1997- Gypsy Prof

Graduate schools make their income by perpetuating the dream held by all their students: that they will walk into a tenure-track teaching job at a major university immediately upon graduation. Sadly, that is not the case for most would-be professors. Very few find immediate full-time work and a large percentage of those who don’t opt for non-academic careers. There are some who accept adjunct positions, teaching college part-time in hopes that the experience will help them find that elusive full-time slot “next year”

That was the case for me when I earned my MFA (Master of Fine Arts) degree in design. I made the short-list of potential interviewees for the University of Cincinnati but lost out to a last minute applicant with unmatchable credentials. Luckily I was able to find part-time teaching work at local schools; unfortunately none of the “local” schools were actually local, the average round-trip distance measuring over 50 miles a class day. I travelled like a gypsy during my work week.

At this point I need to introduce the trusty steed that carried me to those far-off classrooms. It was a 1983 VW Vanagon, purchased with a painting and modest amount of cash from my good friend Rob Furey. There were plenty of miles on it when purchased, but it had been well-loved and I was able to put over 100,000 more miles on it before passing it on. In true VW fan-fashion I did most of the maintenance myself, servicing or replacing every system on it short of an engine rebuild.

Spending so much time tinkering with that van meant that I knew well what it could and couldn’t do .. For example, it was a very stable vehicle, requiring a minimum of input on the steering wheel to keep it headed in the right direction. On a two-class day that was a real blessing because I’d have to eat lunch on the road and I have yet to figure out a way to eat a sandwich without using my hands.

One day I was late finishing up my morning students, which cut short the time I had to get to my afternoon class. As usual I ate my lunch while I was speeding along the interstate, but as I reached for a bottle of apple juice I fumbled, dropping it to the floor between the two front seats. No problem – I reached down to pick it up but in the process the bottle rolled neatly back down behind the front passenger seat.


I like to blame my next step on the muddled thinking that can accompany a case of low blood sugar. After unbuckling my seat belt I moved my right foot back to the floor between the two front seats, then moved my left foot over to the accelerator. Keeping my left hand on the steering wheel I got out of my seat, shifted over between the two front seats and reached down to get the truant juice bottle which was now within reach. I then reversed the procedure, buckled back in and finished both my lunch and commute.

Dumb stunt? Yes. Oh, the road was as straight as an arrow at that point and I had total confidence in both my vehicle and driving skills but it was the kind of stunt more suited to a man in his early twenties than a man in his early forties.

The next adventure had little to do with my ego and everything to do with the weather. I would gain 1000 feet in altitude when driving to my class up on the Cumberland Plateau and there was often a marked difference between the weather at the bottom of that climb and the weather at the top. Such was the case one winter day as I went from rainy weather at the start of my trip to snow as I neared my destination. The weather wasn’t the only change I encountered though – steering the van was getting progressively more difficult. I wondered if my tires were low, but because of the time and weather I didn’t stop to check until I reached the center –but when I arrived and checked the tires looked just fine.

As I stepped back from the van though the front seemed to look a little odd and out of proportion so I stepped forward again and found the surface of the van to be slippery. On impulse I hit the ice with the side of my fist at which point the entire front body fell off…or what looked like the front body. As I was driving through the differing weather conditions ice had built up all over the front of the van making a second layer that looked like a vacuum-formed duplicate of the original ….and also put a couple of hundred extra pounds right over the front wheels and the steering system. I was lucky to have been able to steer the van at all!

The last adventure prompted me to buy a proper maintenance manual and make sure everything was adjusted and in good repair. My Vanagon was a “water-boxer” equipped with a radiator and cooling system instead of relying on simple air-cooling as was the case with 75% of the Vanagons that were manufactured. Because of their more efficient heating/defrosting systems, water-boxers were usually sold in northern states like Pennsylvania where my van had originally been. The extra heating capability was nice in the winter – but it also meant that pertinent manuals and some parts were not available in the South.

I didn’t realize at first how important those items were until I ran out of gas on the way home from school one spring day. I was surprised as I had filled the tank up just that morning and by my calculations that tankful should have lasted me for another week – but sure enough I was coasting to a stop 25 miles short of home, engine sputtering and the gas gauge needle firmly planted on “E”. Through a combination of gravity, grinding the starter motor and some good, hard pushing I got the van off the interstate and up the off-ramp to a secure spot just off the frontage road.

I sat there for a moment to gather my thoughts and plan a strategy…and while I sat there I couldn’t help but notice the smell of gasoline. As my van was equipped with a 4/60 air-conditioner (four windows rolled down while driving 60 miles per hour) there had been no way I could have detected any sort of smell other than that of the truck hauling pigs that I had been stuck behind for ten miles before my vehicle stalled, but I could most definitely detect the very strong smell of gasoline now. I walked through the interior chasing the ever-increasing odor until I got to the engine access panel in the cargo bed, which I unlatched after opening the back hatch…and when I did I was met with a rich cloud of gasoline vapor.

I had been sitting on a FAM bomb.

For the benefit of the non-veterans in the audience, a FAM bomb (more accurately known as a fuel-air mixture bomb) is an air-droppable munition that relies on gasoline vapor and a simple sparking mechanism for detonation. You’ve no doubt heard that a full-gasoline tank won’t explode if you shoot through it, but a half-empty one will? That’s because the atomized gasoline has been able to combine in a mix rich enough with oxygen in the air to provide for maximum explosive effect. I think the idea for a fuel-air mixture bomb was accidentally discovered during the Viet-Nam conflict when a half-full drop-tank exploded when discarded by a F4 Phantom in low flight – but it became a valued weapon against “soft targets” because of the immense fireball it made when exploding. It was one of the easiest weapons to identify by effect on an overhead photo because of the large smoky scorched mark it left instead of a crater.

So – getting back to my story: a week before I had found the fuel distribution system to be slightly leaking and lacking the correct manual for my type of van I was unable to order the correct part for my water-cooled engine. As the semester was ending I was pressed for time I made do with the part designed for the air-cooled version. It must have been engineered to a different set of tolerances because the pressure produced by the fuel pump had blown out the part in several places. The fuel leaking out under pressure combined with the wind rushing into the engine compartment turned the gasoline into a vapor, making it a perfect mixture for maximum explosive effect should the smallest spark occur.

My knees buckled when I realize how close I had come to being killed in massive explosion. When I stopped shaking I was able to walk across an overpass to an RV park where they were kind enough to lend me their phone to arrange for a ride home as well as letting me park the van there for security until I could get it hauled back home as well. As mentioned it was the end of the semester so I was able to take the time to track down a real “waterboxer” shop manual and in turn order the correct parts.

Over the next couple of years my class schedule changed and with it my commute – and my vehicle. My driving time became quite reasonable and it wasn’t until 2008 when I started teaching at Nossi College of Art that my commute became lengthy again. It was a much better situation than the one I had been in when I was based in East Tennessee. For starters I was (hopefully) a little older and wiser. I also wasn’t on the road half as much, the drive between my home in Clarksville and the NCA campus in Goodletsville taking at most 45 minutes. Most importantly I had a much better vehicle to travel in, and while a turbo-charged 2001 New Beetle is as much “Volkswagen” as a 1983 Vanagon, there was no way I would ever be tempted to try and fetch a bottle of apple juice from its back seat.

1 thought on “1997- Gypsy Prof

  1. David, your attention to detail is amazing. I love your recollection of events and I feel young again! Love bike ride to Mike’s house!

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