Ode to an Old VanPosted: June 6, 2010
Not long ago, I got an email from my dad telling me he’d sold our family van. It was an old, broken down relic from the early 90s: the air conditioner only worked sometimes, and there were French fries stuck between the seats from before I was capable of eating solid food. It was a miracle that anyone would have paid him for it, but I was sad nonetheless. That van meant family to me. None of us sleep under the same roof now, and it harkened back to a time when the four of us could all pile onto the cloth seats, trying not to get shocked, and set off for a road trip to the lake, to Las Vegas, to San Francisco.
I wouldn’t drive it for at least a year after I got my license. It was a huge clunker, and when I sat in the driver’s seat it seemed to dwarf me, stretching a mile long and twice my height. It accelerated too well, braked too suddenly, and the loose steering wheel left black rubber residue on your hands when you touched it. If it wasn’t kept firmly under control, the steering wheel would rock back and forth the way bad actors always do when driving in movies. (reword) The parking brake was less than effective. On at least one documented occasion, I hit 70 miles per hour on the freeway with it still employed. Naturally, most of my defining memories of the van were as a passenger, not a driver.
As a seven seat vehicle, it saw more than its fair share of field trips, tournaments, and group activities. We would stuff it full of friends and occasionally exchange students and tear off into the desert or the hills.
The bench seat in the back folded down to make a bed, and in the haze of my earliest memories I can remember trying to sleep in the early morning cold that fogged the rear windows, still wearing my seatbelt. My sister and I rotated our preferences for the seats—one year, we would fight over the captain’s seat in the middle away from the door, only to squabble over the back seat a few years down the line.
No matter how much effort was expended, it would always be less than completely clean. The years clung to the seats, and there was a perpetual layer of dust and fast food grease sunk into the interior. Trash could always be pulled from the pockets behind each seat, as bottomless as Mary Poppins’ bag. Gatorade bottles would disappear and reappear years later in a corner, water evaporated to leave an orange-colored gel of flavor at the bottom. At least one cousin threw up in that backseat, in one of the dark and disgusting compartments cut into the side of the van into which I never wanted to reach. Sometimes I would look in the trunk after months of disuse, and find a long lost sweatshirt or CD.
It had a sliding side door that didn’t shut unless you threw at least 50 pounds of effort behind it, a phenomenon that baffled my friends and random ride-takers. It got worse the summer my sister and I tried to renew our efforts at surfing. One late afternoon we bounced along the highway to the beach with our giant shared longboard slid along the floor between the seats, hopped in the water, and quickly realized our talents did not lie in watersports. After we had returned to the perpetually sand covered van, we drove to the downtown surf shop to get some wax for our next attempt, sitting on towels in our bathing suits, still gritty with salt water. It was a good summer adventure, especially considering the rare sister bonding time it required.
The next day, I was genuinely baffled when my parents asked in their serious voices, “What did Shane do to the van?” I was blameless; I wasn’t even old enough to get my license yet. After a few protests and variations on the “I dunno?” response, we went outside to inspect.
It looked like we had driven sideways through a brick wall. The door was dented and wiped with a rust red coating, like a little kid’s scraped knee. The best we could come up with was that we had broadsided a pole in the parking lot. To this day, the facts are unclear.
But I can’t imagine anyone else appreciating the mystery that was our van like we did.