Liberty: regular time off, normally weekends and holidays, not to exceed 72 hours. Liberty Call: Announcement on a ship's intercom system of liberty granted to the crew.
Memories. I was looking through an old photo album and found some pictures I took in 1972. My recollection of the details behind the photos was questionable since they were from so many years ago. I searched for clues to see what I could piece together, but in the end, I had more questions than answers. I talked to an old friend, Jim, he’s in some of the photos. He couldn’t remember much of anything. “I don’t know.” (and) You’ll soon understand why. I was about to give up when I recalled that I had told the story on a storytelling program, The Front Porch, at a local radio station. Surely, listening to the recording would shed some light.
As I listened, I remembered that I had previously recorded this story on an audio cassette more than thirty years earlier. I wondered if I still had that tape? I searched through boxes of old audiotapes, many were music compilations, like what we now call playlists. Others made me question why I had recorded, yet alone, saved them. I eventually came across a tape labeled BIG SUR with the year 1980 scribbled on the case. I dusted off an old cassette player and was eager to hear my original recording of the story, a road trip turned hitchhiking adventure with quirky characters like the vagabond who lived in a cave, yes, a cave! I clicked play and as I listened, I was surprised that this poor-quality recording told an almost identical story to the recent radio broadcast, with one exception. I had started the recording by saying “I’m recording this story, so I don’t forget the details and someday hope to produce some sort of film. So, here we go.
In May 1971, I decided to drive from Chicago to San Francisco in my 1964 VW van, or was it a transporter, or a bus? It depends on who you ask. My mom and dad thought I was crazy, but what young person let’s parental wisdom spoil their dream. I packed what I needed, including a prized Nikon camera I had recently purchased. That camera would become key in the believability of the story… or would it?
I hugged my parents and backed the VW out of the driveway. I was naïve in thinking that a cross-country road trip in an old VW bus would be fun. Instead, I learned a few lessons about picking up hitchhikers and the potential, well, realization, that a VW Bus can be finicky in a mechanical way. But after three long days heading west, I was at the NAS Alameda gate. Yep, a Naval Air Station. I was in the Navy and would soon deploy to Vietnam onboard an aircraft carrier, the USS Oriskany. I hadn’t given any thought about where I’d leave the VW until a few days before we deployed and panicked until I connected with a family friend and parked it at their apartment complex.
Several months later, we returned from the deployment, and I retrieved the VW. I discovered that the 8-track tape player had been stolen, the tires needed air and I had to get a jump start. Lucky, I thought, as I drove back to the base listening to awful pop music on the AM radio. One of the first things I did was buy a new 8-track player. During the next several months, the VW became the standard transportation to haul my Navy buddies going on liberty. And that’s how this story begins.
As much as we grumbled about our monotonous work preparing for yet another deployment to Vietnam, we realized that duty in the Bay area sure beat being in the South China Sea and as the next deployment approached, a few shipmates and I decided to take a few days of liberty and have some fun camping down the coast at Big Sur State Park. You guessed it; I was the one with a car. While I knew these guys from the ship, I hadn’t spent much time with them on liberty, but thought to myself, “What could go wrong?
Jim and I worked together and although Larry was from a different Division, he and Jim shared similar backgrounds and interests. I was an inner-city kid from Chicago, and they were both laid back West Coast hippies, eager to take risks, ready to get high, and Mary Jane was always nearby, if you know what I mean.
I questioned my judgment but decided to go and met them on the gangway where we went through the standard “request permission to go ashore?” and headed to the parking lot.
As I drove south out of the Bay area, I was almost certain, well, I was certain, that they were already high. I wasn’t sure what to expect and was a bit nervous that my decision to go was ill-advised. Jim and Larry were laughing or sleeping much of the time and instead of talking to myself, I started thinking about that Nikon camera. I had bought it in Japan on our last deployment and had struggled learning the sophistication of a 35mm camera instead of my former instamatic. My photos weren’t very good, and I hoped to improve during this trip. In hindsight, if only our friend Hal, a ship’s photographer, had been with us.
