Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Trailernutz, the early years

I’m not an architect, home builder, dealer, or an expert of any kind about trailers, but I read a lot, am intuitive and introspective, and don’t take myself too seriously and you shouldn’t either. I enjoy writing and this will be my blog about pretty much anything. But here’s how my thing for trailers began…

In 1959, I was six years old and in love with Marcia, the cute blond next door. I liked her even more when her family got an Airstream trailer. They parked it in their side yard. Marcia and I played house in her trailer and fully expected that we would be married some day, raising children, and living in just such a humble place, be it ever so manufactured.

The trailer was the just right size for us. We were small, happy and innocent. We had no knowledge or appreciation for walls over two inches thick, hardwood floors, Viking appliances, granite counter tops or soaring cathedral ceilings.

Don’t get me wrong, we didn’t spend all that much time in the trailer. Most of the time, we were running around in our big back yards, riding her whirlygig -- a two seat device with a handle each person could pull to make it spin faster until nausea set it -- kicking balls, hiking in the nearby forest and a lot of bike riding. We played marbles, caught lightning bugs in jars, played with matches, climbed trees, built forts, ran with scissors and had impromptu hula hoop contests. I think my record was somewhere around 300 hulas. I don’t want to give the impression my whole childhood was about trailers, as if preparing for a future on the Jerry Springer show. Although, come to think of it, I cheated on Marcia once, with Kathy Demario, who a year or two earlier had taught me to tie my shoes.

I pictured Marcia and I grown up one day, with our brood, taking trips in our trailer to places like Disneyland, Africa, and Mt. Everest. Not the top of Everest course. I was young, not stupid. We had enough trouble getting our car up the hill in the winter. Towing a trailer up a mountain would be impossible.

Only a year after Marcia’s family got the trailer and Marcia and I were firming up plans for a life together, my family moved out of the neighborhood. Our new house was over five miles away. Marcia and I weren’t even in the same elementary school anymore. I knew it was more to do with our basement flooding every time it rained, like the time we got about a foot of water one rainy spring and the sump pump couldn’t keep up with it. That was the last straw for my father. Still, I felt like there was a little Romeo and Juliette going on in this situation. Marcia and I were being separated. It didn’t seem right.

In our new ranch-style house, my next girlfriend -- I worked pretty fast -- was Debbie, also a next-door neighbor. Debbie’s mother was, said in a whisper, “divorced,” currently between husband two and three, so a serial divorcee. Debbie’s grandfather ran a construction business and had built our house and Debbie’s house, and several others in our neighborhood. We lived in a subdivision of homes outside of Vestal, NY, near Binghamton. Binghamton is surrounded by miles of rolling hills, small towns and dairy farms. Vestal is even more rural. Most of the people in the Vestal area in particular, worked in one of the area’s largest two employers. IBM Endicott, or IBM Owego.

In our subdivision, over the next several years after we moved in, many new houses were built up the hill from us. On Sundays, or weekdays when workers went home, I liked exploring the houses in their various stages of construction, and doing things like climbing the ladder to a second floor before the stairs went in. I’d explore them right up until they put the front door hardware on and locked the doors.

I also watched the foundation hole being dug, a crew arriving to set forms for the basement walls, and finally a cement truck pulling in to pour the cement into the forms, using a trough that swiveled and was guided by a worker. Then, the framing, electrical, plumbing, insulation, drywall etc. After seeing it dozens of times, I knew what to expect, but it was always of interest to see the houses go up, and the people move in.

The subdivision was isolated and there was no crime when we first moved in. People even left their doors unlocked. Even though there were piles of lumber lying around on construction sites, and I liked sawing wood and nailing things together, I never took anything from a site. We thought stealing wasn’t right, and besides, getting caught for it would be worse. It would be pretty hard to avoid going down the street with a 2 x 4, without someone noticing.

Debbie’s grandfather built a dozen of the new houses but there were many other builders too, and after a short while, he retired with his wife, to a farm. In my neighborhood, most of the houses were small ranch houses with a one-car garage but then they started building a lot more split-level homes with two bathrooms, and a bigger garages. When they reached ten blocks to the top of the hill, some houses were custom two stories, that probably had two and a half or even three baths.

Our house, a modest brick ranch, had only one bathroom. It was fairly well made, except for the cheap plastic tile in the bathroom that started falling off in the shower a year after we moved in.

Debbie and I didn’t have any trailer connection to speak of until she moved away. Debbie, her mother and her new step-father moved to her maternal grandparent’s farm. There, they lived in a new trailer on the property about a hundred yards from the parents large Victorian farm house. I thought if a builder of homes, even a retired one, would house his only daughter in a trailer, they must be great. After they were there for a month, I was invited to come stay for a week on the farm. Debbie missed me.

