The Adventures of Billy Possum
“Bomber Returns Home”
By Bill J. Castenholz
Copyright 2004, Castenholz and Sons
It was Tuesday morning. We would be home tomorrow and the great saga of “Bomber’s” trip to Indiana and Michigan, to Georgia, to Colorado and then back to Pacific Palisades would be over. It had been an adventure and we had had our anxiety, our joys and our adventure. But it would be over tomorrow.
A last minute check of the motel room before leaving. As usual I had started “Bomber” for the 5-minute warm up.
That’s funny. It sounded like the car sputtered and then quit. “Mike, did the engine quit,” I asked. “Yes, it did,” Mike answered. We didn’t realize it at the moment but the trip was far from over. There was another chapter in the saga ahead of us. We had been on this leg of the trip for eight days and it would be another nine before "Bomber" would finally make it home! Here’s what happened.
Monday, Day One
Mike drove up to my house to have his car there when we finally brought “Bomber” home. We arrived at LAX early, passed through security and soon we were in the air. Arriving at Denver International, we got on a bus for the city and only had a city block to walk to the Amtrak station. Rather than rent a locker, we were able to leave our bags with the Amtrak attendant and soon we were sight-seeing in downtown Denver.
The late afternoon train was just about on time and we enjoyed the ride to Fort Morgan. I can’t say enough about the help and courtesy that Connie Eckert of Days Inn showed us, both at the end of the last leg of our trip and now, upon returning for the start of our final journey home. She was waiting for us when the train arrived in Fort Morgan. And the next day she drove us to where “Bomber” was stored.
Each morning Sam was full of energy and ready to go.
Our grandson Sam, Mile’s and Anna’s brother, was the fortunate one who would accompany us on this portion of the trip. He lives in San Luis Obispo, so we would be passing through there to drop him off at home, spend the night and then make the final day’s drive to Pacific Palisades.
Like his cousin Wilson, Sam loves to swim so he and I took an evening dip at the Motel before turning in.
Tuesday, Day Two
Fairly early in the morning Connie drove us to where “Bomber” was stored. We told her not to wait for us and she left. It’s always exciting to lift the door and see the ’29 just waiting to roar into action. We connected the battery and right away the engine started. Not bad for a couple of months of inactivity!
Removing “Bomber” from storage in Fort Morgan, Colorado.
We drove back to the motel, loaded our luggage, got gas and we were off.
Somewhere in Colorado - A genuine drive-in restaurant.
Next stop, Cheyenne, Wyoming. We arrived there in the late afternoon, stopped at the AAA office for a few maps, had dinner, and found a motel. The rest of the evening was spent greasing the car.
Downtown Cheyenne, Wyoming.
Wednesday, Day Three
The drive across the southern part of Wyoming was uneventful. There were essentially no opportunities to take side roads and we stayed on Interstate 80 all day, arriving for the evening in Evanston. Traveling west, Evanston would be the last town in Wyoming before we entered Utah.
One of several times we crossed the Continental Divide.
Unlike crossing Colorado, the drive over the Rocky Mountains on Interstate 80 was nowhere nearly as severe a climb for “Bomber.” Although we crossed the Continental Divide several times, the elevation never reached above the summit of 8640 feet, a point between Cheyenne and Laramie.
Each state has its unique beauty. Here we are in Wyoming..
Two Happy Campers - for the moment..
Western Wyoming. Approaching a chance to use our horn and make some noise.
Thursday, Day Four
Entering Utah, the only state we crossed in just one day.
Entering the Great Basin, the scenery became much more barren. Much of Utah is covered by flat desert accented by large salt (or alkaline) flats.
Neck and neck with one of the bruisers.
Passing through Salt Lake City.
Salt lake City was interesting, viewed from the highway which passes a mile or two from the center of the city. Unfortunately the view of the Great Salt Lake was not very spectacular. I recall, returning from my military time in Germany, crossing the Great Salt Lake by train. The rails are laid on a causeway and, with a full moon, the view was awesome. Not so today.
The car was running fine and we quickly crossed all of Utah without fanfare.
The great salt flats at Bonneville. The brilliance was awesome.
