They couldn’t help it, they stood out.
With their throwback hairdos, their military-style coveralls, their distinct accents.
And people in Benton City couldn’t help it. They noticed.
“Oh yeah,” said June Detloff of Detloff A&M Auto Parts on Ninth Street. “They’re kind of hard to miss.”
The six Germans — with nicknames like “Chipy” and “Miss Brown” — were in the small town week on a special mission: restoring a 1952 GMC bus.
They’re part of the band GI Jive Swing Company, which plays music of the 1940s and 50s.
The bus will be their touring vehicle. They found it online.
“In Germany, you don’t have a chance (of finding such a ride),” said Bela “B.G” Tabbert, who sings and plays piano in the band. “Every night for one year, (I’m) sitting in front of the computer, looking for anything.”
Some were too big, some too small. Eventually, Tabbert came across the blue-and-white GMC, which has room for 20 people.
One drawback: it was far from road worthy.
Also, it was in eastern Washington.
The Germans hatched a plan: they began ordering parts, used the internet to get in touch with local vintage car enthusiasts and planned a trip to the Evergreen State to get the bus running again.
They arrived in Benton City a little more than a week ago.
If they aren’t already on the road to Texas, they hope to be soon. They’ll drive to the Houston area, where they’ll ship the bus home to Germany.
“It’s very exciting every day — if things will work, if the engine will run, if the breaks are coming, if the tools are going to fit to what we have,” said Alexandra “Chipy” Cahn, the band’s trombone player, on a break last week from working on the bus.
Britta “Bonnie” Preusse, who’s documenting the trip on her blog, Create & Travel, said she and her friends felt welcomed in Benton City.
“All the people are very nice. We feel good,” she said.
The German friends are from the western part of the country, near Cologne.
They love the American swing era because — why not?
“Look at us!” Chipy said, motioning to the vintage uniforms, the perfectly-styled hair.
“It’s the feeling, the music, the dress,” said Ulrike Smeets, who plays double bass and goes by “Miss Brown.”
Chipy nodded. “It’s the whole lifestyle.”
The Germans bought the bus from Dan Stafford, who owns Dan’s Garage in Kennewick.
He buys and sells old vehicles and had the 1952 GMC for seven or eight years before the swing band came along.
As the bandmates made their way to the states, he hauled the bus to the Benton City home of John Engelke, a vintage vehicle enthusiast who’d agreed to let the Germans labor away in his large personal garage.
The band found Engelke through the Tri-City Military Vehicle Club’s Facebook page.
The bus isn’t military, but Engelke and the Germans still found plenty of common ground.
“We have that passion of keeping these (older vehicles) going and restoring them. They’re all mechanically inclined. When things go wrong, we all understand what they are,” Engelke said.
While in Benton City, the bandmates worked long hours on the bus.
They also found time to drop by a couple of Benton City establishments, including the Palm Bar & Grill, where they grabbed late night bacon burgers, and Detloff A&M Auto Parts, where they were regulars.
“The lady is so nice,” Chipy said, meaning June Detloff, co-owner. “Every morning, when we go there, she says, ‘Good morning, bus people!’ Very sweet.”
Detloff had equally kind words for the Germans. “They’re very entertaining, between their uniforms and accents. They’re all happy and cheerful,” she said. “They’ve been a real delight to have around.”
When the Herald visited last week, the band was in good spirits.
But the bus didn’t look to be in good shape.
It didn’t have tires, and it needed a door.
The engine needed work, too.
But the bandmates — who had experience restoring vintage vehicles — felt sure they could get it going in time.
Stafford was on hand, and he had a good feeling, too.
So did Engelke. “”I’m confident it will make it to Texas,” he said.
He worked with some of the band members under the hood.
After a while, B.G. got behind the wheel
He turned over the engine. It roared to life, then died.
The same thing happened again. Then, finally, it started sounding good. It was humming.
Britta looked on, smiling.
“You have an idea and you book your flight and you come all the way from Germany to America. And then, with just a few emails, there is someone who says, ‘OK, I don’t know them...but I invite them to my home and my family and help them,’” she said. “For all, it’s an adventure. It’s great.”