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True Stories by Steve Keely
Hobo Memoirs

Breakdown in Sand Valley

I broke down a week ago in a remote corner of the world called Sand Valley. The ’63 VW bug – customized to pickup – smoked heavily in the moonlight, the idiot light winked, and I grabbed my boots. A single sandy track courses this basin that I hiked 14 miles to Scorpion’s crotch, my digs, for a sunrise nap before walking a mile to the nearest neighbor, T.J.

“What’s up?”


We tow the bug to Freedom Village, his digs, a veritable Volkswagens parking lot and graveyard. Quickly we’re encircled by ten mutts (dogs outnumber Sand Valley residents 5:1) that’ve bitten me to past satisfaction, so now they eye the vehicle tires. Laura, the wife, emerges from a trailer and we attack the bug.

“I ain’t seen such a fried mess in my life, an’ I used to rebuild four motors-a-day. That’s your hope - I supervise, you work.” A VW is air-cooled and the fan has shaken free, the oil heated and smoked, then the gaskets and seals blew. It’s igneous. “I’m goin’ for firewood and when I get back I want to be able to eat off that block.’ Laura and I pull the engine in ten minutes, and scrape and wash with gasoline for hours. T.J. returns with ironwood stacked neatly in one of his fleet of six homebuilt dune buggies – all old VW’s affectionately torched and refashioned into Road Warrior machines. Ironwood, so heavy it sinks and so hard it can’t be cut, burns fantastically. We hunker around the stove, the night choppers fly, and we plan.

“We do it by the numbers. This is hell week in Freedom Village and I will see your smiling faces early tomorrow.” I walk slowly home, recalling his 3-seasons as a Nam Marine, and believe the bug will make it, but will I?

“Good morning, ladies. This is automobile autopsy day.” Laura and I dissect until sunset: The fan’s busted, the shroud’s heat warped, the coil, distributor and generator are fried, but the motor block and heads are uncracked. “You’re a lucky DumBo. It ain’t going to cost all you thought.”

The next two days, we salvage parts from the graveyard, as T.J. oversees and chain smokes. “He’s still fuming,” Laura whispers. “My dad an’ brother left the other day and stole tools. You don’t do that to family at Christmas!”

The work area is a cleared nucleus of the 40-acre compound. Dogs, a dozen cats and uncounted chickens frolic in a cluttered Eden, and Jets streak close overhead on the hour. The bombing range lays next door, but the wood-tank targets sit 2-miles southwest of us. The jets dive, there’s a whistle, the ground shakes like an earthquake. The 1000-pounders (prized for their 70 lb. aluminum fins) blast a crater the size of a semi-truck. Once, a smaller bomb bounced along this driveway but didn’t explode. The marines came to claim it, but the wife demanded it for her rock garden, and there it rests with her pet dead horse head, the great-grand daughter of the racing Man of War.

Laura’s a pill. One time, under general anesthesia, she lifted from the operating table and right-crossed the surgeon in the jaw. Today, she suddenly leaps to chase a loudmouth rooster, flailing rocks. “Get’um squaw!” eggs T.J., but the bird dodges behind him and the brave Marine ducks behind a barrel muttering. Just as quickly, she disappears and returns ten minutes later. “Look out for rattlers. One tagged a cat an’ I lanced his leg, big as a sausage, and gave him pesinillin.” Many dessert folks with short schooling pronounce longer words phonetically. Yet, they cuss a blue streak down a wash. “Listen, here’s a lesson in gentleman’s profanity,” I start one afternoon. “Well, that’s fuckin’ profund,” quips T.J. “What for?” “I tell cursing school kids to insult someone and remain above him.” “Like a bomb,” inserts Laura. “Yes, but smoother. Try ‘cur’s offspring’ for son of a bitch. Use ‘copulating’ or ‘fornicating’ to sound profound.” “That’s obnauseous, replies T.J..” “What if someone calls you a ‘fecal cephalic’, I offer. “Punch his lights out and like it, not knowin’ what it is.” “Shithead. See how it works?” I add. He glowers, but the rule is the loser eats silent crow. “What’s ‘ignoranus’?” I ask. “I heard that before, ignoranus” Laura pipes. Back-and- forth it goes until, “This is tittyous. Nobody hides behind fancy words.”

