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Friday, May 24, 2013


Allan And The Bus Down Mexico Way



Meanwhile, back to the fabulous red and silver school bus, Dodge engine, circa 1949, label on the dash: Oneida, New York. With Steve comfortably ensconced in the Cat Lady’s newly cleaned and sweet-smelling apartment, we could get busy fixing up the old darling in time for our vacation.

A great deal of the work had been already done to turn the 32-passenger bus into a pretty decent recreational vehicle. Someone had ripped out all but the side seats, which they’d converted into pullouts that created an enormous California king-size bed for me and Carol. Jack and Jay, who were going to accompany us,  planned to camp out – sheltering under the bus if it rained.

On one side we had a mini-kitchen, complete with fridge, stove top, sink and drain. Across from it was a small dining area, consisting of a table bolted to the frame, long bench seats on either side. There was a panel mounted beneath the window that controlled the music and radio. The dining area was just behind the driver’s seat, meaning whoever was driving wouldn’t be left out and we could pass things forward to keep him happy.

In the very back, where the Emergency Exit was, we constructed a large play area for Jason, who was about three years old at the time. It was kind of like a super playpen, with netting on every side, but it also had snaps and buckles so he couldn’t be hurled around in a dangerous manner if we had to stop fast. We made other improvements, including a double battery system, plus speakers throughout. The radio had also been exchanged, courtesy of Jay the electronic king, for a double-throw-down FM system.

Carol scored some old Madras bedspreads from a used clothing place and sewed curtains for the windows, which was quite a job, as you can imagine in 32-passenger school bus. She even made some for the very long windshield and we devised a cunning pulley system to open and close the front curtains. Posters were tacked here and there, including movie posters from Butch Cassidy And The Sundance Kid, Midnight Cowboy and the Beatle’s Album Cover – Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.

There were overhead storage racks running down both sides of the bus, with crumbling sliding doors made of some kind of cheap poster board kind of material. We replaced those with netting and bungie cords and when it was all loaded up it reminded me of Toad’s Gypsy cart in Wind And The Willows. Very cool, very cozy. To complete the WTW fantasy I hung strings of figs and dried sausages and garlic from the netting.

Meanwhile, Jay, who was a helluva amateur carpenter, was busy building a large sundeck that covered the entire top of the bus. It had wooden spoke-supported railings so it was quite airy and open. He also built a wooden ladder, mounted flush to the side of the bus that made it easy to climb up to the sundeck.

To finish things off, Jack and Jay also went through the engine, replacing everything that seemed to need replacing. We even went to the expense of having the brakes re-done at a truck garage so we’d be assured of being able to stop that lumbering beast.

Meanwhile, we mapped our journey. The idea was to pick our way north going as far we could in a vehicle whose top speed was 45 miles an hour.  Wherever possible, we’d stick to Route 1 since it was all mainly rural highway, whereas 101 was all freeway, with cars and semis whizzing past us at many miles an hour.

Obviously, we intended to camp out, perhaps tarrying a day or two at places of interest that we stumbled upon. The Redwood Forests were a must on our agenda, as were The Big Sur, San Francisco and the desolate beach towns above that beautiful city. We’d heard many a tale from young, long-haired travelers about the magic of those lands. We were also warned that all along the way we would surely face some uncomfortable “Easy Rider” moments from the local populace and police who would gaze upon our red and silver bus with suspicion.

I made certain my police press identification cards were totally up to date and arranged properly in my wallet. To get to my driver’s license I’d have to flip – slowly – past my California Highway Patrol card, with my picture and fingerprints, then on to the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s shield, then on to the Los Angeles Police Department Press ID.

Finally, the big day arrived. Everybody from Pepperland gathered to cheer us on. The Mad Bomber even let off a few blasting caps, while Kerry and Richard and the mini-band played a few numbers. Nancy and little Brendon were waving good by as Roger came running up with an oily cardboard box. He pounded on the door and presented us with a box of bus parts we’d forgotten in the carport. We almost said, nah, never mind. I mean, our bus was pristine and the box was so dirty, but in the end we grabbed the box and took off.

