…You Once Owned A School Bus
By Bill Morris
The VW microbus is a bad cliché. The vehicle real Boomers of a certain vintage identify with is the old school bus.
Back in the day, we all knew someone who had a bus. Maybe they were living in it, out in the woods. Or heading Out West in it. Or maybe it was just parked, to be ready when opportunity knocked.
“Are you on the bus, or off the bus?” asked Cuckoo’s Nest author Ken Kesey, who also served as the Johnny Appleseed of LSD. Tom Wolfe’s 1968 book about Kesey’s Merry Pranksters, The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, introduced the progenitor of all hippie school buses to come.
“Furthur” (sometimes “Further”) was a 1939 International Harvester that Kesey bought in Atherton, California, in 1964. A prototypical psychedelic paint job was applied, a powerful sound system installed, and then the Merry Pranksters set out from San Francisco on the cross-country tour chronicled in Wolfe’s book. Their destination was New York City, specifically a book-launching event for Kesey’s under-appreciated second novel, Sometimes a Great Notion.
I never had a bus, but I knew several people who did. In 1975 my friend Andy bought a red one, an International Harvester model smaller than Kesey’s. The previous owner probably wasn’t much of a Grateful Dead fan because, instead of paint job celebrating peace and love, he’d decorated the bus with a very large Confederate flag.
Late in the summer of ’75, Andy, Johnny C, and Dawn loaded up that bus in North Carolina and headed for San Francisco. A very big guy, Andy had a tattoo on his arm and an earring — both fairly out-there for that time. Johnny C was a muscular Greek carpenter with a ponytail down to his waist. Dawn was blond, beautiful, and wicked smart.
There was a hell of a going-away party, followed by a bit of showmanship out in the street as Andy and Johnny finished packing their belongings. The last two things loaded were their Harleys. Andy’s was similar to the one Peter Fonda rides in “Easy Rider,” right down to the handlebar style known as “ape-hangers.”
The boys had a plan on how to get the bikes on board the bus, using the rear emergency exit door and a ramp made of planks. What they hadn’t planned on was being seriously torn up from a variety of refreshments at the going-away party. The loading process was tipsy, in the literal sense. But with a little help from their friends they got the Harleys safely aboard and tied in for the long ride to San Francisco. (They’d taken the precaution of painting over the Confederate flag.)
If I recall correctly, their red school bus broke down for the first time in Nashville. By the time they got to California they’d left a trail of replaced parts over 2000 miles long.
There’s no question our generation has a weird history with vehicles. I once knew a guy who ran his horseshoeing business out of an old ambulance. And I knew not just one, but two guys who drove around in decommissioned undertakers’ hearses.
But those are stories for another post.