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Papa Van Come Home

In the maturity of my autonomy (in other words, after Mommy dropped me from her car policy), I have never owned a car worth stealing.

Face it, new cars are a con. I would have said "gyp" there, but that would be a slur — there are honest gypsies. I've only bought one car on credit, and while I'm sure it raised my Equifax score, every other aspect of the experience left me cuddling and cooing at the flat tires and broken fan belts of the junkers I snagged cash in fist. There's no more subversive an activity than purchasing, driving and maintaining a used car, as long as you avoid getting banks into the deal.

My habit as a conveyance owner has always been to stick to known devils and become adept at conjuring them. In the 80s and 90s I drove a succession of rusty 70s Dodge vans. Artful Dodger! Lazerus! Lucky! The names echo down the years, generally in my nightmares. Later, in the Age Of Grunge, we acquired Woody, a highly-suspect Voyager, from a dread used car dealer with the aid of the aforementioned credit debacle. After that it was all Chrysler minivans all the time, shedding trannies the while, culminating in 2006 in a $1000 street deal, spray-painted black, that croaked in darkest Oregon with Sandahbeth in the hospital and a gig in a week. I caught a one-way dog to Seattle and went a-Craigslisting, happening at the end of the day upon an unpresuming 1990 with surprisingly low mileage which became known as Rescue Van after it drove blithely back to Oregon and sprung my sweetie from the bedpan hoosegow.

Rescue Van soldiered miraculously on through the remainder of the Bush Interregnum and on into the Obama years, only expiring last summer during a road trip to a folk festival. Fortunately, I've long been an advocate of the three letter mechanic, AAA, and while we arrived with Rescue(d) Van on a hook, we got there. But then it was time to go van hunting again.

We picked through the ads looking for the killer feature I'd previously identified, a slim and trim odometer reading, and found a 94 with 85k. Unfortunately, it was a strictly utilitarian model, no power auxiliary features, smelled like an ash tray and was about $500 over our budget. We made a respectable low bid and went on hunting. Two weeks later, they called back and took our offer. We hadn't seen anything better in the meantime, so we went down to Tacoma to make the buy. The owner's two little girls were sad to see it go and wanted to say goodbye to Papa Van, Papa being their late grandfather. It's always good to be introduced to a new vehicle by name.

As it turned out, Papa Van ran like a champ and had few if any used-car needs beyond a headlight and newer tires. We parked it by the road and used it for big loads and family excursions that exceeded the capacity of our Subaru wagon. Remembering my manners, I dutifully praised him for his good health and ignored his BO. Number One Stepson transported his disabled paramour handily with the aid of the old wheelchair ramp. This past Mother's Day, the sons took Ada out for dinner and all was copacetic. And the next morning Papa Van was gone.

In answer to our anguished question, "What kind of an idiot would steal a 94 minivan?", the investigating officer was quick to explain that, contrary to popular belief, crooks don't usually steal cars to sell them, just for transportation. Your average career criminal isn't exactly gonna go down to DMV with his (fake) ID and proof of insurance. And 90's minivans are stupid-simple to crack. Gone in 30 seconds without breaking a sweat. But don't worry, he added, they're usually recovered in a couple weeks or so. The local blockwatch list was sympathetic, friends offered to loan us this or that smoking hulk, but we were disconsolate. We couldn't even drown our sorrows in another van quest. We wanted Papa Van back. We liked him. Until he'd run away with the thugs we hadn't realized just how much of a two-car family we were.

Two weeks or so later, I was in the midst of a rehearsal when Ada called to announce that the police had found Papa Van. Now, there are issues regarding a recovered vehicle, ranging from location of discovery through storage fees to body damage and fubared ignition systems. In a lot of cases, getting your car back means buying it back from the impound lot and the mechanic and the insurance company. That last wasn't an issue in this case — theft coverage would have doubled the price of the vehicle in a year. But we were still concerned that collateral damage could total him out.

We drove out to the tight side street in the Rainier valley where they'd found him. He was actually legally parked, had not been used to brush off a building or some other car and smelled no worse than he had before. Predictably, the ignition had been ripped out of the steering column, but I reasoned that that was how they got him started in the first place, and if a criminal can do it, Mister Fixit can too. A little fishing around with my trusty leatherman resulted in a most gratifying roar to life, and I ran him home under his own steam. The next morning, investigation revealed the rest of the ignition parts scattered around the back seat area, and with a little ingenuity I was able to pop them back into the column as good and untrustworthy as ever. I did the Happy Mister Fixit Dance around the yard — Yeaaahhh! Fixed it for freeeeee!

And immediately went out and did the one act of security that the officer had suggested: I bought a Club. $30 is a helluva lot cheaper than comprehensive, lemme tell you.

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