13 August 1995
Dear Friends and Family,
I regret to announce that on last Saturday afternoon, three men from Charlotte showed up at Hilton Pond with a car battery, a gallon of gasoline, an air pump, and a toolbox--all of which they used to resuscitate the ancient and venerable Original TanVan (Ford E-250) that had been gradually decomposing in my lower driveway.
This beloved 12-passenger vehicle, whose less-than-accurate and now inoperable odometer registered 167,000 miles, was bought early in 1978 with the intent of using it to take my students on field trips. That fall, of course, I changed my mind and my career and went off to grad school at Minnesota, leaving The Styx and driving a loaded U-Haul followed by wife Susan and firstborn son Billy in the TanVan and brother-in-law Wes Ballard in the even more ancient Volkswagen BlueBus.
The VW microbus (whose heater did not work, a prescription for suicide in the Great White North) was quickly traded for a diesel VW Rabbit, and the TanVan became my research vehicle of choice in Minnesota. The first summer, I installed shelves in the back and used it as my private dormitory for two months while taking courses at Lake Itasca Biological Station, where I learned in northern Minnesota one simply cannot get into a van at dusk without being joined by at least one blood-thirsty mosquito that buzzes at just the wrong frequency and makes it impossible to doze off until it has been annihilated, hence the dozens of dark red splotches that still dot the ceiling of the TanVan.
I also put many miles on the TanVan while driving north from the Twin Cities to Cedar Creek Natural History Area, where the vehicle served as carryall for net poles and banding tools--as well as a portable blind from which to observe Blue Jay nests. In winter--and because father-in-law Heyward Ballard had the foresight to install carpet and spray the underframe and walls with insulating foam--the TanVan protected me from subzero temperatures as I trapped and banded my Cyanocitta cristata. The TanVan also became a January haven in which ever-dependsable field assistant Terry Weins and I munched on box after box of Cheez-Its, a high-energy junk food that helped fend off hypothermia.
Each Christmas, of course, we drove the TanVan back to South Carolina to visit the folks, sometimes not even stopping at rest areas along the way. It was over these holidays the TanVan made its first trips to Carolina Sandhills National Wildlife Refuge at McBee SC for the annual Christmas Bird Count established at the behest of Robby Bryant and participated in by students such as Fred Nims and Russell Rogers Jr. and Melissa Ballard.
After Minnesota grad school years were over we returned to South Carolina and bought and named Hilton Pond. The TanVan became an auxiliary vehicle in the Northwestern High School motor pool and served us on trips to the Carolina coast for AP Biology. More importantly, it provided transport to Hawk Mountain Sanctuary in Pennsylvania for the Hilton clan and for yet another generation of students such as Neville Yoon and Kevin Craig; we even installed a special jump seat in the rear so Naomi Barban could join us on one of those Hawk Gawk Expeditions.
Just as we took the TanVan to far-off places on field trips, birds sometimes came to pay visits to the old TanVan. Not once, not twice, but three times a pair of Carolina Wrens nested inside the front grill, the first time without my knowledge until I drove the vehicle to Rock Hill and back with a full set of day-old chicks up against the engine block. It apparently didn’t bother them much, however, since all fledged safely and no doubt lived on to tell their own nestlings about the perils of their youth.
The miles and the years eventually took their toll on the old TanVan, however, and as shocks and clutch and transmission got weaker I feared for safety of my passengers. The vehicle needed more and more frequent repairs from automotive mechanics classes at the Career Development Center in Rock Hill just to keep it running, and in 1988 I elected to buy a second TanVan so I could still take my students on field trips. Once again, however, with the purchase of a new van I changed careers and went off to the Governor’s School for Science and Mathematics, where I convinced the powers-that-be to buy THREE vans of their own to use on school trips.
To make this long story short, the original TanVan sat in the carport at Hilton Pond that year we were at the Governor’s School, and it did an exceptional job in guarding the house against intruders, ne’er-do-wells, and potential buyers for the property. When we returned to York in 1989, however, the new TanVan displaced its predecessor, with the old TanVan taking over a permanent spot at the end of the driveway beneath a Southern Magnolia. There it served as a four-wheeled storage building for everything from boxes of books to wood-chopping tools to a stuffed Nine-banded Armadillo, and it became a breeding ground for field mice, silverfish, and mildew. Ravaged by road salt during Minnesota years, its fenders became transparent or non-existent, and falling tree limbs cracked the windshield shortly after some joy-riding punk took out one of the side windows with a well-thrown rock.
