Back in the 70’s most kids my age were interested in sports, hobbies, collecting baseball cards and the like. Not me. For reasons unknown to my family and the scientific community, I became fascinated with all things related to recreational vehicles, sometime around the age of ten. The reason this may seem a bit unusual is that I had never been camping, and was living in the Flatbush section of Brooklyn, New York being raised by a single working mother.
Although I had many responsibilities in helping raise my two younger sisters and looking after our house, my favorite pastime was collecting nearly every brochure from every trailer, motorhome and RV accessory manufacturer in the country. I also wrote to every state, requesting their official highway roadmap and campground information on the hope of someday visiting their state. We didn’t have much money, so I couldn’t join the Good Sam Club, but I was allowed a subscription to Trailer Life magazine and eagerly awaited its arrival every month to read the latest news and product reviews. In fact, hardly a day went by that something related to my dream of RV travel didn’t arrive in the mail! I carefully cataloged every bit of it and could quote you the cost, specifications and capacities on any rig, along with the towing and overnight parking regulations in most states east of the Mississippi. I studied each brochure and kept careful notes and drawings in a book. With the smooth and cunning moves of a pre-adolescent RV salesman, I’d routinely read my Mom’s mood and “follow-up” to see if she’d consider having a look at a Serro Scotty, Winnebago Brave or if she had any questions concerning the benefits of the solid axel mount design on the Airstream? I’d be available and standing by in my room should she have any questions. Unfortunately, there were no RV dealers in Brooklyn; many of our neighbors didn’t even own cars, let alone a camper. But my favorite time of the year was just after Christmas when the RV show came to Manhattan! I made sure I had the money set aside for the ticket and subway fare to get me there. At the RV show, I could actually see, touch and examine, real live RV’s! One year I even got my mom and sisters to go with me, who summed it up best; why can’t you have a hobby like a normal child or go to the see the circus?
I got my first big break in 1976 when I convinced my Mom & Grandparents to rent a 24’ Class A with a “Bi-Centennial Interior” for a Christmas trip from my Grandparent’s home in Chicago to Marathon Key Florida. At the expense of my studies, as soon as the deposit check was sent, I immediately began preparing and planning every aspect of the trip. I made a wooden map board with a battery operated light for day/night navigation. Routes and Maps – CHECKED! Woodall’s Campgrounds Guide – CHECKED! Inventory of gear and equipment – CHECKED! 8-Track Tapes, alphabetically stored – CHECKED! My grandfather’s wardrobe of powder blue and burgundy red leisure suits – CHECKED!
When the magical day arrived, I called “dibbs” on the fold down bed above the cockpit, as my dream was to sleep up on the bunk, and wake up looking out the tiny window at new, exotic places. I was awarded my choice so long as I shared it with one of my sisters. So, we set out on our adventure, my Mom, Sisters Suzi and Diggy, Grandparents, and my estranged, but kind “Hippy Uncle” from California with his girlfriend “Cat”. Did I mention my mother and her brother had not spoken in years and had more than a few unresolved issues? I guess they planned on working it out in those spacious twenty-four Bicentennial accented feet. Remember, this was long before they invented slide-outs, basements and garages!
Being a quick study, I learned several things quickly.
- My Grandfather’s “Mr. Magoo” style of driving did not change much as we moved up in size, weight and complexity from the white knuckle routine honed at the helm of his scratch and dent Buick LeSabre. (My Grandmother, either due to her affection or poor vision, never seemed to notice or was unaffected if not encouraging of Grandpa’s driving techniques). We definitely clipped and side swiped every curb, tree, and utility pole. We even managed a “bird strike” and cracked both windshields. And this was while going forward; backing up provided a whole new spectrum of excitement, entertainment and damage. Supported by a troupe of random waving flashlights, occasionally augmented by the addition of neighboring campers, all shouting conflicting commands to a man who couldn’t hear, sealed inside the sound-proof bridge of his Class A ship; it’s a miracle we didn’t level entire campgrounds or land a confused F-4 fighter.
- Growing up in Brooklyn, my musical tastes were somewhat urbanized from watching Soul Train on Saturday mornings. My Uncle and his girlfriend hailed from Northern California; ate brewer’s yeast and listened to Joan Baez, Jose Feliciano and other artists that never made it on to “word scramble”. They commandeered the 8-Track Player and Don Cornelius and I both lost our 8-Track privileges, The O’Jays, Four Tops, Billy Paul, Gladys Knight and Harold Melvin went into hiding.
