Everyone can identify with the pressure of the first day of high school. But I had a worry that no one else did.
It was 1978. Dad was in his mid-forties. I was going on fourteen. My mother had died long ago and my older brother and sister had moved out of the house by now. Dad would be giving me a ride to school.
As usual Dad had to rustle me out of bed. “Come on get up, it’s seven thirty.” he said, poking his head through my bedroom doorway for the fourth time.
I finally rolled over. No more procrastinating.
It took me no more than three minutes to get my clothes on, brush my teeth and hair, and be in the kitchen where Dad had a glass of orange juice and a cold piece of buttered toast waiting for me. He handed me two dollars for lunch and we were out the back door. Coming through the back gate, the glistening mass of Dad’s van came into sight and I felt myself swallow. I hadn’t thought this through very well. Dad was going to drive me to school in The Van.
Over the summer, Dad had bought a custom Chevy van from his girlfriend’s son in-law, and had been entertaining himself by riveting silver dollars and brass ornaments onto it like there was no tomorrow.
The van was a 1975 GMC. It was bright orange and yellow with shag carpet, captain chairs, a couch, and a mini refrigerator inside. Other than his old Harley Davidson, Dad never had such a cool ride before. To him, it was beautiful to look at and he wanted to make it look even more beautiful. A day or two into his ownership of the new van, he got a really cool idea. What would it look like if I put a couple of silver dollars on the door? So he got out his drill, put two holes into Eisenhower’s head and riveted them on the driver’s door. Then he went for symmetry and did the same on the passenger side door.
Later that week, while I was in the backyard working on my bicycle, Dad yelled for me: “Tracy, come have a look at this.”
I walked down the driveway to where Dad was working on the van.
“What do you think?” he said, gesturing to two brass elephants that he had riveted to the hood of the van.
I recognized the elephants right away. They had been on a shelf in the dining room. They were about the size of my fist, and shined like gold. Now they were hood ornaments. If different was what he was going for, then he had succeeded.
“They look pretty cool there.” I shrugged.
Before I knew it, Dad had riveted on a dozen more brass objects—A few brass belt buckles, little brass eagles on each door, and a bunch more silver dollars around the border of the hood.
By the time summer was over, he had hundreds of silver dollars all over the hood and bordering around the van’s frame. Hundreds of brass pieces were attached. Chains and bells hung around the chrome bumpers. It was something I had never seen done to a car, a van, or anything. Why was he doing this? He was going overboard like he did with everything else. I tried to shrug it off as just another one of Dad’s silly projects. But it bothered me throughout the summer. People were starting to stare as we drove around town. I didn’t like people staring at us. That day, I was afraid of what the new school kids would think if they saw me.
On the morning of my first day of school, I took my spot in the captain chair to ride shotgun. Clearly it was too late to change the arrangement now. Then in the side mirror I caught a glimpse of the Riviera parked across the street behind me. I could talk Dad into doing a lot of things. Maybe we could take the Riviera instead.
When Dad took position in the drivers seat. I said, “So you don’t want to take the Riviera? You were saying it needs to be driven more.”
“ I have deliveries to do.” He said giving me a questioning look from the corner of his eye. Then I’m going to the vacuum store to give Uncle Willy a hand.”
It was wishful thinking. I knew the Riviera was out of the question. Since Dad had gotten the van, the Buick had been sitting on the street for weeks, covered in dust. The van was now his primary mode of transportation. I figured it best to just sit back and try to forget about it. Maybe the kids at school won’t see me. It was just another crazy ride in life that Dad was taking me on.
“Hang on Girly.” Dad said playfully, using the pet name he called both me and my sister. As he put it into reverse and backed out of the driveway, the bells on the van chimed and rang over the deep bumps in the driveway. Then he put it into drive and we cruised through the neighborhood. People openly stared as we made our way through the side streets, past the Coral Café and onto Burbank Boulevard. Coming to a stoplight Dad took the time to look himself in the rearview mirror, fingering his mustache to accentuate the curls and ensuring his toupee was still straight on his head. When we came to Keystone Street I felt a sense of panic. Up ahead I could see droves of kids outside in front of my new school, John Burroughs High. Before I knew it, Dad was pulling up to the front of the school. He stopped at the main entrance stairs where a crowd of kids had gathered before the bell rang. When I got out of the van everyone seemed to have stopped what they were doing and were all staring at me. As I moved toward the stairs, I looked for someone I knew. I desperately wanted to find a friendly face, someone to support me in this strange and awkward moment. But I didn’t see anyone, just blank stares and looks of confusion. I passed two boys that were laughing and pointing at the van. One kid said: “What the hell is that?” shaking his head like he was disgusted. I heard Dad finally pull away but I didn’t turn back. It was best to keep it behind me now. As I walked up the steps I made a decision. The next time I get a ride to school, I will without question, have him drop me around the corner.