Last Friday when a guy named Joe from Rock Hill stopped by and asked without even looking closely at the old TanVan if I’d be interested in selling it, I asked him how much and he offered a hundred bucks and I requested one-fifty if he would help unload it and then take it away and he said ”It’s a deal,” I knew the time had finally come to let go of this relic. I might have known the old TanVan wouldn’t give up easily, however, and when Joe went to look under the hood he was attacked and stung by a squadron of Yellow Jackets that had nested in the right fender. “I’ll be back tomorrow with my tools and an insect bomb,” Joe said. On Saturday he and two colleagues arrived.
After dispatching the wasp colony, Joe popped in the new battery, poured a cup of gas in the carburetor, checked the radiator, and cranked the darned thing in just four tries--not bad considering the engine hadn’t turned over in two or three years. As the tires pumped up and springs groaned and creaked back into shape, the old TanVan emerged from its slumber, and it was an easy job to drive the heap back to the carport in which it had sat in 1988-89. Billy Hilton III and the three mechanics and I quickly unloaded the treasures the TanVan still contained, including an empty 30-gallon saltwater aquarium, my long-lost field notebook with irreplaceable Blue Jay data that I had needed for my dissertation, and an old Mason jar filled with nails I dug up in 1984 at an old Civil War site at Camp Allegheny in West Virginia.
As soon as these items were removed and stacked on the front porch, Joe hopped into his car, and one of his pals--a Camel-smoking, long-haired, toothless, unwashed, tattooed guy in jeans, sandals, and a black T-shirt--slid behind the wheel of the old TanVan, piloting it out of the driveway toward Charlotte--where he hopes to turn the thing into a “work van” for his home repair business.
I wish this guy well, and I hope he made it safely across the border into North Carolina. I honestly forgot to tell him some things that only came to mind long after he was gone, such as the left front shock is missing and the power steering often quits when the engine gets warmed up and that speedometer doesn’t work and the floor shift sometimes hangs in reverse and has to be popped into neutral by crawling underneath the van and jiggling it around with an adjustable wrench. No matter, though, since the guy will probably be more upset when he discovers there’s no cigarette lighter.
So long, TanVan, you served me and my students well. I bought you in 1978 and went to grad school. I bought your successor in 1988 and changed careers. In 1998, I suppose I’ll be obligated to purchase TanVan III, and I hope I have a career by then so I can change it if I want. Regardless, I hope you get rejuvenated by your new owner, and that you roll on for 17 more years or another 167,000 miles or until some (North) Carolina Wren clogs up your grill with a new nest full of baby birds. I miss you already.
POSTSCRIPT: In 1995 I took a position as director of education at Hawk Mountain Sanctuary in eastern Pennsylvania, with Susan, Billy III, and young son Garry staying behind in South Carolina. I made the 600-mile one-way trip home about every three weeks and returned to the mountain after a four-day weekend. Needless to say, this was far too many miles on me AND TanVan II, but the vehicle held up admirably during my two-year tenure. In 1997 I elected to move back home for a job closer to York at Daniel Stowe Botanical Garden, where my duties as director of education and research required a lot of short trips but not many marathons. By then, however, TanVan II was also getting sort of creaky, so late in the fall of 1998 visited the local Ford dealership with a trade in mind. There were no new TanVans on the lot, but they did have a spiffy, slightly used 1998 E-250 with only 25,000 miles on it--courtesy the Ford Racing Team it transported back and forth for events. Unfortunately, the vehicle was not tan in color, but the metallic blue looked really good, so I bought it, a throwback to the days of the blue VW microbus. Shortly thereafter, I decided my home life needed more attention, so I resigned my position at the Garden and incorporated Hilton Pond Center for Piedmont Natural History as a non-profit organization--meaning, in essence, I had changed jobs again according to my well-established cycle of ten-years-per-van. I write this postscript in the spring of 2008; I wonder what new job and new vehicle lie in store during this calendar year?
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