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  • Writer's picturecatherine@allaboutwriters

The Van

Being the youngest of six kids, all my siblings being brothers, we were a rowdy bunch. Really, there was only one vehicle that could take us, and that was ‘the Van’, a 1970 Volkswagon Microbus, known to all as the Kombi. My parents bought her brand new, and she was a part of our family for twenty-eight years. She took us all around Australia – from our home in Canberra across the Nullabor Plain to Perth, up the East Coast to Cairns, and to countless beaches and campgrounds in between.

These adventures took place in the days before seatbelts, so my parents were able to fully utilise the space in the Van in any number of ways to accommodate the passengers on board. When she was in her original state, the driver and passenger had individual seats with an open space between them which you could walk through into the rear section. There was a bench seat across the middle, accessed from a sliding door on the side (or through the front seats). One part of this seat could be folded forward to access the rear bench seat, not unlike many cars today. The very back was the boot cavity, which was a square space that sat a little higher than the seats and could be accessed through the back door or by climbing over from the back seat. More often than not, we climbed over.

Both of the rear bench seats could be removed completely, meaning Dad could create different seating and sleeping plans for each trip. If the back seat was removed and the middle in place, Dad had custom-made a wooden board to lay across the gap, providing space underneath to stow the stuff and an area on top that kids could sit…though wrestling was more often the activity of choice. If the middle seat was removed, it left a cavity from the back seat to behind the front seats, also a wonderful wrestling arena – I mean sitting area. In the very back, there was a folding mattress which could accommodate the youngest who needed to nap, or provide a quieter refuge for reading. But who would want to do that when you could wrestle? I have memories of riding up front with my parents, perched atop the esky which was jammed in between their seats, the boys tag-team wrestling behind us and nobody paying them much attention at all.

Before my time, my parents took a trip with the five young boys across the Nullabor Plain to Perth, some 1675kms across the vast desert in the middle of Australia. For this, the middle seat was removed and the wooden platform in place, allowing four to sleep across it at night while Dad continued driving until he was tired. When this invariably happened, he’d pull over and put another custom piece of wood across the front seats, transferring one sleeping child into that space so he could jump in the back to sleep. The last two were sleeping in the very back, meaning all seven had space to sleep. Luckily neither of my parents are very tall people! Once I was on the scene, the eldest of my brothers being twelve by this time, the Van couldn’t sleep us all. Our number was then divided for sleeping between a tent and the Van.

When my brother and I were babies and Mum had an old-fashioned perambulator with the big white wheels, she would simply hoist the pram into the Van where the middle seat was removed, popped on the brake, and drove us about in the pram. No wonder she always struggled with baby capsules and carseats and when looking after her grandchildren!

The Kombi was a car that gave my Dad some credibility in our family. He was not a man known for being handy, but he changed the clutch cable in that Van countless times. Whether in our driveway of pulled up at the side of a major highway, Dad had this one trick that he pulled out time and time again. Considering he had no training in such things, I look back on this with equal parts wonder and respect.

On one holiday, as we made our way towards Sydney, there was an event that stuck with us for years, mainly due to the blanket that remained in the Van for years that had burn marks in places. We were heading slowly up a hill (not unusual) when a truck passed us coming the other way, changing into a lower gear to go down, causing it to momentarily pause, like a hiccup. There was a motorbike behind the truck which went to brake and slipped on some gravel, ending up under the back end of the truck. As the bike slipped, petrol spilled out onto the road and the rider which caught fire. The truck stopped, as did Dad, almost alongside each other, just as the motorcyclist burst into flames. Dad leapt out of the Van having grabbed the blanket, screaming for us to stay inside. He leapt on the guy, wrapping him in the blanket to extinguish the flames which were manageable, but clearly not good news. In the same moment, the truck driver called for Mum to, “Get out of here!”, prompting her to get the Kombi kicked into gear and up to the top of the hill, albeit at a crawl. As we pressed our faces to the back window and looked back down to the scene, the motorcycle exploded. A ball of flames lit the nearly-dark sky as Dad and the other men ran away to a safe distance. Soon enough emergency services were on the scene and the badly burnt motorcyclist was whisked away to hospital. Dad returned to the Van, the smoke-filled blanket in his hands, taking a moment to have a drink of water and make a couple of choice Italian expressions, then carry on driving. That blanket remained in the Kombi for years, and the story of that evening remains in our family until today.

By the time the Kombi left us, we children were young adults. I can’t say I have such fond memories of my teenage years with the Van. In fact, I vividly recall trying anything to avoid being getting into or out of the Kombi during this time. I would beg Mum to drop me around the corner, being appalled at the dented brown vehicle that anyone would hear coming from miles away. Soon after she was sold, however, we all missed her. A couple of years after that fact, I was in the overtaking lane on one of the main Canberra roads and there she was, in all her light- brown glory. I motioned to the driver, who surprisingly pulled over. He had bought the Van off my parents, and obligingly opened the sliding door to let me relish in my memories for a few moments. It was the smell that got me – that familiar smell of the Van that hit me right away. I can’t tell you what she smelled of, only that to me it was so comforting and warm.

That was over twenty years ago, so I doubt she is still around. But I still look out for her, just in case. I know I would recognise her anywhere. Especially that smell.

In a bit better shape than I recall...

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