There are times when on the road of one’s career, one finds that they might benefit from a new direction, a fresh beginning, a different map. Such was the 'pit-stop' I found myself in with the music biz many years ago. But I had no idea of just what kind of jump-start it would entail to get me out of the break-down lane I was in and back on the road of my less-than-lustrous musical odyssey.
Let’s roll back the curtain and tweak the knobs of the time machine, shall we, to the dark days of the late ‘70s when disco reigned, punk started making pissed-off noises to drown out the synthesized nu-wavers and lanky, big-haired pretty-boys sporting spandex strutted and preened. There was some good stuff out there too, but you really had to hunt for it because there wasn’t much of it on the radio and MTV was still in gestation.
The folk music boom had mummified to dust. Acoustic musicians and sensitive singer/songwriter types had had their moment to bask in the sun and were now 'sun-burned', or had evaporated, relegated to obscure gatherings of like-minded souls and second-hand record bins. Yeah, records - no CDs yet either. Maybe I should have waited for records to make their comeback. So what was an aspiring, struggling acoustic guitarist singer-songwriter supposed to do about it? Reinvent himself, that’s what.
So here is the tale of my reincarnation as "The Ragtime Millionaire", and his Wild Ride. And I swear, it’s all true. Mostly.
After leaving the rock ‘n roll rhythm guitar role I had played in Max Creek for several years, I found myself really getting into the music of Rev. Gary Davis, Mississippi John Hurt, Elizabeth Cotten, Lightnin' Hopkins and other black bluesmen. There were some white fellas, too, who grabbed my ear:. John Fahey, Stefan Grossman, John Renbourne, David Bromberg and Jorma Kaukonen – their guitar playing created a complete 'band in the hand’ sound. I loved it. I added Larry Johnson, Roy Book Binder, Leon Redbone and Guy van Duser to my collection. I practiced until my fingers were raw and bleeding, but I cared not - I’d found my path and I was on my grail-quest to reveal the uniquely quirky singer and consummate guitarist that was residing within. I would be a “Retro-visionary”: equal parts antique curmudgeon and pithy, witty sage. I would become “The Ragtime Millionaire”, which was pretty funny because in reality I resided one step from destitution’s door.
Around this time, my wife and I decided to follow the prophetic words of Joni Mitchell's “Woodstock”. We were going to “get back to the garden”. We moved to a small farm in the St. Lawrence River valley of NY State. The Plan: we would sustenance farm, raise our daughter and I would perform my newfound solo artist thing throughout the northeast. The world would embrace me and I would enjoy the fruits of my labor. The world apparently had other plans.
All this led to me finding myself alternately behind the wheel of a 1932 Allis-Chalmers tractor, or encased (soimetimes for days) behind the wheel of a 1970 VW camper that had no heat. Grinding gears and wearing out tires, I traversed from gig to gig on the lonely highways and byways of upstate NY and New England. The over-worked, heavily-burdened VW's cargo area futilely crammed with a collection of tattered guitar cases, two-ton speakers and sundry dilapidated amplifiers.
My fear of terminal vehicular breakdown, combined with a dose of vanity, made me long for something different from the plebian, beat up VW van. A vehicle that was unique! A vehicle that would create a buzz and proudly announce my arrival wherever I went. And then I found it . . .
Enter a fire-engine red, tricked-out 1942 Chevrolet Panel Van with a 390 cubic inch high-performance Corvette engine, gulping $.72 a gallon gasoline with its twin 4-barrel carburetors, sonorously blowing exhaust through a pair of deep-throated glass-packs.
Unexplicably, the mighty Corvette power plant was bolted to the original 1942 3-speed truck transmission which made the power seriously high and the gearing ridiculously low. I could climb Mt. Everest in this thing! My new antique chariot rolled on four Competition White, deep-dish mag wheels sporting 20” wide-ride Firestone tires – not exactly ideal for North Country roads, especially in winter!