The terrain shifted from congested urban areas to rolling hills in what reminded me of boring Midwest farmland. I continued driving and shortly after we passed Monterey, the engine suddenly shut down only an hour from the campground. I pulled off the road and tried to restart. It wouldn’t. I was frustrated, but Jim and Larry didn’t seem concerned.
In the distance was a T-intersection. I said, “There’s a town just ahead named Carmel.” Jim laughed and said “Carmel.” Annoyed, I answered “Who cares how it’s pronounced, there’s a gas station down that road.”
We walked to the station, and I talked to a mechanic named Ed. He looked amused as he glanced from me to Jim, then Larry and back. “I’ll tow it in and look at it later today.” I wanted to wait, but Jim convinced me to leave the keys with Ed and hitchhike to Big Sur. Ed seemed to agree and said that he’d try to get it running before we returned in a few days.
As we were walking back towards Highway One, I heard Jim say “far out” as Larry handed him something and they smiled at one another. I’d seen this before and shook my head. My concern about the VW shifted to thoughts of the psychedelic experience I was about to witness. And as might have been predictable, Larry sat down on the side of the road and with a tell-tale look on his face and told us that “he’d catch up at the campground.” Geez.
I stuck out my thumb and as an old pickup truck drove past us, I made eye contact with an older guy riding in the truck bed. I wondered why he wasn’t sitting in the empty passenger seat, but before I could give it another thought, the truck turned at the intersection in front of us, pulled off the road and this scruffy looking guy got out of the truck bed. He slowly walked up to us and asked, "Is it ok if I hitchhike with you?” I hesitated to agree, but he went on. “I was driving south of here yesterday and had a stroke or heart attack, I don’t know for sure… but an ambulance took me to the Monterey Hospital north of here and released me this morning. My car must still on the side of the road down near Gorda. Hi, my name is Jerry." I wasn’t keen on the idea, but he was sincere. "Sure, I guess so.” I stuck my thumb out again.
Minutes seemed like hours and my pessimistic nature made me believe that we’d never get a ride, a Dodge van drove by and pulled off the road. The driver yelled “Where are you heading?" I pointed to Jim, "We're going to Big Sur.” and then to Jerry “He’s going somewhere else, Gorda, I think. “ “Hop in.” As we got in, I noticed a hesitant smile and a half-hearted “hi” from a young woman in the passenger seat. It turned out that Roberto and his girlfriend Gina were from Oakland and were taking a drive down the coast. They were unknowingly changing their plan.
Roberto offered us a semi-cold beer to said he’d drive us to Big Sur. Jerry used this as an opportunity to tell me his story. "My car might be several miles past the campground.” He mumbled something about living outdoors, maybe a tent or something. I couldn’t understand but didn’t bother to ask.
A little while later, Roberto slowed down when he saw the entrance to Big Sur State Park. As I began to gather my stuff and nudge Jim to wake up, Jerry leaned over and asked if I’d continue with him until he found his car. I didn’t know what to say. Jim was oblivious. Roberto sensed my reluctance and said, "Let’s just keep driving. It can’t be much further.” That was a relief.
We continued driving south on Highway One with our eyes feasting on jagged cliffs with ocean waves dancing below. I was enjoying this view while Jerry nervously kept looking out the window and eventually said, "Pull off the road around the next curve.”
Roberto put on the brakes. Jerry opened the door and walked across the highway. Without giving it a second thought, we followed him down a slightly worn path, although I did have to coax Jim to follow. Jerry pushed aside some shrubs and disappeared. As I approached, I realized there was an entrance to a cave! We followed him in, and I thought about my Nikon in Roberto’s van.
On the ground was a camp stove, a sleeping bag and other scattered stuff. It was easy to see that the cave had been vandalized. Jerry looked depressed. He told us he made a mistake by trusting a drifter he let a stay there. He reached in his pocket, pulled out a business card and handed it to me. Pat Chamberlin, California Highway Patrol. Jerry asked “Can you call Pat? He knows me and will help.” I was a bit confused, and Jim didn’t seem to understand. I looked at Jerry and promised I’d call Pat once we found a pay phone.
