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House by the side of the road.

When two people of conflicting genders are confronted with the question of taking each other for better or for worse, it should be within the bounds of ceremonial ethics for one of the participants to stop proceedings at this point and ask a couple of pertinent questions of his own. Namely, "Worse than what?" and "How bad will it get?"

Much as I dislike dragging my dear wife into this, she is a fair representative of the opposing sex when it comes to deciding issues that the law of nature rightly left in the hands of the male of the species. High on the list of these issues is where the couple should live.

Take me (which would be OK, I'm sure, with you-know-who), for example. In my capacity as subservient husband I have been dragged to--let me count--exactly nine houses and two apartments. And that isn't counting the house trailer. Nor am I counting the housecar, which was once our abode for a proposed journey from Bradenton, Florida, to Mexico City. It's a sickening story, so I'll keep it as short as possible.

It began like this. Taking advantage of my euphoria over selling a poem to Liberty magazine (for a nifty 20 bucks), my dear wife stated that because my literary career had become firmly established, we would borrow $1,500 to put with the 20, buy a housetrailer (today's mobile home) and take off for Florida. Here, in a matter of, oh, say six months, my writing would make Hemingway's look like an eighth grader's essay on what I did on my summer vacation.

And I, like a dummy, fell for it.

Actually, she was right about the six months. My writing did so well in only that short time we had to sell the car. Either that or break our habit of eating.

Left now without wheels--except for those on the housetrailer, resting on blocks at a trailer park in Anna Maria Key--we had no way of returning to our beloved Michigan, Mother's apple pie, the American flag, and stuff like that. When schools opened, we had the trailer towed to Bradenton, where Michael (5) could do his coloring under the supervision of a kindergarten teacher. Nikki (4) still would be cutting out paper dolls on her own.

You must understand that my dear wife had been born with at least five quarts of vagabond blood in her crankcase. To be without wheels was for her like going shopping without her purse. And somehow in her little pointy head the idea had fermented that our next destination would be, of all places, Mexico City.

And as bad luck would have it, one day while prowling through the jungle behind Bradenton Trailer Park I stumbled upon what I at first took to be abandoned rest rooms. Upon closer inspection, it had wheels. Badly as we needed wheels, we weren't that desparate, I chuckled to myself.

At least I thought it was to myself. Unfortunately, this used-trailer salesman, who happened to be downwind at this time, came crashing through the brush before I could make my getaway.

"How would you like to buy 'er"? he gasped.

"Buy 'er? What is 'er--or it?" I wisely inquired.

"That, my friend, is living quarters built upon a Velie chassis...a great car in its day." (I would learn much too late that its day had been in the early '20s, and a common expression of that day had been, "If the hood is up, it's a Velie.")

"Here," he said, "let me show you the inside."

Together we pried open the side door. And there, reading counter-clockwise, I beheld a pop cooler, a floor-to-roof "kitchen" cupboard, the front seat, a second kitchen cupboard, two-burner Coleman stove, sink, clothes closet, wall-to-wall bed across the back, another clothes closet, kerosene heating stove, and back to the side door.

"Will she run?" seemed a reasonable question.

He said she was running when he took her in on a trade. And when was that? Six years ago. We went out and he raised the hood. Vines were climbing out of the cylinders.

"Tell you what I'll do," he said, holding me by the arm. "If you get 'er home, send me three hundred dollars."

Well, I've been talked into a lot of dumb things in my day, but taking on that Thing (as it came to be called) and trying to nurse it to Mexico City by far outweighs all the others put together. Getting the first encouraging backfire from the engine took exactly a month to the day. My only contribution had been new spark plugs, the rest being left to Art Martin, a park resident with a mechanical bent, who had accepted the challenge and after the second week labored only for the satisfaction of seeing the Thing in motion.

In the meantime, dear wife was merrily going about the feminine chores of sanding, painting, washing, soldering, hanging curtains, and writing to her mother for the remainder of the canned goods we had left with her (which turned out to be a barrel--I'm not kidding--a barrel of peaches). The kids, catching her enthusiasm, couldn't wait to hit the road. It remained for Cookie, our nondescript dog, to put the project in proper perspective. The tow truck had no sooner deposited this automotive heirloom on the street in front of our trailer than he ran up and christened both rear wheels. His canine ESP must have told him what lay ahead.