As we approached Wendover and the Nevada border, the salt flats became more numerous and larger. The salt appeared nearly white with just a tinge of yellow. But when we arrived at Bonneville, the flats were stark white. And they seemed to go on forever. The sign at the Bonneville Salt Flats said that the surface was so level that the curvature of the earth can be seen. A car traveling on the marked speed course could not see the end of the markings because they curved out of sight. Bonneville was the highlight of the day’s drive.
An angry sky in western Utah.
No problem. Our electric windshield wiper proves its worth.
We passed over a modest summit, a bit less than 7000 feet, before driving through Wells on our way to Elko where we spent the night.
Friday, Day Five
Elko began a return to the past for me. My earliest memories, as a child, are of Christmastime, 1938, in Elko. And, in 1948, when my father was traveling with the CAA (Civil Aeronautics Administration, a forerunner of the FAA, I think), I spent the summer with him in places like Donner Summit, Reno, Winnemucca, Battle Mountain, and Elko. Some of these places weren’t at the end of the earth, but you could see it from there. I particularly wanted to go through Battle Mountain because I had spent several weeks there. As a boy of 13, I found the most interesting thing to do in Battle Mountain was walking the desert in search of Indian artifacts. Unfortunately the best treasure of the day usually wound up to be a few Coyote bones. Also, I had learned to swim in Winnemucca. Usually Dad and his wife took my step-brother Damon and me there on Saturday. They would deposit the boys at the pool and spend the afternoon in some bar.
We had passed a sign saying in effect, “Make a pit stop in Battle Mountain, the arm pit of America.” When I had been there last, in 1948, it was a few blocks of houses and about two blocks of businesses along the west side of the highway. As I remembered, there wasn’t anything on the east side of the road but the train tracks and a water tower. Battle Mountain existed because of the railroad. Before the era of diesels the great iron horses stopped for water in Battle Mountain.
Battle Mountain. It has not only survived in the middle of nowhere, it has actually grown since 1948.
I didn’t expect much but to my surprise the town had grown a lot. A beautiful two-story house on the east side of the tracks seemed to say it all.
Now it‘s an old car. . . .
And now it‘s brand-new!
Somewhere past Battle Mountain “Bomber” went through a time warp. From an old car with 99,999 miles on the odometer it suddenly was transformed into a brand-new car with an odometer reading of 00000. (When I bought the car in 1981, the odometer was broken and read a bit more than 43,000 miles. I fixed it after a few thousand miles. In the last twenty-three years we have driven the car over 60,000 miles!!)
We traveled west, passing through Winnemucca without ceremony and stopped for dinner in Lovelock. Lovelock appeared to be going through what I expected of Battle Mountain - implosion. Lots of boarded up or deserted businesses. After searching the whole town, we stopped at McDonald’s for dinner.
That evening we stopped in Fallon. I had never been to Fallon even though my father worked there for several years, finding a permanent position with the CAA after his traveling in the summer of 1948. He bought a ranch of 72 acres in Smith Valley, Nevada, and the family moved there from Van Nuys (part of the Los Angeles megapolis) in early January, 1949.
Sam enjoyed the pool at the motel while Mike and I tried to figure out what was causing an occasional slight hesitation in the engine, just like what we had experienced way back in Georgia.
Saturday, Day Six
We got off to a bit of a slow start this morning. The luggage was loaded on the side of the car and we headed South. Passing through the Walker River Indian Reservation and the tiny junction town of Schurz on the reservation, we turned north west, then west, arriving in Yerington for a late lunch. Yerington was named for H.M. Yerington, President of the fabulous Virginia and Truckee Railroad during the hayday of the Comstock Lode when the largest concentration of precious metal ore ever found was being mined in Virginia City, Nevada.
Yerington also had the only movie theater within driving distance (25 miles) of Smith Valley, and regularly on Saturdays Damon and I would make our way there. That was almost exactly 50 years ago.
On the outskirts of Yerington. An attempt to find the cause of the engine miss.
“Bomber” wasn’t exactly running well, but as we headed toward Smith Valley, the problem became increasingly a nuisance. We were sure the carburetor and fuel pump were fine. That left the ignition, it seemed.
We drove through Walker Canyon, where the beautiful West Walker River runs, and into Smith Valley. We stopped in Smith (population 5, in 1949, and about the same today) for ice cream and then drove by the “old ranch.” My father had sold the ranch in 1953 to the Swansons. George Swanson and I were in the same class together in the one-room junior high school in Smith.
