Again, it was the middle of winter when I met up with the incomparable Dennis at Columbus International, and again I hadn’t prepared for the cold. I put it down to being a Sydneysider, always in denial about the weather, and the fact that my luggage felt the need to see more of the country with United Airlines. As we were already four hours late, we hired a car to speed things along, thanks to my missed flight and touring luggage, but I knew the Goat was in no hurry, and I needed adetour into Wal-Mart for some warmer clothing.
I’ve always been fascinated by how flannel shirts can be so thick, warm, cuddly and cheap. Back on the road, I was pleased we went shopping when I noticed the thermometer dropping to minus fifteen, but that’s also when Dennis popped an unforgettable question. “Did you ask if the Goat had heating?” “Don’t be ridiculous,” I said laughing, “How couldn’t it have heating?”
We finally arrived at the dealer’s yard with only a few hours of sun to spare, but it wasn’t your usual car dealership, and nor was Brian your usual car dealer, thank God. His was more like a military museum, except you could ride the exhibits, and they all had a price. Brian’s extraordinary knowledge of war memorabilia was proving embarrassing however, especially for the two guys whom I’m sure he thought were hopelessly amateur.
Like the LCC, the goat was better than I imagined, but the first thing I noticed when I climbed into the two-man cockpit were the two pair of ear muffs on the dash. “Mm, must be for the cold,” I thought, but only then did I see the bold yellow and black sign on the dash that read “Driver and Co-driver must wear ear protection at all times”. I soon learnt what it meant when Brian fired up the worlds biggest lawnmower engine.
In his rear yard, Brian gave us five-minutes intensive training in “How To Drive Your Goat”, then he handed me the original instruction manual and waved us off. Although I couldn’t hear him thanks to the ear protection, I’m sure his last words were “Good luck!”
I sat first as co-driver so I could brows through the most extraordinary Operating Manual I had ever seen. The thirty-page book was completely formatted in the style of a Spiderman comic. “Hi,” said the comic’s scantily clad principle character, “I’m Nancy, and I’ll be your training hostess…” I’m sure I split something while laughing at minus fifteen degrees.
Dennis and I had no idea how long the thousand-mile drive to Bouquet was going to take, and at 60mph max on the flat, we wondered if we could do it in the two days allocated. At any rate, we first had to do something about the noise problem; it was impossible to conduct a conversation from even two feet away, so we stopped off at Wal-Mart again, bought a cheap two-way radio with ear sets, a pair each of battery-heated socks, and two propane camping burners. That’s right, the Goat didn’t come with the optional heater when delivered to the Marines in ’72. What were they thinking?
Back on the road, the weather turned really ugly, and the temperature dropped even further, but we couldn’t tell by how much. “Worst on record,” said the check-out-chick at Wal-Mart. Although the Goat had six enormous tyres, their special design meant the surface area between them and the road was less than a rickshaw. The 8,000-pound vehicle began to feel mighty unsteady at anything over 45mph. Another interesting design feature of the Goat was that her engine was mounted behind the cockpit, which left nothing but a think sheet of highly conductive aluminium between you and the road ahead. That and the canvas soft-top meant the socks and propane burners were going full steam for as long as they lasted.
As the record weather intensified, so too did the condensation inside the cockpit. The water began to freeze on every surface, especially on the windscreen, the soft-top, and naturally on us. Whoever was co-driving at the time, had to sacrifice his propane heater as foot-warmer, and to hold it close to the driver’s windscreen. Needless to say, it wasn’t long before the windscreen cracked, and the rising heat dislodged the ice from the flapping soft-top, literally causing it to snow inside. “That’s it!” shouted Dennis, “I’ve had enough.” I wasn’t about to argue, so to see out the storm, we stopped at the first hotel we could find, and that night, I must have broken all records for the longest and hottest shower.
Things did clear up a little the following day, and as I was checking out at reception, I noticed Dennis with some other stranded highwaymen standing about the Goat whilst regaling them with stories of our horror drive. The previous night, he convinced the hotel manager to allow him to park under the porte-cochere with some cockamamie story about delivering our prototype vehicle to the Army. At least it kept the snow off Martina, but I was still saddened to see the condition she was in, and we weren’t even halfway home.
By the time we reached Buffalo, it was our third day on the road, but we had managed to iron out a few of the problems, and were more comfortable about our prospects, so I suggested to Dennis we take a break so as to check out the Falls. We didn’t know it at the time, but Niagara Falls Park was closed for the winter, or at least the observation facilities were. The thought of passing through without seeing them just didn’t cross our minds, so we skipped over what would normally have been a high fence if it weren’t for the depth of snow, and headed down the snow-covered slope to the observation point. It was only when we started sliding towards the cliff did we realise the guardrail at the bottom had been totally buried under the snow, and what lay beyond it was beckoning us in. I hadn’t realised until then, how such a big (and straight) man like Dennis could sound so utterly girly. Anyway, I think another record was set for the world’s longest skid-marks. The slide fortunately stopped well short of the precipice, but we’d seen quite enough, and quickly scurried back to Martina.
The following day saw Dennis and I to our last tollbooth at Interstate 87 North, and the final leg of the trip back to Bouquet. Neither of us were in much of a mood by then, and unfortunately it was Dennis driving when we sidled into the tollgate. The interior of the Goat was a mess, a really hideous mess. Everything was covered in salt spay, ice, mud, and water, including both of us. Dennis peeled the sodden toll ticket from the metal dash, and nonchalantly handed it and twenty dollars to the booth operator. The guy took the ticket between two fingers as if it were drenched in cow dung, looked at us with pursed lips, then lent out of his cosy booth to stare at the six wheels under us, and then threw the mother of all hissy-fits. He went on and on about the condition of the ticket and the fact that we had “too many wheels for this type of ticket”. I can’t repeat what Dennis then said to Mr Booth, but suffice to say, we were ordered to the side of the expressway to wait for the State Troopers. Dennis duly pulled over, but he was gushing with anger, and without warning, he then threw the Goat into gear and sped off up the expressway, well, as much as one could on the back of a Goat. In all the time I’d known Dennis, I’d never seen him lose his temper, and nor had I ever shouted at him, until then.
To this day, I’ve never understood why we weren’t pursued down the Interstate; maybe the operator took pity on us, or maybe he just took the $8.50 change he neglected to hand back.