May 19

A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to Paint Valley

By Gery L. Deer

©2012 The Brothers & Co. Entertainers / GLD Enterprises

This is a true story based on the events of Saturday October 20, 2007 as The Brothers & Co. Entertainers set out to perform at the Paint Valley Jamboree in Bainbridge, Ohio. 

Saturday afternoons at the farmgenerally mean one of two things: band rehearsal or hitting the road on the tour bus for a show somewhere else. This particular Saturday, we were getting ready to head to the Paint Valley Jamboree in Bainbridge, Ohio, about an hour and a half away.

I was starting to get itchy about being late, mainly because we hadn’t rehearsed in a couple of weeks and I wanted the extra time to go over our music. The late arrival of my sister, Cathy, and her husband, Bob, had pushed us behind about thirty minutes already.

But not to worry, I have a built-in plan for such situations. You see, I know how my family is about meeting deadlines and being on time. I tend to pad our arrival or departure times by at least 45 minutes, sometimes as much as an hour and a half. So we had about 15 minutes remaining of the ‘extra’ time I built into the schedule. It was more to keep me calm and off of everyone’s case than to counter their tardiness.

Our one stop, to pick up fuel for both the bus and the family, was uneventful. To my Cousin Ed’s exasperation, the bus uses about $75 worth of fuel when traveling one of these jamboree shows. We save about $125 off of the costs of taking an average of 4 different cars, not to mention the convenience of having our own bathroom and dressing room.

We hit Chillicothe around 5:30 p.m., which meant we had about another 30 minutes to get to Bainbridge to arrive on time. As we came off of the ramp from US 35 and made the turn onto ST RT 50 into the city, the bus jerked a couple of times in an odd way and made a sort of ‘groaning’ noise.

“Noah’s Ark,” as the bus came to be called had its share of problems from day one. It seems, though, every time we go to this particular theater, it has some sort of fit. The first time we were there it had to be moved after we first got to town but it wouldn’t start. We ended up pull-starting it with a pickup truck. Now that was a sight to beat all sights.

The second time, we got caught in an ice storm. But I have to say, thanks to my brother’s exceptional driving skill and the sheer weight of the bus, we got home safe and sound. It just took two hours longer than usual. This time, we hadn’t even gotten there yet and the Ark was about to run aground.

My brother’s voice tightened as he fussed with the gear shift and struggled to keep the engine from stalling. “Uh oh,” said Junior, in a level but notably concerned voice. He flipped the shifter back and forth on its stem in an unusual way.

“What do you mean uh oh?” As the words escaped my throat, it was clear the calm had already left my voice. I made my way up to stand, where I often did, on the entryway step in front of the picture-window sized windshield. Dad was already on the step next to him.

“It’s locked in a gear and I can’t get it out,” Junior said as he fought with the mammoth machine to regain control of the gearing. “Ggggrrrzzzzppp,” went the grinding gears as Junior struggled to get the shifter to respond. Ok, so that noise gave it away – to everyone else.

I have known Jim Karns for about 14 years. Since he’s been hanging around with us he’s had, what I’m sure he’d admit, are some pretty unusual experiences.

He has been stranded in an ice storm and he’s even lost an entire pie when an unnamed friend of his allowed it to gracefully do a half-gainer into a garbage can. But nothing was to prepare him for what he would experience once we got the bus.

As a result, by this time, he was used to things going somewhat strangely around our family and just kind of takes it for granted that something bizarre will happen every week. He certainly was not to be disappointed on this trip either.

We had been watching a movie playing on the video screen but I don’t know how anyone could have seen it with their eyes closed that way. Then again, they may have been listening to the movie on the surround sound, but I think all that snoring would have drowned it out.

Stirred from what seemed a pretty good nap, I saw the all-to-familiar crease of the worry lines in Jim’s forehead begin to buckle. As Dad and I clustered around Junior, it didn’t take anyone long to figure out there was a problem.

Junior nursed the bus through a couple of traffic lights to a sloped section of street at a stop light where we were to make a turn. But we weren’t going anywhere from this point anytime soon.

Errrrggglll…thud That was it. The big beast stalled and would not restart. Junior locked the emergency brake and put on the hazard lights as he tried once more to restart the engine and free the gearing from the pilot’s seat. Finally, with a metallic ‘pop,’ like someone hitting a steel pot with a railroad tie, he said, “Ok, it’s in neutral.” But, it still wouldn’t start. The ignition button just went ‘click,’ as if it were disconnected.