In front of the ranch in Smith Valley. I had lived here in 1949 and 1950.
A gentleman was sitting on the porch of the ranch house so we pulled into the driveway. He said something like “Great car!” My response was “I used to live here.” It turned out that John Swanson was the younger brother of George and he still lived on the ranch. We chatted for a while and then said “Goodbye,” heading toward Wellington, the only substantial town in Smith Valley.
It looks like Sam will be a Chevy guy, too.
Leaving the valley. “Bomber” almost didn’t make it, missing and sputtering as it climbed the short grade.
Anyone else like to help? Changing coil, points and capacitor. After this, “Bomber” never ran better.
At the junction with Interstate 395 we headed north toward Gardnerville and Minden. But at the first opportunity, we turned off at a roadside stop, totally frustrated with the way “Bomber” was running. We decided to change the points, capacitor and coil. Once the spare parts were installed, “Bomber” never ran better, and we were very happy campers!
There was some kind of festival going on in Minden and after searching, we found one room for Mike in one motel, and another room for Sam, Bill and Jeanette in another.
After dinner, Mike and I went to visit our very good friends Lester and Janice Harris. Lester has one of the finest stocks of NOS (new old stock) parts in the country. We never pass through the area without saying “Hi” to Lester and Janice.
Sunday, Day Seven
After visiting one of the local churches, we set off across the Sierras. In a way, I was sorry to be back in such familiar territory. It wouldn’t be long now until we would be home and this fabulous trip would be history.
The beauty of Highway 88 over the Sierras is evident in this scene.
We crossed the Sierra Nevada range on Highway 88. If you haven’t driven it, you should. Of all the Sierra crossings we have made, Highway 88 is by far the most beautiful. And it crosses Highway 49 (the gold country road) at Jackson, a quaint town founded during the Gold Rush.
Yet another first for Sam - snow.
“Bomber” ran great, but still we were in 2nd gear for a fair part of the climb to the summit. We stopped at one place because there was a patch of snow and Sam had never been in snow before. Except for the king-sized mosquito’s, it was a refreshing stop.
One of the beautiful lakes we passed on Highway 88.
After dinner in Sutter Creek, another gold rush town on Highway 49, just north of Jackson, we again got back on Highway 88 and headed toward Sacramento, stopping for the night at Tracy.
Monday, Day Eight
A first - we passed another vehicle. No matter that it was a hill and he was slightly loaded.
From Tracy, we passed through the hills covered with modern windmills, electrical generating propellers on high towers, and arrived about noon in Hayward. We picked Hayward because there was a BART (Bay Area Rapid Transit) station there. We dropped off our luggage at the local Motel 6 and headed for the BART station. It was about noon.
At Fisherman’s Warf the seals were provided their own spot, so as to keep them off of the local boats.
The World War II submarine at Fisherman’s Warf.
Arriving in San Francisco, we walked about a mile or two to Pier 39, where we grabbed a bite of lunch and then walked over to the World War II submarine docked nearby. From there we walked to the turntable at the end of the cable car line at Fisherman’s Wharf, heading for Chinatown.
Another first for Sam, a ride in a cable car.
After dinner at our favorite Chinese restaurant (my wife and I discovered this place on our honeymoon, in 1957), a short walk took us to a BART station. Back in Hayward, we piled into "Bomber," stopped for gas, got on the freeway for a couple of miles and arrived at the motel about 9pm. It had been a pleasant day, and “Bomber” was running beautifully!
Like his cousin Wilson and his brother Miles and his sister Anna, Sam found some friends along the way.
“You drove from Los Angeles to Michigan and to Georgia and to Colorado and here in what?”
Tuesday, Day Nine
As usual I started the car about 5 minutes before we planned to leave. It takes about that much time to warm up.
I was in the motel room with the door open when I heard the car begin to miss and then stop running. And repeated attempts to restart the car only resulted in it running extremely rough for a few seconds before quiting.
What could it be? We started changing things. First a fuel pump, then off came the carburetor for a thorough cleaning. We walked over to the nearby gas station and, using air, blew out the passages in the dismantled carburetor. Still no change. We changed the new coil for the old one we had removed in Nevada. No change.
