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O'Kane & The People's Truck

by Dick O'Kane

<Road & Track, July 1971>




I should be uplifted by the scene today ... made whole in the soul while my mind reclines on soft thoughts and nibbles at the little peeled grapes of delight that surround me. For the vista at this moment on this day is one many men dream of as they sit starched and confined on a cold winter Monday.


The scene is typical enough ... for here. The cafe features the Mandatory Picture of the king, Optional Suggested Picture of the king's father, a sooty Moroccan flag, a roaring, hissing coffee machine with attendant harrassed attendant, and a flood of blazing, gold-white sunshine ... hot and fine and welcome enough to bleach out almost any care. I say ALMOST any care, for I'm beset by a malady, a longing, a certain madness that comes in recurring attacks, and needs only a reminder to trip off an episode. Like right now; I should be transported by the veiled ladies in white, and by the roaring towers of white spray where the sunlit surf crashes over the ruins of the ancient castle, but it's lost on me. Because THEY are there at the curb. Six . . . seven . . . ten of them. Ten Volkswagen vans. To me at this moment in history their presence, their being, the whirring, clittering bumble of their hopeless little engines is an affront, a cruelty, a taunt beyond endurance, because dammit, I WANT ONE! Gone is the low, snarling red fantasy, vanished in a cloud of rubber smoke and expensive fumes, to be replaced by dreams of . . . but you'd laugh.


Christ, it's like being infatuated with a fat, ugly woman.


And as with both women and cars, when you want one most, none are available.


I suppose I got into this Volksie van thing about the same way everybody else does. At one point a while back I found myself with more than an E-Type could accommodate, i.e., a fallen-down farm and a woman possessed of all the best and worst qualities of mistress and magpie. See, Jeffi's a compulsive trash-picker, and many's the time I've answered the phone to an excited description of the perfectly good and excessively groovy 7-foot walnut and velvet couch simply sitting there on the sidewalk waiting for the trash man, and could I please get out the Jaguar and come help pack it on home . . .


Now, an E Jaguar has many remarkable abilities, but drayage is not one of them. So, typically, when a friend's clapped-out, clattering Volksie van came up for sale, we bought it, typically, for $400. It was one of the window vans with seats, about a '64, and we figured it would be nice to have around ... you know, something to rumble down to the dump with every few days . . . or maybe to drive to town once a week to transport a few little sticks of furniture . . .


Anyway, that was the plan, and it soon got out of hand in predictable fashion ... Jeffi and I squabbled daily over the thing while the E rusted silently in the barn. And by the end of the summer we were so capivated by that improbable conveyance that we were practically living in it. It may surprise you, but a Volksie van is one of the most delightful vehicles on the road ... or off. And it is first, last and always eminently useful and sensible ... a cheap, practical trundle-all for the Average Man ... a veritable People's Truck, in fact, designed with the same quaint attention to Common Sense that guided the development of the People's Car.


Research the matter a little and you'll find that there are four kinds of Volksie vans ... hundred-dollar ones, four-hundred-dollar ones, eight-hundred-dollar ones and new ones. A four-hundred-dollar one is actually a hundred-dollar one for which someone managed to get four hundred dollars, and an eight-hundred-dollar one is a four-hundred- dollar one with paint. A new one is any one with a one-piece wind- shield. And whether you get it new or used, you can take your choice or your chance and get it with or without windows, with or without seats, beds, a kitchen, whatever ... there is a People's Truck and stuff to go in it for everyone. (Another fact of economics ... when you have a Volksie van, everybody wants to buy it, except when you want to sell it; then you can't give it away.)


No matter what kind of body/interior it has, you can call it a bus, a truck or a van and no one will care, not even the parts man. Our first one had windows and we called it The Truck, while our second one had none and we called it The Bus. See, it all depends on whether you come to regard yourself as the driver of a truck or a bus. The vehicle itself will force you into one of these roles because you sit WAY up high over all the other traffic, and the way your hands fall on the big horizontal wheel is . . . well, you just get into being a bus/truck driver, that's all.


Whether you're bussing or trucking, you can carry a prodigious load of goods and/or people; in fact, the thing has a bigger capacity than the average owner will ever use. With seats, it's cozy with nine, or you can take out the seats in about 2-1/2 minutes and pack in an entire sub-culture. Other things you can put in a Volksie bus and take places include 12 to 18 great big dogs, sound equipment for a rock group, nine weeks' garbage or four weeks' trash, a winter's worth of firewood, two cows, most of your friends, a young elephant, 16 Arab ladies, or a big, hairy motorcycle. Though not all at once. And when you're through, you can simply hose the whole thing out.


Best of all, though, you can throw everyone and everything out and move into your truck to live. That's actually my rationale for wanting one here on the west coast of Africa. It'll accommodate a double bed, your camping stuff and all the crap you acquire in New Hope, Coney Island or Marrakech. And when you're through acquiring, you don't have to pay New Hope or Coney Island or Marrakech prices for a room ... just drive until you find a place with a free view. And if the roadside doesn't suit you, leave it ... the People's Truck stands tall and proud on its skinny tires, most of its vitals tucked up out of reach of those big pointy rocks, and it can take you pretty far afield without damage or embarrassment to itself or its load.


And, mind you, it does all this on dainty sips of the gas-station man's most humble potion, with an engine that seems to require nothing more than privacy.


This is not to say that People's Trucking is ALL roses and light, though. For all this common sense, economy and space, one pays one's dues. For instance, consider the shape and size of the thing. It has all the aerodynamic purity of a sheet-iron cow shed, and if you like the sedan in a cross-wind, you'll just LOVE the truck! It doesn't just meander around the road in the wind, either. It blows helplessly around like a big empty box, it can meander clear OFF the road in a trice, and sudden bullish charges into the other lane are commonplace ... but here, at last, after all these years, YOU get a chance to frighten all the oncoming traffic.


