The Green Van
It had bald tires, it ran on about four cylinders and was an eyesore. The van was modified for Ernie Woolf, a guy I surfed with in Point Judith, Rhode Island. He was about 6-foot 4-inches, and wanted to stand upright in this rig to put on his wetsuit so he cut a 3 by 3foot hole in the roof, framed up a plywood box, slopped some silicone around the seams, and was good to go. One fall day after surfing at the Point Judith Lighthouse, I noticed a For Sale sign on the van. Ernie wanted 400 dollars and not a penny less.
“Are you sure you want this?” he asked.
“Positive,” I replied.
This became my home for eight months in sunny Daytona Beach, Florida.
As a student at Rhode Island College, I always wanted a van, a motorcycle, and a sailboat. I wanted anything that represented freedom and autonomy. Looks were of no value - movement was. In the halcyon days of the seventies when vans were styled out with decadent interiors and killer stereos, my van was a rolling slum. Looking at my van caused rubber-necking drivers to get corneal hernias. When other van people passed me they had a, what the hell is that look. I became very familiar with that expression. The interior had a bunk with some old fishing nets for aesthetics, and a small icebox. It was a rig of simplicity.
In 1975, I headed south after a summer of working on the Block Island Ferry, and was game for anything that came my way. As a college student I’d always
envied people who went on adventures, and this was my time. “It’s the journey not the destination,” said Homer and off I went. The mechanical sketchiness
of my rig gave me pause however, and I needed a plan if the thing broke down on the highway. I figured I’d strip off the plates, carry what I could on my back,
and abandon the van - simple.
I drove off the highway in Florida so I could see the ocean and came to the shores of Daytona Beach. I drove on the beach to the Ponce de Leon Inlet, liked it, and stayed for eight months. Daytona had good surf, pretty girls, and good music. I wandered into a bar called the Boot Hill Saloon after my first day in town. It was a biker bar. Actually, it was a very intimidating biker bar, but what the heck did I know? I was a guy from Rhody with a surfboard, a guitar, and a bizarre van. I was not a biker and got vibed when I walked into this place. All eyes were on me. I got a burger, shot some pool and left. No one spoke to me, they just looked. They looked at me with the same look people had when they passed my van. I later remembered that all of the guys had on colorful vests. I had on a Hobie t-shirt, surf trunks and sandals; wrong uniform but I would later frequent this place, because I connected with some hillbilly biker guitar guys who liked me. We all liked the same kinds of music and played at parties. It turned out that they were very connected to the guys with the colorful vests. Ahem, they were members of a nationally-recognized motorcycle club.
That winter I met wanton women, bikers, pilots, guitar pickers, poker players, dealers, surfers, chess players, gas station attendants, lifeguards, motorheads, truckers, fugitives, hobos, pimps, bartenders, barflies, flimflam men and women, wannabes, has beens - people who lived on the fringes of Floridian culture. No one had real names; everyone was aka Fox, Tom Tom, Franny, or some other moniker. I learned not to ever ask anyone their real name. I did once inquire such, about a guy from Perth Amboy.
“Hey Fox, what’s your real name?” I asked.
“None of your business,” Fox said.
He said this with an even tone, and a look that said I was on very thin ice. Fox looked like The Fonz, from the TV show “Happy Days,” but he wasn’t an actor.
Fox was Fox and that’s all I needed to know.
I parked my van in the Holiday Inn South parking lot that winter. I surfed everyday, boosted ice from the hotel and used the pool. Money was tight, so I needed a job after about a month in town. Chuck, a biker from upstate New York taught me how to wash windows. Chuck was a shady guy who would leave town for a few days at a time - whereabouts unknown. He always had new bikes. I never inquired where he went. Once in the saloon he told me how he used to wash windows for the rich folks in Miami. Jackie Gleason was one of his favorite customers. He hooked me up with the tools: squeegee, vinegar, rags and a small ladder. My card read:
J. V. Houlihan’s
Window Washing Service
On A Clear Day You Can See Forever If Your Windows Are Clean
I was in business. The only problem was the Green Van: it was such a gypsy looking rig I needed to park it away from the neighborhoods where I hustled jobs
door to door. Once I got the job I would drive right up to the house because at that point people just wanted the windows done.
The winter passed and I decided to head back to Point Judith to work on the Block Island Ferry. It was May and Daytona was very hot. One day I said “Adios” to all of my beach and bar buddies, gassed up the van, and blew that clambake. The ride north would be dicier than the ride south the previous fall. The van’s starter was blown, the engine overheated, and the tires were very bald; yet onward I rolled.