A few minutes later we were bumping off an entrance road onto the San Diego Freeway – heading north -  and somebody turned on the radio, flipped the dial, and the song that was playing – I kid thee not - was this: “… If you’re going to San Francisco/ Be sure to wear some flowers in your hair;/If you’re going to San Francisco,/ You’re gonna meet some gentle people there…”

Naturally, Carol was wearing daisies in her long blonde hair and we all cheered her and applauded and she turned a happy shade of scarlet.

Our first goal was the Santa Barbara Mission, about three hours from Los Angeles by car, maybe a full day via hippie school bus, considering it was the trial run.

The first part of the journey took us over the low-sloping hills of the Santa Monica Mountains. The climb is long, but not too steep, and so we had a chance to test out the gears and the engine, keeping a close listen to the movements of that old Dodge flathead. She churned like a dream and once we got used to the gearing we got her moving smoothly without too much trouble or gear grinding. Finally, we reached the top and were contemplating the other side. All went well at first, then, before I knew it we were curving around a hill and we suddenly found ourselves facing straight down. Not directly so, but in a series of curves that went down and down and down.

I’d driven that route before in a 1964 Ford Ranchero. I was whooping it up with a buddy – my future writing partner, Chris Bunch - hauling butt at 100 mph plus. Of course, we had two hundred-pound sacks of cement in the bed of the Ranchero to keep its back wheels on the road, so that experience did not equate with running down the mountain in a 32-passenger school bus.

There’s an old song that I think Arlo Guthrie sang back in those days and it went like this: “Well, I was comin’ down the mountain/ at ninety miles an hour/ when the chain on my motorcycle broke;/ Well I landed in the grass/ with the sprocket in my pocket/ and the throttle clear down my… throat.”

So that was me driving that school bus down the mountain. Although I managed not to wreck us, by the time I coaxed her into Oxnard I definitely felt like I had something very much like a throttle stuck in my throat.

We found a little Mexican food dive where you could score 12 tacos for a dollar and a cardboard painter’s bucket of refried beans with lots of melted cheese for 75 cents and we parked next to a cow pasture feeling like royalty as we washed down that delicious repast with many, many beers. Jason burned off energy racing around the pasture, chasing butterflies, which, for reasons too gross to mention here, like to hang out at cow pastures. He was all too happy to climb into his padded playpen for a nap while we took off for Santa Barbara.

I’d progressed no more than a few miles when a CHP car shot past me going the other way. I had a bad feeling and looked in the mirror and sure enough the cop car was bumping across the grass divider to follow me. He didn’t put on his light, but settled back to give us a look over. I warned Carol to make sure the dope was put away and to stash any empty beer cans in the trash bin under the sink. I knew I hadn’t broken any laws. I mean, I couldn’t have violated the speed limit if I wanted to. Also, we’d put in brand new brake lights and turn signals. The license plate was cool and up to date as was my license. For a change, I had no unpaid traffic tickets hanging over my head so I was cool with that, too.

“Is he still there?” Carol asked, wisely refraining from drawing attention by looking back.

I glanced in the mirror just as the cop hit the bubble gum machine and the revolving red light went on. He gave us a brief blast of his siren, in case I was asleep or something. Gingerly, I found a nice wide space next to the road and pulled over.

“What’d you do?” Carol asked, assuming I’d broken some law.

“Committed the misdemeanor of being under the age of thirty while driving a red and silver hippie school bus,” I said, watching in the mirror as the highway patrolman slowly got out of his car, hitched up his gunbelt and did a John Wayne pigeon-toed walk to the bus.

I waited until he was at the entrance, then pulled the handle and the doors swung open, much to the surprise of our piggy friend, who must have thought that the bus was some kind “Dr. No” vehicle of destruction in disguise.

“What seems to be the trouble, officer?” I asked, as politely as I could.

He didn’t speak for a long moment, looking me and the bus over, then catching sight of Carol, who was quite fetching in her embroidered jeans and sun top. His sunglasses hid his expression, but I’m sure his eyes widened. Carol was a nicely endowed young woman.