The van's spacious interior had been gutted, its walls paneled with faux walnut - complete with coach-light sconces. Both floor and ceiling were carpeted in coffee & cream-colored high-pile shag carpeting – perhaps in anticipation of future beverage spillage? The high-backed, brown cloth bench seat in the front was scavenged from an AMC Gremlin. Though permanently welded to the floor, it fit perfectly despite its grim lineage. There were no seats in the rear - unless I added a folding lawn chair or two, which I did from time to time. This added a little extra excitement for anyone daring enough ride back there. A large blue toolbox was bolted to the floor just behind the seat, and if one put a cushion on it, it too could become a makeshift seat. Seatbelts? We didn't need no stinkin' seatbelts!
The old truck’s split windshield, cranked by a worn chrome lever, opened out wide, allowing for a brisk flow of fresh air - and insects! This was post-war air conditioning at its finest! The heater, the size of a cider barrel, hung down below the passenger's side of the thick, heavy steel dashboard. It had two speeds – ‘Off’ and ‘Scald’. You could employ either the heater mode or the defroster, but not both. This made for some interesting visibility challenges as I was to discover.
The double rear doors opened wide and the handy, built-in step bumper made it relatively easy to load my music gear. There was plenty of room to stretch out and sleep in the back if one wanted to, which I usually did not. I installed a stereo cassette tape player with fourJensen speakers and a CB. That’s CB radio, people, not CD player for they had not been invented yet. The crowning touch? Graphics of a wildly dancing yellow buzzard – hand painted by some artist unknown – adorned both exterior sides. Perfect.
Originally built as a munitions transporter for the US war effort during WWII, legend had it that this Chevy had seen action in the North African theatre. I don’t know exactly what was playing in that theatre, but I think it had something to do with Herr Rommel. Later in its post-war life it had seen active duty as a community ambulance. But now it was 1977 and this van was gonna rock ‘n roll as The Ragtime Millionaire’s Ride! No munitions, no sick or wounded allowed!
I retired my VW camper and sold it to some farm kid who aspired to be a hippie and gleefully readied the Ol’ 42 for a new, and hopefully more joyous life. Some interesting times were had on the road together indeed! For instance . . .
There was the time I played a bar gig in Lake Placid - was it at the Brass Capricorn? - while the French Olympic speed skating team was practicing nearby. After their training sessions we would hang out, communicating in French as effectively as my high school French would allow, goofing on tourists and drinking beer. I don’t know how they did it, all that drinking and then olympic training early the next day. I seem to remember a lot of Molsons, hearty laughs and gargantuan thighs. Somehow, this actually led to a pretty good gig for me later during the 1980 Winter Olympics. But I was not on skates.
Then there was the time I hooked up with this guy named Barry Freed. After hearing me play a gig somewhere in the 1000 Islands on the St. Lawrence River, he asked me to help him write a theme song for his new 'Save The River Foundation'. He was hell-bent on stopping nuke plants on the St. Lawrence with his protests and sit-ins. He was getting a lot of notice, good and bad. We met afterwards in a seedy rivertown bar. I swore I’d seen him somewhere before - I just couldn't place where. Maybe he just liked my truck? I think I made him nervous.
Barry wrote the lyrics, and I the tune. Later, I heard he’d been using it at different rallies and community meetings along the St. Lawrence, but I never saw Barry again. That is, until years later he suddenly died and it was plastered all over the news that he really was none other than Abbie Hoffman of the notorious Weather Underground and Chicago 7. He’d been hiding out up on the river for years. And unbeknownst to me, I'd found him.
Or the time I was booked - unheard and unknown – by the late Lena Spence of Café Lena in Saratoga Springs, NY. I was going to open for a Nellie Somebody (I've forgotten her full name) who to me was equally unknown and unheard. I rattled into town just in time for sound-check. I met Nellie, who sported a crew-cut and was dressed like a man. She was nice enough, but a bit, um, distant. Her audience, nearly all womyn, mostly resembled lumberjacks and gym teachers. I was feeling really uncomfortable. A little threatened, even.
