Oct 18

Life aboard Noah’s Ark – If they only knew!


The Brothers & Co. Bus sometimes takes a little TLC!


IF THEY ONLY KNEW.  –  By Gery L. Deer

Saturday afternoons at Freedom Farm generally mean one of two things: Brothers & Co. rehearsal or hitting the road on the tour bus to perform elsewhere. One warm, fall Saturday in October 2007, we piled aboard Noah’s Ark and headed for 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 punctuality; the word simply doesn’t exist in their vocabulary. So, 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. But, eventually everyone was on board and the big Silver Eagle was belching smoke as we took to the road.

We rolled into Chillicothe around 5:30 p.m., which meant we had about another 40 minutes to before arriving at the theatre. As we came off of the highway ramp to the surface streets, the bus suddenly jerked a couple of times, in an unusually odd way, slowed way down and made a sort of long, groaning noise like some great hand had grabbed it around the middle and was squeezing it to a stop.

My brother Gary Jr. grumbled to himself as he fussed with the long, skinny shifter beside him and struggled to keep the engine from stalling. “Uh oh,” he said, in a level but notably concerned voice. He flipped the shifter back and forth on its stem, as if he was poking at something with it beneath the floor.

I made my way up to stand, where I often did, on the entryway step in front of the massive windshield, scooting past our father, who was already perched on the step beside the drivers seat. “What do you mean uh oh,” I asked, in the calmest way I could think of saying it.

“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 he maneuvered the shifter back and forth, trying to get a response.

Now, everyone who goes with us on the bus passes the time in a different way. I tend to pace and go over the show particulars – and watch the clock. Or, I toss one-liners back and forth to Jim Karns in an attempt to see what may have future potential as a comedy routine in some as yet unwritten show.

I’ve known Jim for twenty years and it’s safe to say he’s my best friend. Since he joined up with the band about a decade ago, he’s had what I’m sure he’d agree are some pretty unusual experiences. He has been stranded at the farm in an ice storm and watched a perfectly good chocolate pie do a half-gainer into the maw of a trash can. But nothing was going to prepare him for what he would experience once we got the bus.

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.

On board Noah's Ark - Looking forward from the dressing room.

On board Noah’s Ark – Looking forward from the dressing room.

As he 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. From his seat, what he saw was me and my dad clustered around my brother’s driver seat, as the bus bucked and growled to a halt.

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 alongside 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.

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.

bus_field_3192011Coming 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 dressing room, Junior and Bob had the carpet up and the floor panels 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 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 was deafening as I leaned down over the engine. Junior kept moving, at what must have been a snail’s pace to the rest of the traffic behind us, and I periodically had Bob relay a message up to Junior to try shifting up to third gear again. 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 no use.

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.”

Jim Karns naps backstage at the Paint Valley Jamboree in Bainbridge, Ohio

Jim Karns naps backstage at the Paint Valley Jamboree in Bainbridge, Ohio

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 that prevents tools and other items from falling into the engine or, worse yet in our case, to the ground. But it wasn’t a hole in the tray but 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 was it – the gearshift wasn’t connected to anything! It was like having tried everything to get a toaster to work without noticing that it was simply unplugged. I could not believe my eyes – eighteen tons worth of vehicle crippled by a 6 ounce bolt.

I shouted towards the front of the bus at top of my lungs. “We found it,” not that anyone could hear with all the noise from the open floorboards. It probably sounded more like I had fallen through the floor and was being ground up by the engine.

A few moments later, Big Brother eased the bus off the road so he could see this for himself. 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.

When Junior popped his head around the corner, I said quickly, “We’ll get it put back together. Get us to Bainbridge!” We started moving again and Bob and I carefully reconnected the shifting rods with the recovered parts. 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 Scotty voice from Star Trek, “Warp drive restored, try her now.”

The powerful diesel engine revved up and I watched the linkages move with each shift and held my breath: first, then second, and next, the moment of truth. The clutch engaged, the engine smoothed out, the high-range rod link slipped over and dropped into place … third – I let my breath out a bit. Finally, another wind up and, bang! It slipped over again and we were in fourth gear and running at full power.

“Wahoo,” I yelled. “That’s it – we got it!” The wind was getting unbearable now and Bob and I decided we’d better try to get the floor back down before someone fell through, probably me. We got the boards back in place but did not fasten them – just in case – then blew through a couple of rolls of paper towels trying to get the engine grime off. I was exhausted and exhilarated all at the same time. I looked at the clock up on the wall above Junior’s seat. It was going to be close.

I started forward, but Jim met me on his way back to the dressing room and grabbed my arm. “Come on, we need to get changed. They can drop us at the door and we’ll go let them know we’re here.

The Brothers & Co. at the Paint Valley Jamboree in Bainbridge, Ohio

The Brothers & Co. at the Paint Valley Jamboree in Bainbridge, Ohio

We got changed and made our way back to the front of the bus. Taking my usual place at the top of the steps, my brother looked over at me and must have seen the look on my face. “It seems ok,” he said, glancing down at the pedals. Now 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, not really sure what was going to happen.

As we rolled into town, the streets of Bainbridge were alive with a fall festival. The tiny downtown was packed, to put it mildly, leaving our usual parking spot for the bus occupied by French fry booths and craft vendors. Junior stopped the bus just in front Paxton Theater as people clambered to take pictures of the big machine creeping its way through the crowded street. Jim and I scrambled off the bus and into the theatre while everyone else stayed aboard and went with Junior to find a place to park it.

Inside, the auditorium was filling quickly as Jim and I made our way to the stage door. Just as Jim reached for the door knob, we heard someone say, “Hey it’s The Brothers and Company,” and the whole place broke into applause. Jim turned around and looked at me for a second kind of puzzled. I shrugged, and almost simultaneously we both turned to the audience and waved.

IMG_3790A moment later, the door closed behind us. Still astonished, Jim turned to me and said, “They recognized us?”

“Yeah, it’s the uniforms” I said casually, outwardly pretending it hadn’t affected me in the slightest. “Pretty cool, huh?”

Inside, though, I wanted to burst. In all my travels, I don’t think I’ve ever experienced anything like that before. I’m not sure the others could 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.

Jim walked ahead of me and was busy saying hello to everyone. I stopped just inside the doorway for a moment and reflected on what had already occurred that day. I looked down on the grease stains still on my hands and all I could think about was what it took to get us there. I turned and cracked the door again for a second to look out at the crowd. “If those people only knew,” I smiled to myself. I shut it back, walked to the show list and officially signed us in. “Nah,” I thought again, “they’d never believe it.” Then again, there was still the trip home, and we had yet to sing a note.


And the adventure continues …