The cop pointed upward, “You’ve got some guys riding on top of the bus,” he said.

“Yessir,” I said. “That’s our new sundeck. We checked with CHP headquarters before we built it make sure we were legal.”

He adjusted his sunglasses. “That so.”

“Yessir,” I said. After a moment, I added, “Anything else I can help you with officer?”

He ignored me for the nonce calling up to Jack and Jay. “You boys want to come on down from there?”

Jack and Jay obeyed. Jay wore that grand salesman’s smile, but Jack was glowering – he hated being told what to do, especially by anyone in authority.

The cop turned his attention back to me. “Let’s see your license and registration, pal,” he said.

I didn’t like the “pal” business, but I buried my feelings and found the registration. While I got out my wallet, he looked it over. Then he suddenly stepped into the bus, ignoring my proffered ID.

“Let’s see what you’ve got here,” he said.

Jack muttered something but Jay gave him an elbow to shut him up. The cop strolled down the aisle, unnecessarily brushing against Carol. He looked at an ashtray, stirring the contents with a pen, checking for roaches, no doubt. (Roaches were joint butts, not insects.)

He indicated the refrigerator. “What’ve you got in there?”

“Just food and stuff,” Carol said, swinging the door open. There were veggies, lunch meat, eggs, cheese, and about a half a six pack of beer.

The cop stared hard at the beer, then shrugged. “Guess it’s okay,” he said. Then, generously, “This is more like one of the recreational vehicles, I suppose.”

“Yessir,” I said. “We checked on that too.”

He gave me a look. “You did, did you?”

I nodded. “I wanted to be sure we abided by the law, officer,” I said, a bit of sarcasm leaking through.

He spotted the playpen, with the sleeping Jason. “What do we have here?” he asked, starting toward it.

Carol moved in front of him. “Don’t you dare wake him,” she said, her Irish temper on the rise.

The cop looked like he was going to make something of it, but the tone was that of all mothers protecting their young. His instinct for male self preservation cut in and he wisely turned away. Although he was purposely heavy footed when he tromped off the bus.

“Let’s see that license,” he told me.

I opened my wallet, slowly flipping over my various cop ID’s, including the one from the highway patrol.

“How’d you get that?” he said, indicating the CHP press pass.

“From the commander of the LA Division,” I said. I indicated the man’s signature at the bottom – next to my thumbprint. “I’m a newspaper reporter. The Santa Monica Outlook.” This set him back on his heels. “I’m doing a story about our vacation on this converted school bus.” I indicated Jay. “He’s my photographer.”

“Is that so?” the cop said.

“Yessir,” I replied. “Now, if there’s nothing else, we’d like to get on the road.”

The chippie was torn. On one hand he was sure we were lawbreakers. On the other, he didn’t dare test my press credentials. Then he glanced over at the ladder that led up to the sundeck.

“Hang on a minute,” he said.

The piggy went back to his car, got out a tape measure and ran it under the bus. He took his time about it, measuring the width of the bus, being sure to include the ladder, which protruded a few inches from the side.

Finally, he nodded. “Thought so,” he said. “The bus is too wide with the ladder bolted on.”

I frowned. “How much is too wide?” I asked.

“Inch and a quarter,” he replied with great satisfaction.

I sighed. “Thank you for pointing that out officer,” I said. “We’ll unbolt it at the next rest stop.”

The cop shook his head. “Nope,” he said. “Can’t let you drive like that.” He gave it a long pause, tipping his sunglasses up. A little shit-eating grin on his face. “Remove it now,” he ordered.

I was astounded. Cars were whizzing by us at 65 mph plus. It was not a safe place to be.

“Here?” I said.

He nodded. “Yep.”

Jack growled obscenities and the cop turned to see if he’d maybe found a bigger chink in our armor, but Jay shut Jack up and gave the chippie his brightest smile.

“No problem at all officer,” he said. “I have my tools on board.”

