Zen and the Art of Conversion Van Maintenance

We bought our van at the end of November, and with just 17,000 miles in its 15 year life, it came with a few papers declaring its good health. And yes, it drives like a dream. But I began to notice some finicky behavior with the climate control system. It seemed to blow cold AC, but touch the control knob even slightly off of the coldest setting and we were getting a desert blast to rival the Santa Ana Winds that I grew up with. Cold or very hot; no in between. Then February arrived, and in these days of climate change (caused by a Chinese hoax, but hot nonetheless) summer has started early where we live.

When the weather hit the 80s, I flipped on the AC, full blast, front and rear. Let’s get this baby cold! Only to get a luke-cold breeze. I offered my wife hollow speculation of the simple issues that might be causing the issue. I went to the auto parts store and bought some R-134a and recharged the system, which offered a few days of false hope (see Cyclone Bomb). Monica was blunt: The AC system is really more important than the engine.

I took it up to the neighborhood (non-franchise) repair shop, five blocks from my house. I’ve gone there many times for tires and minor issues and they never try to sell me things I don’t need. For years, as an oil salesman, I tried to earn their business, so I’m pretty well acquainted with a couple of guys there. I wasn’t familiar with the mechanic working on the van, but over the course of 10 days, we became quite close. The good thing about the Dodge Ram AC system is that you can run them like crazy for years and never have an issue. The bad thing is that when they sit -unused – in Florida, key parts corrode and turn to dust. Their reliability also makes parts harder to come by.

Every few days the mechanic would call me and ask me to come down and take a look at the latest issue. Mind you, beyond the obvious components under the hood, showing me the blower/dryer or mixer switch (or whatever) is pointless. But I do know what rust looks like. The technician was like one of my doctors telling me my arteries are garbage and need replacing. Yet I was consoling him. We just wanted it fixed and we didn’t want to cut corners and find ourselves without AC in Nevada in June.

While the van was in the shop, the hottest winter day ever in the Tampa area blessed our long President’s Day weekend – 88 degrees (31 Celsius).  We had hoped to take the van out to the beach and take a bunch of photos with a beautiful Florida backdrop. Instead, we strapped the paddle-board and kids’ kayak to the top of our car and headed out to the pristine beaches of Ft. DeSoto.


I should mention that our other car is a Jeep. But before you picture me cruising down the road in a tank top with the wind in my hair, it’s the decidedly un-Jeeplike Jeep Compass. (It doesn’t even have a freaking COMPASS!) I’ve always wanted a Jeep, and this is the closest Monica would let me get. It was great for all the meaningless miles I put on it, making sales calls. I could tell you all the reasons we enjoy this vehicle, but that would jinx it, so I’ll just say that we respect this car’s hand-crank window, manual door-lock simplicity.

It may be the afterglow of the good check-up I had in Cleveland, and the greater appreciation I have for life, but I’ve spent thousands of days on a variety of beaches and this one was just about the best combination of weather, water temperature, and lack of crowds. It was just perfect. While Hurricane Irma wrecked the towns we visited in the Florida Keys, it deposited a pristine new sandbar just off the shore at Ft. DeSoto. We rafted past a few loitering stingrays and set up a picnic on a semiprivate stretch of unspoiled sand.

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Friendly stingray in the background.

I hate to point out that the kids don’t seem to be having any trouble with the water temperature. By contrast, it took Monica some courage to get all the way in.

A few days after our day at the beach, I got a call that the van was ready. A day earlier and a few hundred dollars cheaper than they said it would be. After I paid the bill I walked over to thank the mechanic, who probably thought I was coming to curse him out. He doesn’t know that fixing our A/C will contribute to the solidity of my marriage as we cross the Nevada desert.

We have several short “warm-up” trips before we hit the road for the summer. If we do everything we have planned this spring, we’ll explore some diverse facets of American culture: attending a motorcycle race at Daytona International Speedway and exploring a state park or two. It won’t be dull.

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“Don’t make me turn this van around” is written by Jonathan Kile, and approved by Monica Kile. Check out Jon’s periodic column, “So How’s That New Book Coming?” at Creative Loafing – Tampa. His 2014 thriller, The Grandfather Clock, is available free for Kindle on Amazon.com and other eReaders at Smashwords. Reach him at jkilewrites@gmail.com. Monica is a freelance grant writer, non-profit consultant, tour guide, and connoisseur of 70s rock lyrics.



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