halloween edition: 1971 Dodge Tradesman - the man with the van
a blue collar van gets driven into a world of unspeakable darkness
Beast of Burden
I knew early on in my production life that I was probably not going to have an easy life. I was a Tradesman Van, a metal work horse built to help the working man. I worked 9-5 as a blue collar work van for a family owned plumbing company called “Roger’s Router.” The company name was displayed on my profile in big bright red letters which went well with my black paint.
My owner was a real man’s man. His hands felt like sand paper on my wheel and he had grizzly bear fur on his forearms. A burly man who’s dense weight would eventually soften the springs in my front seat, but he was as good as he was big. He ran the plumbing business with his two sons. The little one was young enough to still be riding bikes with playing cards in the spokes. The older one was probably 15 or 16 judging by the faint traces acne on his face. They were honest people who made an honest living and I was the heart of their business. I carried their equipment all over town on jobs and did it with pride. I liked being useful and knowing that I did my part to help put foot on the table.
Throughout the 70’s I worked as a plumbing van. I would occasionally see another vans that had been modified. Candy paint jobs, side pipes, tear-drop side windows, and all of them sporting shiny muscle car mag-wheels. Once I saw a fellow Tradesman that had its roofline chopped by about four inches to look like a California Kustom, it looked wild! Part of me was a little jealous that they got to look cool while I kept collecting dings and scratches. However, at least I had a purpose other than be used as a smoking lounge for teens. I wasn’t fast but I always arrived where my owner needed to be. The older son did take petty on my looks and I was given Cragar Magnum wheels to give me a hint of style.
People Are Strange
In 1981, after ten years of loyal service, the family decided it was time to trade me in for something new. I was disappointed but I understood the father was getting old and needed something easier to drive now that his two sons were away in college. I had close to 200,000 miles on my original drivetrain by this time and my age was beginning to show in odd squeaks and rattles. They removed the name of their business the night before going to the dealership. I’ll never forget them.
It must have felt like 2 months before I was sold. People always stopped to see me but felt that I looked too worn out and had a weird smell. Then one day a man came to the lot. This man was completely different from my first owner. Medium height, thick orange tinted glasses, with long greasy hair that was starting to thin at the top. He wore a faded military green jacket that looked like it had never seen the inside of a washing machine. He rubbed his 5 o’clock shadow while he studied me. He opened the rear doors and stared into the empty space, thinking to himself without saying a word until a salesman came up.
An hour later and I was driving off the lot with this stranger behind the wheel. First thing he did was start filling up my ashtray with cigarette buds as he chain smoked all the way to his house. A small home with a driveway on the right hand side that went around into the backyard where he parked me in front of a rundown shed. The house itself looked old, probably built before the war judging by the state of the shed, which looked like it was one heavy snow storm away from collapsing on itself.
This man didn’t seem to have a job, least I never saw him leaving to one. His daily routines were very odd. It was weird to see someone who physically looked like a mess but kept all his house in spotless conditions. Even the shed was constantly swept and I was given weekly washes, which was new to me. My previous owners only washed me when the company name was no longer visible or the smell became unbearable. He rarely spoke, probably because he was always alone. One thing we would do, almost religiously, was drive over to a Seven Eleven corner store a few blocks down at exactly 5 pm. He always drove me there to get a cup of coffee which he would later throw out the window on the drive back. I didn’t understand this behavior until a month later when we went out again, at night.
Have You Seen Her
The temperature was starting to drop way down at night, Mother Nature’s whisper that winter was just around the corner. He woke me up in the middle of the night, around 1 in the morning to go for a drive. I was still warming up when we pulled out of the driveway and followed the same route to the Seven Eleven. The closer we got the faster his pulse felt on my steering wheel. His hands felt clammy too –was he nervous? Before we reached the store he pulled over and parked along a curb that didn’t have a street light. From here we could see the store straight ahead. It was glowing from the florescent lights illuminating the gas pumps. The man sat in the dark with just the orange amber from his cigarette to cut through the pitch black.
He had a portable cassette player on him with a few cassettes stored in my glove box. He had a wide range for music which was a refreshing change from my first owners who were huge Hank Williams fans. He sat there smoking and listening to his tunes for what seemed like hours until his head stood up. I didn’t understand what he was doing until I saw what had caught his attention. She was zipping up her read hooded sweater as she walked out the corner store. Zipping it all the way up, over her Seven Eleven shirt, to protect herself from the chilly autumn breeze. Her silky smooth red hair was tucked back into her hoodie as she carefully prepared herself for the walk home. She strapped on her backpack and switched on her portable cassette player before setting off. The pulse felt like a jackhammer when the man grabbed the wheel. Was he in love?
