The Infernal Jeep and Other Motoring Mishaps

We all remember the first car we owned. Ignoring the Vauxhall Victor, that Michael and I briefly co-owned in London, which never really ran, my first car was a Citroën GS. I bought it second-hand in Scotland in 1980. It was a decent, if somewhat bizarre vehicle; a miracle of French engineering on four wheels. It sported an engine with a displacement of 1,050 cc, so it ran out of steam on any uphill road. The hydraulic suspension allowed the car to be raised so that potholed country roads could be traversed. The downside was that the suspension did not work at all while raised so the Citroën felt like a beat-up Wells Fargo stagecoach. It had a semi-automatic transmission so there was no clutch but a stick to change gears. It was a prissy little car that felt a bit like driving an underpowered refrigerator. The maintenance was a killer. To change a burned out light bulb on the dash required eight hours of labor by two French-speaking, Pernod-sipping, Camembert-eating mechanics.

Then there was the Land Rover. I didn't own it; it belonged to the company I worked for at the time and was allowed to use it now and then. If one needed to drive over dead cows, this was the vehicle. But in urbane, genteel, Georgian Edinburgh, such obstacles were seldom encountered. Instead, this utilitarian machine with the muffler obscenely sticking out of the hood (in the unlikely case one needed to ford flooded rivers, see), was a major turn-off for potential dating partners. It was also the only car I ever managed to misplace.

In the morning after a night out in town, embroidered with demon alcohol, I was shocked to find an empty parking space instead of the Green Monster. After some befuddled deliberation, I called the Edinburgh Constabulary and reported the car stolen. A policewoman in a fetching bonnet turned up to take the report. As I was laboriously explaining the circumstances of the grand theft auto to the disappointingly businesslike policewoman, I glanced into an alley across the street. Lo and behold, there was the Land Rover, silently parked exactly where I'd left it the night before.

What could I do? I finished the report, the policewoman left, and after a discreet interval I reported that the Land Rover had been found and recovered undamaged. "Those damn teenage joy-riders!".

The most dramatic automotive story, however, happened to one of my friends in California.

Paul was in construction. Build a house, concrete work, cabinetry; he'd do just about anything. Golden hands, he had; European quality, he said. But in the early eighties, business was up and down for Paul. He was based in Lake Tahoe, a picturesque natural lake that straddles the border between California and Nevada near Reno. While Lake Tahoe is a great vacation spot with first class skiing, boating and gambling, it is one of the last places to try to make a living in construction. Due to a building moratorium, in place for many years, designed to protect the pristine lake water, virtually no building took place in the seventies and the eighties. So Paul had to look further afield for work. As fate would have it he ended up in Pasadena working for the same real estate developer as I. He'd work there during the week, but every other weekend he'd drive the 500 miles (800 km) north to his house by the Lake. In a Jeep, with a ragtop!

There are three possible routes between Pasadena and Lake Tahoe; two rather soporific freeways through the San Joaquin Valley and US 395 that follows the eastern flank of the Sierra Nevada mountain range for much of the way. It was this route that Paul picked one winter Sunday afternoon to drive to Pasadena and be ready for work on Monday. He loaded up his trusted Jeep with all the tools he'd need in the weeks ahead and hit the road. The US 395 is a spectacular road, mostly through mountain and desert wilderness, but along the way, there are small towns strung out like pearls on a string - Bridgeport, Lee Vining, Bishop, Big Pine, Independence, Lone Pine - spaced about an hour's drive apart.

Paul was enjoying his drive. He was making good time so he stopped in one of the little towns for a bite to eat and some beer. No problem, except that the beer tasted so good he stopped in the next town for more and without even noticing, the drive became a 300 mile pub crawl. Beers gradually became chasers that accompanied shots of bourbon or tequila. Suddenly it was past midnight and Paul was thoroughly pickled. He was also drowsy from all this drinking business and decided to take forty winks. By now he was clear of the mountains, and in the Mohave Desert with some 100 miles still to go. He rumbled his Jeep off the road and into the desert, a safe distance from any passing Highway Patrol cars and stopped. He lit a cigarette and enjoyed the silence and cool night air. And the stars, hot damn, they were so close you could almost grab 'em and put them in your pocket, man!

Suddenly Paul woke with a was not cool anymore in the Jeep. In fact it was hot, fucking HOT and bright... shit what the....The Jeep was on fire with Paul slowly being roasted inside. He bailed and frantically tried to put the flames out with his T-shirt, but the heat beat him back. There was nothing to do except hunker down and watch the Jeep burn to the ground after the tires blew and the gas tank exploded. Then the fire was out and it was cool again, in fact it was fucking COLD.

Paul had to wait and shiver until daybreak because he didn't know where the highway was. He then hiked to the road and a passing motorist gave him a ride to the nearest gas station. It was Monday morning and I was at work when Paul called: "My Jeep burned down! Come and get me!". I could not leave work, so for $300 Paul took a cab to Pasadena. He turned up at noon with wild eyes in the middle of a fire-blackened face.

Later that week, Paul rented a car and drove to the Mohave Desert to look for his beloved Jeep. Maybe some tools survived the inferno, he thought. But he could not find the burned out wreck. A day later, he rented a small plane with a pilot and performed an aerial search of the area that also turned up nothing. The Jeep vanished without a trace.

A month later, Paul received a letter from the US Navy. It was an invoice for $2,000 in "recovery, towing and storage fees" for the Jeep. Evidently Paul had driven onto a large Naval base in the desert and the Navy found his Jeep.

Knowing Paul, it's doubtful the Navy ever collected.

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© 2007 Karel Kriz and Bouncing Czech Productions