The McCarthy Family Vehicle

Most of my picture books have some connection to my childhood memories or fantasies, but none more so than Patty. The bus in the book was based on the "family car" that transported me from soccer match to school and back. And boy, was it embarrassing! But...

my father loved it. Above is a photo of my father inside his newly painted bus. "That was a new paint job. That's why it looked so good. The paint job lasted about one week," he said when inquiring about the outwardly nice appearance of the bus.

My father was always tinkering with the cars. If I couldn't find him, he was sure to be under the hood or kneeling beside, scraping on rust colored body filler. My first memory of my father's car tinkering was a very early one. I distinctly remember playing in the backyard, guarded by a ten foot tall gray fence. All of a sudden, a large boom sounded, thundering the ground below and shaking the green leaves above. I looked up to see a mushroom cloud of black smoke looming over the tall fence. Hurriedly, I ran around to the roadside to see my father's small VW blue beetle on fire, and to hear him yell out more curse words than I'd ever heard before. That was the most exciting thing!

To the left is the blue bug. I couldn't have been more than 4 when was destroyed.


My own memory of the bus was one of cold winters without heat, a rusted floor that enabled "us kids" to drop small objects out of it while moving for pure amusement, and sprawling back seats, perfect for playing house and other games. When my dad wasn't looking, we loved to climb on the roof and slide down the front or jump off the top, for a quick thrill. The bus certainly was grand, excellent for conquering, much like a mountain. As my mother said in fond remembrance "I liked being up high." She noted that she'd only driven cars before she met my father. She often tells the sad tale of how she used to drive a wonderful sports car with a sun roof--an Audi––but how after allowing my father to drive it, it was never the same. In fact, it sat useless in the garage for years as I recall, because my father put engine oil in the wrong place. He claimed that he was used to the layout of a Volkswagen, and if the Audi were a Volkswagen, the oil would have been poured into the right compartment.

In my younger years, the bus served myself and my neighborhood playmates as a great play area... a feast for the imagination. The bus was a "house," a "police station," and a number of other nouns. But sometimes, it was just "the bus." We always fought to be "the driver."

This is a drawing I did as a youngster, of the family vehicle. My love for that thing really must have been something!

My later memories of the bus were a little less euphoric. I distinctly remember THE FLOOR. I often pretended to drop objects, such as pencils, and then proceed to retrieve them purposely to "hide" when we passed "the cool kids" on the street or at school. The bus buzzed loudly like a WW I fighter jet, so I was unable to arrive anywhere "under the radar." As my mother said, "It had a really noisy was hard to have a conversation in it." Of course, my father had a slightly different perspective. He often proudly stated, "These Volkswagens have airplane engines in them!" What he loudly and proudly called his later Volkswagens (Karmenn-Ghias), to anyone in earshot, was "The Poor Man's Porsche." The emphasis on the word "poor" really didn't help my "cool image" any.

To the left are two of my father's later VWs (Karmann-Ghias). Don't let the new paint jobs fool you! The orange vehicle transported me to school and back during my torturous year of private school in the 9th grade. I ALWAYS ducked as soon as I got in the car (upon reflection, I think they're pretty cool looking. But at the time, I did not). The red car is a semiautomatic ... meaning you have to shift but there's no clutch. What that really means is that no one in the world knows how to drive it! Both cars have broken down plenty.

Alas, my father cared little for what was "cool" or "popular." If he won the lottery, I'm sure he'd still be driving those Volkswagen clunkers around. They were some of his great passions. Somehow, I think he enjoyed the junk factor. He still does.

And just how junky was the red bus? My parents went to a family wedding, bringing my grandmother along. When they drove around the the front of the building, they passed the other family members arriving in style --cruising in Cadillacs and BMWs. In buzzed the red rusty bus and many heads turned. My father pulled right up to the door to let my grandmother out so that she wouldn't have to walk. Unfortunately, the door did a little more than open. It came right off! My grandmother was mortified. She later offered to buy my parents a new car.

The passenger door wasn't the only door to come off. Other doors came off as well. Although my father will deny this, he most certainly has an attention problem (guess it's hereditary!). While driving, he starts to drift off...both his mind and car! On this particular summer evening, a car with a cantankerous driver was closely following the bus. The man was swerving and honking and doing what any impatient, road-raged victim would do....when all of a sudden POOF!... off came the sliding side door. It flew up into the sky and sailed inches from the car trailing behind. It landed somewhere in the woods. My father spent an hour or so looking for it in the pitch dark. It was retrieved without as much as a scratch. The door was reunited with its larger counterpart, so that it could later unpredictably fall off again.

Above is the family getting out of the bus. My father has his back mother is stepping out, and I'm the one running. I was always running.

I asked my sister what she remembered about it. She said "I don't remember much. I was too little. I wasn't embarrassed of it or anything. I was embarrassed of OTHER cars though." Unfortunately, my father had a whole fleet of embarrassing cars! My sister did add "It's not the funniest story, but I remember when the bus died while we were driving down a hill. Dad was so happy that it died going down a hill because he just rolled it right into a parking spot at the bottom."

Above is my little sister in front of the illustrious bus...if you look closely you can see some rust. There was lots of rust!!

When I asked my mother about the vehicle she said "In the wintertime, without the heat, that thing was really cold." That's for sure! I distinctly remember driving to a winter fun-land that was at least an hour's drive into Massachusetts. I'd won a free tickets for the entire family because of an essay contest I'd entered in elementary school. I was very excited and proud. I was going to ride all the rides for free! And play the games! It would be great! My parents planned ahead, bundling up us kids in heavy blankets and providing us with thermoses filled with cocoa. Unfortunately, the provisions didn't do much good. By the time we reached the winter carnival, which was entirely outside--rides, trains, games and all--we spent a total of 15 minutes hovering near the bus shivering, decided that all we really wanted to do was go home where it was warm, and drove back.

The Bus' Death

The McCarthy ownership is not the end of the story! My sister said "I remember Rick Robison's (bus) was a lot better, because it had a kitchen in it."

In the bus' infancy, Rick Robison was the proud owner. He was a hobbyist mechanic and Volkswagens were his specialty. He purchased a *better* bus with a kitchen, and gave the old one to my dad. From 1984 - 1987 the bus was our family's main mode of transportation. Finally, in 87' my parents both came to their senses and bought a sensible family vehicle (with the urging of Grandma of course!)––a Dodge Caravan, which was one of the first caravans at the time. No more ducking! I loved the new car smell...the plentiful cupholders...the heat!

The unwanted bus was sent back to Rick Robison. Rick gave the bus to his friend, Phil Lucca, who was a member of the Rhode Island Chapter of the Veteran's for Peace. Phil enlisted the bus in his cause. The bus, along with a slew of other vehicles, drove out of Rhode Island, forming a long weaving caravan. Their destination was South America. The bus was loaded with medical and school supplies that would be handed out to those those in need once outside the country. Unfortunately, the movement was not allowed to pass through American borders.

In protest, the caravan drove to Washington D.C and staged a protest on the lawn at the National Mall. It was that day, that my father spotted the bus on the Nighty News! While Tom Brokaw reported the event, in the background the red bus plainly stood out.

The protest was successful and the convoy was granted permission to cross the Mexican/U.S border. Along with a stream of other vehicles, the bus started its long journey toward Nicaragua. Sadly, the bus never reached its destination. Phil Lucca got a call late one evening. A Baptist Church pastor was calling from Georgia to give Rick some bad news. The bus had died.

Whether the bus was junked or some inspired mechanic decided to resurrect it, is unknown. One thing is for sure––the bus lived a long, happy life. May it rest in peace.

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