COAL: A VW Bus That Was, One That Wasn’t, and an Isuzu I-Mark

I met Mike shortly after I arrived at UOregon, somewhere between a couple of classes we took together and KWVA, the campus radio station. I did news; I thought I was ever so clever to start the weather reports with “Lookin’ out that exclusive K-W-V-A weather window!. The joke was—fasten yer seatbelt, here it comes—there was no KWVA window of any kind, for the studio was a thoroughly interior room near the back of an upstairs level of the student union building. Ba-da-bing, et cetera. Yeez, what a dork.

Mike, on the other hand, was an actual, real, honest-to-glassblowing hippie; the kind I’d only ever read about in books. And I mean it; my suburban Denver high school library had a book with a chapter about hippies. There was a black-and-white picture of a shirtless, beardy longhair smoking a joint in the middle of a cornfield. Here we see the North American hippie in his natural habitat might as well have been the caption. I’d glanced cautiously at the book, a few pages at a time, way back in the stacks, lest anyone see me looking at a picture of someone doing something illegal.

Mike did the late-late radio shows on Saturday night, called Infinity Time and The Stone Zone. We hung out in the studio during the shows. Oh, that’s why “In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida” is so long: plenty of time to get down to the loading dock, spend a few –hours– minutes grazing in the grass in his comfy VW Bus, and get back up to the studio in time to put on the next track, all without hurry or worry (assuming one of us remembered to block open the back door to the building).

We weren’t the only ones grazing in the grass in Eugene on Saturday night, believe it or don’t; the swing shift employees at the big commercial bakery in town (Oroweat? Franz?) used to call in and explain, very earnestly and at great and repetitive length, why it was essential that Mike put on the song they wanted to hear. Sometimes they could even almost remember the title. It was all good; Mike appreciated his audience and their state of mind; he did his best to work their tunes into the playlist—sometimes mixed with a tape loop of Kermit the Frog going “Do you know what’s green? Do you know what’s green? Do you know what’s green?“.

Mike’s Bus was a ’73-’79 model (big square front turn signals above the headlamps), painted brown, with mumblety zillion miles on it. He let me borrow it a couple times when I needed to move furniture or other sizeable stuff, and it was something of a swing-shift item itself. Engaging a gear—any gear, let alone the intended one—involved a great deal of faith and luck. I was fortunate never to have to contend with any steep hills, and I came to understand those I-may-be-slow-but-I’m-in-front-of-you bumper stickers.

Our friendship (mine and Mike’s, I mean, not the bus) seemed always to develop and deepen in directions I couldn’t or wouldn’t have predicted. One perfectly foggy night between Infinity Time and The Stone Zone, we were sitting in his bus at the loading dock. We were having a batch of laffs about our art history TA who’d mangled the pronunciation of the Stele of Naram-Sin—who the hell was this “Narmazen” she kept mentioning?—then when called out on it, she insisted she’d heard it both ways (no, she hadn’t).

Mike poured himself a cup of mushroom tea, another thing I’d read about. I expressed curiosity, and Mike said “That was the last of it”, and gave me one of the best bits of advice I’ve ever received. He said if there was stuff I hadn’t dealt with—stuff I’d walled off—then wait. Hold off on any psychedelics because the walls would come down, he said, and if I weren’t ready I’d have a very bad time. I heeded his advice, which is strange, for I hadn’t yet acquired the habit of listening to those who know what the hell they’re talking about. Heeded it good and hard, too, by which I mean for another twelve years, and that all worked out exceedingly well.

Now, Mike’s was the only Bus I had direct experience with, but that almost wasn’t so. One of the guys from the next dorm block over also had a Bus. It was that yellow-green colour they came in, I think with a white top, and it had all the requisite stickers—amongst which were Fukengrüven and that skull-thing I’d seen without knowing what it was; the one with the red and blue and the lightning bolt. And the dancing bears. He invited me to join him and his buddies on a trip, which I’m sure it would’ve been, up to Portland to see the Grateful Dead.

I was both tempted and apprehensive, in that never-done-anything-like-this way that hits even the dweebs with great frequency once we’re no longer under the direct control and surveillance of mother and dad. But just you count those goody shoes on me, one-two; I begged off. I had a paper to write, I said, so thanks, but I’d best stay behind and write my paper. Jerry Garcia died shortly after—the whole of Eugene seemed to take it personally—thus sealing my decision permanently. I felt like a damn clod for missing out, especially since I didn’t write word one of that paper until the night before it was due the next week. Everything would’ve been very different had I gone along, but I think I was best off following Mike’s advice (even though he hadn’t yet given it to me when the Grateful Dead invite came).

Mike was a long-term student. I don’t know if he was working toward a degree of one kind or another; he seemed to take whatever classes appealed to him. He and I took a particular intro-to-statistics class. Sometimes we studied in the Bus, and sometimes at his house, up in the attic amongst his plants. By and by we’d grow weary of studying, and dinnertime would come, and we’d come down out the attic to join his wife and daughter for pizza. There was usually stats material remaining to be pounded into our heads, but who can study with a bellyful of pizza? We’d listen to music and watch cartoons til it was time for me to go home. I can still almost get back to Mike’s overstuffed couch via this acoustic early rendition of “Space Oddity”:

Incidentally, someone who looks like me never even thought about trying to drive while even slightly tipsy on alcohol, but did drive while high on weed. A terrifying experience, observing oneself driving appropriately—keeping in lane without weaving; keeping up with traffic but not speeding; stopping and going properly, signalling turns and lane changes—while screamingly aware of doing this dangerous, illegal thing. A bit of paranoia, too; seeing phantom police cars out the corner of the eye, but I guess that’s easy to cope with relative to the splitting cognitive dissonance of apparently driving safely while driving unsafely. Once in town and once on the highway was well more than enough, and the incident count never exceeded two. If I’d gone to try a stunt like that to get home from Mike’s, he would’ve lost my keys for me and made up the guest room.

