Note:  A preview from my upcoming autobiography, Life’s Too Short to Smoke Cheap Cigars (Or to Drink Cheap Whiskey.)

The First Longings

When I was a young man, facing the first hints of adulthood at the ripe age of 15, it dawned on me that I had the urge for independence.  This urge was somewhat hampered by my lack of a driver’s license, and that the areas I wished to be independent in were separated from my Northeast Iowa childhood home by twenty or thirty miles, minimum.

To every problem, however, there is a solution, if only one is willing to search for it; in my case, the solution was my hunting partner Del.  Del had the distinction of being 16 and possessing that great prize of 16-year-oldness, a driver’s license.

To every solution, though, there is generally an underlying problem.  In Del’s case, it was the vehicle in which we made our teenage journeys, questing after ducks, squirrels, grouse, and teenage girls with similar longings for independence.  (Of course, we always hoped to meet girls with other longings as well, longings that sort of corresponded with certain of our own.  That sort of luck rarely materialized until I was in college.  But I digress.)  Every silver lining has a big fat cloud, and the cloud behind the silver lining of Del’s driver’s license was The Van.

Every Problem Has a Solution

It looked something like this, but more beat-up.

The Van was an ancient, asthmatic, arthritic Dodge, of indeterminate age, rusted fenders, flat front, and a slant-six engine that produced slightly less horsepower than a treadmill run by an aged gerbil with a bad heart murmur.  The Van’s muffler was a masterpiece of coat hangers and duct tape; the transmission, a three-speed manual so full of ancient, stiffened grease that it required using both hands to shift gears.  This made driving The Van on steep and winding roads somewhat of an exercise in contortion.

Northeast Iowa is, of course, full of steep and winding roads.

On the plus side, The Van had four tires that held air for several days, and enough room behind the two bucket seats and engine cover for a case of cheap motor oil, a set of jumper cables, a spare tire and a week’s worth of camping gear.

Del, being a teenager possessed of greater imagination than means, spent considerable time planning the dramatic conversion of The Van.  This was in the late Seventies, when conversion vans first became popular, and “If This Van’s a-Rockin’” bumper stickers became de rigueur.  Del’s plans included wood paneling, foldaway beds, murals, and megabuck sounds systems based on eight-track tape players.  It probably would have been better if Del’s plans had included a new engine, a new transmission, a new exhaust system, and several thousand dollars of bodywork.

Of course, Del’s plans would have been better served by the purchase of a less ancient vehicle, and indeed that was eventually what happened; but in our teenage years, a newer vehicle, say, one manufactured at any point more recent than the Upper Cretaceous, wasn’t practical financially.  For us, purchasing enough gas to drive from the house to the barn was frequently impractical financially.

So, we bravely made do with The Van, and of such stuff are legends born.

As pointed out earlier, Northeast Iowa is full of steep, winding roads.  Along the Mississippi River, they frequently run along some pretty spectacular drop-offs.  Navigating these roads in The Van frequently involved Del steering with his right knee, pushing the clutch pedal with his left foot and using both hands to drag the reluctant shift lever from first gear to second.  We did this frequently enough that Del even became pretty accomplished at adjusting the drivers’ door mirror with his forehead.

It was on just such a trip that a large, short-tempered bumblebee somehow blundered in through the driver’s side window of The Van, just as we were approaching a particularly nasty turn.  The bee caught Del just as he was attempting to downshift from second to first.

Bumblebee behavior may just make a young biologist’s fortune some day.  I, for one, would love to hear speculation from one such learned person, as to what motivation drove this bee to fly in the sleeve of Del’s t-shirt, and proceed from there to the approximate location of his left pectoral muscle.  The bee, after some contemplation, decided then to plant one of the most excruciating stings ever in the history of teenage boys and bumblebees.

Del let out a whoop and let go of the shift lever, then stuck partway between second and first.  The Van responded by freewheeling towards the curve, and thence towards the Mississippi River some forty feet below.

Yes, Iowa has hills. Like this.

