In a small area like Cumberland County, South Jersey you get to know people. If you are a VW fan you get to know the few people that own Volkswagens in our area, at least by sight. But if you are a rabid VW van addict like myself you get to know the three other people with vans in your area on a first name basis.
And so it was that before a chilly night this past December I was pretty confident in the fact that I was one of an elite group of three other VW van owners all of which belonged to our little club. Jersey Owners of Transporters or JOT for short.
But that night was when I first saw the Fifth Van and after that nothing was ever quite the same.
I was going to night classes at our local county Vo-Tec to become an Aircraft Maintenance Technician. My experience with VW’s came in very handy since most small airplanes still use aircooled engines. Anyway I was late for school and had rush out the door and consequently was going rather fast when I saw, a set of strangely familiar looking headlights coming toward me in the distance. I pulled up at the stop light where Rt. 49 meets Gouldtown-Woodruff Rd. There is a small cemetary there and it always made me a little uncomfortable at night having to stop and wait for what seemed like an eternity for the light to change. But as I waited those headlights got closer and finally stopped right across the intersection from me. My VW radar had been correct. It was a VW van, but not just any van. It was a split window and in very good condition from what little I could see in the street light. Split window vans and South Jersey’s high humidity just don’t get along, so they were very rare to say the least. In fact none of the members of our club owned one and we all were looking to find one to restore with minimal luck.
I wondered why I had never seen this van before. Maybe he was only a visiting relative come early for the holidays or on here on business.
As the light turned green and we started across the intersection simultaneously, I flashed my lights at him, the traditional friendly gesture of fellow VW owners. Not only did I get no response but the van roared across the intersection at a surprising quick rate (I was just over the line when he passed me). Looking in my rear view I could see only tiny dot for brakelights.
‘Wow that thing must be from the ’50’s!’
Two of the other three members of JOT happen to go to school with me. Doug owns a ’74 bus and Jerry owns a ’79 bus with A/C from Colorado. So of course when I got to school one of the first things I did was spread the news. It didn’t have the result I thought it would.
My friends and fellow Volks folks didn’t believe me.
“Are you sure that you really saw a splittie?” Asked Doug with a puzzled expression on his face. ” I came down that same road just a minute behind you and I didn’t see anything.”
They both didn’t believe me and I couldn’t prove it. As we worked on our projects that night I wondered if I had really seen it or maybe it was because I wanted one so bad I just confused another van for a VW in the dusk light. I didn’t think about the fifth van again until I saw it again a couple of weeks later.
I was usually early for school and, again, this night, I was late. I had stopped at the same stop light and was fiddling with the radio trying to get the station I wanted. When I looked up there it was its large white, VW symbol standing out against the pale blue of the body. I couldn’t make out who was driving although I squinted and stared. I could only see an outline through the windshield of what appeared to be a man. I decided to flash my lights before the light turned this time that way he couldn’t ignore me and pretend it was because he didn’t see me. Again no response. I also noticed that the tag on the van of was a type I had never seen before. It looked to be antique which some avid restorers bought and put on their vans to make them more authentic looking. As the light turned green and we passed each other again I really made an effort to see the person behind the wheel. But could again only get that shadowy outline of a medium sized man.
I didn’t tell the guys at school about what I saw this time. I needed proof or they would undoubtedly scoff at me again. I believed that the owner of the van must be returning from work and would pass by that spot the same or close to the same time every day. I would have to set up a time for me, Jerry, and Doug to be there watching when the van would pass by.
The chance came when I discovered that next week our teacher would be out of town for a day and we would have the night off. I scheduled our monthly JOT meeting for that night.
And so it was that on that Thursday night Jerry, Doug, Royce (the other member of the club) and myself sat in my Vanagon next to the cemetary on Gouldtown-Woodruff Rd.
“Do we have to park right here?” Doug asked looking a little nervous.
“This is the spot where I see it and so I know it will come by here.” I affirmed. “What? Are you afraid of ‘Ghost Van’ is going to get you?”
Well nobody said much after that. Time went on and soon it was a half an hour later than when the van normally came by.
“I am getting tired of sitting here,” Royce said irritably. “Obviously this mystery van is not going to show and I have to work tomorrow.”
I agreed that it didn’t seem that the van was coming and that we should call it a night.
The next night at school all I heard about from Doug was how I made him sit in the cold next to a cemetary because I couldn’t admit that there was no such van. Jerry wasn’t so harsh but he too still doubted my story and was unhappy about the “wild van hunt”.
I had to have proof about the van. A way to prove it existed. The next time I saw it I would follow it.
A month went by. I had almost forgotten about the fifth van. We were working on a tough, labor intensive project in class that kept us all very busy with little time to talk. I had left the house without my books and had to turn around, after getting half way to school, to go home and get them.
