Being young is about dreaming. And our cars were often the vehicles of our dreams. Not so much the splendiferous cars we dream of having; more like the cars we did our dreaming in. We dreamed of a life of freedom and adventures (well, at least we did back then), roaming this beautiful earth, exploring its glorious mountains, oceans and deserts, sleeping wherever nightfall catches us. But there was another dream intruding too: to make something of oneself; to use our faculties. Back then, the two seemed rather mutually exclusive. So I set out to follow the stirrings of my dreams, in a 1968 Dodge A100 van. I had the first dream in mind when I chose it and outfitted it. But then dreams often have surprise endings.
After my last Beetle blew its engine, I decided I really wanted something that would accommodate bigger dreams; the then-current equivalent of the Conestoga wagon: a camper van. I can’t really recall why I didn’t buy a VW bus, the obvious choice for the job and the times. Maybe it was that blown engine. So when I stumbled upon a rather well-worn ’68 Dodge A100, its indestructible slant six called to me.
These old-school compact vans that Detroit was cooking up then were rude and crude; the most primitive thing imaginable. I should have looked for a Corvair Greenbrier, but craigslist hadn’t been even dreamed of yet. With their beam axles front and rear, noisy interiors, rough and bobbing ride, they would soon be eclipsed by a much more modern and palatable design, starting with the 1968 Econoline. But they were cheap, simple, and easy to fix.
From the beginning, it did facilitate a dream I would later fulfill more fully: carpentry and remodeling. The Dodge was a delivery van, with only side-door and rear-door windows, and a totally bare metal interior. So I bought my first saw, and paneled its insides with clear plywood, and built a bed across the back, although it was to short for me to stretch out in. Even took the plunge of cutting into the body for new windows; the kind that let the fresh air in.
And when I was done, I followed the old maxim: “go west young man” to its ultimate conclusion: the California beach. I guess I must have missed an exit. I was vaguely looking for an opportunity to start a career. What I found instead was clothing-optional Black’s Beach near San Diego. After spending two months watching pelicans skimming the waves and hang-gliders surfing the breeze off the cliff tops, I had a great tan. But I was broke. And jobs in San Diego in 1976 were as scarce as covered bodies on Black’s Beach. San Diego then was the destination of choice for folks on unemployment. Since I wasn’t in that category, I took what I could find: driving a taxi.
The creaky 1970 Chevy assigned to me must have had at least a half-million miles on it: straight-six, two-speed Powerglide, manual steering and un-assisted drum brakes. The tired Turbo-Thrift six moaned and groaned like a mortally-wounded cowboy in a spaghetti western.
Time is money in the cab business. My driving style constantly tested the adage’s veracity. At 85mph, the yellow Biscayne shook and quivered like an overweight middle-aged belly dancer. The motions made it even harder to read the map that kept this newbie from getting lost in San Diego’s endless canyons.
Driving a cab is like being trapped in an endless Fellini movie. The ever-changing cast of eccentric characters occupying the back seat evoked pathos, fear, lust and loathing; sometimes all at once. No wonder I wanted to get lost in California’s deserts and mountain wilderness on weekends.
My ‘68 Dodge camper-van was my Dakar-Rally wanna-be truck. The slant six’s torque rivaled a Farmall tractor. The 90” wheelbase was shorter than a Wrangler, and it had a beam front axle. The only thing missing was four-wheel drive. But that didn’t stop me. I lowered the air pressure heading out across the desert. And I carried a shovel and carpet strips to put under the spinning rear wheel if I got stuck in the sand.
Only once, on a breathtakingly clear and starry night in Death Valley, I couldn’t make it up a long, boulder-strewn steep trail. I had to back down a half mile, without any back-up lights. Fortunately, my night-time vision was better than my judgment. At least back then.
Those nine months in San Diego were laid-back, but taxi driving didn’t offer much of a future. My older brother showed up one day, heading to Los Angeles to put a new TV station on the air. I tagged along.
The station was owned by the Transcendental Meditation (TM) organization, so things were… quite different; in lots of ways. Like hiring unskilled kids like me and paying us peanuts. Hardly anybody knew what the hell they were doing; it was a perpetual comedy of errors. Instead of broadcasting Maharishi’s endless lectures, we should have just turned the cameras on ourselves and invented reality TV. The ratings would certainly have been higher.
I was sent out with a group of five to open our San Bernardino secondary studio. I had zero experience with tv; we unpacked cameras and read the directions on how to operate them. But I saw opportunity; next thing I knew, I was doing it all, thanks to no unions or job descriptions. And my old Dodge got a new career (and Earl Scheib paint job) as the station’s news van. Who could have dreamt that?
We all lived in a rented a house way up in the mountains by Lake Arrowhead, to get above the San Bernardino smog. It was so thick back then that we’d literally measure it by how many blocks we could see down the street. Never once that whole summer did I have this view; it was just a blind plunge into a smoggy abyss.
Highway 18 to Lake Arrowhead is a beautifully-engineered road: long switchbacks connected by large-radius hair-pin curves. The now-tired Dodge was burning oil; it would foul its plugs during engine-braking. So I turned off the motor and coasted the entire way down the mountain. The grade was just right to keep the boxy van between 55 and 75 mph. It was a highly stimulating way to greet the morning.
I wasn’t the only one coasting. Kids would hitchhike rides up the mountain with their custom-built low-slung bicycles (I can’t find any pictures anywhere). Then they’d fly down as fast, or faster, than the Dodge. Leave it to California kids to exploit every opportunity for wheeled thrills.
Seeing those fearless teens flying down the mountain, living out their wild dreams, while I was coasting towards a real career in my shirt and tie, provided a moment of clarity – for the first time in my life, I felt old.