Some of the custom work was wildly creative. SWAT’s first van—the old, right-hand drive U.S. Mail truck whose boxy style, like that of a police SWAT vehicle, gave him his nickname—had a turntable hanging from the ceiling, he says, and a La-Z-Boy recliner for his aunt so she’d be comfortable on trips back home to North Carolina.
After that was totalled in a crash, he took a ’74 Ford Van and grafted the rear hatchback from a ’71 Pinto to its side.
“Before GM made the minivan, where the bottom doors flip out and the top door flips up, we were doing that in custom vans,” SWAT says. “I wish I patented that.”
SWAT did more than that, his friends say. They remember all kinds of reworked doors, with hinges anywhere they might go—gull wing effects, tilters, double and triple door arrangements.
“Don’t forget the light show,” Jones says.
It was partly about style but it was also about getting out of the city and going to a big state park or a big show field on the weekends. There was music, food, beer, and contests judging the best customizations on the vans—which the Nomads often won. Of the impressive raft of trophies in the office, “we threw most of them away,” SWAT says.
And there were women, naked women. Also men—naked men.
SWAT: “It was like the hippies.”
Nelson: “We’d get to a spot; in a few hours it was like a city.” All the van clubs, trucking in to show and shine and eat and drink and gossip and brag.
“We had all the creature comforts,” Jones says. The camp site would usually have showers, public restrooms, sometimes a hall with a kitchen, all for $5 or $10.
SWAT extracts a photo—maybe late ’70s, early ’80s. A huge field, groups of people, many, many campers. “That’s Cumberland,” he says. “That’s a national event.”
There were 1,300 vans, more or less.
“We really used to have fun,” SWAT says. “Remember when we went to Danville, Virginia?”
“Remember burnt chimney?” Jones replies.
“I think my second wife burned my van,” SWAT says. “We used to fix a pot of stew when we get up there and stay up all night. We didn’t have much, but let me tell you, it was some kind of good.
“Most of this was about the people,” SWAT says. “They would do a show and shine too.”
“Streaking!” someone says.
“I started ‘Dark Side of the Moon’ down in Tallysville, Virginia, because they weren’t used to seeing black people streak,” SWAT says. But “we’ve been family oriented the whole time,” he adds, shuffling another old Polaroid. “We used to bring the kids [pointing to a kid maybe 10 years old in a photo]—that one’s 40 now.”
“First one I went to was Fishersville, Virginia,” Nelson says. “And when I got there the man at the gate was wearing nothing but a top hat.” He busts out laughing. “I been back every year since then.”
“But the truck-ins, they don’t let us back!” SWAT says, referring to the huge all-van-club annual events where the movement’s legend is extended and its by-laws are written. About 10 percent of vanners at any given time were African-American, SWAT says. There was no racial trouble. Indeed, the current controversy isn’t about race but vehicle type—vans versus camp trailers and motorhomes.