This is a chapter from a book currently in progress. The book, whose working title is On the Bus, will describe some of my adventures with the four Volkswagen buses I've owned. Bear in mind that this is a first draft; the final version should scan a bit better. Your comments are welcome; please send them to email@example.com
My first major experience with the Red Bus was not auspicious. About a month after I bought it, it caught fire.I was driving down the Jones Falls Expressway north of Baltimore when I suddenly lost power. I pulled over to the side of the road. A pungent odor was filling the air; I looked into the back of the bus, and saw smoke. Not good. I got out. Smoke was pouring out of the air intake vents like chimneys in a cartoon factory. When I opened the hood, I found the engine engulfed in flames. My fire extinguisher had no effect except perhaps to slow the progress of the fire a little. Just then, a Maryland State Police prowler was passing in the opposite direction. He stopped and got on the bullhorn. "IS THAT CAR ON FIRE?" I nodded energetically. The cops traversed the median strip and pulled up to a cautious distance behind the bus, and hit their flashers. Within five minutes, a fire truck pulled up next to the blazing bus. The firemen unlimbered their high-pressure hose and directed a ten-second blast of water into the engine compartment. The push was so strong that the bus rocked forward, even though I had put the parking brake on. I had always been told never to put water on a gasoline fire, because that would spread the fire, but that gush of water did the trick, for sure. I later realized that the water almost instantly cooled everything down to below the ignition point; there was no heat source left to sustain the fire. Eventually the fire truck left, leaving me and the cops looking into what was left of the engine compartment. The engine itself was barely recognizable. All that was left of the carburetor was a little puddle of aluminum resting on the steel pulley shroud. The battery had melted. All the wiring in the engine compartment had crisped, along with most of the paint inside and around the engine compartment. To my great relief, the tires survived unscathed, and the fire never penetrated to the passenger compartment itself. The bus was severely maimed, but not totaled. It would even roll. The cops told me that I couldn't get a ride in their car unless I was arrested, but they could have headquarters phone somebody to pick me up and rescue me. I told them to call Margie and tell her to send somebody with a car that could tow a bus. An hour later, Don Clarke came by with his Japanese pickup truck, and we towed the bus to the hang glider shop where I had just been employed. Bob Martin, the proprietor of the shop, hadn't expect to fit in an engine overhaul into the rest of the glider manufacturing and repair that was his business, but he took it all in good grace. The ruined bus was parked outside, anyway, and didn't take up any shop space. He even loaned me his car so I could go shopping for another engine. I found one in East Baltimore. It had just come out of a 1971 bus that somebody had front-ended. The bus was a loss, crumpled like an accordian from the front bumper to the front wheels, but everything behind the driver's seat looked like it had survived. I took out the engine, generator, battery, accelerator cable and as much of the wiring harnesses as we could scavenge. The total bill came to about five hundred dollars, if I remember correctly, plus all the wiring and terminals I would need to splice the wiring harnesses into what was left of my bus's original wiring. My first job, of course, was to remove as much of the burnt paint as possible and cover the bare metal with brown primer, inside and out. That was the hardest part of the job, and the dirtiest. Then came the tedious job of matching each wire in each harness to its corresponding wire on the chassis, grafting extensions where necessary to replace the burned sections between the scavenged harness and the original wire. After that, the engine installation itself was surprisingly painless. The 1970 and 1971 engines were virtually identical; the only real difference was that the newer engine had a vacuum port in the intake manifold to accommodate the power brakes that had come in that year. Once I had plugged the port, the engine went in without a hitch. I was back on the road within a few days and, except for the weird paint job and an odor of burning plastic and rubber that never really did go away, it bore no traces of its ordeal. When I had used this bus as a camper the previous summer, I re-used the plywood sleeping platform we had in the Pink Bus. But this wasn't the ideal solution for somebody who was planning to do a lot of camping in the future (and who would end up doing a lot more of it than he had ever dreamed). I decided I wanted a real camper-bus, with all the trimmings. I had planned to trade the Red Bus in on one, but the fire disaster had sucked up a good chunk of the thousand dollars that I would need to make the upgrade, and also had reduced the trade-in value of the bus to practically nothing. So that plan was shot. But I got my camper anyway. Here's how it happened. Not having money to buy something didn't keep me from looking, and eventually I found a camper in the paper selling for three hundred dollars. At that price, there had to be something wrong