I was very late tonight and the intense project seemed to fill my thoughts. I almost didn’t notice van passing me at the intersection, I was that engrossed. Suddenly I slammed on the brakes. Fortunately no one was behind me. I did a quick u-turn and the chase was on. That van was really moving! In fact I almost thought I had lost him when I saw those little red dots far off in the distance. I stepped on the gas and tried to narrow the space between myself and the van. At 65 mph I held myself. I didn’t want to get a major ticket yet I had to see where the van went and it was doing at least 70.
It had to stop at a four-way stop near the Millville Airport so I could see that it was going straight towards the Laurel Lake area. I tried to get as quickly as I could through the four-way and then continued the pursuit.
I saw the tail lights become obstructed as the van went around the bend to go over the Laurel Lake bridge. Then it sailed on past the lake toward Maurice Town. It was heading towards the bay. I followed those two little red eyes to Maurice Town and that is when something strange happened. I was far behind him and really could just make it out, but it seemed that the van went past the Maurice Town bridge and continued on up to the street that led to the old bridge. There was only one problem. The old bridge didn’t exist anymore. It had been a drawbridge and had been replaced in the ’70s by the taller, modern bridge only a mile upstream. I thought at first that he must live there on that dead end street. But when I got there and looked around the van was no where to be seen.
Suddenly a strange idea occurred to me. What if it was a ghost van after all? Well if it was then it would be on the other side of the river by now, so following this hunch I went back to the bridge and went over the river toward Dennis Township. I was flying now, doing 75 mph and straining to see something.
Ahead there was a Wawa and a Texaco on either side of the road. I seemed to just see the shadow of something van-shaped turning there onto Rt. 47. I turned also and just saw the van turn again into the road that led to Leesburg. Following this road at a high rate of speed I caught occasional glimses of my quarry around the twists and turns. Finally, on a straight away I seemed to see the van turn in to what must be a driveway. I tried to judge where it had turned, but with it being night and the distance the vehicle was in front of me I just had to guess. I pulled into the yard of a small yellow house with a delapidated looking one car garage. I was pretty sure that this was the place, but where was the van?
Someone came to the door.
“Can I help you?” An old man stood there his hastily thrown on flannel not fully covering his tee-shirt.
I walked up to the door.
“Yes,” I said. “I hope you can. I am looking for a van that seemed to have pulled into your driveway.”
“Van?” The old man looked confused. “The only van I know anything about is old ‘Betsy’ in the garage there and she hasn’t seen the road for quite some time.”
“What kind of van is it?” I asked fearing I already knew the answer.
“Go look for yourself, but don’t touch nothin’ until I get a heavier coat on.” He turned and shut the door.
I got a flashlight from my glovebox (a must for Vanagon owners) and slowly walked toward the ramshackle garage. Through a crack in the partially opened door I could just see the reflection of some glass. Walking up the opening I peered inside.
“You can’t see anything with the door shut!” The old man had come up behind me so quietly that I jumped when he spoke.
I grabbed onto the rusty door handle and he unto the door edge and together we slid back the sagging door on squeaky rollers. My flashlight fell on a tremendously dusty and yet familiar looking VW split window van. You could hardly tell it was blue and white or that wasn’t brown it was so dirty, yet there it was.
The old man (who was named Bob) explained to me later over some coffee that the van had been his son’s before he went to Vietnam. The young lad had asked his parents to keep it for him until he returned. When he didn’t, they kept it as a reminder of their son and with a hope that since he was MIA that someday he might return.
“Well my wife just died this last September,” Bob explained. “And my kids want me to sell this place and go to the high rise apartments with other folks my age. I have been thinking a lot about it too, but I didn’t really know what to do with Jimmy’s van.”
To make a long story short I now own the van which was a ’55 and have restored it completely.
I have tried to figure out exactly what happened that night in these few months that have followed, but I can never come up with a satisfactory answer. Was it the ghost of Bob’s son come back to relive better days? Or the van itself drawing me there in hopes that I would free it and allow it to again roam the countryside? Or was there some other explanation?
I thought I had found just that when I pulled into the Wawa near Leesburg last week for a cup of coffee and did a double take. In the parking lot sat a blue and white ’50-something split window van that had been immaculately restored!
I went inside and since it was very early in the morning there were only a few other people in the store.
A man stood at the counter and I noticed the keys in his hand.
“Is that your van out there?” I inquired.
“Sure is, why do you ask?” The man looked at me questioningly.
I explained that I had one just like it at home and he went on to tell me that he had recently moved into the area and was now living in Leesburg. In fact he was living on the same street as Bob.
‘Aha!,’ I thought. ‘Now I have figured it out.’
It wasn’t anything supernatural. I just picked the wrong house and by some strange twist it just so happened to be the one where Betsy was residing. A very strange coincidence, but a coincidence nonetheless.
I was getting my coffee and still talking to the guy when I happened to mention seeing his van up in Bridgeton near the cemetary.
He only looked at my stupidly and asked, “I know this sounds dumb, but since I just moved here last week, where is Bridgeton?”
Copyright 2015 Ken Wilford
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