Two pictures, seven years apart. Beginnings and endings. The first picture was taken on August 12, 1974 when I was 14. The second picture was taken on June 15, 1981; I was almost 21. The pictures bookmark the time we had our family van. I can put an exact time frame on it because of its astounding appearance and its dramatic disappearance. The van was utterly unlike any of the other cars we had during those years. It was shiny silver and red with no rust and a comfortable interior. Unlike our other cars which usually had lost their shine and were a whisper away from being a clunker.
I can date its appearance because it was a few days after Nixon resigned as President. I was up on the North Shore of Lake Superior with Uncle Gene, Aunt Lenore and my cousin, Matt, who was close to my age. At one point, we had heard the President would be resigning the tomorrow. On the next day as we were driving through the woods, Matt suddenly leaned forward in the back seat, reached up and honked the car horn. “Nixon’s gone!” he shouted. "Yes!" I shouted as grateful that Matt hadn't caused Uncle Gene to drive into a ditch as I was for the political moment.
A few days later my family was coming up to stay and my aunt and uncle would leave the next morning. Matt and I decided to take a hike that afternoon from the resort where we stayed; our vague plan was to walk to the river and hike up it. When we were walking on the side of the road that morphed into, "let’s see if we can get down to Lake Superior from here." Once we were on the lakeshore the plan changed into, "let’s see if we can hike all the way to the river on the rocks along the shore."
On the journey we discovered a small waterfall, caves, and a natural amphitheater complete with a big rock podium. Eventually we hit a rock wall we couldn't climb and had to give up the plan of making it to the river. We made our way back to the road just short of the river.
Matt and I decided we still had time to go up the river. We hiked up stopping at each of the waterfalls and then continuing. Finally, we made it to the bend in the river where we usually stopped. A small set of rapids allowed us to sit with our feet in a natural Jacuzzi.
We realized that it was getting a bit late and we should be back before my family arrived. We made a mad dash down the river back to the highway. Matt and I were impressed with how quickly we made it back down the river and how much faster it goes if you don’t stop to look at any of the sights.
However, the dash took its toll. We were both trudging along the highway back to the resort. I remember my feet feeling like they would feel when we would walk back to our car after a day of walking all over the State Fair. I just wanted to sit down. We weren’t very far along when a van pulled off the side of the road ahead of us.
It was a bright shiny newer looking van. Wishfully I said, “maybe my parents bought a new car and they're going to give us a ride.” Matt said, “dream on,” echoing what I was thinking. Then it happened. The passenger side door opened and my oldest sister Kerry’s head popped out. “Hurry up!” Amazed we ran for the van.
Over the next seven years there were many changes. Gerald Ford become President. He was followed by Jimmy Carter who had picked Walter Mondale, a Minnesotan, as his Vice President. Next came Ronald Reagan who pledged to cut taxes and spending. The non-profit my father ran became a casualty of the spending cuts. Matt and I showed the rest of the family our hike along the shore. Since then it has always been referred to as The Hike Along the Rocks” (yes, in capital letters.) It has been a family favorite for many years. My family grew with the marriage of my oldest sister and the birth of two of her children. I went from middle school through high school and then to college. From a teenager to my early twenties. From being painfully shy to going to an out of state college where I knew nobody. Through it all the van was there as the family vehicle, steady and dependable, always starting with the turn of a key.
On June 14, 1981 the van disappeared. That summer I was at home preparing to spend the fall quarter of college in Europe. We had a full house. I am the fourth out of five children and four of us were living at home. Kerry had moved back home with her husband and two young children. I was sharing a bedroom with my younger brother, Michael. My sister, Katie, and my parents also lived there while my brother, Kevin, was living elsewhere for the summer.
Kerry and her husband John decided to take their kids to Lake Harriet in Minneapolis. Michael and I went with them. This had been the lake our parents would take us to when we were little. Back then we would swim, have a picnic, and go to the band shell for a concert and a treat from the concession stand. Kerry, her husband John, their almost 3-year-old son Brendan, their 4-month-old daughter Bernadette, my brother Michael and I all took the van and drove to the lake. We parked close the rose gardens and walked down to the lake. The day was hot, humid and overcast. The kids went wading in the water and played around. We sat on a blanket enjoying the day and the lake. Eventually it became time for us to go.