Anyway, the show had to go on, so on I went. On, and on, and on. My 30-minute opening set felt interminable! I did my well-rehearsed, finger-picked rinky-tinky, plinky-planky ragtime numbers with all their spunky sexual innuendos and clever double entendres, along with some of my best heart-on-my-sleeve originals. Apparently cultures had unceremoniously collided that evening for the audience sat there as if embalmed. What were they contemplating? Castration, maybe? My throat parched. My mind fragmented like a neuroleptic grenade. I forgot the words to my own songs. T i m e . . .
s t o o d . . . s t i l l. When at long last my final notes decayed, scattered, anemic applause ushered me off-stage. I cannot recall ever having left a stage so quickly, before or since. I wanted to be invisible. But that was going to be difficult, what with my bright red, tricked-out 1942 Chevrolet panel van with the 390 cubic inch Corvette engine and dual glass-packs parked out front of Lena's door!
Ah, yes. Then there was that time my new neighbor needed a favor. Jack, like me, was a transplant to the North Country. Unlike me, he was a high school drop-out from New Jersey who had returned from Viet Nam with PTSD and a limp. He was funny as hell, but also had a wicked temper. One never knew which Jack you'd get. Anyway, he had gone over to Canada to visit with 'friends'. As we lived practically on the St. Lawrence River with two international border crossings within an hour's drive, it was not at all uncommon for folks from either country to go back and forth regularly to shop, go to a hockey game or visit family...or 'friends'. I was not aware that Jack had Canadian friends. He'd never mentioned them to me.
Jack's wife dropped him off at the Canadian customs that morning. Wearing his tattered Army-issued fatigue jacket, he walked effortlessly through and was met by his 'friends' on the other side. An hour or two later, the friendly visit accomplished, he called his wife to pick him up on the American side. She refused. That explained why I received a very anxious phone call from Jack asking if I could pick him up at the border crossing. I had nothing better to do, so I agreed, ignoring a little voice inside that warned, “This could be weird. Or worse.”
I saddled up the ol' Chevy and off we went on the hour's drive to the Massena, NY border crossing. I expected to see Jack waiting for me at the US side of the crossing; I'd scoop him up and back to home we'd ride. Nope, no Jack. I pulled over near the Customs station to wait. Several US Customs agents eyed me from afar. I was used to such notice behind the wheel of a bright red, tricked-out 1942 Chevy panel van, so I didn't pay much mind. And then I spied Jack, on the Canadian side of the Customs station, frantically waving his arms in my direction. I fired up the engine, got out my documents and drove to the Canadian Customs station prepared to enter another country. What was actually about to occur was that I was going to pass through another Gate of Hell.
I presented my documents to the Canadian Customs agent. “Real nice truck, eh,” he smiled as he quickly looked the papers over and waved me through. O, Canada! I rumbled about a hundred yards into our neighborly neighbor's yard and saw Jack running towards me. I pulled a U-turn, only stopping to pick up a winded, very nervous Jack, and headed right back, this time to the US Customs station. The US Customs agent, having witnessed all of this, went through his robotic litany of the usual questions and then said curtly, “Pull the truck over there,” pointing to a garage-like structure. “Then you two wait inside here,” he grunted, pointing to the Customs station.
Inside the US Customs station, Jack and I sat on a bench. I was reminded of Arlo Guthrie, Alice's Restaurant and the garbage. We watched through the window as two Customs agents bristling with fire-power - one straining to hold a slathering German shepherd on a lead - walk to my van. I looked at Jack. “What is going on here,” I implored. Shrugging, he told me “I forgot my documents and couldn't get back into the US without them. I called Janine to bring them, but she's pissed at me. We were in a hassle with each other when she dropped me off and now she's refusing to pick me up. That's why I called you. Thanks, man.”
He'd figured that I could retrieve the necessary documents from his wife, deliver them to him and then take him home. Unfortunately for both of us, Jack had failed to tell me that I was supposed to bring the documents with me. Uh, oh.