The fact that a similar drop-off awaited on the right side of the van persuaded me away from my first instinctive choice of action, which involved my bailing out the door and going it alone.  In most circumstances, I’d have preferred the odds of my not being a passenger in The Van at that point, but the fact that the right-side wheels were pinging bits of gravel into space dissuaded me.

At this point, it had sunk in that my fate was irretrievably interlaced with Del and The Van, so I began to consider my options.  Option One, a bloodcurdling shriek, made the most sense as a first course of action, and since Del was likewise engaged in a scream that reached the approximate decibel level of a jet on takeoff, I followed my instincts as well.  Option Two, grabbing the steering wheel, seemed impractical, as Del’s right knee was still there, and wise people of all ages and genders kept their hands well away from any portions of Del’s anatomy at the best of times anyway.

But the fact that The Van was rolling towards a forty-foot drop into the Mississippi caused me to disregard that rule.  Even though Del’s feet, the most dangerous part of his anatomy for reasons I won’t go into in case any readers have just eaten, were perched near the brake pedal, Option Three involved diving for the brakes.

Exercising Option Three probably saved our lives, but unfortunately it involved a quick dive over the engine cover and under the dash, where I slammed my hand down on the brake pedal.  While I managed to bring The Van to a halt, having my face in close proximity to Del’s feet caused migraine headaches and hallucinations for weeks afterwards.  Had I known of the serious consequences of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder I might have been inclined to seek psychiatric help.

That event paled in significance in short order, however, as traveling in The Van was a constant stream of near-death experiences.  Even in such times of peril, some episodes stand out with unnatural clarity as truly terrifying.

Sometimes the Solution is Worse Than the Problem.

The Van’s electrical system, such as it was, had the unique property of reducing brand-new batteries to junk in a matter of months.  In the instance a battery failed, and finances disallowed a new one, The Van was started by the simple expedient of the “Pop-Start.”  This, for those of you who aren’t familiar with the term, involved rolling The Van forward until the speed reached approximately five miles per hour, and “popping” the clutch to start the engine.  Unfortunately, this frequently caused several backfires before the engine caught.

On one bright Iowa summer Saturday, Del stopped by in his father’s pickup with a question.

“Hey, The Van’s carburetor linkage is busted.  Come on help me fix it.  I need you to help me get the coat hanger wired up right from the gas pedal.”  It’s a testament to teenage bravery – or perhaps stupidity – that this request didn’t send me screaming for the hills.  Instead, I accompanied Del to where The Van sat at the top of his parent’s long, steep drive awaiting repair.

Something like an hour was spent in the creative fabrication of a coat-hanger repair to the fragmented remains of the carburetor linkage.  It was then that the excitement began.  Repairs supposedly complete, The Van was ready to be fired up.

“Let’s leave the engine cover off,” Del said.  “That way you’ll be able to watch the linkage to make sure it’s not bending or anything.”  Resisting the urge to sprint for the treeline, I agreed.

Unfortunately, all my bad premonitions about the upcoming event were about to be proved out, in spades.

Del hopped behind the wheel of The Van and turned the key in the ignition.  Only a buzzing from the direction of the starter motor rewarded him.

“Dang.  Guess the battery’s dead.  We’ll have to pop-start it.”  Fortunately, The Van was located nicely at the top of Del’s family’s driveway, known locally as Suicide Hill.  The Van’s recurring electrical problems left Del inclined to park The Van on a slope whenever possible, and the driveway in question provided a slope that would make mountain goats shudder in terror just from looking at it in a photograph.

“Del,” I warned, “The Van’s facing up the hill.  Shouldn’t we try to turn it around?”

“Naw,” Del replied.  “I’ll only have to roll a few feet, I’ll just pop start it in reverse.”

The sense of foreboding had now drawn around me, like a dark, dark cloud.  All my fight-or-flight instincts were screaming at me to run, run, RUN!

These guys would have been terrified.

We don’t always listen to our better judgment.  Teenage boys almost never do.  I remained in the passenger seat of The Van as Del struggled the shift lever into reverse, left the key on, and released the brake.  The Van began the roll.

