[Foreword: This is a story that for an unknown reason I want to tell in five acts, like the old Streets of San Francisco TV show (and Shakespearean plays too, although its literary merit is highly questionable)].

This is a true story. It happened over Christmas vacation in 1989.

Act I: Is It Against The Law to Yell “Fire!” In a Crowded Campmobile?

In retrospect, I should have known disaster was imminent. I knew the flaws in German engines, and I’d even warned others of the problem that I was about to face. As is my way, I managed to bring things to a head at the worst possible moment.

It was Christmas vacation in 1989. I’d bought a used VW Campmobile three months before, and I’d been fixing it up. It was an awesome vehicle. It had a stove, a sink, a clothes closet, and a poptop roof with an “upstairs” bunk to sleep in. It was a ’76, the second year with fuel injection (with which I became intimately familiar with–keep reading). I’d decided it would be a great idea to drive down from Pennsylvania down to Florida with my wife Denise (although to be exact, Denise was my fiance then–I had just asked her to marry me the month before). We’d decided to vist my parents in Sarasota. We left on Christmas Day (which is another story–that was the year that I learned not to defrost a Christmas turkey at room temperature in the summer house. They decompose rather quickly). The vacation was great, and I’d managed to do some work to get the Westy Campmobile looking really nice (as nice as an orange ’76 VW Westy can look, at any rate). The vacation passed without incident, and on the first day of the new year, we started back toward PA. We made good time on the highways, and that night we stayed at a campground in Georgia by the ocean.

The next morning on January 2nd, we got back on I-95 and started north. Denise was driving, and I was reading a Calvin and Hobbes book as we motored through Georgia.

At 10:00 or so, we passed into South Carolina still on I-95. If you’ve ever heard a ’72-’79 VW Bus engine, you know the thrum it makes when everything is well. My Westy was making that thrum.

At 10:30 AM, something changed. It was strange–I sensed it before I consciously recognized it. It seemed to happen in slow motion. As my Spidey sense went off, I turned my head to look at the rear of the bus. There, under the rear bench seat, I saw a heating vent. Out of the vent, Mission Impossible style, I saw wafts of smoke wave out into the cabin.

I said to Denise (I recall the exact terror-stricken words) “PULLOVERPULLOVERPULLOVER!!!” As she came to a halt on the shoulder of the road, I grabbed from the glove compartment a small fire extinguisher I’d hoped never to use. In a mixture of panic and purpose, I jumped out of the van and ran to the back hatch. I opened the hatch (in retrospect, a very stupid move–what if the fresh oxygen had caused an explosion?). Looking in, I saw orange flames on the engine, licking the ceiling of the compartment. Plastic and rubber parts were stretching like taffy in the heat. Everything was on fire.

I let loose the fire extinguisher, spraying it all over the engine. The fire went out, leaving a smoldering ruin. Denise came back and I showed her the damage. German fuel line rubber was notorious for cracking when aging in air-cooled Volkswagens, and then spraying gasoline all over old VW engines. We’d just witnessed a prime example at fifty-five miles per hour.

Denise asked the critical question. “What now?”

The engine wouldn’t start again. The van was dead. We were stranded. We gathered some things and locked the van up. On I-95, forty miles into South Carolina, we started hitch-hiking to the next exit.