And since we’re on the topic—stay with me here; I promise there’s car content coming—three decades ago when I was in the 11th grade, the first university I looked at was Emory. My mother and I flew to Georgia, toured the campus, looked in on some classes, and the admissions office placed me with some students in one of the dorms for overnight while my mother got a hotel room or something.

We hung out for awhile, as dormdwellers do, and I declined repeated offers of a beer. Eventually the three of them got kind of shifty. Said they were going out for a bit, but would be back, and to make myself at home with the TV. One of them was trying to hide something from my view. Ohhhh, no. Uh-uh. This is a college visit, and these guys were supposed to be showing me what life was like. I started asking questions, and eventually they fessed up: they were going over to a friend’s place to smoke some weed. Dude was carrying a concealed bong. Eep! Oh really? Eep! H’mm. Eep! H’mm. In a thoroughly uncharacteristic snap decision—this wasn’t many days separated from my furtive glances at that hippie book in the library—I invited myself along. They had a little difficulty with the idea of someone who wouldn’t drink beer but would smoke weed, but off we went.

At their friend’s place we sat in a circle and passed round the bong—I wasn’t a smoker of any kind, but learned fast—while Cypress Hill’s “Hits From the Bong” played at obnoxious-college-kids volume. It’s not a song with much to recommend it, but memory associations will be memory associations.

It’s said that many people don’t feel much of anything the first time they try cannabis. That was very much not my experience. Everything was fun and funny, time was stretched and distorted, and on one of the other partiers’ advice I went and stared in the washroom mirror for awhile—that was certainly different. By and by it was time to go, and we all piled into the friend’s Isuzu I-Mark. We were in the apartment house’s car park, I was sitting in the back seat, and the driver couldn’t stop laughing. I don’t mean giggling or tittering, I mean belly laughing as if the I-Mark were the world’s funniest joke (no comment -DS).

Over what felt like about an hour and a half’s time, it dawned on me that I didn’t want to be driven by this guy, and I should get out the car. Reaching the door handle took another fifteen minutes or so, but once I pulled it time snapped back to its normal pace, and I felt much better to be standing outside the I-Mark. I explained myself as best I could. They could easily have just left me there, and then I’d’ve been in a pickle (mmmm, pickles) but to their great and unusual credit—remember, we’re talking about stoned 18-19-year-old boys—they arranged a ride back to the dorm for me with another friend. Everyone made it back intact, we ordered and demolished a pizza, and my mother was never the wiser. I’ve never liked Isuzu I-Marks.

Alright, now back to 1996: I left UOregon after two years. Eventually the Bus passed the point of economical repair, and he replaced it with a Passat wagon, then a Ford Escape. Kept the Bus around as a driveway monument for awhile, but eventually it went away. He liked the newer cars well enough, but the world felt a little less genuine with Mike’s Bus out the picture. He was still the same ol’ lovable Mike, though, and we kept in touch. Years later, when I had a house in Seattle, I dropped in to see him now and then; he was my longest-time friend and we always had a big ol’ time. He’d built a glassworks onto the back of his house and was making a living blowing glass and organising the thriving local glassblower community’s annual festival and competition, the Degenerate Flame-Off.

Here’s Mike when I visited in 2009. Here he’s sitting outside his house, next to a car I’d just bought (its COAL turn will come, not soon).

Tell your friends you love them; it’s really important. That was the last time I saw Mike. On an April Sunday in 2014 I was transplanting some tomatoes in the garden at my house in Seattle when my phone rang from another star of the glassblowing scene. She said her name, and somehow I immediately knew what she was going to say; the important part, anyhow. Mike had started having blurry vision the previous week, lay down for a nap on Thursday morning, and his wife couldn’t wake him for his doctor’s appointment; he’d gone dying. Eventually we learnt he was on a medication that built up to toxic levels. He didn’t go and take an overdose, an overdose just…gradually…happened. While he was alive, his doctor said they couldn’t monitor blood levels of it, which doesn’t explain why the coroner had no trouble doing exactly that. Go on, tell me all about American best-in-the-world healthcare; I dare you (that means don’t). I drove down from Vancouver (BC) for Mike’s memorial, at his house. Paul invited me to swing by, but I was a wreck, not in shape for socialising.

Mike’s was the third death-bomb to hit my life, after my father in 2000 and his father in 2009. Overall I much prefer my older self to my younger self. I’m enormously more content and happier than ever I was as a kid. It took a couple of wars—figurative ones, but only just barely so—and a whole hell of a lot of work to get here, and I doubt if I’d’ve got exactly here without Mike and his Bus, so even as I still miss him as though I were minus a hand, there’s at least as much gratitude as sadness in my smile when I remember him.

We’ll be back to Valiant stories next week.

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