with it. But I went out to look at it anyway. It turned out to be a 1964 VW Westfalia camper rusting peacefully to death out in a Maryland cornfield. The body was rusted beyond recovery, with hardly any floor left and huge holes on nearly every body panel. The salted roads of winter had not been kind to this bus. The owner said that it still ran when he started it, but that the transmission wouldn't shift out of first gear. The engine sounded like it was firing on only three cylinders, and the lights didn't work. But the camper bits were almost pristine. It had the bench seat that converted into a bed, a pop-top that expanded the headroom by two feet, an ice-box, numerous tables that folded away,and a water tank with a little faucet that you could pump to get the water out. Plus lots of cabinets. Well, I already had a bus. Now I could get the camper innards, and combine them into a camper. Nowadays, it would be considered sacrilegious to tear apart a gen-u-wine '64 Westie, except to provide parts for another gen-u-wine Westie, but this one was clearly doomed. I bought the camper, paid the hippie-turned-corn-farmer, and drove it very slowly and painfully down to the People's Garage, a sort of workshop-cum-commune in the Charles Village area of Baltimore. There I dismantled it, taking all the camper bits from the pop-top down to the last cabinet. I donated the rest of the bus to the commune, who would be free to take whatever parts they deemed worth taking and sell the rest for scrap. Back in Sykesville, I fitted the pieces onto and into the Red Bus. Since the body shapes of the '64 and '70 buses were slightly different, a certain amount of trimming and fitting was necessary, but it all worked in the end. I now had what bus mavens call a "Frankenwestie" composed of odd lots of various buses and campers. I didn't care. It was a perfectly serviceable camper. I also got an insight into how steady the ride of the bus was. When installing the pop-top, I drew out the part of the roof that needed to be removed with a felt marker. After the roof was cut out and the pop-top was installed, I went on a flying trip to West Virginia, where the bus was used to pick up gliders from a recently harvested cornfield that had been pressed into service as a landing area. There was no road handy for the last quarter-mile or so, so I got a taste of how the bus handled off the road as it bounced across the furrows. We broke down the gliders and loaded them on to the bus's roof racks. As I loaded the first one, I noticed something laying in the rain gutter ... the felt marker, still there after that bone-jarring drive. I drove down to Florida that Christmas to see my parents, who had retired to a new community in Port Richey. I remember taking the bus to a garage there for a lube job. By and by, the garage man came over and said, "Your bus has no heat." "Well, it's a bus. The heat's not very good at best." "No," he said. "Your bus has NO heat." And he took me back to the service bay, where the bus was on a lift, and showed me why. Somewhere on the journey south, the entire pipe that transferred hot air from the heat-exchanger boxes to the front of the car had fallen off. So my next stop was a home-improvement center, where I bought ten feet of four-inch PVC pipe and somehow installed it in place of the missing pipe. While I was at it, I also dug out the rust underneath the rocker panels. Dad showed me how quick body repairs were done when he was young ... you taped over the holes with a fabric-based tape like duct tape, painted over the tape, and hoped that the patch would survive until you got enough money together to fix it right. In this case, the patch lasted for the rest of the life of the bus, which turned out to be about five years. Somewhere around that time, the bus got another name. My friends thought I had made a big mistake in buying a car with such a history of problems, and started referring to it as the "Blunder Bus." I disagreed, but the name was more catchy than "Red Bus" and large parts of it, mostly in the back, weren't red any more but primer-brown. Even I got to calling it the Blunder Bus in the end, and that is how I remember it to this day. In 1976, Bob Martin got the idea that the Deep Creek Lake area of western Maryland would be the perfect place to establish a branch of his hang gliding school. He spoke glowingly of the resorts and the tourism in that area during the summer, and envisioned the sort of "take the tourists in and give them hang glider rides" business concept that had worked so well for Kitty Hawk Kites on the Outer Banks of North Carolina. The idea was to rebuild an old building (formerly a skeet shop) on the ground of the Wisp ski area, open a hang glider school and pro shop, and rake in the money. We would live at a campground on the lake, where I could live in my bus and he and his family would live in a little tent-trailer. Well, we did live at the campground all summer, and we started to rebuild the shed, but that was as far as the dream got. The tourists didn't materialize. The economy was bad, Bob explained. Next year would be better. Next year would work, for sure. I found out something about the bus, though. It was comfortable enough to live in for extended periods of time. The only things it really lacked were a toilet and a shower, and as long as those could be provided at the campground and the ski area, it was not difficult for a young