O'Kane & The Enchanted Bus
by Dick O'Kane
<Road & Track, March 1972>
"You ever get the feeling you're driving around inside a whale?" my wife asked.
That pretty well described it, assuming that the insides of whales also feature acute flatulence along with the dampness, darkness and mud. Rain slashed like birdshot against our great tin container, overwhelming the wipers, which were already having their problems with the wind; in the really bad gusts, they left the windshield to wave vaguely about in the air. Couldn't see a thing past the 20 feet of gloomy dirt road the lights lit up. But we kept lurching and racking slowly onward ... sooner or later the road HAD to go up there.
We had been sloshing down a secondary Spanish highway toward Almeria and a place on a beach we know about when we spotted the crumbling ruin on a high pinnacle above a little town. It looked both inviting and forbidding, brooding there in the last light of the stormy day.
"What do you think?" I asked Jeffi. We're both nuts about Moorish ruins. Nobody but nobody bothers you when you spend the night camped in one, and there's an odd sort of fascination in sitting there in the moonlight, letting the place's strange, ancient vibrations wash over you.
"Sure, why not? It'll be dark in a few minutes, anyway. Look, there's even a road going up there." In the last grey light I could just make out a strand of lighter color winding up the dark pinnacle.
We went on through the town, and on the other side we found a dirt road going off in the direction of the castle. We'd been following it into the dark for about 15 minutes now.
Every time the road curved, we'd think, ahh, now, finally it'll start going up. But it never seemed to. "I don't think this is gonna make it," I said as we humped around another right bend. "In fact ..."
Suddenly, we weren't alone. I FELT the two black, hooded shapes before I really saw them ... felt them in the pit of my stomach and the back of my neck. And when I finally realized what I was seeing, I didn't know whether to floor the gas pedal or the brake.
"Gaaaahhhh!" my wife remarked.
Not ol' super-cool, observant me, though. "It's okay," I said in a semi-strangled peep, try to regain control of my bladder. "Ghosts don't have machine guns." These guys did.
"Buenas tardes," I called to the apparitions.
"Buena' tarde'," they answered in the local accent. Following Guardia Civil custom, one unslung his machine gun and stood back to watch while the other one came forward to exchange pleasantries.
"Is it possible to drive to the ruin on this road?" I asked him.
"The ruin! Yes, the road goes there . . . why do you want to go to the ruin?"
"We sleep in our truck, and we're looking for a place to pass the night. Nothing more."
"To pass the night!" He turned to grin at the other one, who slung his gun and came forward. "They spend the night in the ruin, Vicente!" the first guard told him. "In the TRUCK."
Vicente grinned at us and his buddy. "Si?"
"How much farther is it," I asked.
"Less than a kilometer. But is is very steep, sen'or. Perhaps you would rather spend the night here below. It is very pleasant here. Muy tranquil." He shouted this last over a cataclysmic roar of wind and splatter of rain.
"Is there some reason why we should not go to the ruin?"
"Oh, no, sen'or. It is permitted, of course." He smiled and shrugged. "But most people do not go there. They say there is a curse. An old legend, you understand," he added, smiling broadly and crossing himself.
"Umm. Well, I think we'll try it anyway. Perhaps, sen'ores, you will come to our camp later? For a glass of wine . . . or some hot coffee on such a bad night?"
They exchanged glances. "Many thanks, sen'or. But soon we go off duty."
"Si, si, muy pronto!" the other agreed, nodding a bit too vigorously. We thanked them, said good night and lurched onward into the gloom. Soon the road began to rise. And before we'd gone 200 yards, we were in first gear, the old truck scrabbling frantically for footing in the mud and rocks. We lurched and jolted, stuff fell out of the cabinets in back, but we were still moving forward and up.
The road got steadily worse ... and steeper. And we were still far below the castle. By now, though, I was determined to get to the thing, curses, steep roads or whatever. The Mighty Son of Moby Truck, however, was not, and we finally reached a piece that all its 40 ferocious horses couldn't manage.
"Well, we can't stay here. We won't sleep very well standing on our heads."
"Maybe we could back up it," I mused aloud. "Hell, I'm gonna go look at it first, though." I got out the flashlight, pulled a poncho over my head and walked up the road in the spattering, whipping darkness. The steep piece went up about 50 yards and then leveled off at a wide flat area. A footpath, too steep for the car wound up the final slope to the ruin. "There's a grand flat place up there," I told Jeffi when I got back to the truck. "Let's try backing up a bit and making an all-out charge."
"Is it all spooky and cursed up there?" Jeffi asked as we backed up.
