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As his wife’s eyesight deteriorates, a man’s vision takes shape

Their vehicle of change

First things first: Gracie is not an RV.

“No, sir,” says Merle Coldwell. “She’s an RH – a rolling house. And she’s really going to be something.”

Slowly, Coldwell is turning Gracie from an old yellow school bus into his dream home – a one-of-a-kind driving and living experience.

Parked for weeks a block off Monroe near the Spokane Regional Health District building, the bus has been a source of curiosity and agitation for those who live and work in the neighborhood.

The windows and seats have been removed; the roof cut off and raised three feet; the outside repainted white with a red stripe; and the sides covered with wood shingles and tarps to keep out the cold.

When the rolling house is done, Merle promises it will be fit to drive Neoma, his wife of seven years, to the sights and sounds of America. She has never looked up at the California redwoods, or listened to the crashing surf of the Oregon coast, or watched the geysers and grizzlies of Yellowstone.

The need is urgent: Neoma has glaucoma and cataracts that are stealing her eyesight. She will be blind within five years.

“We’re going to see some things before that happens,” Merle says. “That’s something I can do, and nothing can take that away.”

The couple will bring Neoma’s service dog, a Siberian husky named Butch, and two parrots, Kiki and Cheeky.

What better way for a man who came of age in the 1960s – when he traveled the country, served in Vietnam and lived in a bus – to retire?

Gracie will feature a crafts room where Coldwell can work on stained-glass projects and his wife can do her quilting. Hardwood floors will cover the 260 square feet of living space. Propane will fuel a full-size kitchen range and keep hot water at the ready. Solar panels on the roof will charge a set of batteries. The only décor right now are a peace sign tapestry and some privacy curtains.

The project promises to be an upgrade from the 200-square-foot studio the couple now share in the Dresden Apartments, where Coldwell recently retired as manager.

Merle found his 1970 GMC bus in a field near Rockford. Recession and high fuel prices be damned, he paid $900 for his new house, which is powered by a 500-horsepower diesel puller complete with air brakes.

With help from friend Lonnie Cantrell, Merle thinks he can have the bus ready soon.

“He doesn’t really want to spend another winter in Spokane,” Cantrell says.

Merle draws a disability check from the Department of Veterans Affairs for heart problems. Neoma collects Social Security checks. Their disabilities make it legal for Merle to park the bus on city streets without feeding the two parking meters it spans.

The catch is that Merle can’t work on the bus while it’s on a street. The Golden Rule Brake shop across the street gave him permission to use its parking lot after business hours, but snow piled along the roadside has blocked the bus from making the necessary wide turns.

Merle has hopes a blast of warmer weather will help him breach the berms.

“I’m ready to get working,” he said. “This winter has really thrown us off.”

Some people have complained about the bus, upset that it is taking up scarce parking spots and looks rough.

“I know,” Merle says, “I’m trying.”

But most people just want to know what he is up to.

“Every time we’re out here trying to do some work people stop by and ask, ‘Hey, what are you doing?’ We can’t get anything done!”

No matter, Merle says. “Once we get the job done and get ready to leave, people won’t believe it. It’s going to be special.”

John Stucke can be reached at (509) 459-5419 or

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