Summer is on its way out. In this listener essay, Diane Kavanaugh-Black writes about a vital companion on her childhood summer journeys, and a relationship that lasted twenty-five years.
In my family growing up, there was me, Mom and Dad, Vera, Mae and Alex. And The Van.
A turquoise 1964 Dodge A-100 cab-over-engine truck—the 49th off the assembly line, purchased by my parents eleven months before I was born. Mom called it “Bessie” until the van’s age and appearance earned it the nickname “Trusty Rusty.”
The Van had wide-eyed, pie-plate headlights, a rectangular fish-bowl windshield, and passenger windows that popped out and latched with a hard push and a squeak, like the spreader braces on a ladder. Everything was heavy duty on that car: manual steering, brakes, and transmission, sticky creaky doors and push-button chrome door handles; it had gauges for the oil pressure and engine temperature, not the “idiot lights” that Dad scoffed at on other cars.
The Dodge emblem appeared in cursive on the driver’s side door and in large block letters elsewhere; over time, we lost the D and it became “ODGE” on the front. We all joked, “At least it doesn’t say ‘dog,’” but we would never have called it that; we had too much respect for The Van and besides, you don’t call family members names, at least not to their faces.
The battery sat in its case behind the driver’s seat. Loose change would work its way out of Dad’s pockets and next to the battery, so we kids would scrounge down in there and come up with our little fingernails grimy, pinching quarters and nickels—which Dad invariably made us return, if he caught us.
The slant-six engine sat between the driver and the front passenger. To work on it, which was a frequent activity during summer trips, Mom or Dad pulled off the carpeting cover, slid a hand to the latch in front, and flipped the metal engine cover up and toward the back. After a day’s driving, that steel was burn-the-skin hot (hence the carpet cover), and swear words were natural —and frequent. We all knew when the engine flooded to pass Dad a long screwdriver to hold open the butterfly valve of the carburetor. Whoever was chosen to hold the carburetor cover and the wing nut knew to remain motionless until the engine started, and Dad asked for them back.
There were two dark grey bench seats in back and two bucket seats up front. All of us kids wanted to sit in the passenger seat and put our feet up on the glove compartment, but Mom rode shotgun when she wasn’t the driver; smoking, reading maps and handing out food and reprimands.
On vacations, all six of us would stay in the same room at the Holiday Inns; we kids would fight over who stole blankets and who kicked, but we knew we could sleep the next day while Mom and Dad switched driving, back and forth, for a dozen hours.
In the morning, we’d get back on the road before sunrise, since The Van had no air conditioning —or rather“460 a/c”: four windows open, sixty miles an hour. That summer wind knotted my sisters’ long hair. Engine heat poured at us and our pudgy legs in shorts would stick painfully to the vinyl seats.
For long trips Dad would slide out the rear bench seat and put a vinyl platform between the front bench seat and the back doors, about three feet off the floor. In those days before mandatory seat belt use, all four kids would play under the platform in “the cave,” wiggle into sleeping bags, scootch up next to luggage, hide from the scary view off the mountain roads. On top of the platform we’d color in our coloring books, and read the comics—which were only allowed on road trips. We giggled and poked each other, settling down for naps against the duffle bags when drowsed by the heat, to wake up later, cheeks wet with drool.
The Van bopped along across the country, while we listened to the clippity clop of the blacktop lines on old highways. We watched the sun rise and set over Santa Clara, Toledo, Valdosta, Wilmington, Philadelphia, Arkadelphia, Port Arthur.
Dad was a genius at holding the engine together when it had problems out on the road: orthodontic rubber bands held the carburetor together once; paperclips, bits of wire, always extra belts, hoses, spark plugs all banged around the back, along with cases of oil and spare parts from the bone yard.
It was the car in which the six of us vacationed, moved back and forth across the country, and I learned to drive stick, ‘three on the tree” when I was sixteen. Years later, my parents loaned The Van to my newlywed husband and me until we had our first child and the antique lap-belts proved to be unsafe for baby seats.
Thereafter, like an old horse, Trusty Rusty lived out its final days in an East Texas field. Dad used the now un-drivable truck as a hunting blind until the area was flooded for a reservoir, and that familiar turquoise body was covered at last by peaceful skyblue water, under the bright August sun.