So here we sat. I watched through the window as the US agents opened the truck's hood and doors. They peered in and around it, checking beneath with large mirrors. Then the dog, by now in a furious lather, was allowed to leap inside my van. I could not see what was happening, but I had a distinct feeling it was not good. I heard excited barking, and then the agents yanked the apoplectic animal out, tied it to a pole and went in themselves, armed with hammers and a crowbar. “What in bloody hell is going on now?” I fumed.
About forty-five minutes later, the agents emerged from the garage. One of them came in to the office and nonchalantly, perhaps disappointedly, said “You can leave now,” handing me my registration and drivers license. Just like that. No further document checks, finger prints, mug shots, pat downs. Nothing. Jack looked extremely relieved.
We walked to the garage to retrieve my van. “Holy Mother of Hiroshima, what the f*ck happened in here?” I gasped as I looked into the old truck. All the carpeting had been torn from the floor and ceiling. The faux-walnut paneling had been ripped from the walls, exposing the truck's steely ribs. My CB radio had been yanked from beneath the dash, leaving a web of dangling wires. All this left in a heap on the van's floor. On top of the detritus lay the thoroughly dessicated corpse of a rather large rodent. I am left to guess that the rampaging dog had sniffed out something 'suspect' within the walls and had alerted his masters that they ought begin the demolition. Maybe they had hoped to find a mother-lode of contraband. Or, maybe, just maybe, they were busting the chops of a couple of hippies by placing their dead rodent 'coup d'grace' on top of the mess they'd created?
On our journey home Jack let out a long, relieved sigh. He reached down into his jeans and produced a bulging bag of weed. “I thought for sure they were gonna find this,” he smiled. Jack is fortunate that the German Shepherd didn't remove his balls and that I let him live! I grumpily spent the next several days reassembling my van - sans rodent!
But I'm really digressing, aren't I. This was supposed to be about “The Ragtime Millionaire's Wild Ride”, wasn't it. OK. Here it is . . .
It was a lovely North Country summer morning in Chipman, NY as I readied the Ol' 42 for a trip back to visit family and to play a show at one of my favorite old watering holes, The Old Newgate Tavern in East Granby, CT. I had loaded up the van with all the necessary gear for a gig, a wife and a baby - though not necessarily in that order. Arising early, we were on the road by 6AM. I intended to beat any mid-day heat and allow for chance diversions. What had I intuited?
The sun shone brightly, the sky was cloudless and the birds were cheerily singing - or I think they probably were, but we couldn’t hear them over the growl and thrum of the 'Vette's engine and throaty exhaust. We had been gone slightly shy of an hour when the first link in the long disaster-chain of events busted loose.
One of the exhaust pipes, snapping off from the engine manifold, dropped to the pavement rushing below. As it pivoted around on its hanger, announcing its presence with a roaring engine and a horrible scraping, grinding noise The erstwhile pipe punctured the right rear 20" Firestone with a Hindenberg-like, earth-shattering explosion. We were on Rt. 56 in East Cupcake somewhere in the Adirondak foothills - no one, nothing around. The crippled van limped sadly off to the side of a narrow mountain road, coming to rumbling halt.
This now provided me the opportunity to discover several revelations about the old chariot: 1) The tirejack was missing; 2) I did not have a lug wrench that fit the wheel's lugs; and 3) None of that really mattered because we had no spare tire anyway!
After sitting for two hours by the side of some overgrown field, the sun was getting higher and temperatures all around were rising. Except for the periodic cricket chirps and nasty condemnations from my wife, it was pretty darn quiet. Eventually a grizzled farmer in an old green pick-up truck pulled up and, using his tools, helped me remove my destroyed tire. He was not going back to town, so back I walked the way I’d come, attempting to roll a flattened, 20” tire in front of me. After what seemed like days, I was picked up by a sympathetic, chain-smoking and probably deranged, woman who took me to a Potsdam tire dealer where I replaced the tire to the tune of $150. From the tire shop, I called a local friend who, despite his hangover, came and brought me back to the stranded Chevy and helped me reinstall the wheel.
