Monday, August 23, 2010
Top, Chris Howie & Rick Tuel, circa 1973
Middle, Rick & Chris, July, 2010
Bottom: Chris & Rick discover Vashon and realize it is home, 1971
It is December, 1970, and our Vietnam vet/hippie heroes have arrived in Seattle in Oatus, Chris's house truck, and Family Dog, Rick's VW bug, and with their passengers Jeri Ann the hitchhiker and her small dog Metoo, and Rick's dog Nigel the collie and his black cat Felix. We join them:
In the week following our rescue we stripped Oatus down and had him towed temporarily to Lou and Rita's. During this time, out of curiosity I made note of the odometer readings on both Oatus and the Family Dog. Oatus' odometer recorded a little over 900 miles, which is about right for the distance between Marin County, California, and King County, Washington. What I found interesting was the reading on the Family Dog's odometer. It registered over 1800 miles, or roughly the equivalent of two trips along the same route.
The extra mileage represented the number of trips to various parts houses, repair shops, and junkyards that had to be made over the course of the voyage just to keep old Oatus running.
We remained with Lou and Rita for three weeks. Jeri Ann continued on to Canada minus MeToo, who went missing shortly after our rescue from the parking lot at Southcenter, or where ever that was. Chris and I and Nigel and Felix, found ourselves four castaways thrown ashore in a strange land, our vessel disabled by time.
We spent the winter moving, first to Capitol Hill where we found a job with the Seattle Repertory Theater building props and sets, and then we moved to the Central District where we got mugged by a street gang on our way to work one evening. We began planning our escape from the city and used the money from our stage hand work to restore the Family Dog to good running order. He became our shuttle craft as we began reconnoitering what we now considered to be enemy terrain.
I got Washington plates and removed all traces of the California plates, gave Family Dog a quick coat of hardware store spray paint and as an afterthought changed its name from “Family Dog” to “Wreckage.” The camouflage was effective and for the first time since leaving California the police were no longer able to detect us. We were now free to safely scout the terrain for a safe place to settle. As our confidence grew, we increased the range of our search area which expanded immensely once we discovered the ferry system.
February 10, 1971, was a pleasantly warm springlike day and we were enjoying the weather as we waited for a ferry to take us to the Kitsap Peninsula. Whole new worlds were opened to us for a car and driver plus a passenger ticket. Lou had whetted our curiosity with tales of rural outlying areas that he described as being similar to our former home in Marin County: forested, scenic, and fairly rustic, with friendly neighbors and a sense of community. A place that required a certain amount of self-motivation from its residents and where the lack of a few amenities would not pose a problem.
We got off the boat with eager anticipation but were surprised to learn that this was not Kitsap County after all, so we stopped at a restaurant on the end of the pier called the Dock and Dine to get our bearings. There, high on a hillside perched above the intersection between two roads were two sizable signs, impossible to miss by arriving ferry traffic. The highest of the two read, “Welcome to Vashon” but the one beneath it, to our eyes, only embellished the warm greetings of the higher one. It read, “DANGER! DO NOT DRINK VASHON WATER! CONTAMINATED!” It was signed, “King County Health Department.
We were delighted. We thought that no one would want to live here. As far as we were concerned, we were home at last.
It could have been The End, but it wasn't. It was another beginning. At this point in our lives Chris and I agree that we must have been crazy to think we could pull off a stunt like that. What continues to amaze me is that we did.
Oatus was towed to the island, and Chris lived in Oatus for a time, and later fixed the truck up neatly for use as a guest room or child's room as the need arose. In the mid-90s, Chris and his wife Irene moved to a small town south of Spokane to start a new life, and custody of Oatus was passed to Rick and Mary Tuel. Oatus lived peaceably in their yard for about ten years, a summer studio for Rick and a refuge for many outdoor cats year 'round. Then some anonymous someone complained to the County about this old truck, and Rick and Mary had to have Oatus towed away. Where? Well, that is a mystery we shall not divulge. You can see Oatus on Google Earth if you know where to look, but we aren't telling. And that, my friends, is the end.
We were back in traffic, laboring through the early evening rush like a portable oil fire once again. In my rear-view mirror I watched the crowd of spectators vanish behind a spectacular cloud of black smoke deployed by Oatus as Chris floored the gas pedal in a desperate bid for second gear.
In the lead, I tried everything I could to stay directly in front of Oatus while trying to determine our escape route and avoid collisions at the same time. It was hopeless; we kept getting separated no matter what I did.
Dusk became evening and a cold, hard wind began to set in. Not only did Oatus lack a heater, the window on the driver's side couldn't be closed. Chris had been driving for days bundled up to the eyeballs and with a blanket on his lap, freezing.
I at least had a heater in the Family Dog but it also pumped semi-lethal concentrations of engine by-products into the cabin so it was used sparingly and with open windows.
