In September 1965, my father—then a professor at Johns Hopkins who worked for the U.S. Geological Survey in the summers—contacted a Lawrenceburg cousin about helping him find a vehicle suitable for his field work. Pud and Harold Hanks, a Plymouth/Dodge dealer in Pud’s hometown, exchanged several letters pinning down the vehicle specs, my father’s financial resources, and my father’s dreams. It’s an amazing correspondence between two cousins that reveals both their affection for each other and the business deal they are trying to close. (Thanks to my cousin Dudley Hanks for sharing these letters with me.)
Ultimately, my father settled on a Dodge A100 Sportsman Wagon outfitted with a sink, stove, mini-fridge, table and bench seats, and an elevating camper top that allowed it to sleep four comfortably. He wrote to Harold:
“We need a dual-purpose car at this point. I can use an A100 or camper for field work, and if we ever do a tour of the U.S. it will have to be in the next few years. The girls are growing up, and after the teen age nuttiness hits them they won’t care about being with us. Most of all I need a van for next summer’s travel to Plattsburgh. Our Valiant looked like Kaiser Bill on a colt this summer. An ordinary station wagon won’t hold much more and is impossible for field work.”
We had already spent one summer as a family in a tiny summer house on the shore of Lake Champlain near Plattsburgh, N.Y., as my father did field work there with Charlie Denny and others. Pud would have his camper van in time for the second summer of field work in 1966. Unfortunately, the family trip out west, discussed as a possibility for the summer of 1967, never happened. Pud died April 1 of that year
After he died, my mother had to decide what to do with the camper. We had enjoyed a few family outings and camping trips, and there were obvious emotional attachments that made the decision a tough one for her. Ultimately, however, she decided she wasn’t fully comfortable driving the truck-like vehicle and it was hard to justify keeping it. I don’t know the details of how the sale transpired, but she was able to transfer ownership to someone who took it to the Philippines to use as a mobile medical van. As much as we missed that van and the memories it represented, we could usually assuage ourselves with the thought that it was being used for a much higher purpose in another corner of the world.
In some ways, that Dodge camper van served the same purpose for my dad as Thomas, the 1925 Ford Model T truck he relied on for trips to Salt River as a young man. The old truck could haul everything the boys needed to camp in the woods: fishing poles and tackle, rifles, flashlights, food, blankets. It served as both practical transportation and emotional anchor to a place. Those who knew my dad in the late ‘30s and early ‘40s remember that truck. Those who knew my dad in the mid ‘60s remember that van.
In 1990, my husband and I bought a VW camper van that was nearly identical in amenities to the van my family had had in the mid-1960s. It was a sentimental purchase, to be sure, but we enjoyed numerous camping trips and biking adventures in Kentucky, Virginia, West Virginia, and North Carolina, trudging up the mountains at 40 mph. A few years ago we finally ceded it to a VW enthusiast who was better able to care for it.
These types of vans have enjoyed a popular resurgence among counterculture individualists and minimalists escaping the crush of our material world. Recently, my husband happened to catch an episode of the Velocity network’s “Wheeler Dealers” about a 1965 Dodge A100 Van—the very same sickly green color with the same slant six 140 hp engine and 3-speed manual transmission as our Dodge camper van. Inspired by the possibilities the 50-year-old van offered, the host and his technical crew successfully converted it into a 21st-century California surfmobile. (Watch the full episode here.)
There it was, the van of my childhood, once again fueling someone else’s dreams.