Back in Black... and the Disco Inferno
Updated: Oct 22
There comes a time in every boy’s youth where he needs a big, black, scary van. Or at least he thinks he needs a big, black, scary van.
Fancying myself a rebellious youth, I found a 1977 Dodge Tradesman customized cargo van in the local Want Advertiser, (the ‘honor system’ magazine). But this wasn’t just any cargo van. It was all throw-back.
My time came very soon after my first car was totaled and after the acquisition of a new girlfriend. Oh, that fold-down bed got hot, but in all the wrong ways. It burned, baby. Hotter than the Disco Inferno.
I picked it up in 1990 in Arlington, MA. After a call to the owner with a few newbie questions dispensed with rapidly, I set off from Beverly in search of bad-ass adventure with my ne’er-do-well friends, who were equally rebellious (inside their heads… I mean, one dude, my best friend, grew up to draw and craft his own comic book/action figure line. Nothing says rebellious Easy Rider-screw-the-man like comic books).
So we get to the dude’s house and that $500 of freshly minted 20s are scorching the threads in my pocket. I bought the thing before I even got out of my friend’s beige Ford Escort. But I was at least a little savvy and played the tire-kicking role (that’s all I knew how to do back then anyway). I walked around the van and was blown away by all I could get for $500. This thing was gonna be killer! Rust fixes easily, right? You don’t really need a steering box, right? That wooden running board that’s rotting off can be replaced soooo easily.
Full disclosure here, I did let my friends sway me into buying this rig. But they didn’t have to twist my arm too much. I fell for it almost instantly.
A complete custom job, which was done well 13 years prior, the van’s grille was changed, a visor added, wire chrome wheels and white-letter tires carried it around. A chromed, rope-wrapped roof rack sat up top, with a matching rope-wrapped ladder hung off the back, next to the spare tire. Wooden running boards might have been a good idea in the 1970s, but these had rotted and were falling off. Nautical themes are best left on the water.
Inside though, that’s where the magic lived. The cab boasted a custom octagonal steering wheel, also wooden, cup holders on the dog house, shag carpet, and overhead console that sported a graphic equalizers with wicked cool scrolling LEDs, light switches and of course, the requisite CB. Inside the dash-mounted cassette player, AC/DC’s Back in Black. Could teenage life get any better?
In the living room, more shag carpet, paneled walls on one side and the rear doors and get this, no sh*t, a padded leather wall highlighted the panel behind the crushed velvet driver’s seat. There was a sweet countertop with a sink, a fridge-esque cooler and a few storage cabinets. The rear had a dinette table and bench seats that folded down to a bed. Wooden shutters hung on every window and there were stereo speakers all around. Custom to the core. No matter how well done, 13-year-old custom deteriorates fast. Wicked fast.
My grandmother’s driveway often fell victim to my automotive excursions, so it was the first place I drove my new van, after an hour-long nail-biter commute home in an unregistered, uninsured cop-magnet deathtrap with rapidly declining steering and a fake license plate that I actually drew by hand and stuck in the back window. We did pass a state trooper who looked right at me – and right at my handicraft – but did nothing because, luckily, there was too much traffic.
I am sure Grandma choked on her tea when she saw me pull into her Hamilton, MA driveway. Hamilton, for those uninitiated, excepting my grandparents, is full of super-rich, old-money horse people. The perfect place for a black customized van piloted by a pseudo-rebellious 17-year-old with, then, no mechanical ability.
Grandma’s driveway was the staging area for many of my cars before I could get them registered and insured. The townhouse complex I grew up in didn’t allow unregistered vehicles and I was impatient when I landed on a new vehicle. I always bought without really considering the logistics. But it happened often enough that both my insurance company and my mechanic were both located in downtown Hamilton, instead of downtown Beverly, where I lived.
In the days or weeks leading up to the actual legality of my cars, I would often spend time at Grandma’s cutting the grass, which paid $5, and fixing my cars. Back then, that $5 was five gallons of gas, which I always had to pay myself, because of my cheap bastard friends. Unfortunately too, the Black was the only vehicle I ever had where, on the highway, I could actually watch the gas gauge go down as I drove. The needle actually moved. Downward. Always downward. I thought the thing was leaking.
