OFF THE BEAT: Ode to my fallen minivan

Dear Sienna,

To address you in this letter is a formality that reassures only myself. No matter how affectionately I try to pen these words, I will forever have to cope with my carelessness and my neglect that as of two Saturdays ago permanently separated us. But I am impelled to write a few lines that would have fallen under your headlights now that you are no more. For the memory of all of the moments that I have enjoyed with you overwhelm me, and I feel it imperative to recount our blissful journeys in what shall be my final farewell.

I didn’t expect you to appear when my mother picked me up early from school to go see “The Wedding Singer” in third grade. I searched for our Mazda MPV, but Mrs. Buchannan pointed out my mother sitting in this luminous green minivan — a vehicle that would become an integral part of my growth and adolescence.

I remember flinging open your sliding door and instantly writhing on the plush leather of your captain’s chair. The Mazda cloth was immediately a distant memory. The connection was instant. The love was established.

Over 14 years, you would come to know the Baumgaertners well. With five of us in the car for family vacations, the youngest had to be tucked in the back corner — “Gabrielville” as I called it — with the luggage while my elder siblings lounged in the captains’ chairs. All I needed was a Sports Illustrated, a CD player with CDs stolen from my sister’s closet and your rear window to keep me occupied for hours on trips to June Lake or Lake Tahoe. In that seclusion, I found peace.

I searched for you when Mom was late to pick me up from school. I ran to you in tears when the freshman football coach told me he “wouldn’t miss me” if I didn’t return to practice the next day because of my size. You offered comfort and normalcy as my world continued to change.

Suddenly, your keys became mine. And as you would soon find out, maturity was never my strong suit. Mom and Dad paid for maintenance and gas while I made you part of my identity — a privilege afforded to few.

The math teacher that wrote my letters of recommendation caught you and me ghostriding the whip in the school parking lot. Suffice it to say he wasn’t impressed or pleased. You’d think I’d have learned a lesson but just weeks later, I again opted to blast Mistah F.A.B. out of your brave speakers and keep the car, as per F.A.B.’s instructions, in drive, not neutral, only to see you barrel off in a residential cul-de-sac with nobody operating the wheel. Luckily I stopped crumping and started sprinting to catch you before you crashed into a house. My friends labeled the failed incident “Ghostride the Lawn.” That did get you “Car of the Issue” in the school newspaper, though … on April Fool’s Day.

When we got to college, I don’t know that I treated you much better. I blew out your front right speaker blaring G-Unit, saw a drunk friend rip off your sliding door handle and piled as many as 13 into your seven-person seating capacity.

I scratched both of your sliding doors, slapped a “One Love, One Earth, One Survival” bumper sticker on your back windshield that made you look like the neighborhood Ganja Bus and dirtied you up so badly at times that you were barely recognizable.

But, baby, I showed you the world — or California at least.

The first couple years, we zoomed down Southern California freeways so we could make Mom’s curfew or journey to unknown destinations. Whether it was sneaking out to a concert on the west side of L.A., speeding through the Orange County summer breeze or chugging up for a magical trip to Joshua Tree, Southern California hardly tested your stamina.

Tucked away in majestic Pinecrest, Calif. for two glorious summers, we worked even harder together. I know you remember our first glimpse of Gold Country on 49, the stunning beauty of the Sonora Pass and your last (and this time successful) ghostriding venture through a lightning storm on a single-lane dirt road called Avery Sheep Ranch Road. Google says that is somewhere in Calaveras County.

Twenty-six percent grades? Easy. Unmarked roads in areas with no cell phone service? Cake. I was never worried. I always knew you’d make it. That’s why I was in love. Your engine never stopped, and it brought me to destinations that I won’t soon forget.

But it was those keys that I could never hold onto. I almost stranded you in Chico once. That was cruel enough. But then Sept. 4 came.

I never thought my car would be stolen right out of my own parking lot. Standing alone in the vacant space, I felt not angry, but helpless and more than anything, dumb. Yeah, Antoine Dodson, I can hear you.

I would eventually get a call back from the cops four days after the theft. You were found completely torched somewhere in Oakland. The game is the game, so they say, and this is Oakland after all.

I still see you in my dreams and find myself searching the streets for you daily, but our fond memories together will forever overcome the violent end to your long and accomplished 210,000-mile life. And after all, I can only blame myself.

But don’t think my negligence had anything to do with my love for you.

Goodnight, Sienna. I can only hope that I’ll find a girl, much less another vehicle, that will treat me so well.

Your captain,