About four hours had elapsed since I’d abandoned the van, and my wife’s disposition had not improved. In fact, my infant daughter had joined her in her displeasure. I tossed the rusted, broken-off exhaust pipe and muffler into the back and we were off with a deafening roar.
About five hours and way past lunchtime later, we approached the sleepy hamlet of Warrensburg. I noticed that the fuel gauge had dropped to nearly empty. I knew the big motor was normally thirsty, but we hadn’t really traveled all that far. I'd grown used to guestimating the amount of fuel left in the tank. The gas gauge was always vascillating wildly between “E” and “F”, its needle doing a hyper-kinetic St. Vitus's dance. Got gas? Guess!
Spying a Stewarts Shop, I eased the Chevy next to a gas pump. As my cranky family went in search of some form of non-nutrative repast, I smelled gasoline. Lots of it. I bent over and looked under the truck. Sure enough, fuel dripped ominously onto the pavement. Leaving my family in the store and the truck at the pump, I walked a couple blocks to an auto parts store where I purchased some sort of Goop stuff. Crawling again under the gas tank, I smeared it onto the tank’s dripping seam with my bare hands. I then filled the tank only halfway with fuel and ducked under to examine - Sweet Jesus, it didn't leak!
Climbing stiffly back into the cab next to a forboding wife and squirming baby, I turned the key and punched the starter button – nothing! Out again I sprang. I checked all the battery and starter cable connections; all seemed tight. “OK, we'll simply jump start it,” I muttered, trying to remain calm though I was surely becoming peeved. My wife, up until now having reigned in most of her smug comments, loosed her Italian temper and let a vitriolic volley fly.
She had never driven the Chevy before and was begrudgingly forced into action behind the wheel. I got behind the van and began to push. And push. That brute would not move! So, as customers came into Stewarts, I recruited them to help me push, instructing my wife to turn on the ignition, put it in 2nd gear and pop the clutch once we got it rolling and I gave her the GO!
After several herky-jerky false starts in the Stewarts parking lot, my wife pointed the Chevy out onto the road and released the clutch – KA-POW! – that 390 cubic inch Corvette engine ignited, startling the small gathering of curious onlookers. My wife, with a fresh coffee and adrenaline induced jolt, floored the gas pedal. That fire engine red Chevrolet panel van lit up those 20” rear tires with a smoke show that amazed the astounded onlookers as it leapt the curb and straddled both road and sidewalk! Narrowly missing several telephone poles for nearly a hundred yards, the truck, piloted by a terrified bride, rocketed across the parking lot of the post office! Astonished postal patrons scattered as the unhinged vehicle tore across the manicured lawn of an adjacent funeral home.
I raced down the street in hot pursuit, arms waving, screaming above the din of the unmuffled engine for her to “Step on the clutch!” and “Turn off the ignition!” I was imagining my little daughter rattling around inside the van like a BB in an oil drum. My wife, bless her heart, located her wits and stepped on the clutch and brake and shifted into neutral, thereby bringing the raging van to rest, inches away from a flagpole by the town hall’s front entrance. I ran up, flung open the driver’s door and slid her into the passenger seat as I jumped behind the wheel and gingerly extricated the shuddering Chevy from its precarious, very public, position.
My daughter, wide-eyed but unhurt, lay strapped in her car seat, pink Binky pulsating wildly. Without a word, I eased the old truck onto Rt. 28 and nonchalantly headed south out of town before Johnny Law could learn of our whereabouts. My own adrenaline-fueled pulse did not calm down until we’d pulled onto the Northway and put many miles south between us and the once drowsy hamlet of Warrensburg. By this time, we’d been on the road about nine hours - still well under halfway to our Connecticut destination. In 'normal' conditions, the entire trip would have take around seven hours.