With that he opened the pneumatic doors and made a quick step off the bus and back to the engine compartment. He raised the engine access panel in the back and tried to see first why it wouldn’t start. After all, if it wouldn’t start, it wouldn’t matter what the gearing was doing. So, even if we figured out the shifting problem, we weren’t going anywhere.

Having to keep pressure on the clutch for such a long time got it pretty hot. It made a lot of smoke and the smell was overwhelming. So, some people were getting off the bus in favor of the fresh air outside. Jim and Barbara took up conversing on a wall surrounding the parking lot of an insurance company. I don’t know what they were talking about, but I could tell our activities were being watched closely. They did fire off the occasional words of encouragement.

Cathy walked around along side the bus talking with Ed, who was pacing – not unlike an expectant father. “Don’t worry,” Cathy was saying at one point, “Junior can fix anything.” When my brother heard about this, he nearly dropped dead of shock right then and there.

Ed, on the other hand, just shrugged and continued to pace silently asking the odd question about our situation now and then. At one point, I heard him say something to the effect of, “Who can we call? Everyone is here!” “Don’t worry,” I exclaimed, “I’ve got Triple-A.” He just looked at me like I was nuts, the way most people do.

In addition to being the family skeptic when it came to Junior’s toys, like the bus, Ed was also the only band member out walking around in uniform during our forced rest stop. Since we were at an intersection, traffic was starting to back up behind us. People noticed Ed’s outfit and the writing on the bus and many people waved or blew their horns.  A couple of people actually stopped to offer help.

Jim and I choose to change once we arrive at a show. A habit we both developed from years of stage performing. Wearing street clothes as long as possible protects expensive costumes from the stray droplet of mustard from the hot dog you just had to have prior to the show. Junior doesn’t even think about dressing for a show until the bus is parked – no explanation needed for that one at this point.

I had taken a position on the port side stern of the bus, just behind the driver’s side rear wheels. I watched the lights and waved people around when it was safe since they couldn’t see the light change because of the bus.. At the same time, I was trying to help find solutions to the problem and try not to look at my watch.

I tend to use naval terms when speaking about the Ark. There’s a reason. The bus is so large, that it’s not hard to think of it as if it were a ship at sea, with deck plates, an engine room, and so on. When stuff like this happens, it’s a little like a ship’s crew working to restore power and get things moving again under a sharp deadline.

As it turns out, the starter problem was not the most serious of our issues. An overheated ‘kill’ switch was keeping the bus from getting electrical power to the starter. Junior removed the switch and hard-wired the starter to the main power line. Dad, who now occupied the pilot’s seat was getting “try it now” messages by way of the other passengers in an odd game of telephone. Finally, it turned over and we could concentrate on the gearing.

Coming around to the driver’s side again, Junior laid face up on the pavement and slid himself under the engine compartment. Flashlight in hand, he started looking for where the gearing was connected to the transmission housing. “I can’t see anything, all of the shifting rods are on top,” he called from below, and slid himself out. “We gotta take the floor up,” he said, standing up and a bit out of breath. He turned and made his way back around to the doors and back aboard, moving to the dressing room in the rear of the bus.

The bus has essentially five compartments: the cockpit, where the driver sits; main cabin or passenger area, in the middle of the bus; the dressing room at the rear; the lavatory in the rear corner; the engine compartment located just below the dressing room; and the cargo hold beneath the passenger areas. Getting to the engine and other systems requires being outside, but some equipment is accessible from inside the cabin.

Long steel rods are connected in short sections by bolts and run beneath the floor. These connect the pedals in the cockpit to the machinery in the rear, a span of more than 40 feet. The only way to get to them to make repairs or do maintenance is to remove the wooden floor deck plates. That means we have to roll the carpeting back and remove the screws that hold the deck plates to the floor exposing the hardware.

By the time I made my way back to the engine room, Junior and Bob had the carpet up and the deck plates removed. The compartment is only about 6ft square with the bathroom taking up one corner of the space. That makes maneuvering around back there something of a challenge, especially with no floor and a big piece of carpet in the way.

With the floor up, we could see the shifting rods and where they connected to the gearing in a sort of bicycle pedal configuration. Maneuvering around to get a look at everything with a flashlight, he and Dad were shouting instructions back and forth the length of the bus.

I looked at my watch again impatiently. “See anything,” I asked? “Not yet,” said Junior and yelled for Dad to try shifting it out of neutral again and into one of the other gears. At the same time, Junior used a hammer to hit the gear linkage knuckles in an attempt to free them, or at least kick the bus into a lower gear.

Outside, Jim and Barbara continued their conversation gesturing and looking towards the bus at each “clank” of the hammer. Mom and Junior’s fiancé, Diana, remained in their seats for the most part, overseeing the action. Of course, Mom was supervising and telling Dad whenever he was doing it wrong – whatever it was he was doing.