We watched her walk away from us behind the store and that’s when my ignition key was turned over and I was put into gear. First time I ever rolled along at night with my headlights off. It felt unnerving because I couldn’t see very well. Only thing I could see was the girl’s red hood on the sidewalk as we followed her. He stayed about a block behind her and I crept along the neighborhood like a V8 rumbling ghost in the night air. My black paint meant I was almost unnoticeable under the moonless night.
I was probably crawling at 5 mph through this quiet blue collar neighborhood. Houses filled with people who would be waking up in a few hours. The man watched her in silence as she walked along, unaware that we were behind her. Two blocks later he stopped and parked behind a car as she turned into a house with the porch light still on. The man made a note on a doodle pad before turning me around and headed home. I had seen my previous owners take dates out. The older son had a pretty Chevy Corvair Monza, and on most nights he would walk out into the driveway, smelling like aftershave, and peel-off to meet his date. Never did I see him leave in the middle of the night to go watch his date. Something was off about this guy.
We did this every night for two weeks! Each day he would go buy a coffee and every night he would look at his watch and make a note when she got inside her house. Once I saw him inside the store and he tried talking to the girl. The girl’s expression told me that whatever he had said wasn’t something she liked hearing. He drove home in a fit of rage, smashing his fist on the dashboard until it cracked. He was so upset that we when got home he stormed out of the driver side and slammed the door. The loud door slam covered up the noise of an empty pill bottle falling out of his pocket and rolling underneath me. A few minutes, after he went inside, a gust of wind pushed the pill bottle out from underneath me out in front of me where I could read the label. I didn’t understand what the medication was for but it was completely empty and the expiration date was long past due.
The Sound of Silence
A week later it was Halloween, I could tell because that evening I was parked facing out so I could see into the street. Seeing all these young kids walking around in costumes reminded me of my original owners. I thought about the time in ’72 when they dressed me up like a mobile haunted house. I was dressed in fake spider webs, my owner covered my interior in glow sticks, and a fake skull was attached to my hood like an ordainment. That night we drove around neighborhoods taking the little one trick or treating, while my owner played Halloween theme music on a boom box they had. That was one of my favorite moments with them. It was the first time I felt like a car instead of work accessory. I was just cruising, like those custom vans I would see, while listening to the Monster Mash instead of hauling smelly tools to the next job site.
Once night had fallen and all the porch lights had gone dark I heard the sound of the man’s shoes smothering peddles as he walked down the driveway. He placed a dark green duffel bag inside before walking around and getting in. I began to have a cold feeling in the pit of my engine block. The vibe the man had this night was different. I could feel the tension in his hands and my seat starting to absorb his cold sweat. He had a portable radio that played cassettes and had placed it in the passenger seat. His taste in music was scattered at best. One minute he could be listening to AC/DC followed by James Brown and chasing it with Ennio Morricone. On tonight’s station we had Simon and Garfunkel somber harmony in “The Sound of Silence.” A song that didn’t help my increasingly bad feeling as we followed the same route to the Seven Eleven.
Something different happened. We past the store and kept driving a few blocks down until he pulled me over to quiet curb in-between two other cars. He adjusted his mirrors so he could see behind him and slumped into the seat to wait. We sat in quiet silence with the radio off, he didn’t even smoke. Time moved at a snail’s pace before I heard the faint sound of shoe heels clicking along damp pavement. My bad feeling was running wild with my imagination as it started to assume and jump to conclusions. My suspicions began to chase me when the man slowly got out of the driver side and walked to the front. Taking each step with as little noise as possible as the approaching footsteps began to get louder and louder.
The man began to inch further and further to my right side as the footsteps got closer on my left. The man was holding something in his hand, a small brown bottle. Focusing on his hands distracted me and before I knew it the footsteps were at my rear bumper and the man had ducked under my passenger side fender. Three seconds later my paranoid curiosity was answered when the person making those footsteps walked past me. It was her! The red headed young girl! She was walking home and dressed like Little Red Riding Hood. She was halfway from passing the car parked in front of me when the man crept up behind her. It looked like he was hugging her until he spun around and I saw in horror that he had a white rag over her face! It happened so fast. The girl struggled but suddenly went limp and fell asleep. The man hustled to put her in the back and we drove away with my headlights off until we were around the corner.
He parked me inside the shed before carrying her into the house. She looked like the girls my owners would hang out with on dates. “She can’t be more than 17…” I thought. I sat in the dark with my mind running circles over what I just witnessed. “What is he going to do? Do I want to know? Why did he do that?...What’s going to happen next?” All my life, I had been used for work. To carry, haul, and transport. But what the hell was I transporting now!? My haunting suspicions came to the conclusion that this man was a demon and I had to do something, but what?...