man without family or connections to adapt to that life-style. My old friends were shaking their heads, wondering what had become of that civil servant who liked sleeping in proper beds and cooking proper meals; a few wondered if my divorce hadn't forced me off some mental cliff into ruin. Their worries were groundless; the almost monastic existence was just what I needed to regain my bearings. I found that, for the first time in my life, I had less living space than I ever thought I needed, and adjustments had to be made. It was a lot like living in a tipi, or on a boat. The cardinal rule of living in a small space is the same cardinal rule of the universe itself: Thou Shalt Not Waste. Waste meant more than simply using two paper towels where one will do, or tossing out paper bags and newspapers which turn out to be necessary to get the fire started. It meant applying the concept of economy to the living space itself. Excluding the driver's compartment, the bus provided a living space eleven feet by five feet by four and a half feet, or just under two hundred fifty cubic feet into which to put kitchen, bed, luggage, library, pantry, garage, and closet. Crises developed -- can one can of peaches be stored? Can two? What was the minimum amount of clothing I need for this season? I learned to play a penny-whistle -- less space than a guitar occupies. By heating an extra pint of water with my evening tea and storing it overnight in a Thermos bottle, I had enough hot water to reconstitute some dried potatoes for breakfast without having to wait for the Coleman stove to heat up the morning's coffee water. The stove was burning for a shorter time, saving fuel (which also had to be stored). I bought eggs by the half-dozen, butter by the stick, coffee by the pound. I discovered, serendipitously, that one quick way to store bedding in a Westfalia camper set-up is simply to roll it up towards the rear, then turn the bed into a seat for day cruising. When I arrived at my destination late at night, the bedding had been warmed up on the rear deck behind the seat. It was a pleasure to fold down the seat, unroll the sleeping bag, and sleep in a pre-heated bed. In the months before we set up the shop at Deep Creek Lake, Bob had also moved his main school and factory from Libertyville to Hampstead, just north of Baltimore. The operation wasn't making much money, so we suspended the Deep Creek Lake operation for the winter and moved back to the Baltimore area. Bob could pay me only about a hundred dollars a month during the fall months. I couldn't rent an apartment for that money, so Bob made a suggestion: live at the shop, in my bus. I could pull it into the shop at night, and move it back out in the morning. I could store my food in the shop refrigerator, and use the shop restroom for washing up. I accepted the offer, more out of ego than anything else. I wasn't ready to acknowledge the fact that the move into the hang gliding business had been a mistake, and that the logical thing to do was to go back into the civil service, get a steady paycheck, and forget about the hang gliding industry. And Bob had a persuasiveness about him that temporarily suspended logical thinking. It was my first exposure to the "Reality Distortion Field" that a charismatic person could spin around himself, allowing others to be overcome by his logic until such time as the person departed and the field weakened. The term itself would be coined years later by people working for Apple Computer, who would describe Steve Jobs as being capable of generating such a field. (There's a perfect depiction of this phenomenon in the movie Downfall, which portrays Adolf Hitler convincing his own generals of the existence that armies were poised to rescue them from the Russians in the last days of the war. Only after Hitler had left the room could the generals admit that the armies did not, could not exist.) Two other arguments argued forcibly for living in the bus. First, I knew from the previous summer's experience that I could do it, as long as my needs remained simple. Second, I couldn't afford an apartment on what Bob was paying me. He was having enough trouble putting a roof over his family's head, and food on their table, on what little the shop was bringing in over the winter. I passed the fall in that fashion in relative comfort, plugging an electric heater into the bus's AC outlet and connecting an extension cord from the shop's mains to the bus. Of course, such comfort would have been impossible if an army of friends hadn't been willing to loan me the use of their showers during that time. Blanch Dubois might have relied on the kindness of strangers; I depended heavily on the generosity of friends. So I might as well take the time here to formally thank Bob, Craig, Don, Gail, Judy, Marie, Margie, Ron, Tom, and a handful of others whose name I've forgotten in the intervening three decades. In December, Bob formally "laid me off" (in the sense that he said that there was no longer any money to pay me). I drove down to Florida and spent that winter with my parents. A short-term job with the Polk Company allowed me to rebuild my financial resources. I took advantage of my father's hospitality to commandeer his garage, where I took off all the CV joints out and re-packed them with grease. In the spring, Bob called to me that the business was again making money, he was re-activating his dreams of a hang gliding