A fighter pilot’s ode to an around-the-world (Honda) Odyssey

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honda odyssey side profile bikes and boards
Josh Arakes

My mom turns 70 this year. Now, it may be unpolite to share a lady’s age in public, but I’m writing under a pseudonym so it’s cool. She’s a tremendously kind and loving person, provided you don’t cross her. I have vivid memories of her chasing a teenaged brother down the hall, tackling and placing him in a headlock before applying knuckle noogies with what appeared to be no small amount of force. It was hysterical.

I still laugh remembering mom going ballistic on a doctor for brushing her off and not providing the care another sibling required. Years later, my own wife would apply this same tactic, stalking down the corridor after the doctor who dismissed her concerns about a lump in her neck. “Look at the MRI again, I can feel the lump right here!” Less than two months later, a surgeon pulled an olive-sized tumor out of the location my wife indicated.

With their 50 year anniversary not far off, my parents’ relationship still represents #Goals, as the kids say. There is one trait about which my scientist father has gently teased my mom all these years: Her endearing quality of anthropomorphizing inanimate objects. She comes by it naturally; her father would say “Houses are alive, they have souls.” Talking to her cars and thanking them for what they do is normal for her, and she is sad when they are sold (pretty sure she loves me more than the cars; not sure the same can be said of the brother upon whom she dispensed noogie justice all those years ago!). There are a lot of my mom’s qualities I love, but I especially love this one, likely because zygote me picked out the same trait at the gene store.

They say your first airplane is always your favorite.  Having been qualified in four fighter jets (including one currently), plus another jet trainer, I perhaps have a better perspective on this than many others. That said, the fact that my first combat fighter was the undisputed best in the world (just ask anyone in the know) makes it easy for me to affirm the adage’s accuracy.

Air Force F-22 Raptor in sky over snowcapped mountains
Lockheed Martin via Getty Images

My average combat sortie lasted 6 hours and 20 minutes, with my longest being 9 hours and 20 minutes. That doesn’t include time in the jet on the ground before and after the flight, which is an additional 60+ minutes. What’s that like, you ask? The best approximation would be to sit on a dining room chair and not get up for at least seven hours. All eating, drinking, and bathroom-breaking is done in that chair; no napping allowed. Also, no picking a soft chair, as in the event of an ejection a soft cushion would allow the seat to accelerate before starting to rocket you out of the aircraft; a result firmly located on the bad side of the good/bad scale. The forces in ejection are astounding and the effect on your back would be worse with a padded seat.

After so many hours airborne, it’s hard not to be grateful to be safely back on terra firma. That post-flight gratitude also extends to my jet, and I’ve never failed to pat her nose in thankfulness for bringing me home. After two decades of flying, the sentiments I feel towards my aircraft are legit and logical (to me). I have no doubt that then-Captain Bob Pardo felt a mix of gratitude and sadness for his F-4 when he finally had to eject from her; after all, she gave everything she had to save him and three others, literally pushing his and his wingman’s F-4s out of enemy territory on a single functioning engine. I won’t pretend to have experienced anything like Captain Pardo, but, like his, my jets have gotten me out of every jam, tough spot, and pickle, with each combat bomb I’ve dropped hitting exactly on target.  Hard not to love a girl like that.

As I write this, my wife and children are crossing two states in our 2006 Honda Odyssey enroute to my in-law’s. Before arriving, the van will crest 240,000 miles. We bought it new on March 25, 2006 with 75 miles on it (it was transferred to our dealer for us, thus the miles); our out-the-door price was $34,601.36. It was very much a stretch purchase, but we’ve never regretted it. I may be a fighter pilot, a career field that eschews emotion (I don’t care how you felt during a target attack or your emotions as you merged with an “enemy” aircraft; it’s about making rapid, fact-based decisions, with no room for feelings), but I’m not afraid to say I love our Odyssey.

honda odyssey paddleboards and trailer
Josh Arakes

The average distance from the earth to the moon is 238,855 miles, meaning our lunar excursion only took us 15 years. The captain’s chairs in our Odyssey are way more comfortable than those in my fighter, and are heated to boot, but I couldn’t sit in them for 15 years straight!