"I couldn't tell ... it was too dark. All I could see were glowing red eyes and luminous blue scaly things about the size of cows."
Our "all-out charge" (heroic, misleading phrase) did the trick. Wheezing, clattering, rear end going BAM! BAM! BAM! as it leaped and churned and slewed back and forth, we tumbled up and over the top. The truck sat level, idling quietly. And the little red generator light was on. I blipped the throttle. The light stayed on. Something had jolted loose, probably. Why do these things always seem to happen at night, when you're being vigorously rained at? Well, it'd just have to wait until morning.
We had a fine, big dinner with lots of red wine and went to bed to listen to the drubbing rain. The truck rocked gently in the gusty wind.
"Do you believe that about the curse?" Jeffi asked sleepily.
"Sure, why not? I stopped believing in reality after the last presidential election."
We slept the sleep of the righteous and just, curse or no, and during the night the rain stopped. We awoke to a bright, warm sun and an electric blue sky, and the view was just fantastic. Below us, the town was a glittering white splotch on the red-brown earth, and the mountains all around us gleamed in a new dusting of snow. And way off to the south, we could just see the blue haze of the sea.
"You want to go up to the ruin?" Jeffi asked after breakfast. "I think I'll go up there and sketch."
"Maybe soon. I've gotta see why this thing won't generate, first." While Jeffi roamed around the ruin, I tried to figure out the red light problem. Everything was connected and in place, and whatever the trouble was, it refused to be diagnosed by a test light or the scientifical spark-and-zapp techniques favored by under-equipped mechanics. Far as I could tell, the generator was working, and so was the regulator ... I tried my spare one with no success. And everything was connected. But the generator light continued to glow fiercely red.
"Maybe it's cursed," Jeffi suggested when she came down from the castle. "Have you tried sacrificing a goat?"
"I was thinking more along the lines of a virgin. Hell, I can't do anything else up here. Let's go down to the town, maybe there's a generator shop there."
There was. A small, cluttered, gloomy place, but the guy had the necessary equipment, and he knew how to use it. After trying every test conceivable with an elderly roll-up console rig, he grunted to himself for a moment, then started pulling the generator. None of your mess-with-the-fan-shroud, take-out-the-carburetor business, either. He went right after the big nut that holds the generator shaft to the fan, and had the thing on the bench in three minutes flat. Clean it, test it, put in new brushes, test it again on the big machine. Perfect. Take out the regulator, test it. Perfect. Get a reading off the battery. Fine. Check every last wiring connection. Perfect.
Satisfied, the buy put it all back together. "Start it", he said finally.
I started it, staring intently at the generator light. The light stared redly, malevolently back at me.
"Puta," the guy said softly, peering at the light. He went away mumbling, came back with a voltmeter/ammeter and started testing it again. Everything checked out. But the red light glowed and no current seemed to be getting anywhere. The guy said some very unscientific things about the breeding habits of Germans. It didn't help.
"I do not understand, sen'or. It is not possible, this." We studied the engine silently for a moment. "No es possible," he said again, shaking his head.
"I thought at first that something was loose," I offered. "The road was very rough and the car was bouncing badly. We were on that old dirt road up to the ruin when it first . . ."
"La ruina!?" the guy yelped, looking at me like I'd offered him violence. "You went to the ruin? With your car? Ay, sen'or, why did you not say? La ruina! Dios!"
"Um, well ..."
"You should have told me, sen'or! It would have saved much time ... much work." He went to the front of the shop, looked furtively out and then closed the doors. "You must now go to Don Manolo, sen'or," he said in a whisper. "Tell NO ONE, comprende? No one! Do not say it was I who sent you."
"Now, wait a minute. Let's start over again . . ."
"No, sen'or, there is nothing to say. You must go now ... immediately to Don Manolo." He glanced at the windws for spies, then knelt on the dusty floor. "The road to the ruin is here . . . and here, a few hundred meters in, is a road to the left. Turn onto this road and follow it. It will take you to Don Manolo."
He stood, spit on his dust map, crossed himself and rubbed it out with his foot.
"What do I owe you?"
"Nothing, sen'or. Go quickly!"
"Let me pay you for your time, at least ... and for the new generator brushes."
"Very well, a hundred pesetas. Quickly, sen'or, I beg you. Remove your car from my shop!" He squirmed and danced and screwed up his face like I was keeping him from the john, so I laid a hundred pesetas on him, started the truck and backed out of the shop.
"Sen'or! Sen'or!" The guy came running out. "Take these with you!" He threw the old generator brushes into the truck and scurried back to the shop, closing the doors behind him.
"Far out," I remarked to my wife. "Let's go see Don Manolo. This is getting wilder by the minute!"