He grabbed Jack by the arm and pushed him onto the bus, cutting off any more trouble from that quarter. Then he got out his ratchet set and began unbolting the ladder. The cop remained there watching for a long time. Then he got into his car and did some paperwork, tarrying for a full half hour until Jay was done and we had lashed the ladder to the side of the sundeck.

Then, without another word, the cop drove away, spinning his wheels to kick some dust into our faces.

“What an asshole,” Jack said.

No one disagreed.

We continued onward, passing a joint around to restore our good humor, being careful to keep some windows open to whisk away the tell-tale scent. After a time even Jack was cracking jokes – mostly science-based. I still remember one of them after all these years: “Johnny was a little boy,/ but Johnny is no more;/ For what Johnny thought was H20… was H2S04.” For those of you who have forgotten your high school chemistry, the joke is that little Johnny mistook sulfuric acid for water. Ha, ha.

I urged my friends to resume their idyllic sunbathing atop the roof and to hell with the cop. They took the last of the beer up with them and I resumed driving, keeping my eye open for a cut rate gas station because the fuel needle was starting to nudge toward the bottom. Then I spotted a big 25X25 sign just up ahead. Meaning 25 cents for a gallon of gas and 25 cents for a pack of smokes.

Since I was already in the right lane – read the slow lane – I didn’t have to make any adjustments. But as I came up on the exit I saw that after leaving the freeway, the exit presented a pretty sharp curve. No problem, I was only going about 45 to start with. I bumped off onto the exit, then gently tapped my brakes to slow further.

Nothing happened.

By nothing, I mean when I tapped there was no resistance in the broad brake pedal.

I pushed a little harder, but carefully. I mean, those were pretty damn good brakes we just had installed and I didn’t want to hurl Carol and Jason, much less my two buddies on the roof, off into space and unforgiving obstacles.


Still nothing.

My heart in my throat, I slammed my foot all the way to the floor and realized that brakes were not on the menu at this exact moment.

I was coming into the curve now and I was downshifting like a son of a bitch. I got into the extreme apex of the curve and I somehow managed to steer the bus through it, but it was like turning an old beat up sailing vessel, the bus was so heavy and it was leaning over on one side. Carol shrieked… I think. Jason cheered… I think.

Our carefully stowed supplies crashed through their restraints, raining on our heads and the floor. I couldn’t imagine what was going on up on sundeck and all I could think of is that if I didn’t get through this I would kill my wife, my child and two of my three best friends in the world.

Now we were sailing through the rest of the curve and I prayed to God on high that there would be no traffic and I was suddenly on a straightaway, downshifting, downshifting, adjusting the steering, and then slowly… slowly… lifting up on the parking brake. Shit, I thought. If I pulled too hard, Jack and Jay would come off – making strawberries all over the road.

The bus finally came to a shuddering stop. My heart was racing, practically ripping through my chest. I turned and saw that Carol and Jason were okay. I whipped open the door and plunged outside just in time to see Jay and Jack hopping off the roof, onto the hood, then onto the ground.

They were both whiter than the snows of Mount Kilimanjaro.

“Is everybody okay?” Jack said.

I nodded. “The brakes,” I croaked.

“No shit,” said Jay.

They both slapped me on the back.

“That was great driving, Cole,” Jack said.

“I left my camera in the bus,” Jay complained. “That would’ve been fabulous with my new motor drive.” He laughed. “Who am I kidding? I was scared out of my fucking mind.”

We looked around. Up ahead was the gas station I mentioned earlier. After we all steadied our nerves with a little smoke, Jack and Jay crawled under the bus and soon located the source of our problems. Something to do with the master cylinder. Also the brake lines were shot.

As it happened, that greasy cardboard box that Roger had run out with just before we left contained one master cylinder.

I whistled in amazement. “It’s enough to make you want to sign up with Billy Graham,” I said.