The Night Bell with Lightning
An unknown amount of time later, he came back and dropped two large garbage bags into the rear. They felt dense, full, and had liquid in them. The sensation was so unnerving that my leaf springs wanted to tremble in disgust. What got to me the most was that he was whistling a tune as he made his way over to the driver seat. Wiping off droplets of sweat with his jacket sleeve before lighting a cigarette and turning the key.
It must have been close to 4 in the morning when we set off. Traveling out of town and into the wooded area near the mountains. Nothing but twisting two lane roads with walls of trees on either side. It was my first time on these roads and my worn suspension was having to work overtime from swaying all over the place. The man didn’t seem to care as he kept popping mix-tapes into the radio. “Little Red Riding Hood” by Sam the Sham started to flow from the boom box like a rapidly descending mist throughout the cabin. The two bags were heavy so they didn’t move much but did giggle slightly which was causing my oil levels to drop with nausea.
It was after 5 am when we pulled off the road and made our own trail into the woods. The grass reached my grille as I pushed through nature. I felt tree branches and large rocks underneath me. My suspension felt weak from the drive and found that I could lower myself more than usual if my wheels traveled up or down. The off-road trail was rough and I used every hard bump to try and break something on me. Tear a brake line, blow a tire, destroy my oil pan, anything that would cause me to break down and leave him stranded.
I was hurting myself but not enough to break down as we drove deeper into the woods until the man found a spot he liked. Using my headlights to illuminate the area, he opened the duffel bag to pull out a shovel and pitch ax and began digging a hole. “A grave…” I was forced to watch as he dragged the two bags and dumped them in the hole in the ground. My new owner was a psychopath and I was now his work truck of death. I had gone from an honest man’s work horse to a predator’s chariot.
Up Around the Bend
A hint of orange was appearing in the sky by the time we got back on the road. The sun was starting to rise. The cause and effect of what just took place kept repeating in my mind. The man’s demeanor was so calm that it made me sick. The attitude of a man who had clearly done something that wasn’t new to him. How many trips to the woods had this monster done before he found me on that used car lot?
Lynyrd Skynyrd’s “Free bird” starting playing on the radio and I found myself going faster as the song’s tempo got faster. This sick bastard was grooving to the music. My body roll got worse on each turn as I swayed through the bends. I was too old for this kind of driving. The man quickly realized this when we came around a downhill bend only to be greeted by a 10 point buck in the middle of the road!
The man slammed on the brakes and I locked them up in an instant. I skidded in a straight line before he got off the brake and jerked the wheel hard to the left. I struck the deer’s rear-end with my right headlight. Killing the deer instantly and pushing the right side of my front end inward. The impact took me off the road and we crashed into a ditch. I was a mess, but to my disappointment, I was still running. The man checked himself to revival a gash on his forehead. He quickly shifted into reverse and drove me out of the ditch before another car came to his aid. Pieces of buck laid all over the road as I wheezed back onto the highway.
I was an utter mess with deer blood covering the right side of my smashed face. I was cursing my reliability with every mile I rolled until I felt something pop in my engine bay. A gas line had popped out from the carburetor and was spilling fuel over the entire engine. My radiator was pouring coolant so my engine was hotter than usual. My chance had come. All I had to do now was wait and be ready. The man had no idea that I turned into a time bomb.
Great Balls of Fire!
Coming down the straight away that led into town as the sun was just starting to peak over the mountains. We were two miles from town when it happened. My smashed hood latch had finally given up and flung itself up into the windshield. The moment the hood opened a ball of flames erupted from my engine bay as the rushing air stoked the gas fire. The man’s foot leaped for the brakes but they too were damaged and only my left front tire tried to stop. I locked up and pulled sharply to the left and into a barrel roll. I finally came to rest 700 feet later, the right side up, in a flaming heap with scattered pieces of burning metal all over the road. The duffel bag laid ten feet away from me and it was open. I saw her red hooded sweater peeking out of the half zipped bag.
The man was partially on fire when he woke up in a panic. He tired opening my doors but the locks were destroyed. No way I was going to let him leave my sight. He tired crawling through the windshield that had been replaced with a wall of fire. I felt was little glass was still attached to my frame tear into his flesh as he crawled out shrieking in agony. He fell over my front and on to the pavement. Still on fire, he tired crawling his way over to the dew soaked grass. I watched before my left headlight broke as he died before reaching the grass. His slab corpse barbecuing itself using fuel from my own tank. “Burn you mother…” I thought before I the flames took over me. I only had a few seconds but it was enough to make my peace with where my end of the line had been. Knowing I was taking him with me made it easier to accept. He was, after all, a man with a van.