BY LEON CHASE
PART TWO: LEON’S SIDE O’ THE SLEAZE
A van run? My mind reeled with Truckin’ magazine images from the ’70s—acres of hand-polished pimpin’ show machines, mile-long CB-linked convoys, tales of the legendary Bowling Green nationals, where, in their day, 5,000 rolling rooms converged with just two things in mind hot vans, and all the crazy shit that comes with them. Needless to say, when Beth called up and asked me to this thing at Bolado Park, it was a dream come true. At last, a firsthand taste of the culture I’d for so long worshipped from afar. Or, at least what’s left of it. And that as we neared the little park in unscenic, smelly Hollister became the big question. What, twenty years later, is the vanner scene like?
Well, like Beth says, it’s smaller. And most of the machines, while well cared-for, were less than custom. We soon learned that van events run the gamut from heavily organized, polished show’n’shine competitions (what we expected) to sloppy, down home informal parties (what we got.) I was heartbroken to find that quite a few had long ago traded in their flashy party wagons for the boring practicality of minivans and campers. Interestingly, though, these people still cling fiercely to their identity as vanners, and their roles as members of their respective, longstanding clubs. The actual vehicle, to them, is secondary to whether you simply consider yourself part of the scene, and participate (however lazily) in it. This, I realized, was important insight into the social workings of original van culture. I took it upon myself to investigate.
I think Beth has done a great job of describing the individual vans present (what there is to describe, anyway.) I’ll spare y’all a rehash of these details and instead focus on my own in-depth, personal exploration of the more… uh… social aspects of the weekend.
I should point out that I have a little bit of a reputation as (1) a poser who obsesses over and fetishizes vans but doesn’t actually own one, (2) an obnoxious and mischievous drinker, and (3) a slut. It goes without saying that this event was to offer me unparalled opportunity in all three arenas. Also, I must mention that, in a crowd of 100-plus people, I was the only single male over 18 and under 40 whose gut didn’t hang over his belt buckle. I guess, by default, this made me the “fresh male meat” a role which, as the beer and good times flowed, would come to put quite a spin on my night.
I started out as the dutiful chronicler, following our little Camel-led tour with my trusty video camera. I can’t say enough good things about Camel. I could have done a whole damn movie just on that woman and her wild stories. All the owners were great to talk to, and immediately welcoming of us and our “unique” big city looks. Most were just plain amazed that anyone our age would even know what a custom van was, let alone show up at their little event. As Jewels put it, “I’ve been in this subculture for 25 years and somebody finally found me! It gives me chills!” They obviously weren’t used to the attention, and lit up with the opportunity to drop their old golden age vanning stories on fresh, eager ears. I learned more in one afternoon than I could have from a dozen books. There were tales of the immense van happenings of the ’70s (including the mythic Bowling Green run), references to the infamous Captain Quallude, and proud discussions of the vanning lifestyle. Camel rambled passionately about her role as a “two-percenter,” the free-spirited, rebellious partying purists who, at vanning’s peak, spoke out against the popular commercialization of the scene. “We had one rule,” she said. “Do anything you want so long as you don’t hurt anybody else or their property.” It was a sentiment that everyone in our little camp, for all their older, mellower ways, fiercely agreed with. Of course it wasn’t all heavy philosophy. One moment I was recording somebody’s heartfelt oral history, the next I had convinced Jewels to give me a good ol’ ’70s-style breast shot. Not that she needed much convincing…
Night neared, and the stories (and substances) just kept on a’comin’. I realized at some point that I was alone, shooting footage of the ground, and decided maybe it was time to retire the camera for the night. A wise move, given the utter, embarassing debauchery to come. It was around the time of the chili contest that we hit critical party mass that blurry, elated moment when you pause to realize that everyone around you is as loaded as you are. Beth had whipped out the ukelele and was strumming a soothing background tune. Kim was making sure everyone got their shots (of Jager, that is.) Everyone was talking loudly at once. Somehow, on the way to the chili, I found myself surrounded by three or four very drunk middle-aged women who were making a big show of putting their arms around me and gently slapping “I licked a toad” (?!) stickers onto conspicuous areas of my anatomy. Now don’t get me wrong, I’m all for keeping the ladies happy, but I think I would have been much more enamored of their whole routine were it not for all the equally drunk, middle-aged husbands standing right there beside us, grinning at me. What could these guys be thinking? Were they all patiently waiting to jump me later and kick my ass behind the bathrooms, or was this my first taste of the real, hardcore swingin’ ’70s? Either way I wasn’t sure I was ready, and retreated.
I vaguely remember the talent show…Grizzly Adams meets Puttin’ On the Hits. Beth with her cute-as-all-hell drinking song, blowing fireballs to prove her point. A woman with no undies flashes the crowd as her family dances, oblivious. “You’re on,” says Beer Bob and next thing I know I’m trying to belt out “Blue Sky and Blacktop,” a half-yodeled little road ditty that I never thought I’d have reason to play for anybody. There’s a picture of me up there, so I know it wasn’t just a dream.
From there it’s all a hazy stream of images. I’m at the Slut Bar (go figure), I have no money, but various faceless women keep putting full shot glasses in my hand… I’m in the middle of a birthday party. I’m joining in the singing, and washing down cake with cans of beer… Someone offers me a line from the biggest bag of coke I’ve ever seen in my life. I decline… I’m talking to some guy with a beard, seriously discussing the weather in Iowa…I’m dancing to some horrible house music. (I have to take issue with my more tasteful, self-respecting friend Beth here and argue that if you can’t dance to the music, you aren’t drunk enough.)… Jewel’s daughter Noel is spinning a very lit Kim around… I’m wearing a feather boa while Mrs. No-Panties rides my thigh… Kim has gone off to puke by a tree… A woman invites me back to her van, tells me “We’re here for one night. It doesn’t have to mean anything.” Amazingly, I decline… More beer… Beth and Dulcinea, citing sickness and bad music, have turned in for the night… Kim is still puking…Camel is in full, obnoxious swing, with no end in sight… I’m in a lawnchair by a campfire, listening as Camel and the Pirate Vanners discuss the shape of their nipples. This somehow leads to their decision to hassle the “lightweight rookie,” and they go bang on the door of Beth’s van. I want to stop them but I can’t get up, a woman is on my lap, playing with my bald head. Her husband sits nearby, laughing. My body, sensing imminent disaster, shuts down. I find my way to the tent and lie there, face down, not moving, the sound of Camel and Jewels still raging in the distance. I love my life, I think, and pass out.
PICTURED ABOVE: (Top to Bottom) 1-Leon the ladies man, decked out in wifebeater and Pabst baseball cap. 2-CamelŪs van, the žOld Girl.Ó 3-žUncle LeonÓ belts out a song during the talent show.