Across the USA, Pt 1

Following our touchdown, it seemed as if we would taxi forever until we turned sharply and the engines went silent.  We’d been hearing them for almost eighteen hours and when they stopped we were still speaking loudly to each other.

Now, on a flight today, everyone would be up scrabbling in the overhead bins, banging butts with the person across the aisle, and generally making things difficult for deplaning.  This was a military flight and ‘you vill remain sitzen until ve giff you die order to shtand!’  We got off the plane by rows.

I craned my head all around but didn’t even catch a glimpse of Elaine.  I wasn’t even sure where she sat when not quoting poetry to me.  I heaved my string bag down the aisle and finally exited the sardine can onto a long set of stairs and trudged into the terminal.  We were told to stay together so we could be counted (?) as we left the plane.  When I heard that I wondered to myself who would be nuts enough to want to stay on the plane.  I sure wouldn’t.

We reported to the proper desk for Customs after waiting at a long table for our checked luggage, had our belongings examined, and passports stamped (yes, they used to do that back then – now all they do is stick it into a barcode reader).  Once all of us were stamped, we were allowed to go into the terminal proper.  Every one of us headed for the restroom of their persuasion.

I never saw Elaine again.  I berated myself for not even finding out where she was headed or getting an address.  Poop!  I was already remembering her soft voice quoting Ms. Browning.  We stood in line for a taxi to the base transient quarters and finally checked in.  My dad called the transport terminal and checked to see if his car had made the ship over – it had and we could pick it up either today or tomorrow.  He opted for tomorrow as we were all pretty tired.

My brother and I headed directly to the snack bar and ordered a double cheeseburger with loads of fries.  In all fairness to the German cooks, they made a passable burger, but nothing beats having one flipped on a good old American grill.  As far as French fries go, nothing equals deep fat fried ones.  The Germans just didn’t know how to make good fries.  They were both soggy and soaked with grease, or burned into a crisp suitable for use as a nail.  The Coke we drank was out of this world.  All we got over there at the snack bar was reconstituted syrup and soda water.  The mixture was never right – here, it was just right.  We both had two each.

The bed was lumpy, pushed up against a very hot wall that held heating pipes for the hot water, and smelled of smoke.  I crashed about eight and slept like the dead until I was shaken awake at seven thirty.  Time to go and pick up the bus.

The same time I bought my Volkswagen convertible, my dad bought a VW Microbus Deluxe.  It was as square as a cheese box, and a headwind would keep you in third gear at forty-five miles per hour, but it got almost exactly the same mileage that my bug got.  It had three complete bench seats; the two back ones had a little jump seat sort of thingy that folded down so you could get into the very back seat.  The side doors open like a clamshell – one folded forward and the other backwards.  There was a huge cargo area in what we called the ‘way back’.  In this area we packed all our suitcases and traveling stuff.  It also had a slide back roof opening, which was really cool (especially in winter).

Anyway, we headed over to the shipping terminal to pick up this wonderful vehicle.  It was none the worse for wear even though the battery was dead.  When we attached the jumper cables to the battery, the radio began blaring.  My dad figured that deckhands had used the bus for card games because he found three cards pushed down into the seat.

After folding our maps so that our immediate route was visible, we loaded up and drove out of the terminal and into New Jersey traffic.  Our first goal was to run north up into New York City.  We wouldn’t stop though because our eventual goal was upstate New York where my mom was to visit with her bridesmaid.  They had been corresponding for the whole time and she was looking forward to seeing all of us.

We picked up US highway 9 in northern New Jersey and followed it completely all the way up towards Albany; switching to 9W when it split at the river.  The high point of the trip was going right past West Point.  That was a very impressive school.  We didn’t have time for sightseeing though and moved onward.

Fuel stops were interesting.  There was no self-serve stations back then.  Every time you hit the little black cord and the bell dinged, attendants would rush out to help you.  Their first question was usually ‘what the hell is that’?

We’d have to explain that it was a German car called a Volkswagen and that the engine was in the rear.  This should have been self-evident because the front seat was built completely over (and a little forward) of the front wheels.  This meant that your toes were approximately six inches from the front of the vehicle.

My dad loved to take someone for a ride and whip into a parking spot perpendicular to a brick wall.  He’d get it up to around twenty or twenty-five, turn sharply towards the wall, and snuggle into it – stopping with bare inches to spare between the front bumper and the wall.  Scared hell out of the guest.

The gas cover was inset on the right side and, when you opened it, a huge cap could be unscrewed to allow the nozzle to enter it.  One littler quirk that remained with this bus for the whole 450,000 miles we drove it was that when the gas burbled to the filler hole you had to rock the bus a little to “burp” it and you could get another half gallon in.

The bus, along with my convertible, had no gas gauge at all.  Under the driver seat was a little know that, when pulled out allowed another five liters of gas to be available for use.  So, one just drove until the engine missed a little, pulled the knob, and waited for the engine to begin chugging again.  Then you looked for a gas station.

The really hard part was remembering to push the little knob back in. If you didn’t, you ran the risk of running completely out of gas.  My dad solved this by putting a gallon can of gas in the ‘way back’ for use “just in case”.