Kids pick up on adult things. I didn’t know squat about sex at the time. In retrospect, the reason they all moved to this isolated farm, was that Debbie’s mother’s first two husbands cheated so much, this was a way of isolating her relationship with this third stud. The grandparents could keep an eye on him, while working him to death with farm chores. He’d be too exhausted to cheat. He had a couple of farmhands to help him out with some things, but it was mostly him.

They had about twenty milk cows, a dozen beef cattle (with plans for more), chickens, a goat and a couple of horses, including a pony that Debbie and I would get to ride, while led on a rope by her step-father. Whoopee!

When I pictured a week at the ranch, and horse riding, I thought it was going to be like Roy Rogers or Sky King, and we’d be taking off on adventures into the hills, galloping away through fields of wildflowers. Debbie’s grandparents even bought me a fancy cowboy hat. What did I need that for. I wasn’t into cowboy drag for some stinkin’ fashion statement/pony ride/photo opportunity. I wanted to ride a horse off into the fields or at least learn some horsemanship skills, maybe win a race, like Elizabeth Taylor in National Velvet.

Never mind that I was only 9, and Debbie 7, and they didn’t want their precious little Debbie to break her neck. Neither of us had been on a horse much, except the pony ride once or twice at a county fair.

I was familiar with cows. Where we lived, we got our milk at a dairy right next door, and you could go in and pet them. I pet a cow once or twice, not heavily. They were also in the field at the end of one street near us, only five houses away. It was our game to get under the electric fence, without getting a shock, feeling that if the fence touched the head, we’d get amnesia. I never tried that, it was bad enough touching the fence with a finger.

But what fun are cows? They moo. They swipe flies with their tails. They sometimes look at you with big brown eyes that say “Help me, I’m a cow, and ready to reincarnate into something more exciting like a dog,” and they take lots of dumps. Oh, I almost forgot. They make milk. A bottle or carton was fine with me. Why marry the cow, when you could buy bottles in the store, or something like that.

Not only couldn’t we take off on the horses, I didn’t even get to stay in the new single-wide trailer with Debbie and her parents. They stuck me in the grandparent’s farmhouse. For a few days, I didn’t even go in the trailer, although I wanted to, but finally, we ate dinner there once and I got an abbreviated tour. I didn’t like it as much as a camping trailer, and it was pretty cheesy looking, but it was much better than a farmhouse. The rest of the time, everything -- meals, relaxing indoors, sleeping -- was at the grandparents’ house.

I slept in a huge dark bedroom on the second floor of the house, all by myself. The only thing I liked about the home was the staircase that curved down into the living room. When the adults were out of the house for a few minutes, Debbie and I finally got in some good banister sliding. Probably the most exciting thing we did all week.

Debbie’s grandmother was always baking, and at meals, they were trying to fatten me up, which was never successful, especially if they made something like peas. How fat could I get in one week anyway?

I ate like a bird, except fruit, and they didn’t serve fruit. I could eat three or four apples at a time. I could eat peaches or blueberries until my stomach hurt. For them, fruit belonged only in pie. I hated pie. When I told them I didn’t like pie or cake, you would have thought they discovered my membership card to the communist party, or that I’d bit the head off one of their chickens. One relief about breakfast, it was the one meal they weren’t trying to force pie on me.

What I wanted to do, was spend a night in the trailer with Debbie, which they wouldn’t allow. Marcia and I certainly had never got to spend our magic night in her camping trailer, and with Debbie, I began to doubt that I’d ever get to stay in one. It was all about the trailer, not so much Debbie.

Worse than almost being banned from the trailer, was that there was NOTHING to do on the blasted farm. I had no bicycle. They had dozens of acres going up into the hills, but not only could we not ride horses, we couldn’t even walk out there. The few beef cattle “might stampede us.” It would inflame Debbie’s allergies. She might get poison ivy. We might drown in the foot-deep creek.

The farm was bounded by a two-lane highway on one side and fenced hills on the other. It seemed like we were a mile away from the next house. We couldn’t go near either the hills or the highway. At home, I was used to riding my bike all over, even during snowy winters at times, exploring the endless woods above our house, playing at the creek which had a waterfall. The creek led down to the wide Susquehanna river, and in dryer weather, was easy to get to by walking through under passes, not even having to cross a highway. I also had lots of neighborhood friends and we spent summers playing games, exploring or riding our bikes.

