A while back, my son got a new vehicle. It is excellent, with clean lines and well equipped. With room for seven, it has three rows of seats, each with a drop-down TV, like a jetliner. A multiple-disk DVD player provides clear, crisp audio and video. Yes, it is sharp. After inspecting it, I nodded in admiration and told him how much I liked the media center.
“I wish I’d thought of that.” I said, “Wait, I did!”
It was a long time ago; in 1991. My son was nine, his sister seven, and Elain and I faced a major decision. It was a big change, a life milestone, a right of passage, it was logical – and it was hard to do.
Fifteen years earlier, when I graduated from Rose, we splurged and bought a Toyota Celica; it was red, it was slick, and it had a manual five-speed transmission. We loved that sports car, and in time traded for newer models, eventually purchasing a tricked out anniversary edition Celica. They were all two-doors. All had manual 5-speeds, and all were fun to drive. Then life happened, and we discovered that hauling kids in a 2-door sports car was a bad idea, so we contemplated the change.
We debated. We hedged. We procrastinated and rationalized away the logical reasons to do it. Well, all but one. One we just could not rationalize away.
Was it the lack of back doors? No.
Was it the cramped backseat? No.
Surprisingly, it was a vacation. A three-week camping holiday, to be precise. A once in a lifetime chance to tour the west. We had a small window of opportunity, for such a trip is something you need to do while the kids are old enough to learn from it, but not so old as to complain the whole time – you know, before they become, (gasp), teenagers.
As we planned our trip, we quickly realized it was also something that you can’t do in a sports car.
“Let’s rent a motor home,” I suggested.
That was a grand idea; however, thirty years ago, few companies rented motor homes. Once we located a vendor, we couldn’t justify the cost. Deflated, we reconsidered our arguments, and it became apparent that we had to do it – we bought a mini-van.
It was gold. It was streamlined. It had a great audio system, and it had bucket front seats. Most importantly, it did not look like a van. By that, I mean it wasn’t the Scooby-doo van. It was a ’91 Toyota Previa.
Good-bye, sports car – Hello, soccer parents.
We bought it in the spring and headed west two months later, but not until I had made some improvements. After all, it was a new car, so to protect the interior, we installed a cage made of PVC pipe and lined it with a tarp. We packed, repacked, discarded, consolidated, and finally managed to fit all the camping gear, clothes, and supplies required to support four humans for three weeks. It was a masterpiece of packing, rivaled only by the moon missions.
Our final modification was of even more significance and import. Ahead lay long stretches of prairie and tedium. No stranger to the backseat of a station wagon, beating its way across the continent, I knew that the confines of our back seat would grow tiresome.
Keeping the kids’ entertained was our next hurdle, but how to do it? We could play slug bug or the license plate game. Perhaps twenty questions, or one hundred bottles of beer on the wall. We reviewed the available travel games, not a bright prospect. All were tried and true diversions, good for a day or two, but not for 21 days. No, this called for a feat of engineering innovation. In response, I created and installed a media system.
“What? That’s not new, every van comes like that.”
That’s right, today nearly every van leaves the factory with a media system, LCD TV screens, headphones, multiple disk DVD players and the like. However, three decades ago, that was not the case. TV’s still had large picture tubes. The DVD would not appear for five years, so the recording media of the day was the VHS tape. A practical solution that required a VHS player, which were large. Video games were the Atari and the Nintendo. Everything required 110-volt AC power
So how did I solve this conundrum? As such things usually are, the solution was equal parts luck, sweat, and innovation.
Luckily, we already owned a color portable TV that just fit between backs of the bucket seats. To bridge the drive-shaft hump, and hold the TV between the seats, I built a wooden rack. Bungees secured the TV to the rack and the rack to the floor. A shelf supported our Nintendo player. We recorded some movies from cable to add to our library of purchased tapes. These we stowed with the game cartridges, in a plastic box that fit under the center seat. Unfortunately, a standard VHS player was too large, so our VHS Camera served double duty. You know, those old boxy cameras that you supported on a shoulder. Luckily, ours could also play tapes, and it sat on the floor next to the rack. To power the equipment, I installed an inverter under the center seat. The compact little device came mail-order and converted the car’s 12 volt DC to 110 volt AC. Thus with a little forethought, some mail-order parts, and a lot of sweat, the kids could watch movies and play video games. If only I had thought to market the idea.
So we headed west. It was a grand journey. Elain and I enjoyed the scenery, while Nick and Erin played games and watched TV, oblivious to the grandeur of the Rockies, or to the subtle beauty of the Kansas prairie. My memories of that trip come complete with the beep beep beep of the Mario Brothers, Kevin Costner discussing baseball with James Earl Jones, or Robert Redford talking farming with Wilfred Brimley. They are good memories.
I have to admit, buying the van was a good decision. We kept it for years. My son used it during high school, transporting friends to practice, and cruising. His friends dubbed the trusty van the egg-mobile. Upon his graduation, it was handed down to his sister, who drove it until her graduation. For years, it was proudly parked outside the high school.
Twenty-six years on, I marvel that we created a media system every bit the equal of the systems installed today.
David L Dahl
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