In 1969, Dodge released their “Family Wagon” van with an internal engine box for the last time. The van had no hood, instead the engine was covered by a large box that was positioned between the driver and passenger. Because there was no hood, the front of the van was fairly flat, where the dashboard met the windshield was the front of the van. The driver and passenger sat on top of the front wheels.
That year, Pops decided the Alexander Family needed a van as a “Family Car” and Dodge’s “Family Wagon” fit the bill just fine. When he found a Family Wagon that had been converted into a “Camper Van” he bought it right away. The conversion added wood cabinetry, a fold out dining table, a stove/oven combo, a sink with running water, a small pantry and a closet. The roof of the van had been modified into a pop up tent with two bunk beds that could fold out. The van also came equipped with a six person tent that attached to the side, creating a large add-on room when deployed. With the pop-up top and the side mounted tent, the van could sleep ten – four inside and six outside.
When Mom went into labor for the last time, it was the “Family Wagon” that everybody piled into for the long drive to the Kaiser hospital in Bellflower. It was in and around the “Family Wagon” that Kenny kept Benny and Robin occupied while Mom added the last member to the family – little Paulie. Even though little Paulie was born quickly, there was a complication, a growth on his shoulder that the doctors would need to remove in a few months and the doctors wanted to make sure he was going to be alright. While Kenny, Benny and Robin waited for the family’s final member to join them, they played around what would simply come to be called The Van.
Pops didn’t like Little League, or Youth Soccer, or Pee-Wee Football. Pops liked camping and the outdoors in general. The Van was the vehicle that took The Alexanders to strange new worlds. Places like San Felipe in Baja Mexico with its jumbo shrimp and Chinese fireworks. Regional and National Parks like Yosemite, the Grand Canyon, Hoover Dam, Lake Tahoe, the Kern River, the Stanislaus River, Mono Lake, Twin Lakes, Little Rock, Big Bear and Calico Ghost Town.
Pops tried his hand at fishing and spent a lot more time fishing than he did catching. The kids fed raccoons in Yosemite and while they were looking around Pops poked a bear with a stick. They rode canoes down the rivers and hiked around the lakes, climbed huge boulders in Little Rock and only encountered chipmunks in Big Bear. They camped in secret on Indian Land near the Grand Canyon and never found a single ghost at Calico (the Ghost Town).
Through all of it, The Van’s V-8 engine roared on and gulped gasoline at nearly eight miles to the gallon, on a good day. Pops would eventually put mag wheels and chrome exhaust pipes down the sides of The Van. Pops explained that the wheels added traction and the exhaust pipes added a little extra horsepower. Mom said he just liked the way they looked and the rest was “Alexander Bullshit.” The truth was somewhere in the middle.
The add-ons did seem to make Pops a bit more fearless when it came to driving The Van off-road. Mom said he believed his own “Alexander Bullshit” and that would lead to The Van getting stuck in sand – always sand. First, it was near the beach in Baja Mexico. After a couple hours of trying to dig The Van out a group of Americans with four-wheel drive off-road vehicles showed up and helped to tow The Van out of the sand. This would happen again in Anza Borrego after Pops drove The Van through a fast flowing creek and got stuck on the sandy streambed on the other side. After a couple hours in the desert heat it was once again another group of Americans with four-wheel drive off-road vehicles that would show up and help tow The Van out of the sand.
Adventure after adventure, mile after mile, camping trip after camping trip, The Van soldiered on, tirelessly. After twelve long years of faithful service to the entire Alexander Family, Kenny turned sixteen and earned his driver’s license. With that small card and its tiny picture, Kenny could ask Pops for the keys to The Van and hear the reply “Sure, here you go.” That is when the allegiance of The Van moved from Pops to each of the Alexander kids in order of age (Kenny, then Benny, then Robin and finally Paul). The simple keychain with its single Dodge key and its blue Mandic Motors key fob was passed from hand to hand for the next seven years. Until it had served as the “first car” for each of the Alexander kids.
When The Van started to be driven by Kenny it picked up a new nickname – The Urban Assault Vehicle. This nickname came from the comedy movie “Stripes” where Bill Murray and Harold Ramis join the US Army and then “borrow” the EM-50 Urban Assault Vehicle and accidentally invade the Soviet Union. The Alexander kids had snuck into this movie after watching the animated classic “Heavy Metal” at the Huntington Cinema at the Five Points Plaza. By the end of The Van’s service, sever years later, it had logged thousands of hours participating in countless “Operations.” Infiltration. Exfiltration/Extraction. Supply Drops. Chuck Wagon/Chow Hall Duty. Gun Runs. And many highly classified “Black Ops.” The Van even made an appearance at the First Annual Huntington Beach High School Road Rally, one of its last and most famous “Operations.”