At the farm, there was nothing to do but watch the cows get hooked up to the milking machine. Once was enough of that. Watch Debbie’s step-father pitch hay in the barn or feed the horses. Debbie had to take a long afternoon nap, and at first they tried to make me take one too, but after one time, when I told them I slept like hell at night if I fell asleep during the day, I was free. So, they let me wander around when Debbie was napping for two hours. That girl slept more than a newborn.

When Debbie was napping, I’d go into the barn to look at the animals. I tried to talk to Debbie’s step father a few times, but he was busy working, not much of a talker, and when he did talk, the things he said made me appreciate the intelligence and speaking ability of my parents. I don’t think he was a moron. He just didn’t know what to say to a nine year old person.

According to the first joke I learned in Kindergarten, you could make time fly by throwing a clock out the window. By the end of the week, I was ready to throw Debbie holding a clock out the window, to see if time and Debbie could fly, or do just about anything but cry or whine all the time. She could be a cranky little girl.

Debbie’s mother was usually nice to me, but she was forever bitchy and demanding to Debbie, especially if she ran out of cigarettes. The way she chained smoked -- I expected her to light a second cigarette at any moment and smoke two at a time -- you would think they’d keep a few crates of cigarettes in the barn or something. In that way, she wouldn’t run out. I could see Debbie was headed in the same direction, at least regarding being frustrated and demanding. Not even newlywed bliss helped her mother much.

The week finally ended, and my parents picked me up and I was happy to get back to civilization, freedom and TV. They had a TV on the farm but it got only one fuzzy channel. The adults sat around playing cards, smoking and talking about nothing. Not a reader of books in the bunch, although I suppose they talked about current affairs, which didn’t interest me at that age.

Boredom can be a harrowing experience for a kid. My parents both came from large families and I never had trouble making conversation with most of my relatives, but I couldn’t talk about anything with Debbie’s parents or grandparents. After a full week of Debbie, I didn’t have much to say to her either. Later, when I’d hear that expression “funny farm,” I’d think of that farm, and how nuts I’d go if I had to live there forever. I felt sorry for Debbie, that she was stuck there, with no friends to play with, not places to go, and with her bitchy mother.

For some reason, around these people, I was in a shell and never comfortable, afraid that I would do or say the wrong thing. They were absurdly overprotective of Debbie and perhaps for that reason, when I met up with her in high school years later, I wasn’t that surprised to discover she rebelled.

Her locker was near the library, and on my way down to read books in the library after I finished lunch, she would sometimes be there, back glued to her locker, face shrouded in heavy makeup, making out with one of the class hoods. Her boyfriend looked to be about 19, held back a few times, and except for auto shop and gym, he was one of the students who was in the “math skills” class where they learned their plusses and guzintas instead of algebra and geometry. Two plus two is four. Four guzinta eight twice. Besides making out, which was in strict violation of the school’s PDA (Public Display of Affection) rule, Debbie no doubt shared this thug’s penchant for smoking cigarettes behind the gym, and of course Debbie got knocked up (or as Sarah Palin would say “blessed” with child) by the time she was a sophomore. Maybe she didn’t have four husbands by the time she was thirty, but she seemed to be well ahead of her mother’s baby-making schedule.

Getting back to childhood, when I got home that summer, and Debbie remained a prisoner thirty miles away on the farm, I set my sights on Patty, who lived two houses down the street. I met her playing with the neighborhood kids. She played the clarinet. She was wonderful.

Patty was a whole year older than me, smart, fun, athletic, long brown hair, and we had lots of good times together for a few years. We climbed trees and played with her father’s tape recorder, sang and made music together. She didn’t have a camping trailer though. It didn’t seem to matter. I knew one day we would.

Her parents and three sisters liked me. There was no attempted force feeding of pie at meals, and they didn’t regard me as a communist for not eating it. In fact, they ate fresh fruit too. Patty and I drifted apart when she went to junior high, but we met up in high school Biology class. We were friendly. Patty went from outgoing and athletic, to big and shy. She was still someone I liked though. I didn’t understand why she became so shy. She went from being coordinated and sporty, to someone who looked uncomfortable in her growing body. She was tall too. Back in the third grade when I started seeing Patty, we faded until when she left for junior high a year ahead of me. I know, you’re wondering, where is the trailer in this story?

When I was home from my first year in college for a holiday, my mother told me she had lunch with Patty’s mother. They weren’t close friends, but were still friendly. Patty’s mother had started reminiscing about when Patty and I were children. She reminded my mother that when I was in the third grade, and Patty in fourth, Patty and I made a vow that we would marry each other and more importantly, that we would live in a trailer. When my mother told me that, I laughed and said it was all true.

The best made trailer plans of mice and men often go awry.