As we headed back to the campground, Roberto pulled into a grocery store parking lot and parked near a payphone. I pulled out the card, put a dime in the coin slot and dialed. On the third ring, a man answered. “Chamberlin. How can I help you?” In disbelief, I told him the story. He seemed to know what I was talking about and replied "Unbelievable! After they took Jerry in the ambulance, someone drove his car to the Monterey Hospital parking lot and left the keys at the front desk. I'll take care of this. Thanks for helping Jerry. He’s a good guy with tough luck."
I got back in the van just as Roberto and Jim walked out of the store with a case of beer, a bottle of Thunderbird wine and what I hoped was a bag of food. I told them what Chamberlin said and we had to laugh in disbelief. But what a bummer it was for Jerry.
I guess I wasn’t shocked to see Larry waiting as we drove into the campground. Right on Larry. Roberto and Gina were surprised since they didn’t know there was a third sailor. But they decided to stay and have a beer with us before heading back to Oakland. I had a hunch they might stay longer once Jim pulled his banjo out and started playing. I’m not alone on saying that Jim is charismatic and as one of my friends says he is “way cool and the most fun person he knows.” Jim was at his best when he changed the lyrics or told a story in the middle of a song. As the evening continued, the stories got funnier, the songs more off-key, and the campfire eventually started to smolder. I stood up and said “I’m going to crash.” A few seconds later I heard “Catch you on the flip side” and the regional slang continued with “peace out,” “cool beans” and ended when Roberto whispered “Later day dudes” as he and Gina headed to the van, and we pulled out our sleeping bags as the night sky turned the party into a peaceful campsite.
The sun started to rise over the tree canopy, and I was woken by the noise of the van door and saw Gina and Roberto getting ready to leave. I was surprised they were still there. Roberto saw me and said, "Crazy night. We're heading home.” His response gave me an idea. "Would you mind if I hitched a ride to Carmel to check on my VW? Roberto smiled, "Sure, no problem, but what if it isn’t repaired?" I thought for a moment and asked, “Then, would you give me a ride back to Oakland” Roberto nodded, and I quickly packed my stuff, woke Jim and Larry to say goodbye and jumped in the van. I’m not sure if they understood or cared if I returned with the VW or not as they rolled over trying to go back to sleep.
As we drove north, the effect of the partying was evident. We didn’t talk much, and I was nervous when we reached the gas station. I saw Ed and walked over to him. He looked puzzled since I wasn’t with Jim and Larry, but my hunch was that he knew why. He told me that the engine "threw a rod" and needed to be rebuilt or replaced. He handed me an estimate for the repair, $700! I had, maybe, $10 with me and another $100 or so back on the ship. He sensed my distress, "Go back to the base. Figure out what you want to do. It’ll be here when you decide.” Roberto jumped in "I've got a friend in Oakland with a tow truck. We can stop at his house and see if he can help." I didn’t have any options and with little enthusiasm, agreed.
After Roberto dropped Gina off at her apartment, he parked in front of a stucco house with an old tow truck out front. As we approached the front porch, a man opened the door and looked surprised, but happy to see Roberto. It felt awkward when Roberto introduced me to Tony. Roberto explained my situation and wondered if he could help. Tony responded, "Absolutely!" Embarrassed, I told him “I'll need to pay you later, I…." He stopped me mid-sentence "I'll just charge you for the gas." I’m speechless since I just met him, and my VW is 120 miles away. Tony continued, "I can go right now." I was stunned, “right now?" “Yeah, let's go." I told him that my liberty ended at midnight, and I wouldn’t make it back in time to get on the ship. He turned to Roberto. "What do you say Roberto? Come with me. We can catch up?” Roberto once again showed that big smile I’d seen the past two days. Minutes later, we were off in the tow truck, and they dropped me off at a bus stop so I could get back to the base. Tony yelled “Give me a call tomorrow.”
