That time I owned the VW Bus

That time I owned the VW Bus

When I was in my late teens, I bought a Volkswagen Bus for about $300. The floor was rusted out, so the previous owner had installed a wooden floor. The back was full of spare parts and it had a four seat bench that looked like it came from the waiting room of some government agency. The long shift lever had a rubber Golf ball as the handle.

VW Bus

One day, as I approached a stop sign, the brakes completely failed. When I put my foot on the pedal, it sank to the floor and the bus kept moving. Knowing how manual transmissions work, I immediately downshifted through the gears until I was in first gear (that is extremely hard on the transmission). Since I couldn't stop completely, I slowly rolled through the stop sign.

When I finally got the bus stopped, I inspected each wheel to see which one was the culprit. One of the wheels had brake fluid all over it, so I knew that was the one. I took the brake drum off and removed the brake cylinder.

VW Rear Brake Cylinder

VW Rear Brake Cylinder

Fluid was leaking from one side of the cylinder, so I removed the rubber seal and took the plunger arm out. The gasket was broken. I had this inspired voice in my head that reminded me that I had seen this exact part among all of the spare parts in the back, so I went digging around until I found it. I took that gasket and put it in the brake cylinder and reassembled the whole thing. There was even a huge bottle of brake fluid in the back already that had come with the van when I bought it. So, I refilled the master cylinder reservoir, bled the lines, and continued on with my day. However, my repair meant that the brakes would leak just a little bit of fluid each time I used them, so I had to add fluid every now and then or I'd lose my brakes altogether. I began using the downshifting method as a way to preserve brake fluid because I could exhaust the entire master cylinder reservoir on a long trip if I wasn't careful.

To this day, I think it was great luck that all of this happened. To think that I had the tools to do the work, had the parts I needed already in the van, and the brake fluid just makes me shake my head with wonder. My life has been a stream of blessings, one after another (to help counterbalance the curses I've been given, I suppose).

One of the problems with the van was that the transmission couldn't go into the highest gear, so I could only go about 45 miles per hour in it. That meant I couldn't get on the Interstate. Traveling from Clayton County to Cobb or Gwinnett county using nothing but back roads is a very time consuming endeavor. But, I made it where I was going eventually and enjoyed the "trip".

The van had a huge "Sun Roof". The problem was that the weather seal was missing. So, When it rained, water would collect between the outer roof and the inner ceiling. When I came to a stop, the water would rush forward and splash into the cabin right behind the front seats. I had to make sure I didn't stop so fast that I got wet. It was a fitting problem to have considering that I worked at the Six Flags amusement park at the time and it was like one of those rides that gets you wet.

One of my friends on Facebook shared this story with me about the van:

"Remember the time we were late to work because it had a flat tire? And Roscoe (and his trusty assistant [I forgot his name]) couldn't get the lug nuts off? So he had to chisel each one off using a power drill? I remember his assistant took a wrench and turned. It didn't move. He tried two other methods on other lug nuts....they didn't work either. He said; "uh oh." Turned and yelled "ROSCOE! We gotta problem." Roscoe was working on another car and when he got to a stopping point came over....he tried the same things and same result. But Roscoe had a secret weapon: he had a longish wrench and then he also had about a 6 foot pole to to add torque and power to the mix. One of those greek guys is quoted as saying "If I had a lever long enough I could move a mountain." A mountain maybe but not one of those lug nuts. The bus itself moved when Roscoe put his shoulder into it but the lug nut wouldn't budge. I think we were supposed to be at work that day at 4pm and we showed up around 8......after Roscoe chiseled each lug nut off (about a 20 minute process for each one) and then he had to borrow one lug nut from the other wheels to mount the tire....I remember walking up those merch (we worked in the merchandising department at Six Flags) stairs, into the hallway of judgement, standing before someone who asked; "why are you two late?!?!?" We fish in our pockets for the twisted and shredded metal shards of what remained of those damnable lug nuts and tossed them onto the desk.....they just looked disgusted and waved us to stop slacking and get to work.... good times! (Found out later one Mr Earls had the same tire flatten a day or two earlier and had it fixed....but standing there chatting with the tire changer using a power drill to screw the lug nuts back on.....maybe he got a little distracted? Important safety tip; sometimes it's better to let the workers do their job....alone?"

Six Flags

Another friend reminded me of a trip to Six Flags that we took when he came to visit me. I had to drive all the back roads. However, since I had no confidence in my brakes (they leaked fluid since I had "fixed" them), I used the downshift method to stop the whole way there. It took us three hours to get there from the South side of Atlanta.

