Author: Martin, George

It’s sad when an old friend dies

I mailed in the paperwork yesterday to the California Department of Consumer Affairs to turn in my beloved old 1983 Dodge van to the cash for clunkers program.

In one way it’s a brilliant deal: I paid $2,600 for that car back in 1994. Eighteen years later I’ll be getting nearly half my purchase price back. So why do I feel so rotten?

I know it’s just an inanimate object (and sounding like an engine with a failing main bearing it’s about to become truly inanimate) but it has been a part of my life for a long time, has carried me to many bluegrass festivals and camping trips, hauled bicycles and the occasional broken or crashed motorcycle, done dump runs, transported eight people on hiking trips, taken furniture to the Salvation Army and served as a studio for banjo practice, parked at a little lot that overlooks San Francisco Bay.

Its engine is the old workhorse “slant six” that powered Plymouth Valiants and a bunch of Chrysler Corporation small cars over the years. It is underpowered as a motor for a full size van, but it has a four-speed “on the floor” stick shift which helps it make the most of its limited horses.

Indeed, that transmission makes the driver an intimate partner in getting anywhere. Rather like an old, air-cooled VW van, when faced with a hill such as Interstate 80 leaving Vallejo for Grass Valley, one is advised to crank up as much speed as one can on the flat, then shift back into third part way up the hill to keep the revs up. Fourth gear is an overdrive and helps the old van get 16 or so miles per gallon on the freeway, but it is pretty useless on a hill.

One does a lot of shifting while driving the Dodge, but it makes me feel a part of the effort, actively assisting an underdog (or “undervan,” if you will) in a difficult task.

In the years I was volunteering regularly at CBA Music Camp, Ingrid Noyes often sent me to airports to fetch instructors arriving in Sacramento. That’s how Alan Munde came to ride in it, and Alice Gerard, and Murphy Henry (who arrived in Reno on a very late flight, but that’s another story), and Claire Lynch, Bruce Molsky, Greg Schatz, Jason Thomas (great mandolinist/fiddler/vocalist with the Claire Lynch Band) and Jim Hurst.

In 2009 I got the idea of asking musicians who rode in it to autograph the inside. That year we drove Claire Lynch to the airport, so the band members all signed. Others who didn’t actually ride in it, but autographed it anyway included Scott Huffman, Greg and Dan Booth from Laurie Lewis’ Right Hands. Tom Rozum drew a little skeleton playing the mandolin and every time my toddler grandson gets in the van he says, “There’s Mister Bones.”

Just about every member of my family has put a dent in it at one time or another. I scraped the right side and broke a mirror on a hotel in Baja California. Barbara hit a metal pole and dented the left side doors so they will only open from the inside. My younger son skidded in the rain on Highway 17 going back to UC Santa Cruz and dented up the left front. I backed into a pole in a gas station parking lot in Williams, or one of those similar towns in the Sacramento Valley, and dented the back bumper.

I parked it on the street in front of a supermarket in Berkeley about ten years ago, foolishly did not lock all the doors, and came back about 20 minutes later to find the radio gone.

The poor thing never got to live in a garage, or even a carport, and eventually the rain started getting to the roof. I painted the top with Rustoleum but after a while it developed some little holes that I patched with metal air conditioning duct tape and covered with Gorilla Tape.

Then the rod that ran from the drivers side wiper to the other side rusted out and the passenger wiper died. This past winter the driver side wiper followed suit.

And then the engine started making this ominous ticking sound, the sound of a main bearing wearing out. I am a great believer in fixing cars and keeping them for a long time rather than blowing a big stash of cash on a new one. But the van has too many things wrong with it. I’m still driving it around town a bit, waiting for the state to direct me to a wrecking yard.

I would love to take it to Hollister this weekend for the Good Old Fashioned Bluegrass Festival, but if it breaks down totally there it will be a difficult tow to get home and I’ll lose the $1,000 turn-in fee, since the state requires a vehicle be running to get the cash.

Now we are pondering whether to rent a van for the trip (rather costly) or try to stuff enough gear to survive into my little Toyota Corolla.

Most of the used vans I see advertised are bigger, 12-passenger V-8 models, very bad on gas mileage and really difficult to park. I keep hoping something more like what I have will come my way.

Sadly, I await developments.
Posted:  8/9/2012

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