055_barneyThey called it the “barbeque that seats four“.  A vehicle with a propensity to burst into flames, due to a design flaw that allowed the gas tank to be ruptured during a rear end collision. I lived in it with my parents, on and off, from about age four up until the age of nine.  Talk about a five year mission!

We drove from location to location, looking for a place with a job where we could make our home.  Sometimes we’d stop at a motel, often we would sleep in the car at a rest stop.  The back seat came down, the luggage went into the front seats, and out came the sleeping bags and pillows.  Crowded, yes, but quite an adventure.

Money came from grandpa in the form of an allowance, which was enough to buy gas, eat at Howard Johnson’s, buy souvenirs from Stuckey’s, or go to the occasional local carnival.  My main form of entertainment was drawing and reading—comic books, TinTin, and any number of strange and unusual childrens’ books.

Our particular Pinto was named “Barney”.  He was red with black seats and upholstery.  What was most cool about him was he had “the three controls”, which were the fan on/off, the temperature hot/cold, and what I remember as being a defroster front/rear.  I was really into Speed Racer at the time, so I found it cool to imagine that Barney had special powers too (if only three).

One particular hilarious adventure happened when we were leaving California to go back to the east coast (having failed to find a job or a place to live in the Golden State).  Mom was driving Barney with myself in the back, while dad followed behind in a U-Haul Van.  We decided to drive through the Mojave Desert on the way to Las Vegas.

The temperature was over 110 degrees and the car had no air conditioning.  One of the things we always carried with us in Barney was a large red and white plastic cooler.  I got so hot sitting in the back that I opened the cooler and climbed inside (but couldn’t close the lid all the way.  I lay on the ice and bottled drinks, which gave up their cold in a cloud of steam that trickled out the lid.

My mom looked in the rear view mirror and stopped the car, fearing a fire had started.  She saw me hiding in the cooler and asked what I was doing in the cooler, of all places?  I said I was trying to stay cool by putting myself on ice.  Even then I was a smarty pants!

Barney was only a V4, so he didn’t have a lot of power.  He had a propensity to break down more and more as he went on.  For example, when we left Las Vegas the fuel pump busted and had to be repaired.  Because we had just gotten gasoline at a service station from an Asian attendant, I said we broke down because we bought Japanese gas.  Oh, kids.  Aye-yi-yi.

Repairs meant calling grandpa for repair money.  Then the adventure would continue.  AM seventies radio, three television networks in the hotel, and bookstores were my culture troughs.  Occasionally we would stop and stay with family or find a place we could live in for a few months, but always we would be back on the road on the quest for a home.

Eventually, we did find a place to live with a job.  Shortly afterward, Barney broke down for the last time on a major bridge during rush hour on a roasting hot day.  That day is vivid in my mind—the parental swear words, the finality of Barney’s last gasp of service, and the growing realization that we were putting down roots.

We had Barney towed to our home, but it was obvious he would never ride again—too expensive to repair.  Too many asteroid belts, hostile android encounters, and radioactive mountain terrain on a Volkswagen wannabe engine.  I watched the tow truck take him away for the last time, never to know the Three Controls again.

But there are times at night before I go to bed where I remember.  The awkward feel of the uneven backseat while being squeezed in with two grownups.  The timelessness of the road and the never-ending panoply of mud-bottom America.  The roaring sound of eighteen wheelers driving by lulls me to sleep, and Barney is there to remind me that freedom and adventure are eternally of our spirit and may strike at any time.

Any day a car may appear out of nowhere, you climb inside, and notice it has three controls.