Mark was my best friend in High School, and like many guys our age, he had a very strong desire for a certain kind of car. We were both seniors and he had been saving up. If you didn’t know Mark back then, you might have guessed he was after a Camaro or a Mustang GT. If you did know him, his choice would have made perfect sense.
Slow down ladies, there’s room for everyone.
Make no mistake, the 1974 VW Camper Bus was an extreme car. The excellence of its interior design was matched only by the maliciousness of its mechanics. By the time Mark acquired his “Tic-Tac”, it was 1988 and the vehicle was held together mostly by hope and luck. The engine was in back, where it quickly heated the mattress of the lower bed nearly to charring. The channels which ran air from the engine to the heating vents in front were too long and narrow, making it a miserable ride for winters in New England. It had lots of storage space however, and it was perfect for our primary hobby that year – SCUBA diving. In our part of New England, the coast is mostly rocky, which makes for great shore diving, and you can catch your own lobsters. We were diving 2-3 times a day every weekend that year, and it was all enabled by the Tic Tac.
One particular weekend in autumn began and proceeded the same way the last few of the prior summer had. We left on Friday afternoon and arrived at Fort Wetherill Park by nightfall, popped the camper top, and fell asleep. The Fort was as a popular spot for SCUBA diving, and back then it wasn’t fenced or policed, so spending the night in the parking lot was a carefree and cheap way to sleep to the sounds of the ocean. We rose by the crack of dawn and had bacon and eggs for breakfast, cooked over the propane burners on the range, which was just above the mini-fridge. We aided our digestion by walking around the Fort grounds observing the tides and currents, then made our way back to the bus by mid-morning to don our SCUBA gear. Struggling into a wetsuit is always a comical challenge, but I always thought I looked the most awkward clambering down the rocks carrying my fins and the 50+ pounds of metal strapped to my back and waist. As we settled down into the water, we let go of a few sharp comments in response to the initial icy shock we felt as the sea spilled in past our cuffs and collars. It was time to start and we submerged into each our own roiling vortexes of escaping compressed air. I’ve always enjoyed the noisy transition from the air to being underwater. As my vest deflates, the bubbles catch the glass edge of my mask and fill my vision. During that moment of distracted disorientation, it can seem like you’ve stepped into a kind of teleporter to another world. One minute everything is normal, then a moment of chaotic blindness and noisy deafness, and then you are breathing underwater, exploring.
We spent the first dive of the day just looking around. The cove we entered dropped to -60 feet fairly quickly, and there was a nice rock wall to the right of the entry point which was covered with resplendent anemones and urchins, probing for food in every available direction. In the more shallow areas there were rock beds teeming with lobsters, but each one had its own hole whenever we got near. After an hour or so we resurfaced to cook a lunch of hot dogs with mac and cheese, and then relaxed for a few hours chatting about what we had just seen. By mid-afternoon it was time for our second dive, and the plan was to get some of those lobsters. We forced our bodies into our now-cold wetsuits, geared back up and went back down the rocks, this time with yellow netted bags.
Lobsters are never caught by surprise. Their eyes have a nearly full range of sight and those long antennae are sensitive to every little disturbance in the water around them. The moment you get within a few feet of one, he scuttles away with a flash of his tail and a puff of silt. You have to follow them to the hole they settled into, butt-first. If you are lucky, your prey will be in a shallow hole or one with some clearance around the body of the bug. As soon as you get face to face with a lobster he’ll wedge his rostrum into the top of this hole and brandish his claws. When he’s like this you can only rarely pull him out, so you usually have to use some tricks. An unwound wire coat hanger was a favorite tool of mine. I found that if you bent a small hook on the end of it and then slid this into the top of the lobster’s hole, you could poke him on the tail with the tip of the hook. This would make the lobster think another potential threat was behind it, and it would jump out of the hole far enough to un-wedge his rostrom, offering me a short window in which to grab him.
Mark and I caught maybe 6 or 7 lobsters each that day, but we only kept the two best before we clambered back up the rocks to the Tic Tac. We stripped our suits off as the water in the pot heated and then warmed our hands over it as our dinner was boiled alive. It was September in New England. Our shadows got longer and our appetites more sated. The crickets started to chirp over the low clapping of lazy waves on slick rocks, and it was time to head home.
