I never imagined that our family’s old minivan — the budget-friendly 2005 Toyota with embarrassing filth ground into her carpets, a spider infestation and a pizza box once taped over a broken window — would one day teach me a profound lesson about the innate goodness of the human race.
But it happened last week.
Despite the fact that our minivan has safely transported our family during many tours of duty, I’ve been longing for an upgrade. She served us faithfully, never quitting when the kids upchucked onto her upholstery or dropped sticky fruit snacks between her seats. Her dashboard sometimes lit up like a Christmas tree, but her engine never quit. She never left us stranded, whether negotiating the pristine autobahns of Stuttgart or the dicey inner-city streets near our kids’ school in Jacksonville.
But when we got orders to the Naval War College in fancy-schmancy Newport, Rhode Island, our minivan stuck out like a sore thumb. Our public-school kids were offered scholarships to become day students at a prestigious local boarding school. As “the military kids” among mostly privileged students, they were a novelty at first, but they soon fit in just like everyone else.
I’d show up to school drop offs in our bedraggled minivan, making a scene among the shiny European imports driven by the other parents. To make matters worse, the doors froze shut on cold mornings, requiring our kids to climb in and out of the hatchback door.
So when news of Winter Storm Riley hit last week, I parked our minivan under a big tree in our front yard, and prayed for Mother Nature to put her out of our misery. But, alas, not so much as a twig fell on her dull, pitted hood.
The next day, my husband, Francis, and I drove to the school to watch the semi-final basketball game. Driving past Audis, Range Rovers, and BMWs, we found the only parking spot left in a grassy area behind the field house.
When the game was over, we snuck out a back door to our waiting van.
“Oh crap,” Francis barked from the driver’s seat, “she’s stuck in the mud!”
Sure enough, when Francis pressed the gas, the wheels oozed deeper into the storm-saturated earth. Francis got out to push, but this only aggravated his sciatica. I pitched handfuls of gravel into the sloppy ruts, and shoved an abandoned two-by-four under the wheel. But nothing worked.
Francis and I were mortified. Not only did we own the unsightliest vehicle in the parking lot, but we were also making a scene, revving the old heap’s engine, splattering mud, and gouging the pristine grounds of the historic campus.
Regardless of our shame, we needed help. The useless revving of the engine finally attracted other parents, and soon four couples were pushing our front bumper with all their might.
“One, two, three!” I bellowed. They groaned and shoved against mushy turf while I hit the gas. Strangers brought bundles of sticks, sheets of plywood, and rubber floor mats for traction. But after many attempts to free our heap from the sludge, our makeshift team had nothing to show for itself but destroyed shoes and soil-splattered clothing.
Defeated but touched by our fellow parents’ kindness, we called for a tow-truck, and bid the good Samaritans adieu.
Driving home after the fiasco, I was ashamed that I’d thought the parents at our school would avoid helping us. I knew about the “military-civilian divide” and I’d assumed it was all their fault. “Civilians don’t understand us. Civilians won’t give us a chance. Civilians don’t respect our sacrifices…” I’d thought.
Perhaps it’s not fair to place all the blame on them. Military communities can be insular, and we often behave as if we’ve cornered the market on service and honor. However, our civilian neighbors deserve the same understanding and compassion that we demand from them so vehemently.
It took our minivan 216,370 odometer miles to teach us that respect is a two-way street, but I gratefully patted her dashboard, as we parked her back under the big tree to await the next storm.
(Editor’s note: Molinari writes a column covering different aspects of military life. You can find her articles at www.themeatandpotatoesoflife.com.)