Although the engine consistently smoked, the radiator even in cold weather did a marvelous characterization of Old Faithful, and the top-heavy body emitted more grunts and groans than a sumo wrestler, it would be the 25-year-old tires that turned this otherwise horrible experience into a nightmare.

So why didn't we start off on new tires? Because, as the tire man said, after using the Braille system to check the size, "Man, you won't find passenger car tires in that size this side of Greenfield Village."

"Then I'll put on truck tires," I said simply, as it turned out.

"Not on those two-and-a-half-inch rims, you won't."

"Then I'll put on wider rims."

"On those wood spokes? Don't make me laugh."

What made him laugh was when I told him we were heading for Mexico City.

"Mexico City!" he said, after he'd stopped laughing, "You'll be lucky to get out of town on those tires."

Undaunted (one can't very well daunt with a wife, two kids, and a dog urging him on), the next morning we were off. The many sad faces among the park populous brought a lump to my throat, which dissolved immediately upon realization that watching the Thing being towed had become the park's favorite spectator sport. The one cheerful face belonged to the park manager--a rumor had circulated that he had tried to bribe Art Martin to tow our home on wheels directly to the city dump.

Wouldn't get out of town, eh? That's how much the tire guy knew. We got . . . oh, it must have been at least five miles (the odometer didn't work), and no family provider ever looked into the rearview mirror upon a homier scene. There was Michael on the bed improving his mind with a comic book; Nikki on the bed trying to get her doll away from the dog; and dear wife, still clinging to her fantasy of reaching Mexico City, on the bed with her arsenal of maps, brochures, charts, and our itinerary, which now included the Mardi Gras on the way and Grand Canyon coming back. If you're going to Mars, why not take in the moon on the way?

So much for domestic tranquility. The minute I heard the explosion and felt the Thing lurch toward the ditch, with quick thinking I said to myself, "Something's wrong!" As it was, the right rear had been the first to celebrate the tires' silver anniversary with a bang. And what the family provider looked back on now were two screaming kids, one howling mutt, and one wife staring wild-eyed at a "living room" floor where pots, pans, and crockery rose out of a sea of catsup, mustard, mayonnaise, cereal, nominute eggs, and uncanned peaches.

Tying Cookie to the back bumper of our house by the side of the road, we flagged a bus to Tampa. Bought a truck tire and corresponding tube. Arrived home in the dark. Discovered that Cookie had somehow found the fiberboard back panel edible and had edibled a hole large enough to squeeze through and was sweetly asleep on the bed. (The reason we reserved punishment was because his diet of late had consisted mainly of canned peaches, convincing us that a dog that won't eat canned peaches can't be very hungry.)

A phone call the next morning brought Abe Martin to the scene. And with all the enthusiasm of a sailor with a salmon can bailing out a torpedoed battleship, he mounted the truck tire on our cringing 2 1/2-inch rim.

"You let 'er down," he said, backing away. "I'll see how she looks from over here."

So I let 'er down . . . and down . . . and down. When the tire reached a dimension of 2 inches high and 12 wide, I joined Art.

"Maynard, you won't get 50 miles with that setup. I hate to take your money," he said, taking my money.

The Firestone people in Tampa, where we replaced the left rear, were not this optimistic. "You won't get out of town, man," was their somber prediction. When I arrogantly informed them that we had already traveled 40 miles on the other truck tire, you'd have thought from their reaction that I had paddled a canoe across the Pacific.

Once safely past the city limits, I still drove like a man expecting to be served with a subpoena. After another ten miles I began breathing out as well as in. Before long I was accepting the growl of the transmission, the rattle of the fan, and the rhythmic grinding from the rear end much as the owner of a stationary house accepts a banging shutter or dripping faucet. By the time we hissed, rattled, and banged through Tarpon Springs I no longer worried about the various rackets. What now concerned me was that a member of this cacophonous chorus would suddenly quit making noise.

What quit first turned out to be one of the 2 1/2-inch rims; the poor thing was split down the center by the truck tire bully.

