The year was 1984. Fevered whitetail hunters that they were, and lacking a wild piece of land of their own to hunt on, my dad, and my uncles Loopy and Larry, went in on the purchase of a 1959 Chevy 54-passenger school bus that had been converted into a camper.
It would become our deer camp.
The bus was soon dubbed "Rollashack," though some, lacking the eye to recognize true beauty, suggested the rather unkind moniker "Green Slug" because of the bus's pea soup coloring.
The Rollashack replaced a combination of vans, car backseats and even home as sleeping quarters during deer season. A real, albeit portable, deer camp.
I was in my fourth year of hunting, and, having awoke in the back of a Ford van with my nose frozen on previous deer season mornings, I was excited to have landed in this lap of luxury. Of course, it was more than just sleeping quarters. It was the funnest place on Earth.
Rollashack boasted gas lights, a fuel oil furnace and an indoor outhouse. Four built-in bunks - two upper and two lower - along with an old studio couch provided places to sleep. There was a table for eating meals, playing cribbage and constructing beer-can pyramids.
The Rollashack was equipped with a tiny four-burner gas range. Many a hearty meal was cooked and served within the bus over the course of the six seasons it housed our hunters.
Of course, the bus had its unique features. Cold storage was found beneath the table, for instance.
Though the smell within would seem to indicate otherwise, a number of rust holes provided ventilation for the camper. They also usually allowed in enough cold air to preserve things such as milk, eggs and butter. So, we often simply kept these things under the table, though we did have a gas fridge.
When seated at the table, one would generally be wearing a T-shirt on top and Sorel boots on his or her feet. Those feet were in the second fridge, after all.
But, overall, it wasn't cold in the bus. Often, the ceiling was hot to the touch. The temperature difference from floor to ceiling could be 50 degrees, perhaps more. With the remarkably different air masses in such close proximity to each other, we worried that a thunderstorm might develop within the Rollashack.
As far as bunking went, the studio couch was the place to be. Lower than the upper bunks and higher than the lower ones, it represented the most comfortable compromise temperature-wise.
Those sleeping on the top bunks would eschew blankets while sweating it out in the sultry air near the ceiling while those beneath would be cocooned in layers of bedding.
I recall an early morning, laying in my upper bunk, half awake. It was a brutally cold morning, but I was still quite warm. I heard my Uncle Loopy, a lower-bunk occupant, calling for my dad.
"Bawb, you wanna give me a hand? My head is stuck to the wall," he said.
I had to stir. Sure enough, there was Loopy with his head firmly secured to the wall of the Rollashack. His hair had touched the wall as he slept and froze there. It was delightful.
Some gentle pulling and warm water were the remedy if memory serves me correctly, though several interesting alternative ways to let the situation play out were suggested by those present.
One nice feature in the bus was a hole that had been cut for a ceiling vent. If one of the taller among us found himself wanting to stand fully erect in the bus, it was the place to be.
My Uncle Loopy, "Little" Wally Steiner and I made frequent use of the head-hole.
For additional luxury, we had a 12-volt battery and a power inverter. A small black-and-white TV was among our frivolities. Mostly, it was used to watch Packers games. If reception was poor, we'd move the TV outside and set it atop a snowbank. On at least one occasion, though, we rented a VCR and watched movies.
Of course, our portable hunting camp attracted the occasional varmint that wasn't among the hunting crew.
On one occasion we were watching the TV inside, where it sat upon a tiny shelf over our table. Suddenly, an ermine showed up on the TV shelf.
Its tiny white face stared at our large ones for a moment before it vanished.
It escaped, I'm sure, the same way it came in - through one of the natural vents. It was not the only time that an ermine would visit. In fact, years later, one would be identified as the likely perpetrator of a Rollashack crime.
One of our crew, Dennis "Da Menace" Reissmann had brought out a beef tongue. I don't recall if the tongue was left to thaw on the table, or if it was under the table in the "fridge," but it disappeared. The beef tongue mystery haunted us.