It was late afternoon, but we were thrumming along nicely, front windshield cranked open, allowing a fine summer breeze to cool us as David Bromberg boogied on the stereo. I got on the CB and learned from northbound truckers that we were “clean ‘n green” of police radar southbound all the way to the I-90 Thruway. Well, OK!
About thirty-five miles north of Albany and still many miles from the Thruway, the view from our open windshield began to change as the terrain transitioned from rural to urban. The western sky, all day having been a brilliant, cloudless blue, was turning ominously dark. Greenish, blue-grey clouds were quickly forming and roiling hellishly overhead. Occasional bursts of wind buffeted our nicely cruising van. Suddenly, random splats of rain spanked the windshield. I reached up to the tiny chrome knob above the windshield and turned on the single, vacuum-powered wiper. The little 10” blade began its solo slip-sliding dance over my half of the windshield, its rhythm dictated by whether the engine was accelerating (stop wiping) or decelerating (start wiping). There was no wiper on the passenger side.
The clouds seriously thickened and the rain began to pound down in sheets. This was looking less like a passing summer shower and more like a tropical monsoon. Time to close the windshield! Reaching over the tall, vibrating shifter with its black 8-Ball knob and the wildly shimmying emergency brake lever, I grabbed the windshield crank and turned. Nothing. Around and around the crank went, but the windshield remained open. Gritty spray was whipping through the 8" gap above the dashboard. I pounded on the dashboard, hoping to engage the crank, but but my useless beatings could not be heard over the vertically slashing rain, the buckshot cracking of thunder and hail, the rushing of wide tires over rapidly flooding highway and the roar of an unmuffled 390 cubic inch, high-performance Corvette engine!
Dirty water poured into the cab through the open windshield, cascading over the dashboard, saturating our legs on its way to the floor. The Chevy was transformed into a land-locked simulcrum of Niagara Falls' "Maid of the Mist". I worried that the rushing water would flow behind the dash and short out the wild tangle of wires and fuses hidden within.
My wife had pulled out towels and diapers from my daughter's bag and was futilely attempting to plug up the windshield gap. My daughter remained wide-eyed, strapped in her car seat to the rear floor, Binky still pulsating wildly. The little pneumatic windshield wiper valiantly slashed at the relentless deluge. “That wiper is next to worthless,” I shouted over the din.
Apparently hearing me and not appreciating my critique, the wiper, as if on cue, swung itself in a 360 degree arc before completely detaching itself from its motor and hurled itself sacrificially onto the Northway. I imagined it was about to meet its untimely demise under the crushing wheels of a Peterbuilt or Kenworth.
From what I could see, which now wasn't much, things were going from bad to worse in short order. I saw nothing at all beyond the grey, streaked, glass of the windshield. Trying to find a bit of humor in it all, I mused to myself, “So, this is what it must have been like to be Jules Verne? Or a marine mammal?” Mindlessly, I pulled on the headlight switch, hoping those old beacons would somehow enable the blind to see. It was as if the headlights had cataracts - they were useless. The BakeLite switch knob came off in my hand. In a blind rage, I threw it out the window.
A rancid smell of ozone began to permeate the cab and the dim dash lights began to flicker. The headlights blinked on and off in a schizophrenic Morse code. David Bromberg ceased to sing. And then the engine stopped. Then started. Then stopped. Then started again and ran for about thirty seconds before it died with a waterlogged wheeze. I somehow managed to pull off the highway without impaling ourselves on a guardrail or crashing into a piling. My wife stared straight ahead, wouldn’t look at me and said nothing. Anybody'swords at this point would be destined to fail.
I leapt from the cab, slammed the windshield shut with my flattened palms - “Should have done this earlier!” - and raised the hood. Within five seconds I was drenched. I once again checked the battery cables, and wiggled the broiling-hot spark plug wires as if this ju-ju would somehow make things right. Other blinded vehicles were now crawling over as I returned to the relative dryness of the steamy, foggy cab.