With night approaching, as night often does in the South, we were desperate to find something to block up the axle, as I had nothing but a bumper jack to raise this Smithsonian refugee on wheels. Blocking material not being indigenous to Florida roadsides at that time, a weed-infested cemetary half a mile down the road left me no choice. I hoped that in the gloom the fat-cat tourists whizzing past wouldn't notice the "WILLING ELIJAH JOHNSON/December 6, 1851--October 11, 1909" inscription on the prop holding up the right rear section of our bedroom. (Let me hastily add that I replaced the prop straighter, and with fewer weeds than I found it.)

Hitchhikers carrying signs along Route 19 traditionally were looking for a ride to "NEW ORLEANS" or "TAMPA." I would be carrying a rim, after every leg of 50 miles or so, looking for a welder. And welders were no more indigenous to Florida than was blocking material.

How we made it to Tallahassee remains a 20th century miracle. Here, the transmission decided to have some fun by switching gears; shove it into first and it might go into high, or more sporting yet, into reverse. For this reason, among others, we parked on the outskirts of the city, hoping to go through before the morning traffic.

But we started late. And it was raining. And the cab roof leaked. And our appearance was further impaired by the pans over our heads, their handles fastened in the rolled-up windows. And we hit the very center of the city, complete with traffic lights and eagle-eyed policeman, at the height of rush-hour pedestrian traffic.

Where we got off on the wrong foot was in not lurching to a stop until the Thing, with radiator faithfully shooting off steam, straddled the crosswalk. This left pedestrians the choice of crossing in front or behind. I wished later I had opened the side door and charged them to go through and see how the other half lived.

With the light finally changed, the already irate policeman waved me through. What happened then had to do with our sleeping arrangements: parents on the full-size bed, Michael on a cot in the aisle, and for Nikki we unbolted the front seat and turned it around so she would be a part of the converted bedroom. In our haste on this particular morning, however, in turning the fron seat back to its original position, we had forgotten to anchor it by sliding in the bolts.

Shifting into reverse, the Thing leaped forward, the seat and I went over backwards, with me lucky enough to catch the steering wheel with my toes. So once again our house remained by the side of the street until I could convince the Tallahassee police that I wasn't trying to be smart by driving past an officer with my feet holding the wheel.

The distance between Tallahassee and New Orleans on that particular highway was 404 miles. Divide 404 by 50, the approximate distance we went between rim splittings, and you can understand why I begged for a week in New Orleans to allow my back to straighten and skin to reform over my knuckles. Leaving New Orleans, by a vote of one to one (the kids abstaining), we turned north, my argument being I'd rather try to nurse the Thing back to Michigan than risk this top-heavy fossilized crate on the mountains of Mexico.

For all of the dismal miles on that leg home, we did experience one highlight to lift our spirits: we actually passed another vehicle. As we continued to gain on our prey and the kids began yelling encouragement, I "put my foot in the carburetor," as they say at the Indy track. And by the time we went belching past in a cloud of steam and black smoke, we must have been hitting at least 35 miles per hour. The fact that the other vehicle turned out to be an off-the-road stump-puller did little to tarnish our high spirits. But our spirits would be tarnished soon enough.

Rates on the front of this ram-shackle toll booth read:
Trucks 60 [cents].
Buses 50 [cents].
Cars with retailers 40 [cents].
Cars 25 [cents].

A ramshackle attendant came out, peered through the smoke and steam, walked around the Thing, came up to my open window scratching his head and said, "I sure don't know what to call it, son--how about giving me fifteen cents?"

Homecoming would prove to be even less uplifting. My dear wife's mother, upon hearing the Thing cachunking up the driveway, came rushing out to view the accident. When she saw her loved ones emerge from this--this "motorized monstrosity," as she would label it--we had quite a time keeping her from falling. And being president of the local chapter of the Women's Christian Temperance Union, she had not more than recovered when Cookie came staggering out the side door drunker than a goat. The last of the canned peaches had fermented.

As I mentioned when beginning this sad saga, in tallying our many and varied dwellings since I married my journeyman spouse, I'm not counting our housetrailer or the Velie. I think you can see why.
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Title Annotation:living and traveling in a house car
Author:Stoddard, Maynard Good
Publication:Saturday Evening Post
Date:May 1, 1991
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