school at the Wisp ski area, and he needed me as an instructor there. I drove back to Maryland, and Bob and I headed back to Deep Creek Lake. There was no money for a campground this year, so we camped in the meadow behind the skeet shop -- me in my camper, and Bob and his family in a new, larger pop-up trailer. I cooked all my meals in the bus and used the toilet facilities in the ski lodge. When I needed to take a shower, I headed up the road to Grantsville, where some old friends of mine were renovating a hundred-year-old hotel on the old Cumberland Trail. At the end of the summer, Bob admitted defeat. The tourist base to support a school just wasn't there, and the Wisp people now saw us as a potential liability rather than a summertime revenue-enhancer. The hundreds of dollars he and I had invested in the facility were a complete write-off. So we all went back to Hampstead and put our resources into the shop there. Blunder Bus became the quasi-official vehicle for Econ-O-Flight systems, even more so than Bob's Datsun B-210 station wagon. It was Blunder Bus that usually transported the school gliders to the training hill, along with the helmets, harnesses, and all the other paraphernalia we needed. I had built a roof rack for it that could accommodate four gliders when the roof was raised, and up to eight when the roof was lowered. And it was the bus that all the students followed, like a line of chicks follows its mother, as we traveled through the countrysides of Maryland, eastern Pennsylvania, and northern Virginia. It was not uncommon for me to lead a caravan of up to ten cars to the training hills. CB radios were wuite the fad back then, and I had one in the Blunder Bus. If any student's car was similarly equipped, we would put that car at the rear of the caravan, so that between us we could keep an eye on potential stragglers and traffic stops. Somehow, the system worked and nobody got separated. The bus came in handy in other ways. I remember one autumn day near Spring Hill, Pennsylvania, where we had about five gliders set up on a windswept hill. Unfortunately, the wind chose to sweep the hill in an unfavorable direction, and carried rain squalls with it as well. After an hour of huddling under the gliders and waiting for the wind to cooperate, we piled into my bus, where I fired up the Coleman stove and made hot tea and cocoa for everybody. We were able to seat all six of us inside, all cozy and out of the weather. I can't remember whether the wind eventually straightened out, dried up, and allowed us to complete the lesson, but I will never forget how people responded to my impromptu hospitality wagon. That autumn passed pretty much like the previous one did, with me living in my bus at the shop in Hampstead. By that time, I had accumulated about forty thousand miles on the salvaged engine and it was starting to show some wear, so I undertook my second engine overhaul, all the way down to the crankshaft, using the shop's unused assembly area for a garage. One of the other instructors, a former Honda service manager named Ron Higgs, was watching me insert the circlips that hold the piston's wrist pin in position. He came over and told me this story: It was his custom to give his engine rebuilders all the time and space they needed to do the job. He asked only that the rebuild be perfect. To test their reliability, he would wait until the engine had been reassembled and was awaiting reinstallation. When the rebuilder took his break, Ron would walk over to the workbench and leave a single circlip there, right on the edge where it might have been laid in the course of the engine dismantling. Then he would hang around until the tech guy discovered the circlip. If the tech guy was conscientious, he would sigh deeply and start dismantling the engine again to replace the "missing" circlip, whereupon Ron would step up, reveal the prank, and congratulate him on his dedication. But if the tech threw the circlip away, Ron would hand him his walking papers instead. There would be no missing parts in any of the engines that passed through Ron's shop, regardless of the cost. I took the lesson to heart, although it cost me much time and labor in years to come, as I wondered if I had been as thorough as I could have been, and took the steps to make sure. Bob had given up trying to sell people gliders of his own design. He had come to realize, I think, that he had no real talent for design, and it would be far easier to sell the vastly superior gliders that other manufacturers were producing. I was flying many of them myself, having learned enough of the rudiments of the sport to advance to a "Hang Two" or novice level of proficiency. (The "Hang Ratings," then as now, were Beginner, Novice, Intermediate, Advanced and Master.) This was, at the time, the minimum level to be certified as an instructor by the United States Hang Gliding Association. I also test flew any glider I could get my hands on, learning about the strengths and weaknesses of the various designs. Fall turned into winter, and it was a hard one. Snow piled up on our training hills, and instruction was impossible. The economy took a downward turn, and people for the most part stopped buying expensive toys like hang gliders. Since Bob couldn't support his family on the non-existent winter revenues of the hang glider shop, he traveled to Louisiana to work as an electrician on the oil rigs on the Gulf of