Finally, a loud bang was followed by a loud “clunk.” Junior had managed to free the shifter enough that the low range was available. That means that we had first and second gear, but third and fourth were out. Essentially, the warp drive was offline.

At last, we were ready to try to get out of the intersection and at least get moving again. Junior started the bus and waited while the air pressure built up in the brakes. If this didn’t work, we’d have to be able to stop pretty fast or roll down the hill backwards.

As the pressure came up, Junior released the emergency brake and the big engine groaned deep. With the deck plates still off in the dressing room, the engine seemed louder than ever. He used a careful balance of the clutch and accelerator to keep the bus still on the slope as we waited for the traffic light to change.

Everyone was sitting silently in their seats and I was standing on the landing of the steps next to the pilot’s seat. When the light changed, a roar came up from the back of the bus, and Junior eased the clutch up and the gas pedal down.

Since it has no power steering, and the pilot sits in front of the front wheels, getting it around sharp turns is a challenge even when it everything is running properly. The bus lumbered around the corner making the sharp right turn just a few feet short of a light post. Junior’s frantic hand over hand grip and release of the steering wheel made it look as if he was trying to climb quickly up a rope for fear of falling.

We were moving, but we were still stuck with only two gears. It was about ten minutes to six and with a top speed in second gear of about 25 miles per hour it looked as if we just weren’t going to make it. We made our way through the eastern edge of Chillicothe often coasting to avoid having to shift.

As I sat there, I was starting to really think the shifting problem was something simple that we had overlooked. It just didn’t make sense. Everything else was working and there was no warning when things went bad. It just wouldn’t come out of gear, then, it wouldn’t go into gear. But, the first and second gears worked.

“I’m going to try something,” I said to Junior and Dad. “I’m going to see if we can knock it into a higher gear while we’re moving.” I got up and started back towards the engine room again. Bob followed me and stopped at the door.

I picked up a flashlight, located the high-range rod, and picked up the hammer. I was sitting on my knees with my back to the lavatory door, looking forward down into the engine compartment while the ground whizzed below me.

The noise of the machinery and the wind in the engine room were deafening. As Junior kept moving, at what must have been a snail’s pace to the rest of the traffic behind us, I periodically had Bob relay a message up to Junior to try shifting up to third gear again.

When I heard the engine spin freely as the clutch was activated, I used the hammer to hit the gear linkage knuckles in an attempt to free them, or at least kick the bus into the next higher gear. But, it was futile.

Nothing moved. But something didn’t seem right because you should at least see the shifting rods move. Even if they buckle from the gears being locked they should move a little. I hit it one last time in irritation. “This has to be simple.”

If I learned anything from my dad and my brother, I learned that when a piece of machinery breaks down, and there’s no obvious damage or symptoms before it happened, there must be a simple explanation. So this was seriously frustrating me. That and I really wanted to get to the show in time.

Bob and I scanned the engine compartment again for some other clue. Towards the back, under the edge of the remaining floor panel, the flashlight’s beam passed across what looked like a hole in the catch tray.

The catch tray is a safety panel just under the shifting rods. It prevents tools and other items from falling all the way through to the engine and other moving parts, or worse, to the ground where they might be launched by the wheels as projectiles.

But it wasn’t a hole in the tray.  It was two holes – one in each end of a steel shifting rod. It looked like a joint where a big machine bolt was supposed to be connecting two sections of the shifting rod that operated the high-range gearing.

The connecting bolt was missing and the two sections of the shifting rod had separated. That’s why we couldn’t shift into the upper two gears! The gearshift wasn’t connected to anything! When we both realized what we were looking at Bob and I said, almost in sync, “that’s it.” I could not believe my eyes – eighteen tons worth of vehicle crippled by a 6 ounce bolt.

“We found it,” I shouted at the top of my lungs. It was somewhat pointless because with all the noise and air blowing through, no one could really hear me. I probably sounded like I had fallen through the floor and was being ground up by the engine.

The bolt had apparently shaken loose over time and dropped out into the catch tray beneath as Junior made his last downshift coming off of the ramp in Chillicothe.

My message quickly got relayed up front and everyone sounded relieved, though in disbelief. Can it be that easy? Junior found a place and eased the bus off the road so he could see what we found.

Bob was kneeling in the doorway looking under the lip of the deck plate towards the front of the bus. He fished around under the lip of the forward deck plate until we found the nut and the bolt which had landed in the catch tray.

