The Story Economy Blog

The Year That a Pumpkin Turned Into a Van

This is a story about clarity of vision and the way it pulls you forward: I know that to be true.

But the details of this particular story live only at the very tip of my memory, because it happened when I was just four.

So I took the pieces I remember, and blended them with the pieces that my mom and sister remember.

I remember that a pumpkin turned into a van.

My mom remembers that our lives were about to change.

My sister, Laura, remembers what it looked like to see people wanting something very, very badly.

This is how it went.

My dad took walks every day on his lunch break. One day in the fall of 1978, he saw a blue and white Chevy van on the McCluskey Chevrolet lot near where he worked in Cincinnati. I don’t know anything about that day or the first time he saw it. But I imagine that it called to him, in that special way a vehicle calls out to a 47-year-old man in need of a next chapter.

It was just an empty shell, this blue and white hunk of metal: a cousin to a cargo van, really. It had two plain seats up front (no cushy bucket seats), and two big bench seats in the back. It was cold, bare, and felt unfinished inside.

But I don’t think that’s what he saw. I think he saw possibility and adventure. I think he saw exactly what our family needed.

He was terribly handy and clever, so I know that he saw every finishing detail he would add: the tufted white vinyl paneling, the carpet, the running board, the wheel well covers, the radio and CB. He saw so stunningly clear—maybe from that first day or maybe in the series of walk-bys he did—how he would make it ours.

I don’t know what the first conversation he had with my mom about the van was like. She doesn’t remember either. What she remembers is the vision she had: that this stir-crazy family (seven kids—ranging in ages from 19 to 4—in a small Ranch house) could have space and distance and experiences.

With a van, we could go places. With a van, the walls of her life—all of our lives—would open up.

Because with a van, we could tow a camper, which my aunt just happened to be selling (an old pop-up with a trick crank and a few broken zippers). Camping was the ticket that would change our lives, my mom thought. With a tight budget and middle-age angst nipping at her heels (watching the Jones’ be perpetually ahead of us), it must have felt like the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow wasn’t coming anytime soon. But they could infuse the situation with leisure and fun. Our lives could change.

My dad had the pain of wanting and the vision for what to do, but he didn’t know how to make it happen. How could we possibly afford this van? The old station wagon wasn’t exactly the best equity. There was no extra money anywhere.

But my mom knew: we’ll take a second mortgage, she told him. They were 20 years into a 30-year mortgage. They could wait on a dream for 10 years, or they could take a leap, and trust that adding another 10 years to a mortgage was worth it. I imagine my dad’s face lighting up with the thought that this was something they could do. “We can do that?” I imagine him saying to her. “Yes, Bert, we can do it. We should do it,” I imagine her saying, a conspirator in the vision.

I don’t know how many times he walked by the van on the Chevy lot that fall. Laura thinks it was practically every day. She remembers him talking about it constantly.

I know that it was at least as long as it took for a volunteer pumpkin to sprout from the strange-looking vine growing in our backyard. This weird pumpkin was a topic of fascination for us. I honestly don’t remember why, or even what it looked like, but I do remember that after it was ready to be picked (probably October or November) we picked it, and then sat it in our garage. That’s when my dad started to say, “I think this pumpkin is going to turn into a van.”

And then one day in early 1979—January, we think—he brought the van home. I have a brief memory of seeing it in the driveway: a piece of pumpkin magic dropped into our lives.

The rest of the story is exactly as you would imagine it: camping became one of the great pieces of the Ketteler story. It provided some of the richest memories of my childhood. And that blue and white van (with the temperamental sliding door) had a long and happy life.

The Vision and the Want

As I start this new year and hear everyone talking about goals, I can’t help but thinking of my dad, walking by that Chevy dealership . . . and my mom, spreading out maps on the living room floor.

I can’t help but thinking about vision and wanting. Not wanting just to want. But purposeful wanting. Holding a thing in your mind for a reason that doesn’t go away with the season or the trends, paying close attention to why it’s there, and then finding the way to make it be real.

Purposeful wanting.

I want a lot of things. So do you, right? But I bet neither one of us wants all of them with purpose. This has been gnawing at me for months: why do I want so much? Why do I see what my peers and colleagues have and wonder why I don’t have it? How can I harness the power of my want, and let it pull me forward, in all of the best ways, and none of the drag-down ways?

So 2013, you can shove your goals and resolutions. I don’t need more ideas for stuff to want.

What I need is to pay better attention. What I need is action with purpose. What I need is trust in my vision.

It’s a pretty deep thing to get from a van. I get that. But don’t discount that old Chevy.

It used to be a pumpkin.

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