I posted about it here a few weeks ago and it came to the attention of Dr. Van Helden, who still keeps in touch with many of these characters. I’m happy to say they took the time to assemble a semi-plausible explanation for all this, which I will reproduce here. I’m very grateful to them all. It’s a wonderful Texas story, long, winding, and strange. It’s also extremely evocative of a specific time and place and it has a surprise ending to boot. Here we go:
Down to the Valley with the Soccer Club in the Baker Bus
Al Van Helden with Debbie Irvine, Cathy Keneda Wyman, Ken Lacey, Jim Sylvester, Tasso Triantaphyllis, and Jim Vance.
Saturday 16 September 1972, about 11 a.m., somewhere south of Falfurrias: “I can’t believe that people actually fought and died for this land, there’s nothing here.” I should not have said that: suddenly the ghost of Davy Crockett struck back.
We had been on the road since 5:15 a.m.—planned for 5:00 a.m., but we had had to send a detail to rouse Tasso from his slumber . A bumpy ride in the Baker Bus: southwest Freeway, U.S. 59 past Victoria and Beeville, and then due south on 281 past Alice and Falfurrias. The Rice soccer team was on the road to Edinburg to play Pan American University that afternoon. On the way back, we would play Texas A&I in Kingsville, on Sunday.
The Rice soccer club had a budget of less than $1000 that year, doled out in dribs and drabs by Bob Bland of the P.E. Department, who was in charge of club sports. We bought team shirts and a couple of new balls, and that left less than $500 to pay referees and road trips. Road trips were the bane of our existence, because except for the University of Houston, they meant San Antonio (Trinity and St. Mary’s), Austin (Texas), Ft. Worth (TCU), Wichita Falls (Midwestern State): long drives in packed cars.
The team had started training more seriously that fall. We did two-a-days in the 90+ heat, and we were in good physical shape: we were ready for the heat in the Valley. But the trip looked daunting . . . until Jim Sylvester suggested that perhaps the Baker Bus might offer a solution. Like the other colleges, Baker College was going through a phase of social experimentation, and buying an old school bus seemed like a great idea. The bus was bought for $977 from the Lockney school district, $438.67 was spent making it road worthy and painting it red (the Baker color), and $106 was paid for an insurance policy—total $1793.69
To drive a bus, however, one needed a chauffeur’s license. No one in Baker College was so equipped. To the rescue rode Debbie “Ma” Irvine and Cathy “Amazon” Keneda, who were putting themselves through Rice by driving school buses in the Spring Branch ISD. They were drafted each time the bus was used for a trip. They had to get used to the transmission, because the synchronizers were old and worn. One had to double clutch to shift gears. Cathy never got this procedure down entirely right. The soccer team’s road trip to the Valley was the first, and a memorable trip it was.
There were 26 living entities on the bus: two women, 23 men, and a German shepherd named Schnapps. The crew was a mixture of cultures and playing styles. Jim Maitland had grown up in Brazil, and he played the sweet game, always trying to slow down the pace. Hans Tischner had grown up in Germany, and took the more direct route to the goal until he ran out of gas (he was a graduate student). John Osborne came from England a calm, skillful director of traffic in the back. Meran Gouran was Iranian. But all were first and foremost students, engineers, pre-meds, historians, pre-law. Their scholarships did not come from the Athletic Department. Oh, yes, besides Schnapps, Hans Tischner had also brought along a boom box.
And so we rolled south. It was about 350 miles, 7 hours with stops, and the kick-off was set for 1.00 p.m. But we were making good progress, and spirits were getting better as the players slowly became fully conscious. We had passed Falfurrias and were within fifty miles of Edinburg, on schedule, cruising through the desert. I was sitting up front, talking to Jim “Munchkin” Sylvester, when I uttered the fateful words. KAPOW A loud bang like I had never heard before, and the engine all of a sudden made a hellacious racket. Ma Irvine was driving; she pulled over and turned off the engine. ”What happened?” Jim Vance (who owned a pick-up truck about as old as the bus) opened the hood, but the engine was too hot to poke around in. What was wrong? Did we have to call a wrecker? Would we have to call off the game? How could I get in touch with the coach of Pan American? And how would we get 25 people and a dog back to Rice?
After about fifteen minutes there was a preliminary diagnosis: one of the sparkplugs had been blown clear out of the block, but Jim did not know how much damage had been done. Could the engine run on five out of six cylinders? Jim tried to start the engine, it ticked over, but the racket was scary. It had enough power to move the bus, and so we all piled back in, Ma made a three- or five-point u-turn on the two-lane road, and we headed slowly and noisily back to Falfurrias. At a gas station it was determined that there was no damage to the block and that the threads of the sparkplug seat had not been damaged. In fact, all that had to be done was to replace the plug, and we could be on our way again. In the meantime, we had called the coach of Pan Am from a payphone and explained the situation. It was now after 12, and we had another 65 miles to go. And no one was certain any longer that the bus would make it. We held our collective breath and headed south again.