Mexico, sending money back to his family. I survived on what little revenues I was making from lessons and spare parts sales. I found out later that Bob had taken deposits on orders for several gliders, but the money never made it into the business accounts. In April, 1978, Bob came back from Louisiana and told me that he was shutting down the business, threw a couple of his personal gliders onto his car, and drove off. I had just turned thirty, and not only was I jobless, but it fell to me to tell all our customers that there would be no refunds for pre-paid lessons or deposits on gliders. A lot of people who had partial ownership in the company were out all their investments. Customers came to pick up the gliders they'd stored at the shop. I made sure that all necessary repairs were made to them, charging only for parts. Over the next few days, I moved my few personal effects from the shop into my ex-wife's apartment for storage. A meeting was called for later that week at the shop, where all our former customers, instructors, and associates would discuss what was going to happen next. There were some angry words and stony faces at that meeting, although very little hostility was directed at me; I was as much a victim as they were. Still, it was one of the worst days of my life. I already knew that, whatever their plans were, they would not include me. One of the shop's major glider suppliers was the Electra Flyer company, at that time the country's biggest hang glider manufacturer. A few days before the meeting, I had called Ruben Baca, one of their factory managers, about the status of some gliders we had on order there. During the conversation, he told me that while our gliders were ready for shipment, we could expect future delays because they were desperately short of workers. I answered that there weren't going to be any more orders, because the shop was going out of business. What were my plans, he asked. I told him that I had none. He said that I had a job waiting for me there if I could get there within a week. And so it was that I loaded what I could into the bus and headed west. It was my first westward journey since my Berkeley days, and it seemed fitting that I would travel west as I had traveled east, in a VW bus. My only difficulty on that trip was when I hit terrific headwinds as I crossed into New Mexico. I found myself shifting into third gear, then into second. Thirty miles an hour is no rate to travel on an interstate highway, but I had no choice. I moved onto the shoulder and crawled along, thanking my stars that visibility was good, and that people could see me and avoid as I made my slow way down the highway. A few hours later, the winds ceased and I was able to make progress again, but I would be very late getting into Albuquerque, where the Electra Flyer factory was located. Around midnight, I pulled into a UPS parking lot on the north side of town, drew the curtains, and slept. The next morning, I found the factory and claimed the job. I was happy to see another VW bus in the parking lot. It belonged to Keith Nichols, one-time U.S. hang gliding champion who was now employed as a sales representative at Electra Flyer. Over the next two years, the bus served me well in getting myself, a few friends, and our gliders up to Sandia Crest, which overlooks Albuquerque from an elevation of four thousand feet over the city. At first, I didn't have the skills to fly there myself (it has a well-earned reputation of being one of the most demanding and dangerous flying sites in the world when the afternoon thermals start popping up from the canyons below). But every hang glider pilot usually needs somebody to drive their glider to the top of the mountain and to retrieve him or her in the landing area once the flight was over, and I was that somebody for a year before I took my first flight off that mountain. I would be chauffeuring some of the world's best pilots, and hanging around while they set up the gliders and assessed the weather conditions. I would watch their take-offs, noting where and how they made their first turn to best use the lift they were finding. It was the best learning environment possible for a novice pilot. We also made trips to other flying sites in New Mexico, Utah, Arizona and, once, to California. My bus was no stranger to the roads of the southwest. On the California trip, I and my friend Mike Tandysh happened to be driving through Arizona when the temperature was well over a hundred, and we had to close the vents and vent windows and swelter, because the air outside was even hotter. (As we were driving through Winslow, Arizona, Mike suddenly yelled out "Stop the car!" We stopped at the nearest street corner. Mike got out, loitered there for a minute or so, and then got back in. "Okay," he said. I understood. Although there turned out to be no girl my Lord in a flatbed Ford slowing down to take a look at him, Mike was a happy guy.) In California, I dropped Mike off in L.A. and proceeded down the coast to meet Barbara Graham in San Diego. Barbara was also a VW camper owner and hang glider pilot, and we caravanned together to some of the flying sites and hang glider factories that Southern California was peppered with at the time. It was then that I became acquainted with a peculiar subculture that had sprung up in the factories there. At Electra Flyer, only a small minority of the workers were pilots. The rest treated their