Hours pass like December grease, and I hold together by their humor. I don’t like humor. Two decades ago, I swore it off after a comedy class, and turned a serious corner. However, the appeal of desert humor is selected by tedious, hot years of relative solitude. Old desert rats show crows feet from squinting and laughing. Their banter is droll, lightning and hits the subconscious below the belt. That’s why later you laugh out here. Character flaws are choice targets, but don’t ding anything that can’t be corrected (often by humor). Humor is rough and start fights, another purpose. Usually though, it’s better than getting off a shrink’s couch after a day of turning wrenches.

The sixth evening closes around the Ironwood fire and, mercifully, T.J. offers, “Don’t come back early cuz I’m gonna start the sumbitch, let it run, and see it hold oil.” The rebuilt engine looks factory new, but better with a ‘doghouse cooler’ (that houses a larger fan and oil cooler), an alternator (that throws a whooping 75 amps instead of weak generator), an illegal and powerful ‘.009’ distributor, and other subtle changes the boss assures will cause a high performance bug. The fire dies, and I tell them to shoot one round - the standard invitation - when ready in the morning.

But Laura pops into my driveway in her classic El Camino for limo service to their property at mid-morning. “It’s runnin’ and don’t leak a drop!”

Throughout the week, T.J. has shown his tooth often and ordered me to replace a part just installed. Each replacement is a hellofa job but always an upgrade. One day, there’s an electrical problem that baffles us, so T.J. takes a worker’s seat for once and smokes and looks and tinkers for an hour, then throws up his arms. “We’re gonna solve this by trial-and-error.” So, Laura and I swap a dozen permutations of electrical parts from the whole Road Warrior fleet to the bug, but still the distributor points refuse to spark. T.J., has stopped cracking jokes and talking altogether, something he does when pulling wool over your eyes, and I suspect he’s teaching us how to fish instead of tossing us one. The extra labor before a short is found consumes a day, but in just one week I’ve become a shade-cactus mechanic with a hummin’ motor.

‘Test drive it a day, bring it back to adjust the valves, then it’s yours.’

“What do I owe?” I query. ‘Laura an’ you done the work,” he grimaces. “Besides, you hold an ace in the hole… you paid me three years ago, remember?” I recall in a flash paying $300 for a job that didn’t pan out; I thought he’d forgotten. “Otherwise, I wouldn’t fix your damn motor,” he says, but I think otherwise. “Now get the hell out of here.” I turn, bend at the waste and shout, ‘Still smiling, sir!’

I count and wrap coins until midnight. It’s days before Christmas and I stuff a red Xmas sock with change, plug the top with a bottle of Gatorade and attach, ‘Laura’. I conscript a sweat sock from laundry, insert a special envelope, cork the sock with a Gatorade and write, ‘Sergeant.’ The next morning I wheel into Freedom Village.

Christmas isn’t celebrated much here; I overlooked it last year. Today, however, T.J. sings his version of “Seven days of Christmas” where stanzas are “One rocket fin…”, “Two machine gun shells…” These are aluminum and brass recyclables from the bombing range. This holiday season is the single straight week of cease fire all year when the “day range runners”, of whom T.J. is king, root uninterrupted. He prepares the fleet when I shout, “Incoming sleigh bells!’

‘You’re nuts. It’s a jet, not sleigh bells.’ T.J. looks up, as and I open the Phoenix.

Laura takes her sock and nearly falls over, “It weighs a ton!” T.J. pulls his Gatorade and says, “Laura, chill this for the range.” Then he opens the envelope, and it rattles like a sidewinder. ‘What the…!’ he jumps. Inside a metal washer twisted in a rubber band unwinds as the envelope sides open. ‘I hate snakes,” he grins. “Now get on.” Laura takes my hand gently and drops a pewter Phoenix. “It rose from the ashes too.”

I take off and T.J. yells, ‘When you return, you’ll have a breakdown!’

A week ago, I walked into Sand Valley, and now I drive out laughing all the way.


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