We made it to a major freeway interchange by about 21:30 with a vast shopping center at its hug. Chris indicated by flashing light that this was the end of the line for Oatus. I detached from the traffic pattern and Chris followed suit. Together we spiraled down out of the interchange in tight formation, black smoke marking our glide path as we made for the farthest reaches of the enormous parking lot. The clattering piston was deafening now, each revolution of the crankshaft causing it to batter away at the cylinder with jackhammer force and threatening to blow at any moment.
Chris switched off the key and Oatus shuddered to a dieseling halt, delivering a few last sharp blows to itself before falling silent.
We had a quick conference in the wardroom and put together a plan. Chris and Jeri Ann would stay with the wreckage of Oatus while I struck off for Lou and Rita's to get help.
Temperatures were a little below freezing. There was nothing to burn in the stove and even if there had been, a shopping center would not likely be a good place to do it. I wouldn't have a lot of time to go muster a rescue party but unfortunately it seemed to be our only option. We siphoned off a few remaining gallons of gas from Oatus's tank and transferred it into the Family Dog, hoping it would be enough.
I got back onto the interchange and headed “north on 5.” Or so I thought.
I got back onto the interchange and headed “north on 5,” looking for any offramp labeled 145th Street, but right away, within the first few miles, I could tell that something was wrong. The freeway appeared to be deserted, with poorly marked off ramps that seemed to be still under construction.
I finally passed a lighted off ramp with actual signs of human life. From the freeway I was just able to glimpse a street sign as I shot past the little oasis and plunged back into the gloom of night. It said “135th Street.”
Okay, so the streets weren't marked as well as I thought they'd be but at least they actually existed. Not only that, it seemed that we were suddenly within 10 blocks of our home port, friends, and rescue. A great weight began to fall away from me at the thought of food and rest being so close at last, after being underway for so long. This grand feeling of relief lasted until I passed the next exit, which was unmarked, unlighted, and un-built.
From that point on, the general feelings were:
As I continued driving endlessly “north on 5” these feelings became my constant companions, accompanied by colorful metaphors at ever-increasing volume as I found absolutely no exits or even a turn-around.
I rolled down the windows and gulped icy air; when snow began hitting my face I found an unfinished median strip, made a U-turn and began racing south again, hoping to outrun the snow while trying to figure out where I really was, besides lost.
Forty minutes later I passed the lighted oasis of 135th Street, but there was no exit for the southbound lane. It was another 10 minutes and a steady stream of curses before I found an offramp to somewhere, finally. Another 10 minutes was spent negotiating the abandoned streets of a deserted industrial park before locating a gravel trail that led under the freeway and up a dirt track to an uncompleted northbound on-ramp which I used anyway by driving around the barricades. At this point I figured I was only a few miles from the freeway interchange I had started out from and the 135th Street oasis seemed like my only hope. At least it looked like an area that might have telephones, and this time I was determined to get there.
The engine coughed and sputtered; I turned on the reserve gas tank and pointed the front end toward the road shoulder, just in case. The engine caught again and I swerved back onto the Ghost Freeway, counting odometer miles.
I spent my last dollar at the gas station/restaurant complex at 135th Street. From there I struck off on a northbound one lane road until I finally came to 145th Street, where I abandoned all hope. No residential area to be seen; gravel roads; darkened farm buildings – and the snow had caught up with me again. I gave up and went back to the 135th Street gas station to use the phone.
Lou was home by then and was able to figure out that I had been running up and down Highway 405, not Interstate 5, for the last hour and a half. He further deduced that Oatus was probably stranded at a Renton shopping center and said that he would meet us there in about 40 minutes. A guy at the gas station showed me a space between the median dividers that I could drive through and get back on the “freeway” headed south, which I did, at top speed.
The End of the Voyage of Oatus
Oatus and friends have arrived in Renton and are waiting in the freezing December night for their friend Lou to come and lead them the rest of the way. Rick has been driving up and down what he thought was Interstate 5, but turned out to be an incomplete 405. We join him as he returns to Oatus, Chris, Jeri Ann, Metoo and Nigel the dogs, and Felix the cat:
I had no idea what may have befallen the crew while I was touring the Ghost Freeway. I guess I expected Oatus to be surrounded by police cruisers and SWAT teams by now. I was debating in my carbon-monoxide influenced brain whether I would just give myself up or remain under cover until Lou arrived and then surrender.
No! If Lou had to come up with ransom money in our behalf, it would probably be cheaper if I stayed out of sight until the payoffs were completed. I remember thinking that I should make a break for it: try to get to friendly lines, hiding and sleeping by day and traveling the back roads by night...
I nearly missed the off-ramp to the shopping center, hypnotized by my day dream, exhaustion, and carbon monoxide poisoning.
Oatus sat undisturbed out beyond the pools of light illuminating the shopping area, a darkened, battered object lost upon a plane of black asphalt. I found Chris in the driver's seat, wrapped in blankets; doing guard duty. Jeri Ann was inside, wrapped in animals, trying to keep warm.
