“You are what you repeatedly drive.” ~ Aristotle
“You don’t have to do this,” Karin said. She held her keys out, and I gave her mine.
“It’s my turn, I guess.”
“OK, but I know you don’t like my van.”
That was putting it mildly. I hated everything about her Windstar—The SMV –The Stupid Minivan.
It was huge. It was ugly. It had the optional peanut-butter-stained interior with a pungent-not-new-car smell. The carpeting contained the historical record of our four kids, captured in layers of beach sand, smashed bananas, and melted ice cream, all well-preserved by protective coating of dog hair.
Of course it hadn’t always been that way. Only a few years before, Karin had decided it was time to ditch our “classic car,” a Chevy 9-passenger wagon, and get a box-on-wheels minivan.
We did research, finding Fords the safest and most reliable. By and by we were at the used car lot, standing next to a putrid-green, recycled Windstar.
Several salesmen circled, smelling fresh meat. One finally dove on us for the kill.
“Great choice,” he smiled. Karin nodded. I studied my shoelaces. “Let’s disable the alarm so you can look inside.”
I blinked. “People steal these things?”
The salesman was unfazed. “Do we need to talk financing?”
I rolled my eyes.
“Can you give us a quote?” Karin said. “Just for fun.”
The salesman scribbled a price on a piece of paper and handed it to me.
“Is this the serial number?” I asked.
“It’s a great deal.”
“For you.” I studied the amount. It was more than my parents had paid for their home. “Is this in American dollars or Chuck E. Cheese coupons?”
“Robb…” Karin whispered. “Don’t be rude.”
The salesman smiled. I didn’t.
I started to walk away. Karin didn’t.
“Do we need this stupid minivan?” I groaned.
“You saw the Chevy’s safety numbers. What do you think?”
I looked at our kids in the rearward-facing seat, and I flinched. Our wagon had the crashworthiness of a cardboard box. “Well….”
Karin smiled. “You’ll be glad.”
“Dual air bags,” the salesman cawed.
“Oh… yeah,” I sighed.
“I’ll throw in a tank of gas.”
“OK. OK.” I threw up my hands, the customary move in a hold-up.
By dinnertime, the Chevy was gone and the SMV sat in our driveway. Karin was thrilled. She had a safe and almost-new Mom-mobile. I consoled myself that since I still had my pickup, I didn’t have to drive that green toad. And for the most part, I didn’t.
Time passed. The kids grew, and Karin returned to work. Her hours increased. I adjusted my schedule to cover afternoons, taking over the shuttle service. This included music lessons, dance lessons, soccer practice, doctor’s visits, and a zillion after-school activities. And it meant that I drove the van.
We’d trade keys, but every afternoon had some event that required me to drive the SMV.
So … one fateful day …. I took Karin’s keys for good. She drove off the next morning in the pickup. But it was, in theory, still my truck.
I was in minivan denial for a long time. I wore sunglasses and a hat, drove the back roads, sought out the vacant corners of parking lots. It didn’t work.
“See you’ve got a minivan,” a coworker chuckled. “Won’t catch me driving one of those things.”
“It’s my wife’s,” I explained. “I’m just running some errands.”
He smiled. “About two months’ worth, I’d say.”
Why can’t people just mind their own business? I’d have attracted less attention if I’d ridden a through town on a bicycle, buck-naked.
My brain clung to a pickup-guy-fantasy. But then disaster struck – my truck scrambled an engine. Now, I may be from Bakersfield, but I know dead trucks are not driveway ornaments. So it had to go. The question was: What should replace it?
A tough choice. Where I came from, real men drove pickups. I learned to drive in my Dad’s Chevy step side at age 8. My first truck was an El Camino. My heart said “buy a safer car for Karin to drive,” my reptilian brainstem wanted a pickup.
I moped. Karin tried to cheer me up.
“You know, the van can haul just about anything,” she said.
“Can it haul manure?”
“You need a truckload of manure?”
“Could be,” I said. “Or maybe a ton of gravel.”
“Axner Landscaping delivers.”
“Anything else?” Karin asked. “Should we buy a pickup?”
I sighed. “No. They’re not safe. I don’t want you getting hurt.”
She hugged me. “You’re a good man.”
Pickup gone, I focused on the business at hand, getting everyone to the right place at the right time. Gradually my disappointment eased as the van routinely took me to work and the kids to play. It delivered us safely into and out of many adventures. It made runs with petulant pooches, caged-and-enraged cats and even the occasional fish tank or freaked-out cockatiel. As far as I know there’s still a gerbil somewhere in the center console. And on some somber occasions, it dutifully ushered ailing pets to their final vet visit.
The van saw us through big life changes. Packed, stacked and dangling bicycles, it bore our two oldest children off to college and us through a move to a smaller home.
In the space of six years, we put more than 160,000 miles on the Windstar. I knew it so well I could parallel park it in one shot in the worst traffic. I made my peace with it. I even admitted that it could haul almost anything the truck could, and in the rain, no less.
But the big moment in attitude-adjustment came when I learned how to brag on it with other man-vanners – driving Dads who cover the soccer shift. I knew I was a member of this fraternity when some dude first challenged my van.
“So how many cup holders do you have?”
“Three.” I said.
“That’s all? Ha!”
I smiled wanly. He kept at it.
“Built-in DVD player?”
I ignored him.
“Surround sound?” he smirked.
“Ah, no.” I admitted.
He gloated. But I was ticked. I looked over and saw his little van, one of those sawed-off jobs with a lame four-banger.
“OK, man. Let’s talk cargo capacity,” I said. He looked uneasy. “I’ve got the extended version.” I gave him a wink. “How big’s yours?”
That shut him up.
So I managed the man-van thing. Yeah, the Windstar was still ugly but rock-solid reliable. I grew to respect it as I watched the years and odometer roll by. We saw 170k and 180k pass with no major problems. Impressive.
But then an urgent family matter caused us to drive more than 10,000 miles in two months. We hit 190k, 195k, and she began showing her age. The electronics got dicey. The windows stuck down in a thunderstorm. The wipers acted up. Gauges took the day off. Irksome, but the van kept going. The bigger worry … a strange gurgling sound and a radiator that kept going dry. Yet it didn’t leak.
It needed work, but money was tight. So I kept adding coolant, hoping for the best. Finally, at 203,000 miles, I took it in to be smogged. I guessed the heater core was gone, but the diagnosis was terminal – a blown head gasket.
“You went HOW FAR with this leak?” my mechanic asked. And I told him. “Amazing,” he shook his head. Your engine can seize within 100 miles when this happens.
We did the math on repairs. “Time to put her down,” I was told. I stuck a notice on Craigslist, and within a day a salvage-buyer came.
“Is this the junker?” He pointed at the Windstar.
“It’s my van,” I said, annoyed.
He paid me, and I handed the keys over. Then the salvage guy started the engine, and drove up on his trailer. It was an odd moment. After years of complaining, I was now a van-free man. I watched him strap it down. It looked tired, but still willing.
Yeah, it was beat. The electrics were shot, the engine was blown, and the interior was threadbare. But just like the skin horse in the Velveteen Rabbit, its stains made it shabby …. and beautiful. I watched the trailer pull away, our old van bouncing out of sight, thus ending our long journey together.
So I got my wish, and I’m back in something smaller, cheaper, and less un-cool. But Karin was right. I’m glad we bought that ugly, oversized box. And the thing is… I miss it. I really do.
This "Best Of" article originally appeared October 4, 2012.