Years later, during a deer season after we had moved into our current shack, my dad dreamed that an ermine had stolen the beef tongue from the Rollashack. We all agreed that this was likely. Finally, we were able to let it go.
The first season aboard the bus was a good one for hunting. Our crew of nine, which included visiting hunters, got seven deer. Included was a very impressive 11-pointer, which was taken by the now deceased Bill Stribley.
As the story goes, Bill was napping in his blind opening morning when he was awakened by the report of my dad's rifle. The massive buck was already close and was moving closer. By the time Bill shot, the buck was so close that it more than filled the view through his scope.
"Even a blind squirrel finds a nut once in a while," I can remember Loopy saying as Bill regaled us with the story.
Bill and Loopy had a special, somewhat adversarial relationship. Bill had assigned the ironic nickname "Mr. Congeniality" to Loopy, and Loopy had assigned all sorts of nicknames to Bill.
Life in the bus was fun.
Despite our small confines, we'd host parties during the deer season. The wives, for those that had such, were invited out for a night, along with a couple of friends. Underlings like myself would perch on bunks or stand under the head-hole so guests could be seated.
We even started the tradition of hosting a fish-fry with another hunting party as our guests.
It was my job to catch, fillet and freeze enough fish for the event over the course of the summer. I'd always come through, though sometimes I'd have to resort to catching a pile of bullheads as summer grew short.
Eventually, I was an adult and no longer took the time to procure the feast and the get-together morphed into a chicken meal. In 1988, my brother Chris, just 13 at the time, penned an entry in our camp log:
"Six scummy guys brought us chicken for dinner," he wrote in thoughtful recollection of the event.
Those scummy guys continued coming for an annual get-together for a number of seasons, even after we relocated to our permanent camp.
Often, just getting the Rollashack out of the woods at the end of the season was an adventure. During the season, the bus would freeze in place, or maybe the logging roads we had driven it down would grow muddy. Sometimes, there was just too much snow.
One of those years, we knew momentum was the key in getting the bus onto asphalt. This meant ignoring a stop sign as we approached the highway.
Little Wally, with his impressive height and girth, was the ideal road block, so he stood on the highway and stopped traffic. The Rollashack could roll through without stopping.
The old school bus was entombed in ice when it was moved from its campsite that year and still held much of that ice as it shot out onto the highway.
In the traffic that was held up by Wally, surprised, then laughing, faces were noticed as the Rollashack emerged from the woods and began shuddering down the highway, its flapping fenders shedding the season's ice. The lady in the lead southbound car was pounding her dashboard with glee at the spectacle.
Our crew grew in size, and in 1987, we began hunting out of two buses. My dad purchased "Rollashack Jr.," a smaller bus, and converted it into a camper. It served primarily as sleeping quarters for us younger guys. Foolishly, someone also decided to store the Old Milwaukee in there.
The last season we spent in the Rollashacks was 1989. In 1990, we moved into our regular hunting shack, ending an era of sorts. The Rollashacks were soon sold.
Sometimes I miss the Rollashacks and the high adventure they represented. Crowded parties - sometimes with scummy guys, football games in the snowbank, heads freezing to the wall, not knowing whether the old bus would even make it back out of the woods. Great times.
But I'll admit, it is pretty nice to have a perma-shack.
Craig Turk may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
The Northwoods River News | Walker Communications, LLC 232 S. Courtney Street, Rhinelander, WI 54501 | Office (715) 365-6397 | Fax (715) 365-6361
Corporate billing office: The Lakeland Times / Lakeland Printing Inc. | P.O. Box 790, Minocqua, WI 54548 | (715) 356-5236 | Fax (715) 358-2121 Members of the Wisconsin Newspaper Association, Wisconsin Community Papers, Rhinelander Area Chamber of Commerce, Minocqua Area Chamber of Commerce