Hatin’ on the Church Van

Each member of our team must be capable of multi-tasking. In addition to looking after birds they must also write updates for our audience of supporters. On top of flying they must be good at school presentations or fabricating pens or a multitude of other jobs that need to be done. That is also true for our vehicles but finding one that can serve multiple functions is not easy.

A few years ago we needed a truck to pull our 32 foot aircraft trailer. We also needed something to carry the crew but mostly it had to be able to transport birds and that meant it had to be enclosed and air conditioned. We thought about getting a pickup truck and adding a cap over the box and installing an RV type air conditioner but you are limited to four seats and mobile AC units are extremely expensive considering their low output.

The answer seemed to be one of those extended vans that are commonly sold to churches for transporting 15 or so of their parishioners – like a little bus. In fact, so many are used for that purpose that they are referred to as church vans. We needed something with the power to pull the big trailer so diesel was our only option. At that point Dodge had made a deal with Mercedes Benz to produce the Sprinter which is far too big for us. GM did not make a diesel van and Ford was the only option but they too were considering dropping that line of vehicles. So we started looking at used vans which were more in line with our budget.

We purchased a 2004 model through our local dealership that has always been good to us and for the first year it ran trouble free. Although I had consulted with Richard and Brooke before making the purchase, the van’s reputation with the team began to deteriorate along with its performance. Apart from the fact that it is very loud, it does its job. Airbags were added to upgrade the suspension and it can pull the aircraft trailer when it is fully loaded. It can carry up to 15 people but most importantly, it can accommodate up to ten bird crates in isolated and air conditioned comfort. However, it has suffered a few unusual ailments. It’s like one of those old spinster aunts who never gets a cold but suffers from every oddball illness known to doctors. It doesn’t help that our van is either driven every day under the foot of many drivers or it sits unused in the Florida sun for three months at a time.

Once, while Heather and I were on our way to Wisconsin to begin the migration, we spent a day wandering around Guelph, Ontario while the pump that provides the energy for the power brakes was replaced. Liz and I once coasted to a stop in front of a truck repair place and spent a day waiting while they replaced a secondary fuel pump system that apparently never fails. In Alabama a few years ago, the team was invited to visit the NASA Museum. On the return trip we rolled into a dealership and waited a few hours while a new alternator was installed. Each repair comes with high cost plus other expenses like crew time, hotel bills and frustration. The problem is, when do you draw the line and what are the alternatives? We still need a vehicle to fill all the functions we bought the van for and we don’t have the budget to replace it with something new.

Last month Liz and I picked up the van in Florida and drove it to Orlando to help Disney celebrate International Migratory Bird Day. We then hitched it to the trailer and headed north. It chugged up the mountains of Pennsylvania and got us home three days later without a whimper. It sat for another month before I headed to Wisconsin and again encumbering it with the fully loaded trailer. Heather followed, driving one of our motorhomes. Luckily she was paying attention and noticed increased smoke coming from the exhaust pipe, something I was not able to see. She texted me, called me (dead phone) flashed the lights and finally passed me to get my attention to pull over. We checked all the levels but there seemed to be nothing wrong. I crept off the highway and found a truck parking lot that no one seemed to own but everyone uses and we went online to find a repair place.

The nearest town was Angola, Indiana and we found Dave’s Diesel but it was too late to call them. We found a hotel and the next morning, disconnected the trailer and they towed the van in for repair. It seems there is an Exhaust Gas Regulator valve that ruptured and began feeding antifreeze into the cylinders. That caused the smoke that Heather noticed. If she hadn’t been there, I am sure I would not have seen the white mist coming from the tail pipe on the far side of the vehicle. The mechanic told me that there are no warning signs; no change in the gauges or caution lights to tell you there is a problem.

The first thing you normally see is a drop in oil pressure when one of the pistons goes through the side of the engine. Alternatively, you might hear a large bang or a permanent loss in power. Your next clue would be a $14000.00 bill to replace the engine. As it is, it will still cost us $2300 and three lost days but I guess we must look on the bright side. According to Dave, we were about 15 miles from a much larger problem.

Even after this repair the problem will still exist. We can’t live without the van and can’t afford to replace it, even if they made one. All we can do is hope there is nothing left to fix. Heather went on to Wisconsin in the motorhome while I found a hotel. Unfortunately the only one is five miles away in the middle of nowhere. There are no taxis and the car rental place is booked solid. I think I have walked 15 miles so far but the good people at Dave’s Diesel have promised to get it done by Friday. So if I am lucky I will face Chicago traffic right in the middle of a Friday night rush hour. Oh well it is better than sitting all day in a hotel, however I am through defending this vehicle and joining the rest of the team in my loathing of our church van.

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