Across the USA (Pt. 2)

The next few days consisted mostly of the five of us settling down for a long trip.  We chose seats according to our age.  Since I was the oldest so I got so sit where I wanted to, and so on.  My brother built a wall of pillows, comic books, and luggage between he and I while my younger sister utilized most of the far back seat to torment my youngest sister who was barely out of toddlership.

We wiggled, twiddled, nudged, squabbled, informed on each other, and generally were miserable until we left the western portion of New York and entered, in rapid succession, Pennsylvania (just the sliver up near Erie), and then onward into Ohio.  When we hit the lake, we turned south and drove towards Dayton.

I think the main reason we were unruly for the first few days was that we had lived in a mountainous region of Germany for three years and we wanted to see something different.  Ohio is pretty different – flat.  We buzzed down the highway looking at the fields, farms, other things we missed about America.

We stopped just west of Dayton at a campground with another lake at its center.  This one had electrical hookups so we were able to use our small table lamps instead of the hissing white gas lanterns.  White gas was hard to find.  Every service station pumped leaded gas and to find one with what was called “white” gas was rare.  Whenever we did, my dad would be sure to fill up our small one gallon can.

Note:  What we called white gas back then is now the familiar “unleaded” gas we all know and love.  Lantern gas, now, is another thing – and much more expensive since Coleman is the only one who produces it now mostly.  But, who cares because propane lanterns are now “in”.

This campground was built by the owners of a large dairy.  Their farm operation was just over a fence from the campground.  We didn’t realize just how close they were until the westerly winds came up that evening.  Woooooh!  Who knew cows could produce that much stink!  One of our neighbors told us that every evening this happened, but the wind would die out just a bit after sundown and it would get calm again.  We couldn’t wait.

We had dinner.  It was a quick meal.  Mostly it was quick because we would dash out of the bus, grab a few bites while holding our breath, and dash back to the bus.  Food wasn’t allowed in the bus, that’s why.  That edict was brought on by my sister leaving a half-eaten salami sandwich in the bus while we took a tour of Buffalo’s famed attraction – Niagara Falls.  When we got back, the heat had mummified the sandwich and filled the air inside with the pungent aroma of baked salami.  Every one of us kids denied ever having eaten that day so some passerby must have pried open a window and done it.

The winds died down.  As soon as they stopped wafting malodors at us, the mosquitoes decided that now was the time to come forth.  They zoomed towards us in waves from the lake area.  They’d hide in the willows and cattails until nobody was looking and then attack in swarms.  We broke out the repellent but that only seemed to irritate both them and us.  My skin took on a blotchy sheen highlighted by angry red bumps where the probes of the alien bugs had siphoned off a gallon or two.  Finally, dressed in the longest sleeved shirts and long pants we had, we tried to get some sleep.

Sheer exhaustion after fighting the bugs finally took its toll and we dropped off one by one.  Sometime during the night, a light wind and a small rain shower came along and banished the mosquitoes back to their swamp grass hangars where they would pump our blood into large containers for use when no campers were available.

Next morning we launched towards our eventual goal of Saint Louis.  My dad had a friend stationed at the base there he wanted to see so that’s where we were going.  Indianapolis came and went.  The day got hotter and hotter.  The windows were opened to allow the rushing wind to heat us up more.  We even slid back the top so we could take turns catching bugs in our teeth.  I won the prize with a nicely fielded June bug that smacked me in the forehead and actually left a welt.  If I hadn’t looked down into the bus right at the moment it hit me I’d have probably lost a tooth.

We didn’t make it all the way to St. Louis.  We ended up in a tiny little motel with rusty colored water and no ice.  There was a dilapidated country store and “eatery” out near the highway from our cabin that dispensed cold pop from a galvanized bucket filled with ice.  A fan blew over it to help the cooling process.  We just stood in front of the cool breeze taking our time making a selection.  It felt really good after all the heat we’d endured.

Supper consisted of what we kids called “hot plate stew”.  This was in striking contrast to my mom’s famous “Whatzit Stew”.  With the former we were involved in what went into it; with the latter we didn’t have a clue.  This particular stew had meat chunks, a can of little round potatoes, a can of tomato chunks, and a can of hominy.  Stir that all together with a soup base and ladle it into cereal bowls.  With a side of fresh buttered bread it couldn’t be beat.

By the time the other kids took their showers the water had cleared up to a light yellow hue.  I was next and braved the cool water long enough to hose down the road grime (and the remains of the June bug embedded in my head).  Earlier, I was called out to help my dad change the oil.  In our bus, it was relatively simple to change the oil.

There were eight little nuts on a circular plate at the bottom of the engine.  One simply turned them until they were all loose, removed them one at a time until one side of the plate began to leak oil.  The you quickly slapped a bowl down to catch the oil as you finished removing the nuts.  My dad was always careful about unleashing invective around us kids, but since it was just me he apparently decided that it helped the situation to curse as warm oil began coursing down his arm and into his shirt through the sleeve.

“Well, gee whiz and gosh almighty that really gets my goat!  Son, would you be kind enough to pass me that rag?”  (Not exactly his words.)

I passed him the rag and he did a little horizontal jig so he could wiggle out from under the back of the bus.  This, of course, allowed sand and dirt to be scooped up by the tail of his shirt and mix nicely with the accumulated oil.  By the time her got vertical, he had a huge slick of oil as wide as his shoulders running all the way down his back.

My mom chose that moment to arrive on the scene to ask what all the hubbub was.  He must have tried three or four times to describe what had happened but kept running to a speech block that wouldn’t let him swear in front of her.  Finally he just turned around.  My mom silently took it all in and began swabbing at the dark stain.  Sometimes she can be pretty cool.

The oil stopped dripping into the pan and I was elected to drag out the pan and fish for the nuts, washers, filter, and plate that had dropped into it.  My dad had oil changes down to a science.  First you got it out of the vehicle, and then you fished for the hardware.  Next you cleaned the little oil filter basket and added two new paper gaskets – one above the filter and the other below it, next to the plate.  Carefully, you slid the plate with the filter on it up onto the six embedded bolts.  Once there, you finger tightened the nuts and then used a wrench to tighten them in order.  Now came the good part.

My dad punched holes into the cans of new oil and applied a homemade funnel to the oil filler at the top of the engine.  Since there were absolutely NO Volkswagen dealerships, parts shops, or garages in the U.S. at the time we had to make do with a manually generated funnel.  This one started out life as a small juice can.  My dad flared the top and soldered pieces of another can to expand the dimensions enough to allow pouring oil from a can into it.  The long body of the funnel was actually electrical conduit (the snaky kind that you could bend) and you poked that into the filler hole.

It worked surprisingly well and as soon as we put exactly three and one-half cans of oil into the engine he took the remainder and put it into a jar for next time.  He had a quart jar so that every fourth oil change he wouldn’t need to save any.  Then, pulling the funnel out of the engine he stuck the end of it into one of the used cans of oil.  I held it while he carefully poured the used oil back into the cans.  We left the cans next to the motel garbage cans.  Since the EPA hadn’t been invented yet that was the easiest thing to do.  The motel owners would probably throw it on the dirt road to hold down the dust.

Another note:  Until I sold the bus (which I had purchased from my dad) the oil funnel performed hundreds of oil changes.  The odometer had just over three-hundred thousand miles on it when I sold the bus – for three-hundred dollars less than what my dad paid for it.

I took my shower, slurped up the stew and hit the sack.  It had been a really long day.

T.O.M.

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