Morning turned into afternoon. Then we made a discovery. The gas in the fuel pump bowl didn’t look as clear as it should. Could it be the gas? Disconnecting the fuel line at the inlet to the fuel pump we put a short line from the pump inlet to a container made from a plastic bottle. We filled the container with fresh gasoline from our spare one-gallon gas can and also replaced the gasoline in the fuel pump sediment bowl. After a few seconds of barely running “Bomber,” came alive. It was the gas!
We ran the engine until the plastic container was almost empty and then turned off the engine. The problem was solved!
Our plan was to drain the fuel from the tank and take it to the Pep Boys. They had agreed to accept it. But first we wanted to do an experiment. We would reattach the fuel line from the tank and see if our analysis was certain. With the fuel tank line again in place we started the engine. All of a sudden Mike yelled that the fuel in the sediment bowl became cloudy. And a couple of seconds later the engine began to run rough and then quit. We were now certain that something in the fuel was the problem.
We borrowed a 5-gallon container from Pep Boys and drained out about half of the fuel in the tank. While Mike and Sam went back to Pep Boys, I began changing the parts which we had exchanged in our search for the problem - the coil, the fuel pump, the distributor cap and rotor.
Mike and Sam returned with the empty 5 gallon gas can and we finished emptying “Bomber’s” tank. We also detached the fuel line from the fuel tank, as before, and put fuel in the plastic container which was reattached to the fuel pump inlet. This would clean out the bad gas and then we would blow out the line to the gas tank and refill it with clean gas. But when we tried to restart the engine it just sputtered. Nothing we did seemed to work. We were back in trouble again.
After hours of struggle, we again took rooms in the motel and only stopped trying to start the car when the time passed 11pm. Something I had done while Mike and Sam went to dump the bad gas had caused a problem which we just couldn’t seem to find.
Our plan had been to drive to San Luis Obispo where Sam lives, stay the night, and be home the next day. Instead we were stuck 200 miles from there with no idea of what to do.
The one thing we were sure of: the gas we put in “Bomber’s” tank the night before was not the problem. If it had been, the problem would have showed up before we arrived back at the motel. The conclusion we were forced to was that someone had tampered with the car at night while we were asleep! (A later analysis of the gas showed a yellow substance, soluble in gasoline but which would not burn!)
Wednesday, Day Ten
Not the way we wanted to take a car trip.
“Bomber” tucked in for a few days.
Mike’s brother-in-law and sister-in-law live in Pleasanton, about 15 miles from Hayward. Mike asked Eddie & Mary if we could have the car towed to their house. Always gracious, they said “Sure.” We phoned AAA and the tow truck soon arrived at the motel. The tow was uneventful. With “Bomber” tucked away safely in Eddie & Mary’s side yard, Mike borrowed Eddie’s car and drove us to the Amtrak platform in Hayward. He then returned the car and later that day caught a flight to LAX. He was home by dinnertime.
“Oh, Amtrak. Where are you?”
No matter how long you have to wait for the train, it is always fun. Here Sam tries out chop sticks.
Meanwhile, we waited for the train. And waited and waited. Finally the train did come and we rode down to San Jose. There we were supposed to ride the Amtrak bus to San Luis Obispo. However the late train resulted in our missing the bus. So far- not so good.
Then one of those rare individuals came to our rescue. Ida works at the Amtrak ticket counter in San Jose. She is patient, courteous, concerned and efficient. The result was that she first told us that there was no way Amtrak could get us to San Luis Obispo that day. But Amtrak would put us up in a motel, provide the cab both to and from the motel, and there would be no charge for the Amtrak tickets! We quickly relaxed and “went with the flow.”
When we got to the Vagabond Motel, Sam was so impressed with the large beds and the swimming pool with adjacent hot tub, that he remarked that he was glad we had car trouble. I must say, the complimentary chocolate muffins, pop corn and hot chocolate, not to mention the hot tub, very quickly made the day’s problems melt away.
Thursday, Day Eleven
Even though today we were supposed to be home, we were having a pretty good time. We checked with Amtrak. The morning train from San Jose to San Luis Obispo was running late - 6 hours late! So we walked out in front of the motel, got on the light rail (street car) and were soon in downtown San Jose. A trip to the children’s museum and lunch at Johnny Rocket’s, a 1950’s restaurant, took up the middle of the day. Then we returned to the motel, phoned for the cab and arrived at the Amtrak station just in time to be informed that the train was going to be even later than expected. But an Amtrak bus would be leaving for San Luis Obispo shortly. We had hoped for a train ride but it was getting late so the bus would have to do.