- While there are many challenging motorways from La Paz to the Ice Roads of Northern Alaska, we felt the need to take on the infamous Seven Mile Bridge of the Florida Keys. Not the one you are familiar with in post cards, but if you squint, the roadway next to it. This was the original, narrow and marginally lit “overseas highway” that Henry Flagler built as a railroad trestle during the 1920’s. With our vast RV driving experience acquired since pulling out of Chicago, it must have seemed like a logical next step. So I guess if you’re in your late sixties and have a heart condition, one technique is to wait for nightfall, take a few nitro glycerin pills (with my Grandfather, this was always a sure sign of impending danger), put on your best burgundy red leisure suit with a pair of white Tom Jones ankle boots (you know, the ones with the zippers and wooden heels) and aim for the Dry Tortugas! My sisters puked from one end of the bi-centennial accented coach to the other, while cabinets emptied out and everyone hung on. It could have been the inspiration for a future Irwin Allen disaster movie, and there was plenty of second hand smoke for everyone, yet we all survived the crossing and got to the campground at our traditional quarter to midnight or “ten minutes before they lock the gate” arrival time. All without the aid of seatbelts, GPS, cell phones or Google Maps, we all lived to tell our tale of conquering the Seven Mile Bridge.
- I received a Christmas present from a family friend, a 23 channel CB Radio; a marvel of technology in its day! With the help of my Uncle, we quickly installed it, but since we didn’t have a license yet, my Mom would not let me use it for fear government agents from the FCC “would track our signal, sending SWAT teams in helicopters to our motor home and we’d all go to jail”. However at night, I was allowed to operate the CB set while in the Florida Keys, staying up late, making new friends over the air. My Mother reasoned the government agents probably couldn’t find us in the dark.
- My mom is phenomenal, and wanted to take my sisters and me fishing in the Keys. The RV Park had a marina and she rented a small aluminum boat with a large outboard motor. In retrospect my Mom claimed she was paying attention “to the guy she couldn’t understand with marbles in his mouth” on the operation of the boat. Yet after the engine started, somehow the throttle got stuck and went to full “Military Power”. You would not believe how fast one of these things can go, and fairly maneuverable given we couldn’t see over the bow. Aided by a growing crowd of men running from one end of the dock to the other, all yelling and waving their arms, my screaming sisters, and the sheer roar of the outboard, my mother plowed into a line of moored boats and brought the motion to a stop. Not phased, and without breaking the ash from one of her Kool Filter King 100’s, she got us into a new boat and we caught some fish.
- After lunch, we prepared to leave the Florida Keys. I was taking care of the utilities, which included tackling the sewer, which somehow got all over me. It was then I noticed there was no water; not in the RV, not anywhere in the Keys. The remainder of the day, I sat alone in the back of the Bicentennial coach, driving with the windows open wearing a pair of “baggies” on my hands until we arrived somewhere with water.
- When we returned to Chicago, we spent a day cleaning the coach before we returned it. I was dreading this day, my head hanging like a condemned man. But, at my Grandfather’s request, my Mother, Sisters changed and sat at the rear dining table, while Grandpa “interviewed” us on our RV experience with his 35mm motion picture camera equipped with a 35,000 candlepower light. You know the kind that can melt man made material 20 feet away and leaving you “seeing blue spots” for hours afterwards. Suddenly, in the midst of that interview, under the strain of man-made sunlight, the generator revved up and systematically blew out every light in the coach, then stalled and shut off. We sat there quietly in the dark for a few moments motionless, due to the temporary blindness, when my mother stood up and lit a cigarette. In the amber glow of swirling smoke, she gave RVing “two thumbs down” and said, that was it, she had it, and I needed to find a new dream.
However, we would go on to owning a Free Spirit Travel Trailer and have even more adventures, but that is another story. Today we are Good Sam members and enjoy our 2010 Damon Astoria. Call me old fashioned, but I still have a CB, listen to Motown on satellite and call “Dibbs” on the Damon’s Queen-sized bedroom that has a nice window to wake up to. Soon, the statute of limitations will expire and we can bring my Mom back to her favorite fishing grounds in the Keys.
Submitted by Chris Baur of Houston, TX as a part of the RV Centennial Celebration “Share Your Favorite RV Memory” contest.
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