Anyway, we arrived in West Hurley after driving most of the day.  Janice and her husband greeted us with a huge meal which we all noisily consumed complete with table talk catching everyone up with heir exploits over the years.  They had no kids so we got a bit bored and wandered outside and down to the lake to feed the ducks.  As I look back on it, I find that West Hurley is very close to a little town called Woodstock.  I seem to remember that town being in the news a while back.

Their house was huge so my brother and I had a room to ourselves.  The bed was so soft you sank completely down into it.  I was asleep in minutes.

We had originally planned to stay for a couple of days, but Janice and Ed had to leave for a funeral the day after we got there.  Just one of those unplanned things that happens.  We packed up again and headed west with a destination somewhere out in western New York.  We were planning on camping most of the way across the US.

Toward evening, we pulled into a nice campground at the end of a river.  We putted around the little lane a couple of times looking for a nice spot to pitch out tents.  In one little copse of trees we found a fire grate and some left-over firewood.  This is where we unloaded and set up camp.  I was elected to help keep the rest of the kids out from underfoot.  Essentially, this meant I was supposed to keep the kids occupied while my parents made camp.  Seemed like a good division of labor to me.

I rounded up my brother before he was able to disappear and had him keep an eye on my youngest sister while all of us walked back to the ‘Tradin’ Post to see what they offered.  Their soda machine, which was one of those old flat-topped machines with the channels you had to navigate the neck of the bottle through so that you could lift the bottle up through the pay-flapper, swallowed my first quarter.  When I complained to the guy behind the desk he just laughed and told me to feed it another quarter.  Surprise!  Soda’s cost fifty cents!  Each!  We all shared one bottle of soda.

The whole time we were in the store the guy behind the counter kept his eye on us.  At these prices, I’m sure he expected us to grab stuff and run out.  Even a box of cookies ran almost a dollar.  Good thing we had enough groceries to last us a couple of days.  We quickly lost interest in the rest of the stuff the store had to offer.

On our way back, we explored a little.  Down by the river was a small dock with several row boats locked to it with a chain.  We sat a while and hung our feet over the edge watching the gnats get hit upon by the fish.  In roughtly one minute, we saw huge fish jump cleanly out of the water and snap up bugs as large as a dragonfly.  On our side of the river there must have been five or six guys fishing.  You’d think that with all those fish jumping they’d be having good luck, but not a one of them caught a fish the whole time we sat there.

“I bet I could catch one,” my brother said.

“Yeah, I was thinking the same thing,” I answered.  “Let’s go get our stuff.”

We hustled the other two back to camp and dug our fishing gear out of the back of the bus.  We didn’t have much.  All I had was a nice split bamboo rod that joined in the middle and a middle-sized box of flies.  My brother only had one of those little kids rods with the plastic reels on it and two lures: a red one and a green one.

Back to the dock the two of us went and settled down to do some fishing.  I tied on a green fly that had white wings and lofted it out into the current.  Two casts later, I felt a huge tug on my line and landed a nice trout.  I slipped it onto my stringer and lowered it back to the water.  In a half hour I had a string of five fish.  My brother contributed one also for a total of six.  We decided that was enough for one apiece tonight and packed up the gear.

As I lifted the stringer out of the water a voice behind me said “Hey!  That’s a nice lot of fish.  I suppose you have a license, eh?”

Oops.  I figured my brother was pretty safe since he was only eleven, but I appeared to be fair game.  I figured ‘what the hell’ and answered him in German.  His eyebrows rose a bit; he stood up straight, and replied – in German.  Now I knew I was in trouble.  He repeated his request and held out his hand.  All I could do was produce the last license I’d owned; one from Germany.  He glanced at it, did a double-take, and read it again.  He started to laugh and asked me, in English, how long I’d been in the States.

“Just a week.  We’re on our way out to California.  You’re not going to fine us are you?”

“Well, no.  I should, but I think I’d just better talk to your dad.  Let’s go to your campsite.”

Off we went to our site.  He held the fish though and I thought I’d never see them again.  But, I was wrong.  He hailed the camp and when my dad came out of the tent he introduced himself.  He was the owner of the campground and an air force retiree.  His last duty station was in Germany only about 40 miles away from Stadt.  The two of them got along famously.  He wasn’t a game warden at all.

By the time dinner rolled around, we had the fish cleaned, grilled, and laid out on a plate.  The owner, Bob, had gone up to his house and brought back his wife.  She was German and very shy.  Once she found out my mom and dad spoke German they had a grand time.  Between the four of them they killed an entire bottle of wine and had started on a second.  They didn’t appear to notice the mosquitoes.

Us kids drifted into our tents and tried to hide from the buzzing insects.  There was no place to hide.  It was suffocating down inside our sleeping bags, but you couldn’t have any skin exposed or they would drill right down into an artery.  Even I, a veteran of the Alaskan mosquitoes the size of Condors, couldn’t keep them away.  Around midnight, and the end of a bottle of repellent, I drifted off into an uneasy sleep.

T.O.M.

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