The Amtrak buses are not as exciting as the train.
We arrived in San Luis Obispo and phoned my son, Dan. He said “Where are you.” “We’re in San Luis . . . .” “You can’t be,” he said, “I just phoned Amtrak and they said the bus would not be there for another half-hour.” Some way to run a railroad! (But I still love to ride the train!)
Friday, Day Twelve
Dan has a Ford Expedition which he loaned to us. We drove the 200 miles home and arrived before dinner. Home - finally. But the trip wasn’t over. “Bomber” was still over 400 miles away.
The Rest of the Trip
The Expedition has provision for a tow ball. So, on the following Tuesday Jeanette and I drove back to San Luis Obispo, stopping to buy a tow ball on the way. We were again about to use the handy towbar that we had had made, way back in 1981, when we towed “Bomber” home from Missouri.
The next day, Wednesday, Dan took off work and the two of us drove to Pleasanton, made one last attempt to start “Bomber,” and then towed the car back to San Luis where we planned to fix it the next day.
Dan also stayed home Thursday and we began to methodically work through the problem. First a proven carburetor and fuel pump, and again using the plastic container with fresh gas directly at the fuel pump inlet. No change.
Next another coil. No change. Finally a completely rebuilt distributor. Voilŕ! The car once again began to purr. I can’t tell you how good “Bomber” sounded after all that trouble. The fuel line was reconnected after the tank was flushed out with a small amount of fuel and the line purged with air. We put about 5 gallons of gas in the tank and drove around for a couple of miles just to be sure everything was OK. Tomorrow we would drive the car home.
Back in San Luis Obispo, “Bomber” finally was ready to resume the journey.
Gramma saying “Goodbye.” Shari, Anna, Sam, Isabella and Miles.
Just when we were about to leave the starter failed.
The next morning, Friday, we packed the car, said “Goodbye” to Dan as he went off to work, and started “Bomber.” Well, we tried to start it. The starter has occasionally caused the Bendix drive to jam and that’s what seemed to happen. But we rocked the car back and forward and still nothing from the starter!
So, Miles and I removed the starter and dismantled it. The commutator was dirty and covered with oil. We wiped the brushes clean and used fine emery cloth on the commutator. With the starter back in the car the engine started immediately.
We said “Goodbye” to Shari and the kids and drove away.
A rest stop in Los Alamos.
The drive from San Luis to Pacific Palisades was going well until a bit south of Santa Barbara. The engine began to miss slightly at first but by the time we reached Ventura there definitely was something wrong again. We nursed the car home, parked it in the back, and didn’t touch it until later the next day. I decided to check the timing first. When I opened the distributor cap, I could hardly believe my eyes. The fiber that rides on the distributor cam and opens the points had nearly disintegrated. The points would barely open. I had forgotten to grease the cam when the distributor was rebuilt. I was going from careless to slip-shod rapidly.
Home at last, after 1 year, 2 weeks and 3 days.
“Tomorrow we will get organized.”
With new points installed the car has performed beautifully ever since.
Now you know why we call ourselves 1929-1930 Chevrolet Specialists - not Chevrolet Experts!!
The trip started on June 2, 2003 and ended on June 18, 2004.
The total milage was 7,715, including about 300 miles that the car was towed.
Twenty-three states were covered: California, Nevada, Arizona, Utah, Colorado, Nebraska, Iowa, Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Ohio, Kentucky, Virginia, Tennessee, North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, Arkansas, Missouri, Kansas and Wyoming.
Three grandsons and a granddaughter had the experience of “Bomber” on the road.
An engine rod bearing burned out. A fuel pump failed. The oil pump was slow to prime, causing a day’s delay. One of the brake cross-rods became bound in the bushings. The tail light wire shorted out. The battery died so dead that we couldn’t even start the car with a push. There was some water in the fuel. There was an electrical problem due to a failed coil or capacitor. And someone put something into the gas tank which took several days to get straightened out. Oh, yes - the starter failed and had to be taken apart and cleaned and the commutator burnished. And finally the points in the overhauled distributor failed due to a lack of grease on the cam.
All-in-all a fabulous trip!