prelude: the Splendor


I looked into several different ways to get myself and my stuff from California to Maine as I was thinking about the move to Swan’s Island, but eventually it became clear to me that the only way to make the move was to buy some kind of cargo van, load my stuff in the back, and then drive across the country.  Initially I planned to find a used Ford Econoline work van, hopefully without too many miles on it, and was budgeting somewhere in the area of between three and five thousand dollars.  Then the price of gasoline shot through the roof and I started to think about those long miles on the road, soundtracked by the gulping sound of a Ford V8 sucking down gas.  That the lyrics from Nuisance’s classic song “The Van” kept running through my head didn’t help much either:  “My ’69 Econoline / Needs a new transmission. / Fucking van!  Broke again!”

As it turns out, I ended up with a good compromise — a used mail van, with only 40,000 original miles on the clock.  The van, a Ford Windstar, was originally bought at government auction in Los Angeles and is pretty much dead stock except for slightly wider tires, a fisheye mirror for backing up that looks kind of like a large dental mirror stuck to the back of the van, and a large cargo bay that’s enclosed in a “Don’t touch my packages!” cage.  Since the van runs a three-liter V6 it gets better gas mileage than an Econoline ever would, though I did have to install a stereo and find a spare tire (apparently US postal workers aren’t expected to get out of their vehicles, jack them up, and put on a spare when they get a flat, so the vans don’t come with spares).  The van was pretty ugly when I got it — covered with dirty leftover sticker goo that took a lot of elbow grease to get rid of — but it’s cleaned up pretty nicely and, aside from the fact that it’s got a huge and menacing cage that encloses the back, pretty much resembles nothing so much as a nice, family-oriented minivan these days.

The real story about this van, however, is the story of how I found it.  I had seen a few ads for these mail vans on Craigslist, always with an old wooden chicken barn serving as a backdrop.  I was a bit suspicious (why did they all have such low miles?), but eventually I decided to go out and take a look.  It turns out that the guy who sells these things, who I’ll call ‘Ed,’ has a pretty big lot out in the countryside that’s enclosed by a fairly high wooden fence.  The lot was filled with all kinds of vehicles, including several Ramblers, a couple of bread trucks, an ancient tow truck, an extremely large sailboat, and six Ford Windstar mail vans, all in a row.  As it turns out, Ed — who showed up driving a Maserati Bi-Turbo with no plates on it — likes cars, and finances his car habit by buying vehicles at government auction, making sure that they’re in decent running order, and then selling them at a profit.  He was pretty straight ahead about all this — “I pick these vans up for about $1,400, and then I sell them for about $2,500, depending on the mileage.  They’re a great deal.  Low miles, solid runners, and they get about 25 to the gallon on the highway.”

The cars, however, weren’t the most interesting things on the lot.  Hovering above the fence at one end was what looked like a large, blank billboard.  At the other end of the lot was the original Quinley’s hamburger stand that used to be located across from Petaluma’s Walnut Park, complete with neon signs, chrome counters, and all the original stools for customers.  “Well,” said Ed, when my friend Scott and I asked him about this, “during the summer we clear the lot out, some of my friends park their cars in here, and we watch drive-in movies and serve burgers at the stand.”  If you get bored with the movie you’re watching, there’s also a homebrew miniature golf course that’s been built behind the Quinley’s, and according to Ed, “There’s also about a quarter of an acre on the other side of the property that’s been turned into a go-kart track.”  As Scott said later, “Man, that guy is living his own version of the American dream.”

It turns out that these mail vans are pretty popular.  My friend Noria Jablonksi, whose fiction you should definitely check out, ended up buying one as well.  “We should all get some sort of team shirts, like bowling shirts,” she suggested.  Several times while driving around Petaluma, I passed Ed’s used mail vans, parked on the street, and one time I saw one being driven by an older man with an enormous white beard, which made me immediately think of Santa making Christmas deliveries.  Of course, the people you usually see driving these things are actual mail carriers, and I always get a weird feeling when I pass one of these official vehicles on the road, almost as if I’m being sneaky or underhanded by driving a van that used to be ‘official’ and isn’t any more.  There was one time when I had a sudden fit of emotional identification with a Windstar-driving mail carrier who was going in the other direction, and I made the mistake of waving.  They just looked at me like I was crazy.

I ended up naming my van The Splendor Hyaline, the name of the Pevensie children’s ship in the Chronicles of Narnia.  The name is quasi-ironic, I suppose, but “Splendy” is, after all, slated for a life of driving adventure, and I thought her name should reflect this.  It’s better than other nicknames that have been suggested, such as “The Mail Jail,” my brother’s preferred option, and  “The Great White Whale,” which produces nothing in my mind except an image of a van wallowing its way across the interstates followed closely by a cranky old man angrily wielding a sharp harpoon.



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