One of the first “Operations” for the Urban Assault Vehicle was a Gun Run. Neither Kenny or Scott were 18 years old yet and they both wanted to own real firearms so badly it almost hurt. While browsing through a catalog from a uniform company called The Quartermaster, Scott found that they carried replicas of M-16s, for less than $200 (in 1982 dollars). Not only that, The Quartermaster had a storefront in Long Beach – so they could drive down there and pick it up. They just had to walk in with the cash.
So an “Operation” to go down to Long Beach was planned. Secrets were almost impossible to keep in The House, its walls were just too thin. So when Paul found out what Kenny was planning he asked to go along. Without much of a choice, Kenny agreed and when he and Scott drove north to Long Beach in The Van, Paul sat between them on the engine box. To Paul, there was something almost magical about going somewhere in The Van without Mom or Pops.
Once they arrived at The Quartermaster store all three of the Boys were a bit amazed. Up to that point, uniforms – cammies – had been purchased at Army Surplus stores and they all smelled kind of strange. New and old at the same time. But at The Quartermaster everything was new, and they had police uniforms and nurses’ uniforms and uniforms for just about anyone who would wear a uniform. In the back Scott found the replica M-16s next to the replica Uzi. Once he found it they did not stay long, the purchase was made and they quickly returned to The Van.
Kenny fired up the engine and they started heading home, mission accomplished. Scott opened the box that the replica M-16 came in and laid the rifle across his knees as Kenny drove down Pacific Coast Highway. His hands were almost shaking as he ran them over the plastic and gun metal. He gently pulled the ammo magazine out of its Styrofoam packing and tried to push it into the bottom of the receiver. The ammo magazine did not fit into the magazine feed and would not click into place underneath the receiver. Scott cursed loudly.
“What’s wrong man?” Kenny had been paying attention to the road and had not noticed what Scott had been doing. Kenny pulled over to the side of the road, bouncing the right front tire off of the curb (bending the power steering rod at the same time). Angrily, Scott tried to jam the ammo magazine into the slide a few more times before exclaiming –
“Fucking fake piece of shit! I think I am going to have to file this thing down or something!” Scott tried again to jam the ammo magazine home and again it would not fit. Paul had watched the entire time, amazed by the fact that he was FINALLY within arms-reach of an M-16, replica or not. After Paul watched Scott make a few more futile attempts he asked with a small voice –
“Hey Scott, can I see that?” Scott looked over at Paul and saw the same look on his face as Scott had worn when he had first walked out of the store with the replica M-16, excitement and awe. Paul’s face also reminded Scott that he was sitting next to an eleven year old kid.
“Sure thing, Di-Wee. It’s not like you are going to break it any more than it already is.” Scott called Paul Di-Wee because he said that’s what Green Berets would call little boys in Vietnam. Paul didn’t mind because it was something Green Berets said and no one really understood what it meant – to Paul it was not disrespectful, it was more like a term of endearment.
Paul took the replica from Scott and set it across his knees, just like Scott had. Then Scott handed Paul the empty ammo magazine. Paul took the ammo magazine and turned it around in his hand and then inserted it into the magazine feed underneath the receiver. The ammo magazine slid smoothly into place and they all heard the “click” of the magazine locking in place. Paul looked over at Scott and smiled. “See, all you needed to do was turn the magazine around. You were trying to stick it in backwards.” Kenny burst out laughing and Scott frowned. Then he took his M-16 replica back from Paul. Seeing that Scott was embarrassed, Paul couldn’t help himself. “Just remember who taught you to put the magazine in your first M-16.” Paul pointed to himself with his thumb and said “Di-Wee.” Kenny started laughing even louder and Scott’s frown only deepened.
After that day, the power steering on The Van would never work again. The rod eventually broke and it was never replaced. That was the way of things for The Van once it passed from Pops to the kids. Once an accessory broke, if it was not needed to keep The Van rolling down the road then it was not replaced. Soon the sink stopped working and then it was the oven and stove. Eventually the pop up roof would leak when it rained and the floor boards began to rot away from rust. But the V-8 in the engine box continued to roar to life when you turned the key and so The Van continued to roll down the highway. Looking more and more like some strange Urban Assault Vehicle with each passing year and each new “child” driver.
The Van began its life as a means of transporting the Alexander Family on all forms of strange and wondrous adventures. Over the course of its existence, The Van shepherded all four of the Alexander children from childhood to young adulthood with the roar of its V-8 engine and all of its creature comforts. During that time it evolved from a “Family Camper Van” dubbed “The Family Wagon” by Dodge into the Alexander’s very own Urban Assault Vehicle and helped to set the stage for the next generation of fun-loving and hard charging Alexanders.