block’.
We stopped at a small gas station and filled the tank, emptied our tanks, and refilled them with sodas. The attendant told us of a great campground about twenty miles down the road so that was our goal for the day.
We arrived almost at dark and found it was next to a drive in movie. The price for camping ($3.00) included a bench seat at the back of the theatre for campers. It was a Disney movie but to this day I can’t remember what it was. I fell asleep towards the end and when I woke up to the noise of rumbling exhausts I went back to the tent and crashed.
Next morning, after breakfast from a box (you remember those little ten-packs of cereal where you slit the individual boxes open into an “I” shape, poured milk into them, and ate the cereal don’t you?), we headed out again. The rain clouds had formed with huge thunderheads floating up well over forty thousand feet. Big, black, anvil-shaped clouds that signal some serious rain. The sky got darker, the wind picked up but it was from the side now. It would push in bursts that threw us all over the road.
We did not have radial tires on the bus. Those were very expensive and my dad, being my dad, opted for cheaper tires called retreads. These were supposedly sound tires that had had new treads vulcanized to them to form a nice “new” tire. For our weight class (flyweight) they worked great. Tubeless radial tires help to keep your vehicle running in a straight line as the sidewall flexes, but normal, tubed, tires won’t. As a result we wove from the double line to the sideline with regularity in every blast of wind.
After about an hour of this side-to-side motion, my mom said she heard a ‘rump, rump’. My dad didn’t, and kept going. She tried again a little more forcefully “I hear a RUMP, RUMP!” Just as he turned to chastise her, the tire blew. It was spectacular. The entire right front retread peeled off the base tire with a huge BANG and shot out the back to lay smoking on the pavement.
Everyone jumped a foot as my dad eased the bus to the side of the road and onto the grass berm. We got out and looked at the mess. When it blew, it took the entire sidewall out right up to the bead. Just the short distance we traveled on nothing but the rim and a little bead had scuffed the rim but hadn’t bent it. Luckily we hadn’t hit any rocks or holes.
Our first flat for the trip. Actually, this was a pretty good record for the bus. We’d gone almost ten thousand miles with just one flat, but that was a slow leaker that allowed us to get off the road and take our time to fix. This was a little more urgent. My dad got back in and, with my guidance, pulled over under a tree so we could change it.
We unpacked the ‘way back’ until we could get to the spare mounted under the rear pad over the engine compartment. The jack worked as it should have and we had the tire changed in about fifteen minutes. Packing the stuff back in was tricky but we accomplished it in due time and were back on the road towards somewhere west of Wichita.
Every place we stopped, we checked for a replacement tire. Finally, at yet another Western Auto store in Emporia, Kansas we found one. It was a new one though, not a retread, so my dad decided to just mount it as the spare.
The further west we went the hotter it seemed to get. The heat just made us kids more restless and argumentative. Finally, my mom suggested we stop at a roadside rest that seemed to have river access. We pulled in, and even before we got our of the bus we knew something was wrong. It smelled horrible. We cruised down the access road and when we passed the river, we saw what was causing it. Someone had left a dead cow lying on the riverbank. Yuk.
We went just a little farther down the road and came to a dirt road that angled down to another river that we crossed on a bridge. Down the road we went until we were under the bridge. It was cool in the shade. A light breeze blowing upriver kept the bugs down to a minimum and we all soaked for a bit in the water. Refreshed, we loaded back up and continued onward.
We found a nice motel with cabins situated around a small lake outside Newton, Kansas. The cabins were only one bedroom so we ended up having to take two of them. My brother and I, along with my dad, got one, and my sisters and mom got the other one. The water was so hard that we couldn’t raise a single bubble of soap in the shower. It tasted awful to boot. We were completely exhausted by all the heat and lay on the bed with no covers trying to believe that the fan in the room was actually blowing cool air over us.
Tomorrow, we were excited to learn, we would be going through Dodge City. That was worth the wait.
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