Norman Hits the Road

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Chino, California. The rooster crows his fool head off in the backyard as I nurse my mug of coffee. My cousin Ben graciously set the maker to start at 6am the night before, which makes being awake at such an early hour more bearable.

The Van is leaving my aunt’s garage for the first time in over 6 years to come home with me to San Diego.

This morning has been in the works for a number of months now, maybe six. While I’d been daydreaming about taking on The Van as my next project for a few years, I’d only more recently summoned the courage to talk about it with my family. The Van originally belonged to my Uncle Bill, my mom’s brother-in-law. He and The Van and an assortment of other passengers crisscrossed the country multiple times over the decades on adventures long and short. A school teacher, my uncle would take a month-long camping trip each summer during break with a variation of my three cousins and their friends. (My year-round school schedule was always at odds with his traditional, so I never joined.)

Uncle Bill passed away the end of the summer of 2008 during a solo canoeing trip on Mono Lake. The usually calm waters are sometimes suddenly and severely overtaken by high winds. Winds that day were clocked as high as 80 miles an hour. Making his way back to The Van, parked at the shore of Navy Beach, to return home for the start of the school year, his canoe capsized, and he drowned.

The Van was driven a few times after his death. My cousins, brother, and I took it to Joshua Tree National Park for my 30th birthday. But soon it sat, for longer and longer stretches, until it became a neglected fixture of my aunt’s garage.

It was summer last year when I observed the only time I genuinely felt excited was when I fantasized about taking on The Van as my next project. I’d only recently completed my first — a 1976 Honda CB550F motorcycle that had belonged to my dad and subsequently sat unloved in a backyard for 20-odd years. I’d never done so much as an oil change for my car or used a socket wrench. Having no idea what I was getting myself into I naively thought I’d “fix it up” and by the time I realized what all I’d gotten myself into (a complete rebuild) I was too invested and stubborn to quit. Three-and-a-half years later I was riding around town… and seemed to have something like post-project depression. The bug had bitten me. I wanted more.

A picture emerged in my mind: the moto (dubbed “Arnold” after we crashed in August and I used the insurance money to make upgrades — lemonade from lemons, and I prefer mine mixed with iced tea) towed in the back of The Van, a 1979 Volkswagen Type 2. Long weekends in the mountains or desert, season depending. I’d spend the day riding the moto, and return at its end to The Van, simply modified to safely and comfortably provide shelter for the night. I’d kick up my feet and put a record on the player (I’m happiest when fancying myself a character in a Wes Anderson movie, so record player is the logical source of sound), crack open a beverage and breathe in all that was good in the world.

I could never have gathered the gumption to ask to take on The Van without the confidence earned from the moto build, but even so it was sickeningly scary. My uncle is somewhat of a legend, not only among my family but in the broader community. He taught high school special ed math, and a regular incentive for his students was a trip in The Van to Joshua Tree; there are countless people with fond memories of my uncle and The Van. He was a prominent figure in his local Methodist church, and a mentor to former students long after they graduated. He is, to me, proof that life doesn’t owe you a damn thing or make any sense whatsoever in the way it shakes out. He was the kindest, most compassionate person I’ve ever known, and I am forever heartbroken at his absence.

I asked my aunt first, as I accompanied her to pick up Mexican food for the rest of the family. In the memory I’m awkward and halting, my nervousness tangling my words before they can leave my mouth. To my eternal relief she was receptive and calm, and nodded along with my plan. She liked it, but was very clear that it wasn’t her permission I needed so much as my cousins’.

I talked to them over the next few weeks, my confidence rising with each enthusiastic response. The youngest, Vanessa, had two qualifiers: don’t change the seats and don’t change the paint. I was vaguely offended at the second (change that paint job?!?? Are you kidding!!??!) but I was glad to have any expectations out in the open.

Everyone was on board. Not only were they on board, they seemed genuinely excited. My aunt and mom’s brother, Chip, was a life long car enthusiast who spent much of his time post-retirement at racetracks as a volunteer. I looked to him as the seasoned mechanic in my corner. He was glad to help. Thanksgiving morning we met at my aunt’s to give The Van an inspection. The battery was of course dead, but with a jump started right up. The excitement and emotion of hearing her running for the first time in years was exhilarating and sweetly sad. My aunt hooted, my cousins cheered and clapped. I declared we should start a mechanical project each Thanksgiving.

I expected AAA to tow us home, but I overestimated the package availed us. They would only cover 100 miles, and the distance between my aunt and mom’s homes was 123. At $10/mile over the initial 100, that made for a much more expensive trip than I’d counted on. (I live in a very tiny studio in central San Diego, with no space to store or work on… anything. My mom very generously donated a portion of her garage in Chula Vista for the moto, and is doing so once more for The Van.) But Vanessa had a friend, Thomas, with access to a trailer through his work and a penchant for moving vehicles.

And so here we are. Chino. Coffee. Early (so early).

I follow behind in my silver sedan, feeling like a protective barrier against the speeding Southern California drivers who whiz up behind us, going 55 – 60 mph. I’ve never driven so slowly on the freeway for so long. Around 10 am we arrive at my mom’s. She has a spot in the garage waiting — she’s relegating one of her vehicles to life outside. The guys push while I steer, and The Van is in my mom’s garage. Damn, it’s weird.

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I had promised Vanessa I’d take them all out to eat, but by this time I feel like I’m about to crack open from the emotion and expectation of it all. I meekly make excuses about it being 10:30 on a Sunday and how crowded it’ll be anywhere, and palm her money for food. I do the same with gas money for Thomas (who also gave The Van a bath! What a guy).

My mom and I sit for a while with coffee and gradually the lump in my throat subsides. I opt for the mildest yet most satisfying first task I can think of: scraping old tape from the inside of the back window. The remnants had stuck out to me the entire drive here. I climbed in, armed with a razor blade. I thought of all the times with the moto that I’d spent days doing menial tasks because I was too overwhelmed to do anything else. Once I was done with that I thought I’d just see how the seats were secured to the floor; I knew they bolted in and out and was curious how easily the bolts would release. Not a one gave an ounce of resistance. My mom came out to see midway through and when I told her how easily things were going she declared it “meant to be.” “Oh no,” I argued, shaking my head. “I’m not going there, because when things are more difficult down the road I don’t want to have to admit the opposite.”

 

It’s my first big step towards my dream of kickin’ up my feet after a day of moto-ing and putting on a record. The most precious part of the whole thing is the support of my family. I know it’s difficult for them, as it is for me, to be reminded that my uncle isn’t here, but I hope it’s worth it. And I can all but hear my Uncle Bill saying: “cool!”

 

 

 

14 thoughts on “Norman Hits the Road

  1. Mom

    SO beautifully written, honest, and engaging. I am honored and excited to be apart of the journey, both through my garage and your blog. I join Uncle Bill in saying “cool”.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Daphne Figueroa

    Very nicely written, Ellen. Best of luck with Norman the Van. Your Uncle Bill’s legacy will live on and you will enjoy wonderful times out and about with Arnold and Norman for years to come.

    Like

  3. Proud Dad

    I am just blown away with the clear view into your heart and the courage it takes to let it “all hang out.” Plus your writing is clear, engaging, and flows so naturally I couldn’t imagine any other way you would tell it. And people who are scared when they take on a big task usually lack imagination or experience with Murphy’s Law. Love You

    Like

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