But there was still the problem with the brake lines. Jack and Jay hiked over to the gas station and found out that they couldn’t help us with anything except brake fluid. But the Yellow Pages could. They located a truck joint that carried the parts we needed in a town a few miles away. Someone, I don’t remember if it was Jack or Jay, had the foresight to cart along a bicycle, which was strapped to the back of the bus. That someone then proceeded to pedal to that town to procure new brake lines. The bike’s tire went out on the way there, or the way back, I don’t remember which.

I do remember that they were grateful to the extreme when they returned to cold beers – purchased at the gas station – and burgers fresh off the grill that I’d assembled next to the cow pasture fence. A curious old bossie had taken up residence next to the fence, observing us as we chowed down on one of her cousins.

We felt no guilt whatsoever.

The following day, after making the repairs, we reached our first goal, which was the Santa Barbara Mission. This was a beautiful old adobe church and seminary that dated back in its earliest form to maybe 1786. We spread out our food in the rose garden, hoping to catch the afternoon bells later in the day. I’d prepared a picnic of barbecued chicken, potato salad, deviled eggs and even some biscuits baked over the charcoals. Biscuits with butter and honey, strawberry jam and the smell of roses. There could be nothing better.

After gorging ourselves we laid back, passed around a joint and gazed upon the idyllic scene. Jack said, wasn’t it interesting that the old mission we were looking at was named for Saint Barbara, the patron saint of artillerymen.

“Father Sierra led a whole contingent of Spanish army bastards across California,” Jack said, “subduing the Indians with cannons.”

I thought that was a pretty cool observation and after taking another toke and a swig of sangria, I noted that the legend of Saint Barbara – a beautiful woman who was imprisoned in a tower by her father while he was away at war – was surely the same as the Grimm’s fairy tale Rapunzel, of the let down your hair, Rapunzel, fame.

Jack said maybe not. After all, the reason Barbara became the patron saint of artillery – besides her incredible piety – was that a lightning bolt killed her father in retribution shortly after he had cut off her head. Well, said I, in some pre-Grimm versions of the Rapunzel legend – the exact same thing happens… Oh, wait… maybe not. I’ll check on it next time I go to the library. (We didn’t have Google in those barbaric times).

At the end of the picnic Jason insisted on being let loose. He raced away, hooting and hollering, his baby’s voice echoing joyously across the green lawn.

And he ran face first into a rose bush.

It took us many long minutes to extract him from the thorns. Although he was a brave little boy, he immediately broke out in a rash and started gasping for breath. He’d been bitten by so many rose thorns that their venom was overwhelming his little system. We raced him to an emergency room, where he was treated for a very scary allergic reaction. At his age, being pierced by so many rose thorns was poisonous. It was a long night, an agonizing night.

I think mentioned before that Carol and I had already lost two children – both prematurely born. They suffered, they gasped for life and we had witnessed their deaths as they breathed their last in incubators.

In other words, Jason was our three-year-old golden child. We thought of him as our last chance to wipe away some ugly memories. And as we watched him pitifully gasping for breath through a hospital respirator, you can well imagine our feelings.

Perversely, I thought about my youth on the island of Cyprus where the practice at the time was to delay baptisms until was a child a year old. The reason for this was the tragic infant mortality rate in those days. For the first time it bothered me that we hadn’t had Jason baptized. At 26 I was pretty much an agnostic. But that was intellectual pride, not Irish superstition. What if he died? What if I were wrong? What if I was forcing my agnostic opinions on the eternal, everlasting soul of my one and only child?

When I was a kid the nuns said that an un-baptized child would be doomed to Limbo until Judgment Day. I was never sure what Limbo was, but I certainly wanted better for my son. He was bound for Heaven all the way. Just tell me who to pay, who to bribe. I was a newsman, did Saint Peter want some good ink? Some well-written heavenly propaganda? I’d do it, man. Float my son’s soul to heaven, on the accumulated bubbles of journalistic misdeeds.

When I asked the doctor about getting a priest he frowned, and said, “There’s no cause for panic, Mr. Cole. The boy is coming along nicely.”

But I demanded priestly assistance, got the page number for the priest on duty and the poor priest – not much older than me – came down to see what the matter was.

