In 2009, the Wood family was all set to take a begrudging leap into the market of 12-passenger vans. There was virtually no chance this leap was going to end well. How could it? I knew little about cars and less about vans. Fortunately, in His infinite wisdom, a generous God brought the likes of Sergey Brin and Larry Page into the world to create Google. Google gives car idiots like me a chance at success. I grabbed my laptop, spent far too much time creating a wonderful little spreadsheet, and then commenced with van research. I started by googling all the van things I was too embarrassed to ask other people.
“diesel vs. regular vans”
“What does the ‘V’ in V8 engine stand for?”
“Do I have to have a CDL to drive a 12-passenger van?”
“cost of Mercedes van”
“cheapest 12-passenger vans”
“Ford vs. Chevy”
“Do people buy old limos instead of vans?”
“Do I have to have a CDL to drive a limo?”
“Cost to rent a Lamborghini”
“Sales price of a kidney” (kidding on this last one)
Anyhow, I eventually re-entered reality and resumed my search for van-related knowledge. After a couple of hours, I had learned enough to make a slightly informed decision. The decision: our next van would be a four-, five-, or six-year-old, 12-passenger, Ford E350 van. With a bit of searching (and a bit more off-task Lamborghini browsing because the new Gallardo is a thing of beauty), I was able to locate a number of vans that fit my criteria on Craigslist, cars.com, and eBay. Unfortunately, none of these vans were located in Amarillo. My closest option was located approximately four hours away in Albuquerque, New Mexico. I called up the seller and talked through the details over the phone (in 2009, people still used their phones for old school voice-to-voice communication). I asked all of the questions Google told me I should ask when buying a van. After the seller had answered every question to my satisfaction, I was excited to make a deal (well, as excited as one can be when shopping for used, 12-passenger vans). We agreed on a price and I—along with my dad who, God bless him, agreed to drive me 4 hours to meet a stranger for a Craigslist deal—headed to Albuquerque to pay the man.
When I arrived, the owner gave me the keys, and I gave the exterior a good once-over. Everything looked as it should. Next, I popped open the hood and examined everything. Full disclosure: by “examined everything” I mean “pretended that I had the slightest clue what I was looking at.” What was under the hood looked exactly like an engine, so I figured I was good to go. Then, I hopped in the driver’s seat and looked around the inside of the van. The inside seemed a bit large, even for a 12-passenger van; so, I counted seats and seatbelts. 15. 15? I had just driven over four hours to Albuquerque to buy a giant, 12-passenger van only to find out the van I had tentatively committed to was, in fact, an even giant-er 15-passenger van. Ugh. So, I did what many great men have done throughout history: I rationalized. I rationalized until my mistake had, in my mind, morphed from an embarrassing failure into a wonderful stroke of good luck. I thought to myself, “Since I was getting a good deal on a 12-passenger van, I supposed that I’m getting an even better deal on a 15-passenger van. Also, it might be nice to have the extra room for the veritable cornucopia of parenting gear that our family takes along with us on road trips. Also, I’ve driven all this way and everything else looks great...”Sold!” We signed the papers and I started my drive home.
About 30 seconds into my drive home, it dawned on me that my sweet wife might not be too thrilled that we now owned an extended 15-passenger van rather than the pre-discussed 12-passenger van. What had I done? There is a feeling that all husbands experience at some point in their married lives. It’s a unique feeling that comes just a moment after an act of monumental stupidity—when he knows that he is going to have to explain [insert act of monumental stupidity] to his wife. It’s an eerily similar feeling to the feeling all dads get when their child reaches a certain height and said child’s running hugs transform little heads and/or flailing arms into weapons of mass destruction. Anyhow, I got “the feeling.” I prayed a little. I pulled over to the side of the road. Then, I made the call.
“Hey, honey. Don’t hate me. I sorta did a thing. I accidentally bought a 15-passenger van instead of a 12-passenger van. But, you know, I was thinking that it’d be better anyway because [insert all of my semi-logical explanations for why I wasn’t an idiot].”
“Sounds great to me. We really might enjoy having the extra space. This could actually work out better for us anyway,” she replied (after healthy dose of sarcasm-laced harassment).
Unsolicited advice for any single guys out there reading this book: marry an optimist. Actually, marry a sarcastic, quick-witted optimist like I did. They’re funnier.
I got off the phone and breathed a sigh of relief. She’s the best. Back on the road again.
I glanced down at the gas gauge. Dang it. The little orange arrow was pointing directly at the letter E. I stopped at the next gas station. I pulled up to the gas pump, unscrewed the gas cap, and panicked. Had I bought a diesel van or a regular van? I had specified “regular” rather than “diesel” in my Craigslist search; but, I had also specified “12-passenger” rather than “15-passenger.” I hadn’t thought to ask the seller to clarify before driving off. The gas cap was no help. The owner’s manual was no help. I had no idea what would happen if you put regular gas in a diesel engine, but I figured it probably wouldn’t be good. I didn’t deserve to be a van owner. I spent twenty minutes (not an exaggeration) searching through all the van documentation and trying to decide what to do. Should I call the previous owner? Should I call Ford’s customer service number? Should I flip a coin and take a chance? Ultimately, I decided that there was no option that allowed me to drive away with my dignity. So, I called the previous owner. Straight to voicemail. Ugh. After 10 minutes or so on Google, I was 82% sure that the van took regular gasoline. I took my chances. I filled the thing all the way up with regular gas, prayed a little, and drove off. When I saw no smoke after 10 miles or so, I figured everything was going to work out just fine.
As you will soon see, everything did not work out just fine, but it worked out fun. It’s been quite the ride.
The Struggle Bus would become a pretty good metaphor for parenting and life. That “I don’t deserve to be a van owner” feeling I’d had in the midst of my gasoline conundrum felt all too familiar. Truth be told, from diaper #1, I’ve had a “I don’t deserve to be a baby owner” feeling. (To be fair, diaper #1 is probably the least human thing that babies do. I don’t want to spoil the surprise for those of you who haven’t yet had the luxury of changing a baby’s first diaper, but I’m going to. Imagine that your baby’s rear end has been dipped into a mixture of tar, rubber cement, and super glue. It’s like that.) Babies don’t even come with an owner’s manual. We once filled one of our babies up with regular milk for a few weeks before we figured out that we had a lactose-intolerant model. The results were decidedly messier than had I put diesel in our regular gasoline van. But, we prayed, sought out wise counsel, adapted, and changed.
Sometimes, in parenting as in Struggle Bus driving, Google isn’t any help. If there was such a thing as an owner’s manual or a customer service number, it wouldn’t always help either. As you will soon read, whether it’s repairing a speaker hole or mending an “owie”… or whether it’s navigating rural backroads in Oklahoma or helping your kids perform in front of a crowd of Kenyans, sometimes you just make an educated guess and hope to God everything turns out ok. Then, when things don’t turn out ok, you pray, seek wise counsel, adapt, and change.
From day one, our van has lived up to its name. It’s a messy, pride-killing, kid-filled, smelly beast of a vehicle—and we’ve had the time of our life making it that way. In other words, what started out as an intimidating mess of a van purchase has transformed into our spirit animal: the Struggle Bus.
Thus begins the story of the van, the myth, the legend.