At this point the van suddenly decided not to start. After several attempts John left to hike to the band shell and call for help. As he left we stayed in the van and kept the kids occupied. John arrived back. He had called home and only my sister Katie was home. She would come and pick us up to get everybody home and we could worry about the van later.
Katie soon arrived in one of the cars that was one of our normal cars. A dull brown 1973 Chrysler New Yorker that was a pre-oil crisis gas guzzling tank. As soon as Katie pulled into the empty parking spot in front of us we all hopped out and went to the car. Strangely we all felt a need to hurry.
I was the first one to get in the car, as I slid into the seat behind Katie I looked at the lake. Coming across the lake was a wall of water looking like heavy rain. “Look at that,” I said. Katie looked and groaned, “Oh no, I didn’t close the windows at home.” Neither one of us knew that behind the wall was a tornado bearing down on us.
As everyone piled into the car the storm hit. The rain became heavier and heavier and the winds picked up. Eventually the only thing we could see out the windows was water blowing sideways. Every so often, a stick would blow up against the window, hold for a fraction of a second and fly away again - eerily reminiscent of the tornado scene in The Wizard of Oz. That tank of a car with five adults and two children in it was bouncing up, down and around; shaking and sliding in the wind.
My ears popped and I think that was when some part of my mind realized it was a tornado. I cracked my window open to equalize the pressure, shouted for everyone else to do the same and put my head down.* The storm continued. The car kept bouncing around. After a while it subsided and we looked up. Michael, in the front seat, turned to look at us in the back and gasped, “The van is gone!” I turned around and looked. In the parking space behind us where the van was parked, I saw only an empty parking spot. Vans and cars do not suddenly disappear like a magic trick. My mind didn't comprehend it on first glance. My reaction was the same as Michael's, "it's gone!" The van had been blown into the ditch. When it was pulled out the next day we could see that the whole front was caved in. Anybody sitting the front seat could have been killed.
Kerry and John were in a panic to get the kids home. We moved some downed trees out of the way and drove across a lawn to get out of the area to drive home. On the way home, I sat in the back seat on the passenger side. Kerry was in front of me holding her daughter on her shoulder. Bernadette was staring at me with her eyes wide. I reached out with my finger and she wrapped her fingers around it; grasping it tightly all the way home.
That night we watched the coverage of the tornado on all the local TV stations. Most of the coverage focused on the damage to shopping areas in Edina and HarMar Mall in Roseville. Then on Channel 11 they covered Lake Harriet. They interviewed two bystanders. The talked about the tornado and then said, “There’s a van in the ditch over there.” And then they showed it; our van was on TV upside down in the ditch.
I have two pictures to remind me of the van’s coming and going. Matt took the first picture of me on “The Hike”. It used to embarrass me to look that picture of myself. Blue tennis shoes, plaid pants, an orange striped shirt, a maroon sweatshirt tied around my neck and my long hair. Maybe, it’s the passage of time, maybe it’s seeing other awkward kids turn into reasonable adults that it doesn’t have the same effect anymore.
The second picture was taken of me next to the van after it had been pulled out of the ditch. The original of the picture was lost, so all I have is a photocopy. I compare that picture to the one taken of me earlier and see someone who has grown in more than just stature. There is a quiet confidence in my pose as I lean against the van.
As the van dramatically appeared and disappeared the world was changing as well. Undramatically, the child that I was slowly disappeared and the man I was becoming slowly began to appear.
*A note about tornado safety. In the time this story takes place, the theory was that tornados would cause much of their damage because of their intense low pressure would make sealed buildings blow out their windows. So, we were told in the event of a tornado, windows should be slightly opened to equalize the pressure. However, it has since been determined that having windows open with the wind blowing through can make the roof of a building act like an airplane wing and lift off.
Tim Kane's memories, musings and updates.