Tuesday, June 3, 2014

the rig

A friend has been writing his memoir and we've been chatting about writing. It's his theory that writing about your own life is good for your soul and mind. It's a learning experience. Understand, though, that memory is malleable. Over time, memory can add, subtract or color events so that they become more real in one's mind than what might have actually happened.

This, then, is my recollection of the adventures of my maternal grandparents, Gram and Pappy.

When I was small, they lived in Manhattan. They grew up in central PA and moved to Long Island when their three daughters were school age. Once the girls were out of the nest, my grandfather wanted to be closer to his office, so they moved to a two-bedroom apartment near Riverside Church. 

I loved visiting them in the big city. We traveled from our home in rural/suburban upstate down to this huge bustling metropolis full of things to do. They took us to restaurants. We strolled in the Central Park Zoo. We went to the Planetarium, saw dinosaurs, ate Crackerjacks. There were wide sidewalks to play on. We rode in taxis. 

I loved the apartment. It had cool tile and wooden floors and a bar in front of the little kitchen stove with two bar stools (that spun!). There was an elevator, a doorman and a woman who sat behind a big board and patched all the telephone calls up to the apartments. There was a dumbwaiter in the kitchen for the parcels and trash to move up and down. There were glass shelves over the windows with potted African violets. There was a fire escape. The whole space was so tiny, yet just big enough.

Then my grandfather retired. Manhattan wouldn't do for the size of his pension, so they made other plans. They sold the apartment and bought what they called the rig. The rig was a Ford truck, a camper on the truck, a trailer hitched behind and two bicycles strapped on the rear. I was nine. I had thought the apartment was cool, but the rig was the most amazing thing I'd ever seen.

We'd camped for our vacations when I was growing up. My parents had camped for their honeymoon trip. We were campers through and through. But this rig thing didn't have to fold down into a bag. It had real beds with sheets and blankets and a kitchen with a stove and refrigerator. Gram and Pappy had everything they needed all tucked away in tiny drawers and cubbies. Now, this was camping! And it was even better than camping, because they never had to go home. They lived in the rig, traveling the continental US for the next 20+ years.

My grandmother never drove the rig. Gram was the navigator, the logistics coordinator and the communications director. She had the passenger side of the truck lined with fabric pockets for all her letter writing, snacks, guidebooks and the ever-present hand lotion. She wrote letters every day to family and friends. 

My grandfather was the driver, mechanic and gardener. Pappy's overalls were his daily uniform. That engine had over 320,000 miles on it when they finally gave up the rig. Wherever they parked the rig for any length of time, he would tend the plants in the park or yard. He had pots of flowers that would hang on the outside of the trailer if they weren't moving. 

My grandmother liked to say they followed Spring. They didn't venture into cold territory in the winter and called themselves snowbirds. They researched and wrote an extensive family genealogy while they were on the road to give themselves a reason to visit places off the beaten track. They visited family and friends all over the country. They even got into square dancing for awhile and followed that crowd from place to place. They went to church every Sunday. They went to potluck dinners. Sometimes they stayed in a place for a day, sometimes a week or, occasionally, a whole season, but most of the time they just ambled along, exploring.

They visited their three daughters, so we did see them from time to time, but when I was old enough to travel on my own, I was fortunate enough to spend two vacations with them in the rig.

My first trip in the rig was when I was 12. They were in the Rockies in Colorado. They wanted to make sure I had a good time and I guess they were a little concerned I'd be bored, so they told me I could bring a friend along. I approached my friend L and her parents agreed to fund her. Our parents paid for our travel and probably kicked in for some of our meals, too. 

We flew out to meet them in Boulder. Their youngest daughter, Carole and her husband Jim, lived there, so we were able to visit with them. L and I stayed in the camper attached to the truck. It had a double bed above the cab, a tiny kitchen and dinette and camp toilet on the floor level. I loved sleeping up high and looking out the window over the cab.

We did all sorts of touristy things that week. Chugged up to the top of Pikes Peak. Panned for gold at some out of the way tiny town in the mountains. Toured the Air Force Academy. Hiked a piece of the Continental Divide. At the end of the day, we'd assemble in the big trailer, talking over our experiences and planning the next outing while Gram fed us, then head into the camper and talk until lights out. I loved every minute.

My next trip was when I was 15 and they were spending the winter in St. Petersburg FL where my great-grandmother lived. Again, I was able to bring a friend, this time J, and we paid part of our own way through a big garage sale and babysitting. 

We spent the week visiting with my great-grandmother and seeing the sights of the west coast of FL. We saw some of Disney World, the mermaids at Weekiwachee, a water skiing show, some gardens and I can't remember all else. 

I knew again that I loved the whole concept of living in a small, mobile space. 
So, for the time being, I do. Mine just happens to float.

I love the ability to go someplace new during the day and learn new surroundings and still eat in my own kitchen and sleep in my own bed. 
I love leaving home and never leaving home at the same time. 
I love waking up and seeing new scenery out my door.
I love carrying around only what I need and always having everything I need right where I need it.
I love cubbies and lockers and folding tables and stacking cups and tiny things and built-in furniture. 
I love having the great outdoors only inches away from my pillow at night.
I love eating lunch outside whenever I want to.
I love meeting new people.
I love potluck dinners with other people who are passing through.
I love helping out someone who needs a tool or a hand with a repair or some baking soda at 8pm and getting help from someone else when I need it.
I love visiting with old friends I might not otherwise get to see. 
I love exploring places I've always wanted to visit without needing an excuse or a schedule to go there.

But for Gram and Pappy, I never would have known what it's like to be a traveler. The rig was my dream maker.

The rig parked in our front yard the year they started out. I don't think they ever spent time in the snow after that.