There are other wind hazards. For instance, there's headwind, which can turn a 2-hour trip into a 4-hour one, and there's tailwind, which can get you arrested for speeding, as it's the only way you can ever hope to exceed a turnpike speed limit. Then there's truck wind, which happens every time a truck passes you, which is quite often. This requires a high degree of hard left rudder, as the bow wave of a big truck can blow you right off into the ditch.


Without wind, the performance of the People's Truck will probably please Mom more than Dad. The handbook says the one-, four- and eight- hundred-dollar series will make a breathless 65, and it will ... on the flat with no wind and after about fifteen minutes of gritting your teeth in a sympathetic effort (sometimes it helps to lean forward in the seat and bounce gently up and down, too). Once underway, you drive flat out, and you soon learn to conserve headway like diamonds. You find yourself taking all kinds of wild chances, nipping though narrow openings, passing when you shouldn't, ANYTHING to save lifting your foot.


If you do any driving through hilly terrain, you'll learn something very valuable ... how to enjoy scenery. This is something you'll HAVE to learn to save your sanity, because there is precious little else to do ... though on a REALLY hilly road, you can always read.


Noise is something else you learn to take in stride, but not with all models. Some of them are all fancy and padded inside and are therefore pretty silent, but not all of them. See, the average garden- variety Volksie van is tastefully trimmmed in booming, clanging sheet metal, and fast passage over a bumpy road is like rolling down a cobblestone hill in a galvanized garbage can.


There are a couple of rememdies for this, though. One is to glue old carpeting, jute bags and foam rubber all over the interior, which will quiet things down some, and another is to overwhelm the clatter with a ruckus of one's own ... like a good, big stereo tape system. In fact, one of the most impressive sound systems I've ever heard lived in a Volksie truck, along with an oriental carpet, an overstuffed armchair, a gigantic brass hookah and a Tiffany lamp. The truck was loud, but the tapes were louder, and a twist of the knob would drown out everything ... the indigenous clatter, the leaky muffler, the hard metallic vibration and all that traffic blowing to pass. That's the thing ... you don't dare get too quiet. I knew another guy who had a panel with a window in it right behind the front seats, and it made the cab so quiet that one day he got out on the turnpike, couldn't hear the engine screaming that it was still in third gear, and didn't even hear it when it finally blew up. He thought he was out of gas, and it wasn't until he tried the starter with the door open that he heard all the broken pieces churning around.


Yet another hassle you learn to live with is cops. You'd think that a vehicle capable of nothing more dangerous than a brisk trundle would be left alone by the fuzz, but it is not so. Because of its nature ... cheap practicality with a highly mobile view ... the Volksie van is rapidly becoming the Official Vehicle of the International Counter- Culture, which means young people with hair, bright clothing, rather loose schedules and other such threats to God and Country. To the average cop, then, that big tin box full of hair, gasping up the hill is nothing more than the Main Stash ... a thousand-kilo brick of Panama Red disguised as a Volksie van, with windows and doors and freaks painted on it and WOW, we're all gonna make Sergeant! It isn't "Where's the fire?" anymore, it's "Where's the grass?" and unless you look like Mr. Clean going somewhere to scrub a floor, you can plan to spend some time by the side of the road explaining your identity, destination, political views and whatever's in your pockets with The Man.


A friend of mine gets his lumps in by always offering the cop the T-key to the engine compartment, the cop always goes to look, and he always gets all smarmy and gresy in the process, but beyond that, there's nothing you can do . . . except vote for me and Stan Mott in '72. If elected, we will have all the drivers of port-hole Buicks stopped and hassled about income tax evasion.


But these are mere annoyances. The real danger ... the Ultimate Hazard of People's Trucking is the Sorcerer's Apprentice Syndrome. Reducted to simplicity, this is where you say to your woman, "Behold, for I have brought thee a truck ... go ye therefore and collect groovy things and bring them here to make our house fulsome and glad."


And she does.


Giving a truck to a compulsive trash-picker is like giving automatic weapons to Attila the Hun. Even with an empty 10-bedroom farmhouse we were soon overwhelmed with Stuff. After we'd owned the truck a month, for instance, George gave us a painting for the house ... a small 2-ft- by-2-ft painting, already, and we couldn't find a place for it! And then there was all that stuff in the barn when we left . . . Lord! Your only consolation when this sort of thing starts is that you have a truck with which to cart it all away again ... on days when your wife lefts you use it.


Then there's the heater, and the matter of cold weather . . . but enough. You should have the picture by now. Still, you can't know the true, deep-down nature of the beast until you've lived with one for awhile ... and then you begin to see that besides all its Teutonic sensibility and practicality and usefulness, there's just something about the People's truck that's . . . well . . . SILLY. And fun. It's like owning a pack elephant that says and does droll things ... a cartoon hippopotamus that brings you the paper and reads over your shoulder and agrees with you about important things, like where to go today, and where to spend the night and when to leave. I think Lewis Carroll would have owned one. Dammit, they CAPTIVATE, that's all, and people respond by painting them colors and naming them things, like Fantasia and Moby Truck and Brunhilde. In fact, last night while dreaming over the fire I decided I'd get one without windows next, and paint it candy-apple red with a gigantic black Maltese Cross on the side, and put a bit helmet spike on top of the cab and call it the Iron Chancellor . . .


High on a ridge about two miles up the beach, I can see a silver thread of road glistening with last night's rain, and on the thread like a colorful beads are four . . . six . . . seven little dots. More Volkswagen vans. One of those dudes has just GOT to be for sale, I betcha.


Does anybody feel like taking a walk up the beach after breakfast?