Vintage Trailer Voyeur
A peek inside the
unique trailer culture

Victoria Ocken

    Our life is frittered away by detail. Simplify, simplify, simplify! I say, let your affairs be as two or three, and not a hundred or a thousand; instead of a million count half a dozen, and keep your accounts on your thumb-nail.
                                                                 - - - Henry David Thoreau, Walden.

Trailers have to grow on you. They are these beasts that on the road nestle up to the back of an equally beastly Ford 250, taking up too much room of their lanes, making us speed up to get by, turning briefly to eye the ancient driver, bent over, not much hair, seemingly taking the five tons he's hauling behind him with no worry, going hell-for-leather on his way to the Horse Thief Lake Campground (Hill City, South Dakota), The Shady Dell RV Park (Bisbee, Arizona) or Yogi Bear's Jellystone Park Campground (everywhere).

Once, on the old highway 200 between Acapulco and Ixtapa I saw a California trailer that had been caught in a shootout between it and a bustling full-steam-ahead mega-bus headed up to Tijuana. Mexican bus drivers aren't too picky about rights-of-way, especially downhill, and coming over the saddle-back it had a meeting with a gringo and his 1970 Chevrolet Suburban hauling an old Silver Streak.

The road was littered, both sides, the trailer now considerably foreshortened with personal items strewn after a tornado has passed over - - - scattered battered television sets and stoves and bath tubs, mixed with a riot of torn clothes and socks and dishes and feathers from beds and pillows and the sheeting of the trailer spread-eagle and the accoutrements of civilization that had once held things so compactly, so orderly, now gone. Most of all it was the lopsided Dometic refrigerator, the pride of most trailers, the door ripped off, but still, on its shelves, neatly balanced, the remains of last night's potlatch.

Trailers are like boats, and, if not challenged by a bus driver zonked out on 'cristal,' they float across the land quite nicely. Spare compartments, a few square feet of bedroom with a little upright cubicle to shower, kitchens efficiently compacted into so little space, the four-burner stove, minuscule cabinets all doors locked with tight clamps so when you are careening thorough the wilds of Nevada or West Virginia the baked beans and canned soups and gin bottles don't rain down, ruin your day. It's a tight ship.

Except it wasn't for my sister and me. We lived in the Happy Hunter Trailer Park outside of Abilene which was where they hid the down-and-out riff-raff, home to Old Man Bloated (in belly, in mind) with his Mogen David cocktails + cheeseburgers, the same Bloat who tried to fiddle with my sister behind the fenescue, and she ran back to our trailer, and mother shushed her, and said that The Bloat would never do such a thing. Him and the scary veterans with their skull-bone tattoos and late-night fiestas with No Name Vodka, along with our own brightly painted ex-hooker, Bonnie, who would, they say, who would give the various grifters a free night in the sack if there was enough spare change for the stuff she ran into her arm and (they say) between her toes.

That was my home-town for awhile, there in Abilene, while mother tried - - - before and after her time at the Lady Luck - - - to keep me and my sister Bev on the strait gate, the two of us in Jackson Junior High school, she and I always unwilling to say where we lived, mumbling the address of the park hoping no one would notice, slipping in the back way where the ex-jockey lived, short and stoned but friendly and kind, giving us gobstoppers and telling us broken stories of his now no longer racy life.

We came in through the rusty fence, surrounded by broken car parts, a cam shaft here, a stack of old batteries over there, and the hulk of an old Hudson where Bev and I could sit on the seat with the springs coiling out and turn the steering wheel yelling "zoom zoom" and pretend that we were getting th ehell out of town, going to live in Colorado with our tall father with red hair and red hands, one who always smelled of what he called Dago red, one who it seems had forgotten all about those who missed him too much, the man with just a little too much love for the races across town which, for some reason, he never managed to handicap as they should have been, leaving mother and the two of us in our tiny steamy living space, where the disheveled neighbors shouted too much at night and competed to see who would be shunted off to some the other trailer park further out on the edge of town. The loving disinherited of America living in a swirl of too many frozen onion rings and french fries and half-eaten pizzas, where the dining room was just outside the trailer door, a broken, bent, rusty, umbrella lean-over pile of patio furniture.

The going rate was $40 a month, and if you let your rent go too late too long, Stubbs the jowly wall-eyed manager complete with cigarillo teeth and the torn, orange and gray Peterbilt tee-shirt. No cash in hand would find your out "p.d.q." And your tiny bedroom and wasted kitchen complete with boxes of jello, dogs hair and slutswool would find itself towed out to the nearest two-lane, sometimes left there just on the shoulder, like a stray pup looking for the way back home.