Getting the Tic Tac started was usually a challenge. Mark and I had fiddled with lots of things that could have caused the problem, but eventually we figured out that the engine had difficulty gaining and maintaining pressure, and it leaked about a quart of oil a week. More than once Mark and I had to spend the night in the Tic Tac for no better reason than that we could not turn the engine over and lacked the daylight or immediate resources to fix it. Several rounds of RRRrrrrRRRrrr -click- RRRRrrrrrRRRRrrrr -click- went by, but Mark finally did manage to get it running after maybe the 7th or 8th turn of the key. It was dark by the time we were on Route 4, south of Providence, and it was getting chilly. As useless as it was, we turned on the heat and tried to remind ourselves that as New England boys, we were impervious to cold. We had just entered Interstate 95 in Warwick and were feeling pretty happy with life in general. Mark and I were probably talking about the girls at school or about how strange cicadas look, when we were interrupted by a thunking sensation from the rear of the bus, more felt than heard. The Tic Tac suddenly lost some power and exhaust smoke started streaming in through the heating vents. Without discussing it we both rolled down our windows, and tolerated the cold blast of autumn air. We briefly considered and then rejected the idea of pulling over to stop. We both knew that doing so likely meant we’d be spending the night in the break-down lane of the interstate. So we kept going, even though the bus had slowed to a max speed of about 60 mph. We hadn’t even made it to Providence before we both started to suffer from splitting headaches and the first shivers against the cold wind coming in from the open windows. Mark had an idea.
When resurfacing after an enjoyable SCUBA dive, it is common practice to leave no less than 500 pounds per square inch of pressure in your tank as this prevents salt water leaking into the body of the cylinder and consequent corrosion. At normal atmospheric pressure, this is enough compressed air to breathe for maybe 30-45 minutes. We were about 35 minutes from home. While Mark continued to drive, I went into the back of the bus and assembled our tanks and regulators. I also took off my shirt and jacket and put on the top half of my cold and slimy wetsuit, initially unpleasant, but quickly warming. Mark and I did a hot swap for the driver’s seat at about 55 mph in weekend city traffic, so that he could do the same. We hot-swapped again, rolled up the windows to prevent the cabin from getting any colder, and began breathing from the remaining air in our tanks. Emissions were not a great concern in the year the Tic Tac was built, and it did not take long before the toxic exhaust filled the bus like bellows on a wet campfire. Our eyes began to burn and so the windows went down one more time, but only for long enough to clear the air so that we could wear our diving masks. By the time we arrived in mid-town Providence, we were again warm, breathing, and able to see well enough to continue driving home, now at a max speed of about 45 mph in an orange bus filled with hazy blue smoke.
I liked to imagine the Jones family was returning from an enjoyable day visiting the Rhode Island Children’s Museum. They may have had dinner at a local Italian place and began the relaxing ride home in Dad’s Volvo station wagon. They had not been on the interstate long before they began to smell burning oil. They soon came to a bright orange VW camper bus moving very slowly in the far right lane, the likely source of the acrid smell. Dad slowed down a little to see if the driver might need any help. Mom and the kids were curious too. The moment came and we all exchanged glances. Mark and I noted the four confused faces of the family in the Volvo. The Jones family regarded the two teenagers with SCUBA masks and regulators on their faces, wincing to see through the smog in the vehicle. We gave them a friendly wave and they accelerated, but not before I thought I saw Mom mouth the words, “what the fuck?”
By the time we arrived in our home town the bus had slowed to a max speed of 35 mph, and we knew that it would stall at the first stoplight. Rather than driving home and risking that outcome, we instead headed for the auto shop at which Mark was now a regular. We had only one light to worry about. It was red as we came to it. Mark declared, “I’m going to run it” and I prepared for a collision. By some turn of forgiving luck, the light turned green just as we crossed the intersection. Mark had tapped the brakes ever so slightly a moment before though, and the bus stalled. We rolled in silence for a few hundred more feet at about 20 mph, the auto shop now in sight. We pulled into the lot, and rolled into the one open parking spot, directly in front of the lot entrance. The bus came to a stop in the spot on the last draught of its natural momentum. I fell out of the bus in relief and changed back into normal clothes, now stinking of oily engine smoke. Both of us had about 30 psi left in our tanks. After stowing the gear and locking the bus, we walked the short way back to Mark’s house feeling very amused with ourselves, having finished another day we’d never forget. The Tic Tac never ran again.