In the late 1970s and early 1980s, summer in Isla Vista was a bit different. So few people hung around that some called it a ghost town June through August. In fact, the town was so empty that you could have taxied an airplane down Embarcadero del Norte, right past Woodstock’s Pizza, without much trouble.
And that’s precisely what Tony Tosta and Jason Von Straussenburg did. Jason, with help from Tony and others, renovated a 54-foot airplane, took out the undercarriage and replaced it with the inner-workings of a Pace Arrow motor home. Dubbed the Andromeda after the Ethiopian princess of Greek mythology, the plane was parked behind the auto house on Trigo Road, where Jason worked. It was hidden behind some bamboo and brush, but being a huge airplane, a woman stumbled upon it one night and called 911, sure that it had crashed. The police showed up later and arrested her for public intoxication.
When I first ran across a 1983 L.A. Times story about a man named Jason who built and lived in a plane in I.V., I was instantly intrigued. I found Jason’s friend Tony’s name and number and talked to him for hours about the planes, I.V. in the ’70s and ’80s, the injustice of the American justice system, and the benefit of using sugar beets to produce ethanol, just to name a few things.
Tony fondly recounted stories of his and Jason’s days in I.V., happy to answer my questions about the absurdity of keeping airplanes in this tiny town. The Andromeda was the mother ship of a fleet of four planes. Tony had the Teeny-Two, which was a helicopter that “looked like a dragonfly going down the street.” Captain Sticky-whose real name Tony cannot recall-owned a smaller plane, and Robert and Heide Pfeiffer had a DC3 that they named the Smile Shuttle. However, Jason’s Andromeda was the most well known plane.
“Tony, I sometimes feel like my truck is too big for the streets of I.V.,” I said. “How did you get the Andromeda through I.V.?”
Tony chuckled. “Moving the Andromeda was like something between goat roping a greased pig catch.” One time, the Andromeda got stuck in an intersection where the streets didn’t line up to make a perfect cross. To get it un-stuck, Jason, Tony and about 20 others lifted up the rear end of the plane on a 20-ton jack and pushed it forward, moving it down the street and out of its precarious position.
Another time, Tony said they had the Andromeda parked outside Joe’s restaurant in downtown Santa Barbara. They filled the hot tub – yes, there was a hot tub inside – with water from a fire hydrant, brought eight or nine people in and enjoyed drinks and conversation in the comfort of the Andromeda. After they were done, Jason and Tony hit the road – but forgot to empty the water.
“We stepped on the brakes, and an eight-inch tsunami flowed over,” Tony laughed.
The Andromeda could cruise down the freeway at a comfortable 65 mph. Surely, I thought, this should have been illegal. Tony reassured me that they never got into trouble with the legality of driving the airplane as a car; in fact, the Andromeda is registered and insured with the state of California, albeit as a Pace Arrow motor home. Anytime they got pulled over, though, Tony said cops were more often curious about the plane than angry.
The Andromeda even had its brush with fame. When Toad the Wet Sprocket came to play in Santa Barbara in the ’90s, they used the Andromeda as a sort of green room.
“That was the last time I smoked,” Tony said.
Tony and Jason led the sort of life the leftover hippie in me wants to have. They met through a mutual girlfriend in the late 1970s and have been best friends ever since. Tony was the best man at Jason’s first wedding and the minister at his second. Though they both had jobs, they spent most of their time in I.V. hanging around, having in-depth conversations that Tony said he could never have with anybody else.
“They would take a 12-pack, half a bottle of scotch and two bowls,” Tony said of the conversations. Tony claims both he and Jason had IQs above the genius level, but admits “drugs and alcohol have probably shaved these away.”
Tony called the house on the oceanside corner of Sueno Road and Camino Corto home, but he doesn’t like to visit ever since a treasured tree was chopped down. Jason called “The Abrego House” – appropriately, on Abrego Road – his home; that is, he did until he moved into the Andromeda. He drove it up San Marcos Pass and down a windy road – how he got it there, Tony has no idea – and lived in it with his first wife for a year and a half.
So what came of the fleet of I.V. planes? Some went off to shows in Europe and others were trashed in Romania-but the Andromeda remains in tact in Jason’s backyard in Goleta.
Time out. I can see you scratching your head, wondering where you’ve heard the name Jason Von Straussenburg before. Jason is actually not his real name; as it turns out, he is Roger Lee Crona, a fugitive from Michigan. Back in March, police received an anonymous tip that Roger had been living in Goleta for several years and was currently working in the UCSB Biological Sciences Department. In 1972, he was caught with altered registration plates and forged registration. Tony said the painted license plates were just a temporary fix until Jason could get the money to match the registration to the plates. He insists that because Jason was a “long haired hippie” – and because the sitting small-town judge was offended by Jason’s lawyer: his high-powered stepfather judge from Lansing – Jason got the book thrown at him. Shortly after his sentence began, Jason simply walked off the low-security prison property, changed his name a few times, and has kept out of trouble since then.
Earlier this summer, a bus took Jason from California to Michigan, where he is now, finishing up his sentence. His earliest release date is October 19, 2009. Unfortunately, Jason’s health is failing him now and Tony says the prognosis is not looking good. Despite much effort on Mrs. Von Straussenburg’s and Tony’s behalves, it doesn’t seem like Jason will be getting a break.
Those who knew Jason have been profoundly upset by all news regarding his arrest, especially Tony.
“It’s truly a shame that he is serving time because his intellect could have been so much better served.”
It is incredibly unfortunate that a man who was so accustomed to the freedom his Andromeda afforded him will be forced to spend time confined behind prison bars. If justice does come his way, he will be back in California before long, reunited with friends and family. It would be a shame if the Andromeda were never to fly – or drive down the 101 – again.