The Copper Kettle–Dad’s Van

My father bought one brand new vehicle during my childhood. It was a 1976 Ford Econoline van burnt orange, and void of any accessories or options. It was bare metal inside, and came with the absolute minimum of two seats. His dream was to customize that van for a trip we took as a family to Yellowstone National Park. This was the age of customized vans. He was not attempting to put wall to wall shag carpeting and a water bed in the back so that he could score some serious tail (as far as I know); he was trying to make more of a recreational vehicle that would sleep a family of five.

My father was an engineer, designed things, and took the van customization very seriously. He spent weeks sketching out his ideas, to scale, on graph paper. His optimal design called for a bed across the back that could be expanded, two captians chairs in front, and a bench along one side that would convert to a mini-kitchen. There were storage cubbies everywhere. He also planned to install an AM/FM stereo with eight track tape deck and six speakers and a citizen’s band radio.

Dad was also a bit paranoid–perhaps rightfully so given his upbringing–so the very first thing he installed was a kill switch disguised as a headphone jack. I suppose there were people that would steal an unfinished, oddly colored van. The next thing he did was have Sears install an after market cruise control. The switch was attached to the turn signal, as they are today, but this one stuck out like a sore thumb, and had wires hanging from it. It was novel and cool to me, though.

The deadline for the trip approached far too quickly, and the only customizations my father accomplished was the wooden frame for the bed, the captains chairs up front, and the new stereo. I think that is how much of life goes, with grand plans going wildly astray, and coming up short. But we took the trip, and rode in that van.

Mom and Dad sat up front, and my brothers and I either shared the bed in back, or sat on a lawn chair resting in the middle. I don’t believe there was anything like a seat belt in that van. It was bare metal, unfinished lumber, and us. If there had been an accident, my brothers and I would have been thrown forward in free fall, waving our arms as we screamed in terror before splattering our brains on the dashboard. Those were the good old days for travel on our nation’s highways.

During that first trip, we broke down in Omaha, Nebraska, and the transmission had to be repaired, and we all learned to hate Omaha. Our intention was to sleep in a tent in Yellowstone, but often, because of bear warnings, we had to pile into the van, and there we shivered in cold, uncomfortable, cramped quarters.

All of this is leading up to my very worst memory of that van. A few years later, I was riding with him in the van on a hot summer day. I was sixteen or seventeen at the time, and, for whatever reason, I didn’t really want to be there with him, in that van, doing whatever we were doing. I was sitting on the cooler in back (we came to keep a Coleman cooler in the van for extra seating) when the van overheated and my Dad pulled it over.

He popped the hood and steam was escaping from the radiator cap. He decided to allow that pressure to escape, and he loosened the cap. It exploded in a burst of steam, scalding his face, eyes, hands, and arms. He backed away in pain, groaning and waving about anxiously.

I was bored by the whole episode, and I had already planted my ass in the lawn chair in the shade nearby to watch the proceedings. I could see he was in pain, but being a selfish, stupid teenager, I did nothing and hardly cared. Dad stood for a confused moment, not sure what he should do to help himself, and looked at me.

I said, “There’s some ice in the cooler if you want it.” But I didn’t get up to help him, or ask about his injuries, or much of anything. As I said, I was a stupid, selfish teenager.

My son is fourteen now. I think I’m due to get a taste of my own medicine.