UNION, Ky. – Myrtle the Turtle, at a crawling pace, made its way down the long gravel driveway in Union last week headed for the fast-moving interstate and a wedding in sunny California.
Myrtle, whose fastest speed is 60 miles per hour going downhill, was passed often. She was not sluggish in spirit.
A 1990 GMC B-6000 and former school bus, Myrtle was filled with five new graduates from the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, New York.
Jeremy Matsumoto, 22, of Union, was among the optimistic crew.
"I'm not worried," said Matsumoto's mom, Doreen Beatrice. "They are a resourceful group."
Matsumoto is a former Ryle High School student who attended Hargrave Military Academy in Virginia after his sophomore year. That led to four years at West Point where he graduated May 21 with a degree in mechanical engineering.
"Myrtle is really the culmination of a year of hard work. It's really a culmination of our senior year," Matsumoto said.
On a summer break in Union last year, Matsumoto discovered Myrtle on Craigslist. The Union native knew the bus would need a little work, so he asked five of his classmates if they'd like to fix up Myrtle and travel the country.
"He didn't have to do a whole lot of convincing," said Dan Polanowicz, of Northborough, Massachusetts.
With four mechanical engineering graduates, one electrical engineering graduate and Polanowicz, a political science graduate, on board, there were plenty of ideas how to transform the old bus. Each chipped in $233 and manpower.
"We took out a few seats so we could legally classify her as a recreational vehicle," Matsumoto said. "That took some convincing at the Department of Motor Vehicles."
West Point engineering students and one political science graduate may have been slow making their cross-country trip to a fellow classmate's wedding last week, but they weren't sluggish in spirit. Front row from left, Jeremy Matsumoto, of Union, Dan Polanowicz, of Northborough, Massachusetts, and Kenny Dailey, of Riverton, Utah. Second row: Spencer Negrete, of Norco, California, and Kyle Reeves, of Virginia Beach, Virginia. The cadets spent a year transforming Myrtle the Turtle into a vehicle in which they could travel and celebrate their graduation from prestigious West Point.
Photo Credit: Karen Meiman for The Community Recorder
With less money than it took to purchase Myrtle, the crew rewired the bus. They installed a state-of-the-art audio system, a 1933 wood stove for Winter-day breaks at West Point, a PlayStation section, laminate flooring and a bed.
The group drove Myrtle to the Army-Navy football game in Maryland last year, where she was parked beside some high-end recreational vehicles of Army generals. It's common for West Point grads to rub elbows with the elite. Recent West Point commencement speakers have included President Barack Obama in 2014 and Vice President Joseph Biden this year.
Whether it was dignitaries, generals, teachers or graduates, those who visited Myrtle were asked to sign the signature wall. It even reads, "The MP (Military Police) were here."
"That's my favorite," Matsumoto said.
This week, the group was off from West Point via Union to attend the wedding of the sixth member of Myrtle's owners, Jared Lail in Napa, California. With the odometer reading 58,797, Myrtle will be driven after the wedding to Texas, where she will be sold to another group of current West Point students.
"On the drive here to Kentucky, we hooked up refrigeration with a few things I had at school," Matsumoto said. "That will come in handy, because it would take a normal driver 36 hours to get to California. But with Myrtle, it will take 50."
Joining Matsumoto and Polanowicz were Spencer Negrete, of Norco, California; Kenny Dailey, of Riverton, Utah; and Kyle Reeves, of Virginia Beach, Virginia.
For a group that has withstood a rigorous military academy schedule of often rising at 5 a.m. and going to bed at 1 a.m., Myrtle has given these young men a chance to bond. After Myrtle's sale, the graduates will disperse to launch their military careers. They are headed to Alaska, California and Alabama.
Matsumoto will remain in the Bluegrass State. He is headed to Fort Knox. "Being close to my family is important," he said.