I said that I had called Lou; that he was on his way; that he would arrive soon...if we could just hold out a little longer.
“I'm cold,” was all Chris could say, an understatement for sure since he was actually sinking into hypothermia. We assembled in the wardroom one last time, huddled together in a futile attempt to get warm while we awaited rescue.
Thankfully, it wasn't long in coming. A pair of headlights suddenly brightened Oatus's interior from outside and briefly illuminated the galley bulkhead, now redecorated entirely with the traffic citations we had received during our voyage. Our wallpapering job had made that bulkhead the most valuable surface aboard. All totaled, it must have been worth about $400.
Our reunion with Lou would have been a happier one if we hadn't all been blithering zombies. We offloaded our personal items, musical instruments, tools, Felix my cat and Nigel my collie into the Family Dog and prepared Oatus for mothballing. If we'd had any extra gasoline to spare, I'm sure Chris would have been pleased to perform a spectacular and explosive decommissioning ceremony. As it was, I had to flip the reserve tank on again as we pulled away from the wreckage of the H.M.V. Oatus and headed out finally “north on 5.”
Here endeth the Log of the Voyage of the H.M.V. Oatus.
Next: the Epilogue
December 2, 1970 Wednesday
That last gas stop took the last of my pocket change, and Chris had only a few dollars left and his patience was completely gone. So, while he engaged our arresting officer in verbal skirmishes, I deployed to the rear and called up the reserves – our friend Lou, who was waiting for us in Seattle. Lou wasn't at home, but Rita said she would call him at work and have him rush out to the scene in time to purchase our freedom before the banks closed.
So, noticing that Chris and his opponent were now solidifying their new relationship with Visual Venom, I stepped outside into the stormy evening gloom and found that a small crowd had gathered around Oatus to watch him clatter and spew.
Oh, yeah! We don't dare shut him down while we're waiting. We'd never get him started again; then we really would be in a pickle. An officer had stationed himself at parade rest between the Spectacle and the Beholders while Jeri Ann rapped at the crowd about the injustices being heaped upon us. Her dog, Metoo, peed on the Copgoblin's boot.
Before I even had time to be too concerned about this latest dilemma, a short, stocky older man appeared at my side with what looked like genuine concern in his eyes. He asked what in God's name was going on here, and suddenly I just broke.
“Well, we've been on the road for one month in that rig and by tonight we were hoping to be home free because we're dead broke and the truck's about to explode...”
He glanced at Oatus who had managed somehow to create a protective environment around himself with thick, billowing clouds of black smoke emitted during a spasm of backfires. The words tumbled out of me:
“...so now this cop stops us, fines us and detains us and meanwhile the truck sits out here roaring away, using up gas and it's getting dark and we don't have any clearance lights and...”
“Where are ya headed?” the man asked suddenly, noticing the failing light and the need for haste.
“2020 N.E. 135th Place.” I knew that address as well as old “P.O. Box 96, Lagunitas, California, 94938.” It was home, even if I had never seen it, in this case.
“How much are they hittin' you up for?” he asked.
“At first they wanted $30 but now they've knocked it down to $20,” I sighed, feeling better after my little tantrum.
“Haven't got it, eh?”
“No, but I just called the folks we're going to be staying with and they're going to drive out and pay it,” I said.
“No need for that.” He waved his hand at the money temple. “These damned people cause more trouble than they cure these days. You wait here.”
I smiled and nodded. We were going to be here awhile and I was not particular about where I spent the waiting period, so, we would wait here.
I was contemplating how all this had ended so suddenly for us and with such apparent finality. It was stunning to me for it to be over just like that, all that effort and risk to life and limb in order to end up spending a night in a jail cell in Federal Way, Washington.
Well, the Cosmic Significance of It All (i.e., none whatsoever) was beginning to get to me when the man I was supposed to be waiting for miraculously reappeared with our ransom in hand.
After escorting our dumbfounded selves out of the police station, our savior introduced himself as Al Shepard, a local resident with connections to the Federal Way newspaper right next door. He had gone there while I was waiting and either sold them a story about the hippie vagrants being subject to police extortion or else borrowed $20 from their petty cash fund to bail us out. Possibly he had told the police he planned to file the story if they didn't turn us loose.
Whatever it was, it worked. As he ushered us out into the early evening gloom, he explained that most people can do well in life and become useful citizens if they just have a chance. He also felt that if he gave us a break, chances are that we probably had one coming; if not, then perhaps we could pass the favor on to someone in our future who needed one.
Still dumbfounded but nonetheless grateful, we said our good-byes after I called Louis to tell him that we had been freed, but Rita said that he had just left to come rescue us. She couldn't tell us how to escape from Federal Way but said that we needed to head “north on Highway 5,” and then take the 145th Street offramp to get to 135th Place.
Al the Good Shepherd stayed back a discreet distance from Oatus, motioning us out of the parking lot like he was freeing a cage of wild birds.