Junior stepped over him. “We’ll get it put back together,” I said to Junior directly, “get us to Bainbridge.” We still had a chance, but we had to keep moving. I told him Bob and I would get it back together as we were driving. After all, we couldn’t check to see if it was working sitting on the side of the road. Junior went back to the pilot’s seat and pulled us out onto the road once more.

We started moving again and Bob and I struggled to get the two ends of the shifting rods to line up so that the bolt would go through the holes. Between the two of us, we finally got the bolt through the machine holes, quickly spinning the nut on behind it. We tightened it down a bit by hand and I called up for Junior to try taking us into third gear. “Captain,” I yelled in my best Star Trek Scotty voice. “Warp drive restored, try her now.”

The powerful diesel engine revved up as the gears slipped into their proper place … first …then second … and next was the moment of truth. The clutch engaged, the engine smoothed out, the high-range rod link slipped over and easily dropped into place … third…it slipped over again and … fourth!

“Woohoo,” I yelled. “That’s it – we got it!” I felt the Ark moving a lot faster. The wind was getting unbearable now and Bob and I decided we’d better try to get the deck plate back down before someone fell through the floor.

We lowered the deck plate back into place but we didn’t bolt it down – just in case. I rolled the carpet back over them and Bob and I blew through a roll of paper towels trying to get the grease and grime off of us. I was exhausted and exhilarated all at the same time.

It finally seemed that things were running smoothly. I was coming forward and Jim met me on his way back to the dressing room to change into his Brothers outfit. “You need to get changed as soon as I’m done,” he said, gesturing towards the rear door. “We’ll be there any minute and we’re going to have to bail so you can get us signed in.”

I went to the cockpit and asked how it was running. “It seems ok,” Junior said without hesitation. It was closing on 6:30 p.m. and we were supposed to be at the theater and signed in at 6. “Think we’ll still get in,” Dad asked? “Yeah, if we make it by 6:30, we should be ok,” I said.

Really, I wasn’t sure what was going to happen. I had no idea if we were too late or not, or even if there’d be any room for us on the program. With only about 5 minutes to go, I got up and went back to the dressing room to get changed.

The streets of Bainbridge were alive with a fall festival. That meant our usual parking spot for the bus was taken up with French fry booths. We drove into town and Junior stopped in the middle of all the festivities, right in front of the Paxton Theater. Jim and I scrambled off the bus and went straight inside to get signed onto the bill for the night.

As we made our way down the side of the theater, Jim and I heard someone say, “Hey it’s The Brothers and Company.” We were about to step up to the stage door and people broke out into applause. Jim looked at me for a second kind of puzzled. I shrugged, and turned to the audience and waved. He followed suit and we turned and stepped through the stage door.

When the door closed behind us, Jim turned to me and said, “They recognized us?” He seemed genuinely surprised. “Yeah, it’s the uniforms” I said casually. “Pretty cool, huh?” Inside I wanted to burst. In all my travels, I don’t think I’ve ever experienced anything like that before. We hadn’t been there in several months and people were not only happy to see us, but were excited about what we were going to do to entertain them.

I’m not sure mom and dad and the others really appreciate how that felt. I only wish Ed and Junior had been with us so we’d have made the full impression. They deserve as much of the applause as me and Jim. After all, if not for Junior, we wouldn’t have made it there at all.

Watching Jim walk backstage, I looked down on the grease on my hands and all I could think about was what it took to get us there. I leaned back and cracked the door again for a second, looking at the crowd. “If those people only knew,” I smiled to myself. I closed the door and turned to follow Jim. “Nah,” I thought again, “they’d never believe it.”

I don’t know who was prouder at that moment, me, Jim … or Tuff. I know he’s always with us, and I know that, wherever he is, he was watching us and grinning from ear to ear.

While we were receiving our accolades,  Jr. found the closest parking available for the bus, about three blocks away. By the time everyone else got to the theater, Jim and I had already started to work the crowd at the theater door, passing out fliers and talking to people.

One guy, who I found out later stood in the middle of the street to get a picture of the bus after they dropped us off, came down to the show just to meet us. He’d photographed the bus several times as Junior was trying to find a place to park it.

We were thirteenth on the bill that night, which gave us time to talk to people and practice. With all that had happened we didn’t get the normal practice on the bus ride down. We hadn’t rehearsed in almost three weeks – not a single note. So we crowded into a dressing room and ran through our pieces. We were as ready as we were going to be, so we relaxed and we waited.

The rest of the show and the evening went off without a hitch. We’re even talking with the owner of the theater about doing a feature down there sometime soon. I don’t know how we get into an out of things that would leave most people sitting on the side of the road. But then again, most people wouldn’t do all this crazy stuff in the first place.

And the adventure continues!