The move from Topeka, Kansas to Portland, Oregon during, June 1984 was anticipated with good feelings. The teaching position I had taken, a dual appointment at the University of Kansas and at Washburn University, had pretty much burned itself out. The only time I went to Kansas City was to attend biweekly faculty meetings, and the rest of the time was spent in the less-than-charming city of Topeka with its rather closed society. The two years included springs with tornado warnings; blistering, hot summers; cicada filled autumns; and winters with brutal, bone chilling winds off the western plains. No, I would not miss Topeka.
Dan, who’d been a classmate in college and afterwards become a close friend, had been Shanghaied into helping me move. Even before we left Topeka, we’d run into a problem while trying to figure out how to attach the hitch to my old VW bus so we could pull it with a rental truck. After several hours of swearing and bruised knuckles, we finally pulled out of town.
The trip west had not started smoothly. Lost keys, mechanical problems, and bad motels all contributed to a less than optimistic start from Denver where we picked up the truck at a mechanics shop. The greasy faced guy at the garage said that the engine timing had been the problem, and now the motor was running as smooth as a Swiss watch, a rather dated expression that did not give us a lot of confidence.
By now we should have been experts with the hitch, and, truth be told, it didn’t take us long to get on the road, towing the bus behind. We still had no idea how the hitch actually worked.
It was around ten o’clock on a bright sunny morning when we got on Interstate 25 going almost straight north, and the truck seemed to be running normal: no stalling, sputtering or gulping noises. Slowly we began to resume our own normal patterns of breathing, and no longer were we holding our breaths while listening for the troubling sounds that had lead us to finding the mechanic in Denver in the first place.
We saw the mountains of Colorado slowly drift out of view, and we crossed the Wyoming line where we soon met Interstate 80 near Cheyenne and turned west. Even Dan, ever the pessimist, began to relax as he pointed out the occasional pronghorn and circling hawks floating in the blue sky above the rolling prairie. The day was turning out to be a relaxing drive, and we were pleased with ourselves as we pulled into Rawlings for the night. The small city seemed to be welcoming as we found a decent motel on the edge of town. The clerk was friendly and spoke excellent English, and the room was clean. Both heating and air conditioning worked. The plumbing was up to date with a toilet that could be flushed without our reaching into the tank. We would have both hot and cold water.
After a good night’s sleep and a great breakfast not far from our totally adequate motel, we headed west on another cloudless day. Fired up by several cups of coffee, we were talking in unusually positive terms about what a fine place we found Rawlings to be. After around 70 uninterrupted miles, we heard a loud bang from behind, and in the side mirrors the bus could be seen to be rapidly swerving back and forth.
I knew exactly, as soon as I heard the noise, what had happened. This was entirely my fault as I had failed to unlock the steering when we last hitched the bus to the truck. Every slightest turn that the truck made was just like scraping a pencil eraser on sand paper, and the front tires of the bus, well worn anyway, were now completely bald. The right side had all the rubber gone and had finally blown. It was still smoking as the truck stopped on the side of the Interstate.
Dan took it well, as he pointed out that we’d made considerably good time since we left Denver. Actually, our progress had seemed too good to last much longer. He was even pleasantly surprised when he found that I actually had a spare tire for the bus. He even complimented me on my being prepared for this incident.
Dan has a sarcastic streak that cuts deep.
One of the worst ethnic massacres in US history took place in Rock Springs, Wyoming. An outlaw briefly worked in a butcher shop in Rock Springs and became known as Butch Cassidy. According to city data, as of 2020 one out of 325 people in Rock Springs is a sexual offender. The foregoing information might supply a little color to the city.
Driving as slow as reasonable so we wouldn’t blow another tire we pulled into a mechanics shop on the edge of Rock Springs that was near the interstate and saw that there were several piles of old tires lying around. Encouraged we walked inside and saw that there were hundreds of new tires stacked on orderly shelves all around the walls. It looked like our problem was solved.
A guy, about 40 with slicked back hair and with arms that were larger than my legs appeared behind a counter and asked what we wanted, not if he could help us. I inquired about tires for a ‘73 VW bus.