The other dirt road wound and bumped through the dusty hills for about two kilometers, then petered out into a track. We heaved and lurched along, slower now, for another kilometer.
"You ever get the feeling you're involved in a massive put-on?" I asked Jeffi. "I don't think this track goes anywhere." We stopped. Ahead, the track faded into a rocky path.
"Umm . . ." Jeffi, said, staring to the left. "Umm . . ." I looked; to our left, across a dusty yard, was a small white house with a man sitting in the doorway. He was smiling at us.
"Was that house there all the time?" I wondered aloud.
"The hell with that," said my wife. "Is it there NOW?"
"I'll ask the man."
I got out of the truck and approached the house. The man stood up and stretched his back, still smiling. He was about five-ten, slender, maybe 45 or 50, and dressed in the usual white shirt without collar and shapless, dusty black suit. Ordinary. But his face was not. Brown and weathered with high, strong cheekbones, it was seamed and creased into permanent lines, as if he had spent his whole life being vastly amused at something, and the hot Andalusian sun had cured his leathery face into a permanent smile. His teeth were even and white, and his black eye sparkled.
"Yes, I am Manolo," he said extending his hand. "Welcome. I have been expecting you. Ah! Please ask the sen'ora if she will join us for some refreshment." He turned on his heel and went into the little house.
He came out carrying three glasses and a bottle of dark red wine. I introduced him to Jeffi and he bowed low. "My house is your house, sen'ora. I am honored." Charmed ol' Jeffi right up the wall, he did.
We sat on a rough bench, Don Manolo sat in his doorway and we drank to each other's heath a time or two.
"So, sen'or ... your coche does not function correctly?"
"The problem is in the dynamo, Don Manolo. Or so it appears."
"No matter," he said with a smile. He drained his glass, stretched slowly upright, took a crooked stick from beside the door and walked to the center of his dusty yard. A brown and white goat came out of the house and walked over toward him. With the stick, Don Manolo began to scratch a big circle in the dust. Then, while the goat stood and watched, he drew another. Soon, five big intersecting circles had been drawn, making a design some 20 feet across. Don Manolo and the goat went and stood silently in the center for a moment. ONE of them was mumbling something, and from where I sat, I'd have sworn it was the goat.
"Now, sen'or, please drive your car here to the center of the design."
I backed the truck to the place indicated, got out, and watched Don Manolo repair the circles where the tires had crossed them. "Now we must wait a time. Come! Some more wine!"
We sat on the bench again and watched while the goat began to shuffle in a slow, wide circle around Don Manolo's design and my truck.
"Uh, Don Manolo . . . is it permitted to ask . . . uh, Que pasa? What's happening here?"
Don Manolo shrugged and smiled. "It is simple, sen'or ... you got too close to the old citadel, and your coche has fallen under the Curse of Iron. We must now remove that curse and replace it with a charm. More wine?"
"A curse, you say? What kind of curse?"
Don Manolo laughed softly. "Yes, a curse. But not so terrible a curse. The people here frighten easily, you understand. No, the curse does not harm people, sen'or. It harms only metal. Don Manolo poured some more wine, then settled back against the door jamb.
"Many hundreds of years ago," Don Manolo continued, "when the citadel was near the end of its time of glory, the caliph who ruled it had a great and powerful wizard ... the seventh son of a seventh son of a seventh son. Those were decadent times, sen'or, and one must assume that the caliph's faith in Allah's protection was ... impaired, let us say. For when the lookouts called the approach of the armies of the reconquest who had come in all their armor to take the citadel, the caliph ordered his wizard to cast a protective spell. Allah's intercession, it is said, was sought only as an afterthought.
"So the wizard, not content with a mere spell (which could be broken by any journeyman sorcerer), threw a curse over the whole citadel and the area just below it. This was the Curse of Iron. It rendered any metal in its presence useless, and the caliph found to his amazement that his scimitar would not even cut butter. Having demonstrated the power of the Curse of Iron, the wizard then ordered that all metal in the citadel be brought into his presence. And when all of the metal and armor and arrows and weapons had been brought to the throne room, the Wizard charmed them . . . and the delighted caliph now found that his scimitar, and all the other weapons in the citadel would slash through solid iron without dulling or breaking. And when the crusaders attacked, their armor and their weapons failed them, and they withdrew in defeat."
Don Manolo paused to sip at his wine, and I found myself gazing at distant ruin, which glowed deep red in the afternoon sun.