I sat silently fuming for about five minutes - then I exploded! I pounded the slimy dashboard with my Goopy, greasy hands. I stomped and squished the waterlogged shag carpet with my sloshing boots and screeched like a banshee into the relentless wind and rain.
My daughter, duly alarmed by my meltdown, explosively discharged her pink Binky with a shriek of her own and joined the fracas. The wife, exercising amazing zen-like restraint, remained silently smoldering. I kicked the spindly shifter with its stupid Eight-Ball knob. Then, like a mule, I kicked the emergency brake lever, and - EUREKA! - the lights came on! I kicked the brake lever again and again. The lights flashed on and off with each accost.
Once again I braved the deluge, this time slithering under the van like a water snake as torrents of greasy, muddy road water broke over my shoulders and filled my pockets with trash and silt. I located the brake lever and noted that, A) the lever had come loose from the chassis, and B) some genius had attached the vehicle’s ground strap to this loose, vibrating lever! Wishing I had a wrench, I finger- tightened the bolt and - voila! - the lights flashed on! I slogged back to the cab and pushed the starter button – nothing. “For f*ck's sake, what now!” I howled.
Grabbing a screwdriver – the only tool I had in the blue toolbox - I waded back out into the typhoon, and again raised the hood, searching this time for the starter motor. I screamed over the slashing rain for my wife to put the engine into neutral and her foot on the brake. As I arced the starter with my screwdriver - VRRRROOOOOOM! - the engine roared to life!
Back in the cab, engine purring contentedly - the only thing that seemed content - I set the giant heater to ‘Defrost’ in the hope of drying off the windshield. As the defroster’s sleepy electric motor gained momentum, hot, steamy air filled the cab and before long the entire interior was transformed into a rolling, roiling Finnish sauna.
At this point I momentarily considered walking to Connecticut - alone! But I quickly discarded that notion. Night was creeping in and we still had miles to go before we slept. I rolled down the windows to get rid of the risidual cabin fog and eased our way out onto the highway where we navigated around a somnolent Albany like damp, sightless moles pointed towards Rt. 90, eastbound.
Despite the moist, sauna-like conditions inside the old Chevy, the remainder of the ride onto the Massachusetts Turnpike and through the Berkshire Hills into Connecticut was uneventful, though the mood between us was decidedly tense and the climate unseasonably chilly. Drained and exhausted, we continued along our down-trodden route, illuminated by the two, pale yellow headlamps. It was nearly 11 o’clock when we arrived at my in-law’s home in northwest CT – seventeen hours since we'd left home that morning!
The quaint, Victorian house was situated on a quiet, rather hilly, side-street. It appeared as if the entire neighborhood had fallen asleep. Surely, no one was quite prepared for what would happen next. As unobtrusively as a B-52 bomber with no landing gear attempting to land on a flight deck, the fire engine red Chevy with the dancing buzzard graphics roared up the hill and into the front of the family house.
My Italian mother-in-law, in her housecoat and headful of curlers, burst from the door screeching “Madone! Turn that damn thing off!” as we rolled to a creaking stop. Up and down the street, lights could be seen flickering on as I extinguished the van’s lights, set the brake, shifted the transmission into gear and shut down the engine. The silence was deafening as we spilled like sodden rag-dolls out onto the street. I shall not go into the details of the ensuing dialog amongst my wife, in-laws and me. Suffice it to say, if murder were legal, I would not be writing this now.
After settling my daughter into bed and convincing the in-laws that I needn’t be immediately committed, I returned to the street to unload our stuff from the van. But, where was the van? I knew I was fatigued, had probably inhaled way too much carbon monoxide, but I could have sworn I remembered parking it right in front of the house. Nope, not there.
It was then that I noticed that the house at the bottom of the street, just where the road took a right elbow turn parallel to the river, was fully illuminated and the silhouettes of several people could be seen running frantically around. I casually strolled down the street towards the bustling activity to investigate the commotion, carefully remaining in the shadows,
And there it was - the tricked-out, fire engine red, 1942 Chevrolet Panel Van with the 390 cubic inch high-performance Corvette engine, the deep-dish Competition White mag wheels twisting the 20” Firestone tires (but minus one glass-packed muffler), faux-walnut paneling and matching brown and cream high-pile shag carpeting - sitting balanced precariously on top of the guardrail, hanging out over a ravine where the storm-swollen rapids of the Salmon River frighteningly churned and broke below.