The man paused for effect, looking around for an audience, and, smirking, announced, “We don’t sell tires here.”
There were undisguised chuckles and snorts from the guys working on different race cars and pickups.
Ok, that place didn’t pan out. With our beards and mildly long hair, we apparently looked like hippies or communists. A lot of folks in that part of Wyoming did not do business with that sort.
With all the righteous indignation we could muster up, we left the rednecks and attempted to slam the door behind us. Unfortunately there was a pneumatic door stop that only hissed with the effort and caused more laughter from within.
Three miles down the road we found a Shell station with a modern looking shop that had a large sign in the window that said, “TIRE SALE.” After pulling into the parking lot we got out of the truck and started to walk hopefully toward the store. But, before we had gone three paces, a young man positively bounded out to meet us.
He was a young, Asian guy who looked barely out of his teens. He smiled as he approached and stuck out his hand as he said, “You gentlemen looking for some tires?” Without waiting for an answer, he simultaneously grabbed Dan’s right hand in both of his and yanked vigorously.
Dan doesn’t like to be touched by acquaintances let alone strangers, and he withdrew his hand as if it had been scorched by fire.
Without losing a moment, the kid turned to me and started pumping my hand. “My name is Norman,” he explained, “and I can get you a great deal on some great tires and have you out of here in less than an hour.”
“Well,” I said while trying to extract my hand from his, “ I don’t need more than one tire, and I’d like to get a used one for that bus behind the truck. I can use the bald one for a spare.”
Norman was mortified and responded as if I was pointing a pistol to my head.
“You can’t have mismatched tires,” he shrieked. “That is so dangerous. A vehicle has to have tires that won’t cause shimmying and cause an accident. Safety of the customer is most important to us. Come, let me show you a set of good, matching but inexpensive tires.”
Perhaps it was the momentum of the conversation, or maybe it was the impression that he actually would sell us tires without making us the butt of a red neck joke, but we dumbly followed Norman inside the store.
While the salesman went to check his inventory, we met an elderly couple from Wisconsin who were waiting for new tires to be installed on their brand new Chevy Nova. The husband explained that the tires that the Chevrolet factory put on the car were wearing out after only a little more than a thousand miles. Norman had shown them the the tread on their tires would be gone in five hundred more miles, and that a blowout could happen at any time.
Dan talked me out of leaving immediately by pointing out that we needed to replace a tire before we left Rock Springs. Meanwhile, Norman, the asshole, was happily rolling tires in our direction. As he approached, Dan suggested that we go outside, start over, away from the nice couple from Wisconsin.
Norman had no choice but to follow us out the door, and, once outside, it was explained that we would not buy a set of new tires; not even one new tire. A used tire that was the same size as the other front tire would be fine.
Norman balked, but before he said more than a couple of words, he was interrupted by Dan who was suddenly the one who was losing his patience.
“Shut the fuck up for a minute,” he said quietly, but with sincerity. He then proposed that Norm come out with a decent used tire or there might be a conversation with the nice couple from Wisconsin (not that they would believe a couple of bearded strangers) about their tires.
Whether or not the threat made a difference we would never know, but the salesman did go back into the store as we followed. A few minutes later he rolled out a tire that looked decent, and, upon closer inspection, proved to be the right size. Pleased with Norman’s selection,
Dan asked the price.
“Well,” Norman hedged, “since it is a used tire, we can’t offer a sale price, but it is still a bargain.”
We waited while he looked at us, judging how far he could take us. Finally, he said, smiling proudly as if he were a magician, “Only two hundred.”
Dan confided later that he thought the blood vessel on the side of my face was going to blow.
“Two hundred dollars?” I shouted. “I can get two new tires for that much.”
Taking me aside, Dan told me to just wait by the truck for a minute or two. He then motioned Norman to step away from me and quietly engaged the salesman in a conversation that I couldn’t hear. There was a lot of nodding, shaking of heads and shrugging. Eventually Dan came back and told me to drive the bus into one of the bays for a tire change.
He never explained to me how he was able to buy the tire for $50.