We did make it to Edinburg, and found the Pan Am soccer field. The players had changed into their uniforms in the bus, and when we pulled up I expected we would just pour off the bus and take the field. But the players had a better idea: “Where are the bathrooms??!!!” They headed off en masse to the cheers (or jeers?) of the Pan Am cheer leaders. This delayed the kick-off another twenty minutes. While the players were thus engaged, I told the Pan Am coach about our adventure, and at one part he heard the coach say to the referee, in Spanish, that the later it got the hotter it would be and that these Anglos from up north would wilt under the cielo azul. It was hot indeed, easily 95. So when the players came back, I called them together and told them what I had heard. ”This is what we did two-a-days for, guys!” And then I gave a parody of a pep talk: “Give it one for the Gipper . . . Remember, winning is not everything, it’s the only thing . . . .” I played on their nascent cynicism, and it worked: the players laughed their way onto the field and ran Pan Am ragged. The Thresher report states that the final score was 6-0, but we all remember that it was more like 10-0 or 12-0.
We showered, got back on the bus, and headed north on 281 again, through the desert, destination Kingsville. Hans Tischner, who had belatedly discovered Dylan, kept playing “Like a Rolling Stone: on his boom box and kept the lads who were sleepy awake with his insistent question, “HOW DOES IT FEEL?” I think one or two players were studying, and they were not amused. I remember a car passing us on the inside, slowing down when the driver pulled even with the door of the bus, so he could look at the woman driving—Amazon this time. What he saw was long, long legs and “hot pants.” He took off his Stetson and slapped the steering wheel with it, whooping it up, and then he took a long pull from a bottle in a brown paper bag. He finally sped off.
About 40 miles north of Edinburg, we had to stop at a border patrol post. A uniformed agent climbed on board and asked if there were any non-U.S. citizens on the bus. Several of the players raised their hands, and all of a sudden I began to feel uneasy: Had they brought their documents? We were a pretty strange group, and these border patrol people did not mess around. Meran, I think, had brought his Iranian passport, but Wouter Blom, who was a Dutch citizen, presented a photocopy of his green card. Did he know copying an immigration document was a federal offense for which the penalty was jail time and a huge fine? Tasso had forgotten his Greek passport, which was just as well because, as it later turned out, his student visa had expired. Outside the bus, I talked to the agent, explaining that we were the soccer team of Rice University in Houston, and that we had borrowed the bus from one of the colleges for the away game against Pan American in Edinburg. But what was Baker College? I had to explain the college system—believe me, it was not that easy—and showed him my Rice faculty ID. He let us go with a final “Drive safely.” I felt hugely relieved, and I think I was not the only one.
The rest of the 100-odd miles went without a hitch, although I must admit that anxiety about the bus never quite left me. We pulled into Kingsville around supper time, and we needed a place to stay. There wasn’t a lot of money, and so we shopped around for a deal. At the first motel we struck out, but at the second we had more luck. It was Los Dos Amigos Motel, I think. In the office I explained that we were with 23 men, two women, and one dog. We were prepared to double up by splitting the mattresses and box springs, but we needed a single for the coach and a double for the ladies. We settled on $3.50 a head, no charge for the dog. We moved in, ordered pizza, appointed two volunteers, Ken Lacey and Craig Jones, to wash the uniforms, and called it a night.
Sunday was anticlimactic. We beat Texas A&I comfortably and headed north again to Houston and Rice, where we arrived late in the afternoon, tired by with a good feeling. The trip had brought the team together. I submitted the receipts to Bob Bland that week: the 744-mile trip to the Valley had cost Rice $252. Jim Sylvester immortalized the offending sparkplug in an art work that won a major prize in Falfurrias and is now part of the permanent collection of the Irvine museum in Austin.
Inside the bus: Ken Lacey, Tasso Triantaphyllis, Debbie Irvine, Cathy Keneda Wyman.
Standing on the hood: Jim Vance, Rob Sisk, Meran Gouran, Jim Sylvester.
Seated on the hood: ?, Al Van Helden
Standing: Motel owner with grand daughter, Hans Tischner, Schnapps, Danny Thomas, George Dames, Craig Jones, John Gunn, John Osborne, ? , Randy Epps, Scott Thurston, Jim Maitland (hair and sandals only), Wouter Blom, Jim Thompson.
With apologies to those whom we could not identify.