"They were a great people, sen'or. But the tide that carried them to glory had turned, as it must, in time, for all great peoples. And as their spirit ebbed, they became quarrelsome and evil and cruel, and they fought among themselves. The crusaders had only to wait. In time, the citadel fell from within and flung open its gates to the inevitable. Crumbling walls and a lingering curse are all that remain."
The goat, which had stopped its roundabout shuffling, came over to Jeffi and nibbled her sleeve. Then it stood with lidded eyes like an overgrown tomcat while she scratched its ears.
"And you, Don Manolo?" I asked, "you know how to remove the Curse of Iron?"
"Yes. And I also know how to place the antidote ... the Charm of Ahmed El Fkih. That was the wizard's name. And I am seventh son of a seventh son of a seventh son . . . it is many generations, sen'or, but it leads directly back to Ahmed El Fkih himself. And with it has come the Vision and the Power." Don Manolo said something to the goat in what I'll swear was Arabic. The goat turned and looked at him, then went back to the important business of gettings its ears scratched.
"It is done, sen'or. Your coche will now function. Also, it is protected from future harm by the Charm of Ahmed El Fkih."
I got in, twisted the key, the engine whirred alive and the little red generator light blinked out.
Don Manolo wanted no money. "Your company has repaid me," he said with a smile. He glanced at the goat. "And Ahmed El Fkih is sorry for your trouble and for the one-hundred pesetas you spent in town. Also he thanks the sen'ora for scratching his ears." The goat nodded gravely.
"Oh, Jesus Christ," Jeffi whispered, looking wide-eyed at the goat.
"Adios." Don Manolo and Ahmed El Fkih turned and walked into the house.
(News item: The absolute world land speed record for '63 VW trucks was set over three flying kilometers of dirt road in Spain on April 15th of 1971 at 4:32 p.m.)
"Keep a sharp eye for guys in white with butterfly nets," I told Jeffi as we boomed down the highway to Almeria. "And to hell with that Spanish red ... let's get us a big bottle of cognac tonight."
And that ended it . . . sort of. Gradually, the memory got fuzzy around the edges and blurred about the middle, until it was finally classified down into our vast collection of Weird Trips and Funny Bits ... like the night we got hopelessly lost in the rain and dark and found that the "big mother rain puddle" that kept blocking our path was the Mediterranean. And by the time we got to Amsterdam, the glitter and stink of science and civilization had just about erased the event.
But one day in a Dutch campground I began to wonder. Something wasn't right. Or rather, everything was a little TOO right; the truck had never run better ... it hadn't acted up, broken down or crapped out for almost two months ... ever since that day in Spain. And this was not typical of our truck. There was always SOMETHING.
Well, running right or not, the oil was still due for a change, and while I was at it, might as well do the valves and set the points, too. So I put on my grubbies and scrootched under the car. . .
The feeling that something was amiss was not helped by the fact that I couldn't get the oil drain plug out. I pulled and strained and grunted and braced my feet and beat on it and swore at it in Tongues, but the nut would not come loose. Very well then; I would think about the problem while I did the valves.
I will spare you all the things I tried. Just suffice it to say that the locknuts on the rockers wouldn't come loose, either. And when I found that I couldn't even get the distributor cap off, I threw all my tools back under the seat, changed, collected my wife and headed into Amsterdam. There, we spent a fruitless but memorable hour and a half watching a team of five Dutch VW mechanics try to change the oil. Toward the end, the shop manager came forward with a sly little smile, carrying the Main Breaker Bar and the Great Ceremonial Cheater Pipe. We left them, finally, standing around in a little huddle thoughtfully regarding the stripped and mangled teeth of a 17-mm socket.
So at that point, we stopped trying to fight it. That oil's been in there for eight months now, and it's still fresh and clean. And the truck just never, ever, EVER gives trouble!
Another thing we found ... that truck also has a strange effect on parking meters; they stop running in its presence, and you can park for a month on ten cents. Cops can't give it tickets, either ... pencils break and ball-points make a little "glurk!" noise and dispense all their ink at once, making the Man in Blue considerably bluer.
Strange, yes. But it surely is nice to know that your car will always get you there and back. ALWAYS. In fact the only drawback to owning that truck is the strange feeling you get when you lie in there on a dark night and think about it. Too, Jeffi occasionally has a recurring, mildly disturbing dream where this goat follows her around asking for cigarettes in Arabic. When she gives him one, he eats it.
But our time here is coming to an end soon. We'll have to sell the truck in the spring and turn our minds to other things. Hey, that reminds me ... you know anybody coming over here who might want a very reliable, maintenance-free VW truck? I'll take $1000 for it. Yeah, sure, I know that's steep for a '63. But where else you gonna get a 5000-year, 50,000,000,000-mile guarantee?