With the earth’s circumference at 24,901 miles, we’re about 9,000 miles short of ten laps around our home planet. While we haven’t actually driven around the world, that van has driven over a good chunk of it. I’ve been on active duty for quite some time–longer than we’ve owned the Odyssey–and we’ve had thirteen duty stations. Those moves, along with our love of road trips, have taken us through essentially the entire continental United States (45/48 states) as well as much of Europe and South Korea.

honda odyssey dash odometer
Josh Arakes

Unlike the typical 15 year-old, and my current 15 year-old is our fourth child to reach that age so I know of which I speak, the van is terrible at photobombing.  Excluding pictures that have my family in them, I found fewer than 20 pictures of the van. Based on pictures alone, one would think that this machine, so integral to our adventures from the Golden Gate Bridge to Acadia National Park’s Cadillac Mountain to the sugar sand beaches of Florida and beyond, simply ghosted us. I found more pictures of Jeepster carburetors, Korean seafood pancakes, and moving trucks than I did of the van. Yet, without its stealthy presence, our adventure list of the last 15 years would be significantly curtailed.

honda odyssey riverbed wide
Josh Arakes

While stationed in Germany with five children, flying around Europe wasn’t really an option as renting a vehicle at our destination that fit seven people would have been prohibitively expensive, if there even were any that size to be found. You think having five children in the US is unique? Psssh, we might as well have been a family of sasquatches for all the stares we collected in Europe. We once had an entire outdoor café in Switzerland freeze, mouths agape mid-chew, to stare at us as we walked by. While unique, our reception there wasn’t even close to all bad; a favorite memory involves walking single file through an outdoor market in Firenze (Florence)–wife in front, four kids, then me with the baby on my back–a vendor saw us and joyously counted, “Uno, due, tre, quattro bambinos!” I immediately pivoted so he could see the baby on my back and replied, “No, cinque.” Grinning ear to ear, he held up both hands and said, “Awwww, cinque bambinos!”

honda odyssey front
Josh Arakes

Our Odyssey has driven us across Germany, to Prague and back (that was a sketchy border crossing!), up through London and the UK, across the Netherlands, and much of western Europe. There are dents on the fenders from just barely fitting into a car elevator at a Paris hotel, stickers on the windshield showing road tax paid in Austria and permission to drive into German cities, and a roof rack that’s carried paddleboards, redwood slabs for woodworking, and our family dog (totally kidding on the dog; who do you think I am, Mitt Romney?).

At a parking garage in Firenze, after being held up in traffic by a driver who stopped his delivery truck in the middle of a busy city road to take a smoke break (no emergency flashers, just feet on the dash and long pulls from his sigaretta), I reluctantly tossed the keys to a parking garage attendant as we went to see the city. Said garage didn’t have dedicated spots, they bumper-to-bumper’d cars through the entire structure, thus the need to leave your keys so they could move your vehicle; they played reverse tetris to get the van out after we returned. In Austria, the van was just short enough height-wise to fit in another garage, but in every garage other than the one in Florence, the van’s length dictated we pull it as far into the spot as we could. Most garages’ spots were so narrow we had to enter and exit through the sliding doors or the back hatch.

As we didn’t live overly far from the Nürburgring, I was tempted to take the van out for a lap (with the kids in the back watching Cars, naturally, though something with Steve McQueen might have been more appropriate for the occasion than Lightning McQueen). I did drive the ‘Ring, but whether or not I took the van (and the kids) is a story for another day. The stretch of autobahn nearest our home didn’t have a speed limit though and we verified she’d go above 100 mph.

Korea was great, if you could handle driving more suited to Darwin than KonMari. I was grateful to have our van there, even if we put most of the miles on a Kia minivan with cross-my-heart-and-hope-to-die actual linoleum flooring in it. Driving around Seoul was a level of insanity I had never experienced, and, as mentioned, I’d seen an Italian truck driver stop in the middle of the road to smoke a cigarette. Seeing drivers make left turns from the right turn lane (as in, you’re turning right at a light so you’re in the rightmost lane, but you then decide to turn left across 8 lanes of traffic), completely ignore traffic lights, and freeway traffic that makes LA’s 405 look like a barren backroad, made the Kia van a lifesaver. Number one, I didn’t care if it got beat up as it was old and thrashed when we bought it (it died, violently, shortly before we returned stateside when it threw a piston through the engine block; I learned at the mechanic how to say “That’s your problem right there!” in Korean). Number two, our Odyssey can seat eight, but the Kia could seat nine. Vehicles with nine seats were allowed to drive in the bus lane, allowing us to fly past those poor souls slowly inching their Equus, Genesis, and Carnivals down the freeway.

