Bedtime Stories in an Old Blue Van
This is a true story about my dad and how he used to make up bed time stories for my brothers and me.
My parents divorced when I was eight. Looking back, I remember finding it odd that one night my dad came to me with tears in his eyes (I had never seen him cry before) to tell me he wouldn't be living with us any longer. I assumed he was going on a trip or something, but I didn't get why he was so sad about it. My 8 year old mind couldn't really understand what was going on. The next day I found out that we would be visiting with my dad on weekends from then on.
My dad was a carpenter for hire, mostly working for cash, and a devoted fisherman. He had a big, loud, beat up old blue 1970's Ford Econoline (at least that's what I remember it being) that he used for work. It was always full of tools and fishing poles and smelled like grease and gasoline. When he moved away, he took the van with him. Then he came to pick us up one day over the weekend in the big blue van.
As my dad took the wheel, he started to shave with a battery powered shaver sitting in his dash board. Then he got out a toothbrush and, using toothpaste and water from a thermos, brushed his teeth and spat out the window. We arrived in an area in Coos Bay known as the North Spit (unrelated to the spitting of toothpaste), at a place teeming with fishermen and crabbers known as the T-dock. A big, long dock that went out into the sea in the shape of a T, and was covered in grubby men and women who caught sea creatures for fun and profit.
As he got out his fishing pole, he sang in a deep, resonant vibrato. My dad, at one point in his life, before I was born, had trained under master vocal coaches and been working on a career as a professional opera singer.
Now here we were. My dad was a recently divorced homeless fisherman who lived in his van down by the T-dock singing opera and hymns. This was his new life.
You would think this would be hard or scary or sad for an eight year old kid. Often, when I tell people about this part of my life they look at me with sympathetic eyes saying "I am so sorry." But for us it was the most fun my dad had ever been and we simply accepted that spending weekends camping in a van with my dad was totally normal. I'll never forget him wrestling with us in the sand dunes and making us french bread pizza over the camp fire on the beach. Singing us "Figaro" at high speed as he drove down the road in the big blue van. Camping, eating mac and cheese out of dirty old Styrofoam bowls with cayenne pepper in it. All the while my dad listening to Rush Limbaugh or Chuck Swindoll constantly over the van radio.
Though, it is true. There was a sadness, but I see it more now than I did then. My dad had not only become more fun and more childlike than I had remembered him. He had become much more sorry. And this seemed to be what it always came to. At night, when it was time to turn off the camp light and sleep in our various spots, either in a tent or on some cushion in the van, my dad would often tell us how sorry he was. He would hold us, and there would be tears. I don't remember much of what he said, just that it felt like he wanted me to say something back to him to make it better. Like he needed to hear me say everything was OK and he hadn't totally messed up. I was 8, 9 10 years old. I didn't know what to say, or what he was so sorry about. I know now that my dad used to cry himself to sleep in that van, feeling like the biggest failure in the world.
But there were other nights where my dad would make up bed time stories. He'd make them up right on the spot. This amazed me. My favorites were the adventures of "Uncle Pongo", which was basically a pseudonym for my dad. Our adopted Korean cousins used to call my dad "Uncle Pongo" because "Pongo" apparently means "fart" in Korean. My dad was known for his flatulence. So in the tales of Uncle Pongo, my dad would use his fart abilities in his adventures. In one of his adventures he came face to face with the dreaded Nicolle boys, who would take potatoes in one hand and gravy in the other then smash it together and make a huge mess. What was the point? I have no idea. But I knew I always wanted more. Those were some of the most important moments of my childhood. I discovered that there was a magic in life when my dad would pull stories out of nowhere and make us laugh. He was enlarging the world beyond the blue van and the greasy smell and the sadness of the divorce. These stories could be the dumbest, most nonsensical stories on earth (and they were). It didn't matter. If my dad lived in a mansion and never told us the tales of Uncle Pongo, our world never would have felt so enlarged as it did crammed in that van.
My dad eventually moved to the next state and started a new life when I was around 11. I think he left feeling like we were better off without him, or that he didn't have much to offer. But I'll never forget his stories. No one else gave me stories like that. I was forever changed by that simple act of making things up on the spot with childish, reckless energy and a total willingness to be blatantly silly.
Now I'm a grown up and I have my own kids. Luckily I don't live in a van. But I try to always remember that the things that seem like a big deal to me as an adult are not always a big deal to the kids. It's easy to lose your energy for being silly or making stories up on the fly when times are hard or you are going through something stressful, or are in some nit-picky argument with your spouse. I try to remind myself that when I was 8, spending nights in a homeless fisherman's van after a wrecked marriage with a brokenhearted man, I came out of that experience with my greatest and most inspiring moments being those story times in the evenings. A time my dad probably felt like he wasn't even being very clever, and if some other dad were there, maybe we would have gotten a real story. I'm sure he had no idea the gift he was giving. I wonder if he even remembers it now?
So, if there is a lesson here it is this: Take time to make stories up with your kids. Don't let your world shrink by never exploring the uncharted imaginary worlds you and your kids have yet to explore. Go out on a limb and be ridiculous. Tell them an Uncle Pongo story that is all about a grown man farting on his enemies with no point other than to laugh. No matter how ridiculous you feel, give it a try. I hope this site helps you do that. That is why I made it.
Thanks for reading. And thank, dad, for the fart stories.