About ten feet into the roll, at a speed of roughly ten miles per hour, Del stepped down on the gas pedal and popped the clutch.  The Van, ever a seemingly sentient construct, chose this moment to let the games begin.

A hearty backfire began the trauma, accompanied by a jet of flame a good three feet from the exposed carburetor.  Since I was sitting about eighteen inches from the flame, which was approximately the temperature of a thermonuclear device at ground zero, I leaned away against the door, which popped open.  In a moment, I was suspended between my right hand on the window frame of the open door, and my buttocks, which were still on the seat.  My left hand had nowhere to go that wasn’t near the carburetor/flame thrower.  That being the case, I held on to the door with a grip that left permanent finger marks in the sheet metal and tried as best as I could to maintain a grip on the seat with my rear.

The engine sputtered to life, but the situation had not yet begun to deteriorate.  At that moment, Del’s heroic fabrication of coat hanger wire gave way, and the gas pedal went to the floor with no effect.

We were now encased in a van, rolling backwards down a steep slope towards the highway, with a volcano erupting in between the front seats.  Del stomped down hard on the brakes – too hard, in fact, as a brake line that was originally installed using tools chipped from flint gave way and the brake pedal slammed uselessly down, much like the gas pedal, to the floor.  The Van picked up speed.

“I’m gonna shift gears, you’ll have to hit the gas!”  Del shouted.  I carefully considered my reply, and calmly opined, “WWWAAAUUGGHHH!” or some such.

Del got a firm grip on the steering wheel with his right knee, shoved his left foot down on the clutch, and began the torturous process of hauling the shift lever into first gear.

The shift lever broke off in his hand.

The Van was now hurtling backwards down the slope at forty miles an hour.  The screams emanating from within The Van cause dogs to howl in agony for miles around.

With a strength borne of desperation, Del grabbed the stub of the shift lever and managed to haul it into first gear.  Del began to slip the clutch.

“Hit the gas!!” Del shouted at me.

“WWWAAAUUGGHHH!” I shouted back.  My left hand was still free, and so I grabbed the carburetor linkage remnant and hauled the gas open.

The Van’s rear tires began to bite into the dirt of the drive.  However, since we were at this point rolling backwards down a steep slope at over forty miles per hour, this had a predictable effect.  The Van began to tip over backwards.  The front wheels left the ground, and the view through the windshield changed from dirt driveway, grass and trees to sky, sky, and nothing but sky.

“WWWAAAUUGGHHH!”  I shouted at Del.

“WWWAAAUUGGHHH!” Del shouted back.

The carburetor, unperturbed, continued its impersonation of Mt. St. Helens.

At the ultimate point, during which Del and I both came very close to an involuntary physical reaction that would have led to the embarrassing necessity of clean underwear, The Van stopped, upright at approximately a forty-five-degree angle.  Then, with the grinding slowness of a glacier, it began to tip, slowly…  forwards.

The Van’s front wheels slammed back down on the dirt drive.  My hand, by now fused to the red-hot metal of the carburetor linkage, yanked down hard, racing the engine, and putting out the fire.  Del held the clutch in against the engine until I could bail out the door and, resisting the urge to run screaming for home, brace a large rock under a rear tire.  Del then shut off the engine, and we both collapsed in the grass, hearts pounding like a herd of stampeding bison.

“Well.”  Del gasped.  “Guess I’ll have to get another coat hanger.  Can you help me push The Van back up to the house?”

I may have over-reacted, but I don’t really think so.  After all, Del was back on solid food again only two weeks later.

But Then…

Eventually, (and perhaps amazingly) I myself reached the ripe old age of 16 and was duly awarded with the coveted driver’s license.  This enabled me to drive legally on my own, something I had been doing for several years on farm equipment and the Old Man’s dump truck.  A year earlier I had already completed the purchase of my own car, for the considerable sum of fifty dollars.  It was an ancient, asthmatic, arthritic Ford, of indeterminate age, rusted fenders, badly dented front end, and a straight-six engine that produced slightly less horsepower than a treadmill run by an aged gerbil with a bad heart murmur…  But, surely that’s a story for another day.