Before long, the sirens and flashing blue and red lights from assorted police, fire and emergency vehicles had awakened the rest of the neighborhood, alerting them that some dummy had driven a relic truck up onto the guardrail and that at any moment it would likely be tumbling into the ravine where it would burst into a fireball to rival Hiroshima. Bedroom lights up and down the street continued to flicker on, revealing the heads of the curious peering from opened windows. I nonchalantly strolled onto the scene as if I hadn’t already a clue as to what was happening.
Feigning surprise, I approached a tired-looking police officer and identified myself. I told him that, sadly, it was indeed my truck suspended there over the river. I tried to explain what I thought had happened. He incredulously glanced alternately between me and the suicidal Chevrolet.
Fortunately, the cop was somehow related to my in-laws and no violations were issued. It had taken a pair of wreckers to hoist the errant van from its perch and be towed it to a local garage where it was committed for several days' observation. But it would take me months to pay off the hefty extrication, towing and storage fees!
Early the next morning I surreptitiously returned to the scene. The sun rose dimly as I wearily retraced the tracks of the van’s psychopathic rampage. It had traversed across two adjoining yards, leaving deep, muddy ruts as it gathered speed. It tore up a length of privet hedge, knocking down a split-rail fence and flattening a three foot fuel oil fill-pipe on its quest for vehicular repose. The van had avoided a neighbor’s porch by mere inches, preferring instead to crush a Big Wheel tricycle and a potted palm before bouncing over the curb and crossing the road before attempting to hurdle the guardrail.
True to its military heritage, that ’42 Chevy was built like a tank. It survived its ordeal with only a few minor scratches. My in-laws, now thoroughly convinced - with NO room for discussion! - that I was a fool, rented a sensible car for my wife and daughter in which to return home. I completed my business in CT and returned to the farm – driving the ol’ van – a few days later, complete with a new tailpipe and muffler...and gas tank!
The Ragtime Millionaire rode that ol' Chevrolet several more years and thousands more miles, collecting many more adventures. Our relationship actually lasted longer than my marriage did, but who's surprised? I certainly won’t tell you that those years were carefree, though. Finally, after the barrel heater broke and I spent an entire, brutal winter frozen to the steering wheel, I felt compelled to replace the ol’ ride with another - a much newer and more reliable VW van.
Still, I just couldn’t bear to part with my old partner and road warrior. It followed me around - unregistered, uninsured, forlorn - for several more years. I began to actually feel sorry for it. The ol' rattle-trap deserved a good home with someone who’d learn to love/hate it like I did. Some guy just over the New York line offered me a few hundred bucks. I took it. The '42 Chevy van was gonna go home to New York and that felt right. This guy really hot-rodded it up, painted it lemon yellow. I saw this reincarnation once in a custom car show a few years later. My ol' ride looked really sharp and I was sure glad to see it! Funny, but that Chevy wouldn’t look back at me. I understood.
Years later, I am no longer The Ragtime Millionaire, but I’m still driving around in a van full of tattered guitar cases and amps. It is fire engine red. It's outfitted with mags and wide tires. It's got a lo-performance, four cylinder engine, four-on-the-floor, all-wheel-drive tranny and quiet factory exhaust. The windows and nifty sun-roof open with a push of a button - no more crank-open stuff for me – and there's real air conditioning! My Honda Element may not be as showy as a customized '42 Chevy panel van with a 390 cubic inch Corvette engine, walnut paneling, shag carpeting and hand-painted buzzard graphics on the side, but it sure is reliable.
I may still be a little vain. Now, I’m The Practical Penny Pincher, but you can call me Pecuniarium.