relationship with the company strictly as a job, and drove home each night to a life entirely divorced from flying. But in California's hang glider factories, the majority of workers were also pilots, who worked at the factory to obtain the latest gliders at a discount. This tended to raise hob with factory production and delivery schedules, as the entire crew might disappear when the nearby flying site became soarable. The only similar phenomenon I have ever seen, before or since, was the "hacker" culture that sprang up in the seventies and eighties, a lifestyle that encompassed work and entertainment, where people spent more of their off-hours in the computer lab than they did at home, and where working magic with computers was all they cared about. And it was largely for the same reason: they were creating an industry that had never existed before, and knew that the infancy of that industry was giving them an opportunity that might never come again. Why be a salesman or an accountant when you can see people take flight in a way that never happened before? What if you could help them by building wings that had flown better than any wings had flown before? Advances in design were taking place almost monthly, and the only way to keep up with that breakneck progress was to keep riding the crest of the wave. If that meant forsaking the usual trappings of success for a year or two, so be it. The hang glider businesses of the time had other traits in common with the nascent computer start-ups. There was usually no strict demarcation between the management and the workers. The people you worked with were usually the people you socialized with. Electra Flyer was the exception; the owner and office staff generally had their own social life. But in every California hang glider factory or school, there would always be some sort of company-sponsored party at some time or another -- dinners, barbecues, flying trips, skiing trips in winter, bashes at the shop. (The Halloween parties at Stratus, up near San Francisco, were legendary.) And there was a sense of sharing information among companies that had almost no counterpart in other industries. When somebody found a way to make a glider easier to set up or safer to fly, it wouldn't be long before those features found their way to every glider on the market. Part of this was that none of the companies were making enough money to warrant taking them to court for infringement of intellectual properties. But there was also the feeling among many of the designers that such inventions should be shared, because they improved the sport as a whole, and made hang gliding more accessible to greater numbers of people. It was also a way to change the public perception of hang gliding as a high-risk sport practiced by death-defying adventurers who should maybe be prevented from hurting themselves by legislation, the force of public opinion, or both. More often than not, the typical worker-cum-pilot had long hair, an affinity for pot, and a casual attitude toward clothes, but it would have been a mistake to label "hippies" in the popular sense of the term. They all had jobs, and were good at them. They generally had no use for psychedelic drugs, love beads, or property held in common. Their evangelism was reserved for hang gliding, and their goal was to fly higher, longer and farther in the most literal sense. Their jobs were a means to that goal, to allow them to buy newer and better equipment. Hard drugs got in the way of that goal, because they siphoned money and time from the true purpose of life, which was to fly. A lot of these workers shared apartments or houses, dividing up the rent and, sometimes, other living expenses such as food or utilities. Some of them were "parking lot people" and every hang glider factory seemed to have a few of them. These were workers who lived in their vans at the shop as I had done in Maryland, and who no longer even had regular homes. They lived to work and to fly, and had little in the way of a social life. Electra Flyer had a prohibition on using their parking lot that way, for the very reason that other factories allowed it; the management wanted to distance itself from that culture. But California was another story. Probably two-thirds of the people living in the parking lots of the California factories had VW buses; the rest were living in converted delivery vans or small RVs. The buses were popular because they could transport the gliders cheaply up the mountains and around the state. There was a famous VW commercial at the time showing fifty un-narrated seconds of a Beetle driving over snowy roads. The driver pulls up to a large garage, gets out, and opens the door to reveal a snow plow. As the snow plow pulls out, the narrator says, "Did you ever wonder how the man who drives the snow plow gets to the snow plow?" I often noticed several buses in a row outside a factory, each one getting loaded with gliders, and it occurred to me that VW could make another commercial where the narrator asks "Did you ever wonder how the people who fly off the mountain get to the top of the mountain?" They never did make such a commercial, of course. I doubt if VW was willing to associate its product with such a subculture. (Other car manufactures have featured hang gliders in their commercials, usually to try to invest them with the rugged spirit of adventure that sells SUVs, but Volkswagen has not been among