Vintage Trailer Voyeur is hardly that seamy world. No, this is the world of the burning Airstream, those aluminum shells brightly polished, reflecting the sun as you are trying to pass them on old Sixty-six, soon to be parked in the Deluxe Gila River RV Park, right next to the clear flowing cold waters, where Frank, the artist, pictured here with his engraved toothy whale scratched into the entire right side of his Airstream.

Most Airstream owners want their aluminum babies to shine, but Frank etched his with "wire brushes and Scotch Brite pads" at the same time wiring up lights for the beast's eyes. Ocken calls it "tattooing."

Ocken is a collector, she has thirteen trailers of her own, each more elegant than the last, all carefully tended inside with the wood polished, the lamp and fixtures exactly as they were from fifty years ago, so loved and shined that to visit them is the chance to be in the America of the fifties, the time that we all long wish be resurrected now that the loonies have come to town and highjacked the beautiful days and nights luxuriating in the quiet streets, under the sycamore, sugar maple and sweetgum, the starlight filtering through the gently-leaved branches, filtering through to reward us for having been good citizens in a good world at a good time. Not like Crazy Now.

Ms. Ocken takes us back to those times, when you could stay weeks playing on inner tubes there in the Gila, wading in the waters to sneak up on the crayfish among the hundred minnows, and when you climbed up the gentle bank to the trailer, you were back in a brightly polished brightly contained place all its own, with the four burner Deluxe stove, the hanging gas lights, the brightly scrubbed two basin sink, the fan-in-hood, the meters on the wall to tell you how much natural gas, how many volts, what air-pressure, what water pressure was being brought in and stored, along with time (your time!), temperature, wind, humidity and the air-conditioner crouched on the roof, with the retractable tv antenna for those cozy nights, the built-in generator resting underneath the kitchen: all so contained; but more, it's all you need in the world!

The Swedish Dometic refrigerator, a wonder, to be switched back and forth between gas or electricity, efficient and as solid and as adaptable as the good Swedes themselves. The high cabinets (no space wasted!) with their tight doors, enclosing the white enamel pots with the red edging, the pottery dishes and cups and saucers. Here on the inside, benches trimmed in shiny brown plastic hide; at sleep-time seat backs opened flat over the sturdy foldaway table brought down to size. The grill outside atilt where we could cook outdoors when it was T-bone or hamburger or fish-roast time.

The miracle bathroom with the carefully spaced tub with shower, tiny perfect sink, the toilet itself resting safely above the holding tank with its little trap door to keep our leavings out-of-the-way please, until we could get to the "facilities" to pump out all our past wastes, move clean and odor-free into a new world.

Most of all the bedroom. A haven with windows on three sides, backs folded down to make our snug and safe world complete, all's right with the cozy world we have made intimate ours alone, in our clean days and clear nights.

It was a snug cottage on wheels, our first Airstream. One thing that Ocken does not emphasize is the adventure. Most of hers are pictured here safely parked away from the gangbusters on the highways. But my memories are rich of those first hair-raising days of driving my own fat Dodge truck with this big lunky living-and-cooking 8x32 bomb-shell lolling behind me. Towing? That bastard was towing me.

My first outings were an adventure in not being sure what I was doing or who I thought I was. I'm puttering along on the safer side of the freeway, and sometimes when I put on the brakes nothing much seems to happen until I coax these two joined-at-the-hips beasts to a lazy stop. I make it somehow home to park the twins. Now it's time to back in the drive.

A large car pushing a larger trailer backwards defies all the senses. Make a slight right turn in reverse, and the slight turn causes the tail of the trailer to veer off to the left . . . sheering off half of my prize rose plant. Go slightly forward and decide it's better to park down the next-door alley at the side of the house. In which I demolish only a tiny piece of my fence, and the lovely laburnum I had been tending for a dozen years.

Try it once, just for adventure. Driving forward? You can sometimes forget that that big lunk following close up on your backside. Stop in the gas station, try to back up to one of the pumps, and you well may take that pump home with you. You may be able to squeeze your trailer backwards down a narrow alley without taking something precious, something you don't own, like a neighbor's car, or his parking garage, or him. Believe me: it resides there somewhere in the class of Universal Paradox, not unlike Schrödinger's cat . . . er . . . dog.

--- Carlos Amantea
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