When I moved out of my parents' house into an apartment with friends, I learned the reality of living on your own for the first time. The biggest challenge was that there wasn't enough money to pay for rent, food, and car insurance. So, I canceled my car insurance. That meant I could no longer drive the bus.

One day at work, I made an innocent offhand remark to an elderly lady that I was working with at one of the shops inside Six Flags on how I couldn't wait until payday so I could buy some food. She invited me to her house to have a spaghetti dinner that night with her husband. I accepted. Neither of my roommates was home that night, so I didn't have a ride to get there. Feeling too proud to ask her to come pick me up, I decided to drive my van. She didn't live very far from me, so I thought it would be OK (there was only one traffic light between my apartment and her house). After dinner, I drove home. The first thing I encountered was that her driveway was a very steep downhill decline. I had to use my brakes (which meant I was losing a lot of fluid). The entire way home, I was very nervous that my brakes might fail. As I approached the stop light, there was a police car in the left turn lane that i needed to be in. Fearing that I would rear-end the police car, I decided to get in the lane next to him. Once I was able to stop, I nervously glanced over at him and waved. Yes, I waved at a cop. From a VW Bus with a fried egg spray painted on the side. I was dressed up as nice as I knew how in a matching outfit that Laurie had put together for me and given me as a gift (her and her mother were very kind to me and bought me clothes during this time as I was extremely poor and didn't have the right kind of clothes to go on job interviews with).

I got pulled over for a faulty tail light. When he asked to see my license and insurance, I honestly told him that I didn't have insurance. He asked me to step out of the car, then frisked me, put me in handcuffs (really), and asked if he could search my van. I said, "yes" and he opened the sliding door only to be met with a nightmare mess (I never had anywhere to put all of those spare parts, so I left them in the back of the van). I had organized them a bit and put some of them in containers, but the back was a mess. He just took a quick glance and closed the door.

He radioed in my driver's license information and learned that I had no warrants or any priors. However, he called to have another officer pick me up. Apparently, having no insurance is a "go directly to Jail and do not pass Go" kind of thing.

When the other police officer got there, they put me in the back of the car and off to the jailhouse we went. On our trip there, the other officer apologized to me for having to take me to jail. He said to me, "You had some pretty bad luck tonight. That officer that pulled you over is a dick. He was off-duty when he pulled you over. He didn't have to call it in or get me involved. Unfortunately, he's already called it in and the Sheriff is waiting on your arrival."

Once we got to the jail, the officer handed me over to the sheriff and I was directed to the drunk tank until I could be "processed". The officer that brought me in submitted the paperwork, chatted a little bit, and on his way out, said to me, "Sorry about this. Good luck".


There were a few other people in the cell with me. It was very scary. They looked strung out, mean, and violent. After a few minutes, the Sheriff in charge instructed one of the other sheriffs to move me to a different cell. The new cell was empty. When he left the cell, he didn't close the door behind him. So, there I sat, in a jail cell with an open door. A police officer came in a few minutes later, and as soon as he saw me in the cell, he took it upon himself to yell at me, "Hey! What are you doing? Close that door! This is a jail, not a playground." The sheriff in charge told him, "Shut your trap. That isn't your concern".

The Sheriff let me use the free phone on his desk to make calls to my roommate to come pick me up. After a few failed attempts at trying to reach my roommate, I finally got him on the phone and asked him to come pick me up at the county jail.

The sheriff was using his power to release me on my own recognizance. From the description:

Sheriff Pretrial Release Programs

With budgetary constraints looming, many county sheriff departments use their discretionary authority to "O.R." custodial suspects even before their first court appearance. Some sheriff departments call this system "supervised pretrial release," whereas others call it "citing out a defendant," meaning the suspect has been given a citation with a notice to appear upon threat of warrant.

The sheriff told me, "If you don't show up for court, I will personally hunt you down and put you in jail myself". I replied, "yes sir, I understand", thanked him, and went outside to wait for my ride.

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When I went to court, I represented myself (I felt that I was guilty, so I didn't need a lawyer, and was going to tell the judge the whole truth, being completely ignorant of the true nature of the judicial system). I guess my pure honesty worked, because the judge gave me some community service and had me write a paper on why car insurance is important. He also made me promise that I would not drive that van ever again (I told him the story of the faulty brakes as part of my case).

I had always wanted to own a VW Bus. I did and now I can strike it off of my bucket list. Incidentally, Laurie and I owned a VW Eurovan camper in the early 2000's and went camping in it a lot. It had a table in the back for eating and we would go to downtown Atlanta and get Nancy's pizza (before they had an eat-in restaurant), park in the Krispy Kreme parking lot on Ponce de Leon and eat our pizza. Then, we'd go inside and get some doughnuts and eat them in the van.

Before and after

Good times!