them.) In the winter of 1979, I decided to go back to the east coast to visit my parents and all my old friends in Maryland. I tuned up the bus and it seemed up to the journey, so I collected a few other people who needed a ride to the East Coast, and off we went. As we were going through Kansas, I crawled into the back to get some sleep. History repeated itself, some nine years after my first cross-country bus trip -- I awoke to the unmistakable sound of a blown valve. We limped into Joplin, Missouri, where a former employee of Electra Flyer lived; Charlie was now helping his father manage an auto junkyard. We pulled the engine and exposed the bad head. The valve seat was totally fried, and the head was cracked from the spark plug hole to the exhaust port. (This was the classic failure mode of that flavor of VW head.) It turned out that he had a spare head in the junkyard, with decent valve seats, but it had no valves. I went to the auto parts store and bought some, and Charlie's father showed my how to lap the valves myself with an electric drill and some abrasive compound. The procedure was to put a little grinding compound on the valve seat, slip the valve in and put the shank of the valve into the chuck of the drill. After a few minutes of grinding to seat the valve, you'd take out the valve and check your progress by applying some Prussian blue colorant to the valve seat and repeating the lapping process; when all the ink was gone, you were done. The procedure was crude and time-consuming, but it worked, and it saved us big bucks in machine-shop charges and time delays. We cleared the new-fallen snow away from the bus, re-installed the engine, and were back on the road. Once more, I was impressed with how, with a minimum of resources and a maximum of ingenuity, a Volkswagen could be kept running. No doubt there will be mechanics who recoil in horror at the story I've just told. But John Muir, that high priest of on-the-road repairs, would have been proud of me. Aside from that episode, and aside from the regular maintenance every three thousand miles and the engine overhaul I performed back in Maryland, my bus was as trouble-free as I could have hoped for. I can't remember any serious work that needed to be done to it. It was getting to be about ten years old. I had probably put about a hundred thousand miles on it, on top of the sixty thousand it had on it when I bought it. I had replaced the tires a few times, the battery, a windshield wiper motor, and the odd headlamp or two. At one point, I had to replace the clutch cable and found that the ones stocked by Volkswagen didn't fit; it turned out that my bus had been made in Brazil and required a slightly longer cable. One modification I remember making was putting an amplifier between the radio and the speakers so that I could actually hear the radio over the road noise. I also did some re-wiring of the camper area to accommodate more twelve-volt outlets inside and better lighting. My cleverest invention, which I still have today, was a two-step lamp using a double-filament bulb and an old headlight switch. The switch's first position, once used to regulate the amount of dimness in the dashboard bulbs, now controlled the low filament of one of the combination tail-and-brake-light bulbs. The other switch activated the high filament in the same bulb, giving me great control in the amount of light the lamp gave. The whole mechanism was encased in a Twinings Tea canister and hung from one of any number of convenient places in the ceiling. An extension cord would allow it to be placed up to ten feet outside the bus. I also installed a switch on the dashboard to douse my tail-lights momentarily, to signal my thanks to the truckers who allowed me to pass and scoot in front of them on the freeways. By the fall of 1980, it became clear to me that I had no real possibility of moving farther up the ladder at Electra Flyer, and didn't really care for some aspects of how they managed the personnel in their factory. Their practice was to build up a staff of thirty-five to forty people in the spring and lay off all but five of them in the fall. I managed to survive those purges, but when I became foreman of the sail loft, it was part of my new duties to do the firing, and I hated to do that. So I put out some feelers for employment at some of the factories in California, where the management made more of an effort to keep their staff over the winter. A response came back from a man named Marty Alameda, a former bull-rider who had wisely retired from the rodeo circuit at an early age. (His remarkable ability to stay on a bucking bull earned him the nickname "Flea.") Marty had fallen in love with hang gliders while on a skiing trip and, after working with Seagull Aircraft in southern California, he started a hang glider factory in his home town of Salinas, a farming community near Monterey Bay. His sail-loft foreman and chief designer, a New Zealander named Graeme Bird, was going home to resume his own manufacturing business. Marty's dealer representative, an energetic French engineering graduate named Jean-Michel Bernasconi, was eager to take over the design reins but had no interest or expertise in running a sail loft. Marty offered me the job of foreman in the fall of 1980, and I accepted. I traveled to California, driving toward the setting sun -- an altogether apt circumstance, since was to be Blunder Bus's last long trip.