So I spent many days ‘fixing up the van’, re-attaching fallen window shutters, trying to hook up the drain for the sink, trying get the stuck AC/DC cassette out of the out of the player, washing windows, attempting Bondo, and diagnosing both the steering issue and a noisy u-joint in the drive shaft. During the latter diagnosis, while backing up to listen to the noise, I heard an even crunchier noise when the forgotten passenger door bent backwards when it clipped my grandmother’s porch.
So then I learned how to fix bent doors.
When the magic day came to rid my patient grandmother’s driveway of the big, black van, I drove it home and rejoiced at the site of it in my own parking space.
Then, downhill came fast. Olympic skier fast.
I thought I magically fixed the steering box by putting fluid in it, but it just bled profusely all over my parking space. A few trips to school left me frustrated with difficult starts, including one day when my mother – my mother! – had to come to my work to help me get it started. To my relief and shameful embarrassment, she did get it started. I drove home, head down. Humiliated.
And that was the highlight.
With no gas money and no way to properly fix things, the van sat in my own parking space. At one point, hanging out in the van, it actually attracted some real ne’er-do-wells and other neighborhood miscreants. So many, it actually made me a little nervous. Our neighbor had to break up the goings-on, much to my relief.
Then the day came when the AC compressor decided to kill itself by starving itself of lubricants and the like. This would have been OK, as the AC never worked from the beginning (and I would have only gotten five gallons to the mile), and I could do without AC, but the compressor shared the same belt as the alternator, with no bypassing ability in sight. After a brief visit to my mechanic, I learned quickly that the van didn’t have much of a future with me.
I had to sell.
My dreams went first of course. No camping in North Conway. No cross-country cruise to Bondurant. No smoke-filled cabin, spilling empty beer cans at the beach, Spicoli-style.
That was it. I had to sell.
Across the street was this place called the Roller Palace, which still exists as the Roller Palace today, surprisingly enough. Anyway, it had a high-visibility parking lot, a great place to sell cars. I checked with the owner and plopped a sign on the windshield for $350, a $150 loss.
Disco Inferno… Literally
The only call I got was a week later, at one in the morning. It was from the cops. Someone had torched my van. Literally. Flames. Burning. Nothing left. Padded leather does not smell so good when it burns. I smelled it as soon as I opened my front door.
No officer, I don’t have insurance.
My first thought was malicious vandals, but I had no known enemies at the time, could have been random though (although unlikely). Second theory is that the rigged fuse box had something to do with it. A week or so before, my blinkers had failed to blink. A brief visit to a quick oil change place found me at the hands of a technician there who pulled the fuse, which was blown, and wrapped the fuse in the metal ‘Pull’ tab paper from the inside of a pack of Marlboro reds. “This will get you home,” he said, and to his credit, “but don’t leave it in there.”
I didn’t listen. My blinkers were magically working again. I left it in.
The third theory is also possibly the most bizarre. But I have to reverse a little. Soon after I brought the van home from Grandma’s, I had to park it in front of someone else’s house. When I came down in the morning to go to pick up some smokes, I jumped in, started the engine, and someone said, “Hey Kris, what’s up!” from the back of the van! I very nearly shat myself on my very own crushed velvet seats.
“What the f*ck man!” I said. He was a neighborhood acquaintance, of borderline ill repute. Nice enough kid, but he just always found himself in the wrong place, y’know, like the back of unlocked vans. So he wakes up fully, nips of vodka spilling from his heavy jacket, despite the July-ness of the season.
Just as soon as I see the vodka, the cops roll up. A 17-year-old, me, a 16-year-old he, in a black scary uninspected van. With booze. At eight in the morning.
License and registration. Got’em.
But oh, sh*t, it’s wrong. I looked at my reg and it had some woman’s name on it. Did I buy a stolen vehicle? Luckily, I was able to prove my ownership and the dispatched the cop, who never searched my rig, nor my vodka-toting neighbor.
So the story was he was on the outs with his mother and found that my van didn’t lock in the back. Since it had a nice comfy bed feature, he thought it a good idea to crash over. My theory is that this happened again along the way, but in a drunken stupor, he left a cigarette burning somewhere and it lit up the van, like the flaming version of Old Faithful.
But those are just theories.
The good news, if there is any, is that those chrome-spoked wheels and tires actually survived the blaze, as did a few exterior trim pieces, which I was able to sell and recoup some of my losses.
To this day, if you cruise through the Roller Palace parking lot, you’ll find a burnt silhouette of a Dodge shaggin’ wagon in the parking lot.
Ahh, sweet, sweet memories.