In Jacksonville the rig stalled. The drill was to crawl under the van with a screwdriver, and bypass the starter and trick the solenoid. Then I would race back into the driver’s seat and move on. I did this every time I needed to start the engine. Overheating was also a problem, so I would keep a large wine bottle full of water in the front seat. When the engine got hot I would lift the engine cover and pour the water into the radiator. It was a dangerous system because I did this with the engine running, but it worked well. Coming to the Savannah River Bridge would prove to be a very big test for my ailing machine.
The bridge seemed to go on forever. I figured if I got up to speed I could make the long draw which was about four miles to the top of the bridge. I was chugging and grinding along - losing compression rapidly. It was the little van that could - I know I can, I know I can. I was near the top of the bridge, and was going about 15 miles per hour. I figured if I stalled then I’d need to roll back into Florida and take another run at this thing. I made it over the top, and coasted into Georgia. Bingo!
The trip to D.C. was pretty easy, except for a few overheatings on I-95. A few Union 76 stops, and some help from some truckers for a blown fan belt got me through. Flying into the District and approaching the Pentagon, I mused about an old girlfriend from college who lived in Crystal City. I thought I’d stop by for a “Hey, how ya doin.”
Shirley Highway was under construction, and the turn-off for the Pentagon was jammed up pretty badly. I was five minutes from my friend’s house; so close and yet so far. The Green Van stalled in the exit lane. Out of the rig I went on the passenger’s side, because the big rigs were blasting by me doing 70 miles per hour on their way to Key Bridge. I crawled under the van, screwdriver in hand, and fired up the engine, scrambled into the passenger’s door, hit the gas with my hand, and the engine stalled. This happened three times before the engine didn’t stall. My blood pressure was spiking because of the proximity of the traffic. I got to Dottie’s place, and beeped the horn. She came to the front door, and I said, “Hey, how ya doin!” She shook her head as she looked at the Green Van
- remember the look I spoke of earlier -there it was again. We played catch up, and tooled around our old D.C. haunts for a day. I was due at the ferry in about
17 hours, so it was “Adios” again.
The Jersey Turnpike was uneventful except for the torrential rain and wind. Coming to the George Washington Bridge at midnight was another story. Wind gusts were making the van heel over and rock like a boat. The rain plastered the windshield, which was fine until the wipers stopped. I had my head out the window trying to see where the hell I was going. Suddenly, I heard a person yelling my name, “Joey, Jooooooooey!” I looked over and saw my little brother Pat
hanging out the window of a car waving his arms. He was on his way back from a surf trip in Florida with some buddies. I yelled to stop in the breakdown lane after we crossed the bridge.
So the green van limped to a stop and my brother jumped out of the car. This was very fortuitous because I was very low on gas, and had about four dollars
to get to Point Judith. “Patrick,” I said, “I need some cash. This thing is running low, and I gotta get to the boat.” He flipped me five bucks, and I gave him my last can of beer - such a deal. I got to Mystic at ten o’clock, and pulled into the Howard Johnson’s. The ferry was leaving at 11 and I had enough time and actually enough cash left for coffee and some gas.
I rolled into Point Judith at five to 11, grabbed my back pack, and hopped aboard the old ferry I’d be working on for the summer - the MV Quonset. My shipmate Grant Parker looked at the Green Van, then looked at me and shook his head. He couldn’t believe I made it down to Florida in the thing, let alone got home in it. As the ferry pulled away from the dock I looked at my home for the last eight months; the Green Van had served me well.
A week later I was surfing at the Point Judith Lighthouse, where a surfing and sailing guy I knew named Peter Maack admired my rig. He needed a place to
live in Newport for a month during the Tall Ships of ‘76. I told him the van was for sale.
“How much Joey?” Pete asked.
“One hundred bucks,” I said.
“Will you take 27 dollars?” he countered.
“Sold,” I said.
Peter met me that afternoon and gave me 27 dollars in singles and quarters in a sock. We shook on the deal, and he gave me a ride to the ferry dock. Peter lived in the Green Van on Spring Street, in Newport, Rhode Island for a month. Then, he got a crew spot on a schooner that was heading up the Saint Lawrence Seaway. The last I heard, Peter sold the Green Van for one hundred dollars before hopping on the schooner. It had also served him well. ‘Nuff said.