Saturday, January 5, 2019

Goodbye Wally.

Road Trippin’
with Steve McCarthy

Goodbyes are hard. Especially premature ones. Citroen Guru Wally Escherich died of massive heart failure after battling the crippling effects of the little known Complex Regional Pain Syndrome. Abandoned by the health care industry, the insurance industry, and their toadies, the workman’s compensation people, his body had had enough of that shit and quit. I don’t want to turn this into a polemic about health care. This isn’t the place for it. I want to talk about Wally and remember him. 

Wally was a fixture of first the No Frills Iron Bottom Motoring Tour then the drives I hosted. Constant Reader will know what those are, the rest of you? Suffice it to say they are the Ultimate Anti-Glam Old Car Tours. Usually three days of driving California backroads, covering some thousand miles of spectacular scenery and lonely roads. Most of the cars are scruffy at best. Several break down. We stay in scruffy motels and drive too fast. At the end of the day, we share several beers. 

It was over several beers that we learned what a small world it was. In the bench racing that always followed a day’s run, I was telling tall tales about being a bus driver, and some of the back roads we had to use to haul kids to summer camps. I mentioned the most epic camp run we had, Quaker Meadows. Wally lit up. Seems not only did he go there every summer as a kid, but he now remembered me as one of the drivers! He was like ten years old and always sat up front (most kids fought for the back, as far away from adults as possible), soaking in what it took to drive a 35’ Crown Coach up roads that few would take a VW on. Like I said, small freakin’ world!

Wally often drove his Citroen D Wagon, a magnificently original beast. He also co-piloted a variety of completely inappropriate cars for narrow backroads. Cadillac Eldorados being a favorite ride. He’d fly over whoop-ti-dos with abandon, seeing if he could launch a three ton hunk of Amurican Iron, often with devastating results to the ball joints.  He was flat crazy about the tours, the people, and the cars. 

Wally was also loud. REALLY loud. On first meeting, obnoxiously so. But once you got over the initial shock, he turned out to be a great person. He cared more about cars, and especially Citroens, than anyone I have ever known. He had an encyclopedic knowledge if those stupid, odd, downright weird cars. They were a perfect match. 

Now, I’ve always been a closet lover of Citroens. Chuck Forward of Autobooks fame really introduced me to them properly, but it was Wally who reeled me in. I’d heard he was helping a widow sell off a treasure trove of Citroens from an stash out past Amboy that he called “Area 52.” And I was intrigued enough to ask if there were any decent wagons there. I should have known better. 

Indeed there was. It would need work. After all, it was last registered in 1984 and had sat outside all those years. I negotiated with my dear sweet loving wife, and as long as I sold the ’52 Dodge Pickup, I could get the Citroen. Ah, me. I bought the damn thing for two grand and Wally delivered it to my place. That was six years ago. It’s now my daily driver and is called the Yellow Submarine. 

Much of the work was done at first by me, then we hauled it out to Wally’s pride and joy, an actual shop. “Grand Central Citroen.” By this time, he could hardly work on cars himself, the pain of CRPS was so devastating that he’d black out. His assistant, Junior and a friend from Flagstaff, Garret, did most of the work while Wally was practically duct tapped to a chair in the shop. He couldn’t keep his hands off the cars. They finally got the hydraulics sorted, rebuilt the half-shafts, and sorted a few niggly bits and VOILA, a running Citroen Wagon. 

Probably Wally's proudest moment involved the Lemon Goddess. He, Junior, and Garret dragged this spectacular ratty DS out of the junk pile, put in a clutch and radiator, covered the interior in moving blankets, and plywood for the trunk floor. They sent if off on the Concours de LeMons Rallye, which STARTED in Monterey during Pebble Beach Week, ran to the Canadian Border and back, some 3000 miles. They finished second to a VW with a beer keg in the back with which to bribe the judges. Later, the thing went to the Citroen Rendezvous in Atascadero, and stole the "Bucket and Brush Award" from me. 

Through out this, Wally’s pain management was on again/off again (mostly off again-he had bad days and horrible days) as he battled the system. He gave up on the shop and I think closing it broke his heart. Marianne and I did want we could, but the distance from Monrovia to Redlands made it less than we wanted. We did manage to drive him to a CRPS conference in San Jose where he learned there were a lot of others in his boat and he was better off than many. Sadly, none of it was enough. Damn. 

At least I got to take the freshly painted Yellow Submarine out for his approval. He loved it. Enough to award it the last ever, official, Wally Seal of Approval. I'll treasure that forever. 

Wally had a good heart. He had a passion for Citroens. His booming voice and encyclopedic knowledge will be missed. It’s trite, but indeed, he’s finally free of pain.