Our blonde and red haired, green eyed children were rock stars there. Our baby was held by kindly Korean grandmothers, our daughters’ long hair was endlessly caressed by strangers, and I was slightly weirded out by all the picture takers. We loved it and we covered a good chunk of South Korea in our Kia. Special shout-out to Jeju tangerines, whose equal cannot possibly be found in all the world. Conversely, I have no love lost for red bean paste, especially in desserts. #SorryNotSorry

Even if it wasn’t the vehicle we primarily used in Korea, I was grateful to have it there. Although, as a taxpayer, I shudder at what it must have cost to ship it from Germany to Korea. As far as I could tell, it was trucked to Hamburg, carried across the Atlantic, trucked across the USA to Oakland, placed on another boat to Busan, South Korea, then trucked to Seoul. (That was after being shipped to Germany for our assignment there, but before being shipped back stateside after Korea.) All told, that’s an easy 18,000 miles the Odyssey spent on various transports.

In all those years and travels over three continents, it’s only left us stranded once (not including a dead battery three miles from home). We were in Montana to mountain bike the Hiawatha Trail, and at some point over the five miles of dirt roads to the trailhead we caught a rock in the radiator fan which eviscerated the radiator in a clean, efficient arc. We didn’t notice said disembowelment until after our bike ride, but we limped the van to the freeway (and cell service) by pouring lots of water from strangers and roadside creeks into the radiator, all the while blasting the heater to try and cool the engine. A tow to the dealer in Coeur d’Alene and we were up and running the next day with no ill effects.

honda odyssey loaded on flatbed tow truck
Josh Arakes

Each time we pull into our garage following a long road trip, I gratefully pat the van’s dash and express my gratitude to it for safely carrying us home. My wife and I talk about what will replace it, though I’m always embarrassed to do so in the van as I know it’s listening. With two kids out of the house, soon to be three, we don’t require a minivan anymore, but this one carries all of my favorite people, loads of stuff, tows a trailer, swallows whole sheets of plywood and sheetrock, and starts. Every. Single. Time. Why replace a vehicle we paid off over a decade ago that still runs well and is ridiculously cheap to insure?

honda odyssey windshield stickers
Josh Arakes

Per various websites, selling the van would bring a pittance. Potential buyers will likely see the scars from the Paris garage as flaws, or the dent in the side door from a paddleboard incident and devalue it more, or look at the slightly grimy interior and wonder if our last name is Porcine (it isn’t). I see those imperfections too, but to my eye, much like the streaks of gray in my wife’s hair, they are beautiful. Those “flaws” remind me of cross country moves, narrow roads near Pisa, trips full of laughter and pizza, and that one time I threw a Princess and the Pauper DVD across a parking lot because I couldn’t listen to it one more time.

honda odyssey towing jeep
Josh Arakes

We have to be a bit more gentle with our Odyssey as she’s aged. She needs to warm up for a few minutes in the cold and flooring it will likely result in some protestations. She has a slow oil leak caused by some rough winters that isn’t worth fixing; I just check the oil frequently and put a piece of cardboard down on the garage floor under her. Admittedly, I do a bit of triage prior to every repair, debating if it makes sense to put more money into her. Thus the oil leak is allowed to continue and many of the HVAC controls’ lights don’t work, making it tough to set the desired temp at night, while she has new brake pads, rotors, tires, and recently repaired sliding doors.

How do I thank the fighter jets that have always brought me home no matter the engine issue, gear problem, electrical fire, or enemy fire? On the post-flight walkaround, my hand drags slowly over her shapely nose, down the curve of the wing, and lingers near the still-warm engine nozzle(s) on cold days or nights (something I also watched my maintainer do just this week). She is beautiful after all, and I routinely turn back to look at her as I walk away.

honda odyssey yosemite camping
Josh Arakes

How do I thank the van that’s carried my wife, children, and I to the literal moon with nary a complaint? I drive her easily, look past the scrapes and bumps we’ve inflicted upon her, tell her thank you, and plan to keep her as long as she drives. Our Odyssey has shredded my knuckles many times as I tried to administer figurative noogies to strut mounts or power steering pump bolts, but I still love her.

My father will scoff somewhat at my mushiness when he reads this, and that’s understandable; I’m cool if you ridicule my droll sentimentality. On the other hand, my mother will love our van even more and will tell it so the next time she sees it; to me, this reaction isn’t merely understandable, it feels right.

I’m happy to report our van now has over 240,000 miles and my wife and children safely made it to their destination. When they return, I’ll smile at the odometer and think of the moon, check the engine oil, and convey the gratitude I have for its service by a gentle pat on the dash. Maybe we’ll even throw it a 15th birthday party on March 25th. It is, after all, a member of the family.

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