After conferring with the doctors he came to me and said, “Your son’s in no danger, Mr. Cole. I wouldn’t advise giving him the sacrament of Extreme Unction.” This is the buttering of the toes sacrament the Church provides to dying Catholics.

I said, “I’m relieved to hear that father. But that’s not why I called you. You see, we never had my son baptized…” My voice trailed off.

Like I said, he was a young priest, about my age, and he just looked me in the eye then nodded. I think it was a nod of understanding, but never mind that. He took us into Jason’s room, and he was lying there so helpless I was scared spitless. The young priest got out his kit, spreading a cloth with embroidered edges over Jason’s chest and getting out his oils and holy water and so on and so forth, just like a doctor’s bag, except it was a priest’s. I knew from my Catechism that there were sacred objects in that little black satchel meant to turn the young priest’s actions into some kind of holy magic.

Long story short, the priest very nicely absolved my three-year old son of all the sins of the past, including Adam’s, and did the water sprinkling and the praying over and so on and so forth. Mind you, I think it is bullshit now and I certainly thought it was bullshit then, but no way was I taking a chance with my little boy.

It gave me comfort.

Go figure.

I was just an Irish kid in Gethsemane, you know?

Anyway, the little sucker survived nicely and Jack and Jay kicked in on the hospital bill so we were able to continue along on our great bus adventure, somewhat chastened, but without permanent injury.




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During the Vietnam war, GIs who managed to survive their tour of duty were flown home in chartered airliners, which they called “Freedom Birds.” This is the story of three young men – from  wildly different backgrounds – who meet on such a plane and make a pact to spend three days together in San Francisco. Their goal: to spend every cent of  their mustering out money in a party of  a lifetime. And they’ll get more than they bargained for: because when they land, it is July 1967 – in a time that would come to be known as “The Summer Of Love.” A place and time where each young man will have to confront the ghosts who followed them home from the jungles of Vietnam and contemplate a future none of them had imagined. 


The entire 8-novel landmark science fiction series is now being presented in three three giant omnibus editions from Orbit Books.  The First - BATTLECRY - features the first three books in the series: Sten #1; Sten #2 -The Wolf Worlds; and Sten #3, The Court Of A Thousand Suns. Next: JUGGERNAUT, which features Sten #4, Fleet Of The Damned; Sten #5, Revenge Of The Damned; and Sten #6, The Return Of The Emperor. Finally, there's DEATHMATCH, which contains Sten #6, Vortex; and Sten #7, End Of Empire. Click on the highlighted titles to buy the books. Plus, if you are a resident of The United Kingdom, you can download Kindle versions of the Omnibus editions. Which is one clot of a deal!

Here's the Kindle link for BATTLECRY
Here's the Kindle link for JUGGERNAUT
Here's the Kindle link for DEATHMATCH




Two new companion editions to the international best-selling Sten series. In the first, learn the Emperor's most closely held  cooking secrets. In the other, Sten unleashes his shaggy-dog joke cracking sidekick, Alex Kilgour. Both available as trade paperbacks or in all major e-book flavors. Click here to tickle your funny bone or sizzle your palate.  




Venice Boardwalk Circa 1969
In the depths of the Sixties and The Days Of Rage, a young newsman, accompanied by his pregnant wife and orphaned teenage brother, creates a Paradise of sorts in a sprawling Venice Beach community of apartments, populated by students, artists, budding scientists and engineers lifeguards, poets, bikers with  a few junkies thrown in for good measure. The inhabitants come to call the place “Pepperland,” after the Beatles movie, “Yellow Submarine.” Threatening this paradise is  "The Blue Meanie,"  a crazy giant of a man so frightening that he eventually even scares himself. Here's where to buy the book. 


Diaspar Magazine - the best SF magazine in South America - is publishing the first novel in the Sten series in four 
episodes. Part One and Part Two appeared in back-to-back issues. And now Part Three has hit the virtual book stands.  Stay tuned, for the grand conclusion. Meanwhile, here are the links to the first three parts. Remember, it's free!

Coming soon: Part Four,
The Grand Finale 

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