When I called the next morning, he said, "Can you stop by today? The bus is in my lot.” I wasted no time leaving the ship with the permission to go ashore ritual, past the parking lot, through the base entry gate and to the bus stop. I checked the address that Tony had written on a piece of paper and looked at an imposing gate with a warning sign about trespassers. I pressed a button by the gate and heard a large dog barking. A few seconds passed when I heard laughing and Tony appeared. He patted the dog and opened the gate. As we walked past other cars and old car parts, Tony asked, "Have you given any thought about what you want to do?" I quietly responded, "I don’t know.” He asked, "Have you ever worked on engines?" "I've tinkered with cars a lot, but I've never rebuilt an engine." He proposed "Why don’t you leave it on my lot. I'll give you a key to the gate and the tool shed. You can come and go as you please." It was another speechless moment. “Really?” Tony handed me some keys and said he needed to go on a call. “Just don’t forget to lock the gate when you leave.” I stared at the engine with a puzzled look before I left in search of a bookstore. I took a book off a shelf “How to Keep Your Volkswagen Alive.” It seemed like a reasonable choice. Back at the bus stop, I started reading the chapter on disassembling the engine. It seemed simple enough and once I had confidence that I could at least take it apart, I went back to the impound lot. It was a dirty job, and I was both happy and alarmed when I found the problem, a piston with a huge hole in it. I gazed at all the pieces lying on the ground and thought out loud “Now what do I do?
I started by borrowing money from my parents and I hitch hiked, took the bus, or borrowed my Navy buddy Dave’s motorcycle to get to the tow lot and back. After a few weeks, I had everything finished and felt confident when I tightened the last bolt. I pumped the gas pedal and turned the key. Nothing. After poking around, I saw a wire I had forgotten to attach. Even though I was alone, I looked around to make sure no one had seen this. I grabbed some tools and attached it. Once again, I pushed the clutch in and turned the key. <PAUSE> I probably would have hugged Tony had he been around.
It felt strange as I drove from the impound lot and I started thinking about what I’d do next since we were leaving for Vietnam in a few weeks. I made a quick decision to take a week’s leave to drive it back to Chicago and leave it with my parents. After getting my leave approved the next day, I left the base parking lot in the early morning and headed towards the highway with the challenge of making it over the mountains with the new engine barely broken in. And as I should have expected, things don’t work out the way I had hoped. The generator belt broke while climbing the Sierra’s between Sacramento and Reno. It didn’t take long for the replacement to also break late that night in Nevada. I had learned from experience to always have a few extra belts as a precaution. I was trying to install the new one on the shoulder of Interstate 80 when the flashing lights from a police car startled me. The officer looked at the situation, shook his head and led me to an exit near a closed gas station. I knew that the engine could start several times without needing the generator to charge the battery, but I decided to spend the night in the gas station parking lot and fix it in the morning. Oh, and buy a flashlight. Minutes after I closed my eyes, an employee tapped on the door and told me to get off the property. He wasn’t interested in hearing my story so I parked a few feet from his lot, hoping that would get his attention. It didn’t, but I was able to fix it myself in the morning and stubbornly, I drove to a different station to buy some gas. I made it through Nevada, Utah, and Wyoming with no problems, but I had a flat tire in Colorado and the spare had enough air to get me to a gas station 15 or so miles down the road. I came close to running out of gas a few times since the gauge didn’t work and of course, the generator belt broke again as I entered Illinois. Even with all these miscues, I made it home and decided to loan it to a friend who didn’t have a car at the time. I spent a few relaxing days at home and then dad drove me to the airport to catch a standby flight back to California. I’ve told this story hundreds of times and I never get tired of it. Some of the details may vary, but it remains a vivid memory of a crazy weekend with some quirky characters and the kindness of strangers. As illogical as it sounds, the experience helped build my confidence, and in a strange way, my future decision making…in a good way. Besides the memorable adventure (PAUSE) was hope and kindness. We could use more of that today.