France and Coe Betten have spent more than 40 years as FMCA members, collecting countless memories along the way.
By Ty Adams
If an award for “Ultimate Motor Coach Family” could be given, the Bettens would be in the running. Over the past 42 years, France and Coe Betten have owned 15 motorhomes, have made more cross-country trips and attended more rallies than they can count, and have visited every state in the Lower 48 at least two times over. They joined FMCA in 1965, just two years after it was formed, garnering family membership number F905. Yes, it’s impressive, but here’s the real kicker: they did it with nine kids in tow.
Not only did France and Coe use their motorhomes for business and pleasure, they shared the adventures by packing their children inside for months at a time. The crew reads like the roster of a coed sports team: Terry, Cheryl, Scott, Randy, Rick, Mark, Chrissie, Laura, and Brad. Oh, and just for fun, France’s sister, Auntie Kaye, would sometimes tag along.
“People used to look at us like we were the circus coming to town,” said Mark, also known as number six. “Just owning a motorhome was unusual at that time “” and then we’d all pile out.”
“I look back now and wonder how in the world we did it,” Coe said. “I guess we didn’t think about it. We just did it.”
They had been traveling by car and trailer for some time. Motorhoming began for them in 1964, when they took their little home on wheels on a six-week trip from New Jersey to California to see relatives. They made that same journey every year for many years afterward, taking a different route every time. “We got some wild stories,” France said. “A lot happens when you’ve got [so many] kids in a 24-foot motorhome.”
Many of their stories rival those in any National Lampoon comedy film. One of the most disastrous events happened early on, in 1964, while the Bettens were in California visiting France’s brother Fred. They’d left the motorhome in Santa Ana because of an engine problem, and headed north to see Yosemite National Park while the motorhome was in the shop.
“There was a holding tank release lever in the front of the coach,” France said. “We were in Yosemite when my wife realized that the holding tank was full. So I called up my brother Fred. I said “˜Fred, that holding tank is . . . ‘ He said, “˜Too late.'”
The shop mechanics had already jacked up the coach and started to remove the engine. But it caught on the holding tank release chain as they were pulling it out. “Sixty gallons of poo ended up right there in the garage,” France said. “They had to call the fire department. Sixty gallons is a lot . . . .”
Then there is the story of Uncle Klem, a Vietnamese pot-bellied pig that was a Christmas present to France and Coe from the kids. “He was a real cute little pig,” France said. “He lived with us for 10 months. He crossed America three times. We had Klem in a little animal carrier out in L.A. We were walking through a hotel lobby, past a bar, and he started going “˜oink, oink, oink.’ There was a [man] in the bar who sat up and said, “˜My God, I hear a pig!’ He thought he was hallucinating.”
Then there was the time they stopped to cut down a Christmas tree in Georgia on the way home to Florida, and France managed to wedge the coach into a ditch. While trying to get out, they blew the transmission. The tow truck driver wasn’t going to allow them to ride in the RV while it was being towed, but his cab didn’t have room for everyone. France promised they’d pull down the shades, so they got a tow to the airport. Turned out the tree they cut down had limbs that were too droopy to support ornaments.
Or there was the time that Coe was driving through a tunnel in Pennsylvania and it sounded like someone was firing a machine gun at the coach, although the real explanation was that they’d forgotten to take in the entry step.
“I think it’s a miracle we all survived,” said Laura (number eight). “We did things that I’d never let my kids do now.”
While the Bettens’ stories are good for comedy value (and there are many more of them), France and Coe feel that all the motorhoming they did with their children had a very meaningful benefit.
“It’s such an educational experience; it’s so broadening,” France said. “There were no VCRs, no TVs, no video games. It’s the reason all nine of our kids are so independent today. They’re all outgoing.”
‘Like Joining A Nudist Colony’
France and Coe don’t remember exactly how or when they heard about FMCA, but they do know that their first FMCA convention was in Glenwood, Minnesota, in 1966. It was FMCA’s third annual convention, with only 293 RVs in attendance.
“Going to a [motorhome convention] back then was like joining a nudist colony,” France said. “It was an oddball thing to do.”
But the lifestyle suited them just fine, and they continued to attend FMCA conventions, even as they became much more “normal” things to do, with attendance figures often topping 4,000 and 5,000 coaches. The Bettens said they are a little overwhelmed by today’s convention attendance numbers, but still really enjoy the rallies because of all the opportunities to meet new people and visit the vendors. For Coe, it’s impossible to pick out which conventions were her favorites. “When you go to [more than 30], they all start to blend together,” she said.
Although the Bettens never have been full-timers, they came close, and have put thousands of miles on their motorhomes. France was a pioneer in the beverage truck industry, building Betten Trucks into the largest distributor of beer trucks in the United States. Along the way he made many of his sales stops in the motorhome, and often the Betten offspring came along for the ride. “I think the reason he was so successful was because we were his secret weapon,” Cheryl (number two) said jokingly. “His clients would see us all waiting in the parking lot and they’d feel sorry for him.”
Even through the challenging times, the Bettens managed to maintain their motorhome lifestyle. As business took a dive during the 1970s oil crunch, the company was crippled and they lost everything they’d made: $5 million in 11 months. They continued to RV anyway.
“They say people are like trees,” France said. “You can’t judge their true size until they’re down. We’ve been down, but we’ve always come back up.”
Like many retired RV owners, France and Coe are grateful they can use the coach to spend time visiting their family. They have 28 grandchildren and 19 great-grandchildren, and they’ve made it a point to visit them all as much as possible. And when a hurricane threatened their Florida home and the homes of family members, they relied on their motorhome to evacuate and bring everyone to safety.
More recently, when Cheryl was severely ill with West Nile Virus, it was the motorhome (currently a 2003 Monaco Executive) that allowed France and Coe to make the trip from Florida to Nebraska to support their daughter and her family. “She was in a coma and they had administered last rites, but she came out of it,” Coe said. “We stayed up there [in the coach, in hospital parking lots] for two months.”
Celebrating Life, Motorhome Style
France had a close call of his own at the beginning of 2006. He was hospitalized and placed in the intensive care unit after a severe reaction to medication. Doctors were not hopeful for a recovery and told the family to prepare for the worst. Once again, the Bettens gathered for support in a time when death seemed imminent, but France regained his health.
Grateful for their father’s recovery, the nine Betten children decided to celebrate their parents’ lives in a way that would leave no room for doubt about their appreciation for such an unusual upbringing. “Our parents always went all-out in the things they did,” explained Randy (number four). “So we’re going all-out for them.”
The “all-out” event was geared to re-create a full-family motorhome experience that hadn’t happened in more than 30 years. In fact, since Brad (number nine) was born when some of the older Betten kids were in college, all 11 Bettens had never been together on a single motorhome adventure. They planned to change that.
In 1964 a photo was taken of eight Betten children, Auntie Kaye, and France and Coe outside their “newfangled” motorhome. It appeared in the South Bend Tribune. The Betten children decided to re-create that photo (plus Brad) 42 years later. But they didn’t stop there. They kept the gathering from France and Coe as a surprise, telling their parents that they were sending them on a vacation to Rome (although they meant “roam”). It was to be called a Life Celebration.
The surprise celebration took effect on a hot August day in 2006 in Indian Harbour Beach, Florida, where France and Coe reside. The rest of the Betten crew convened from around Florida and the rest of the country. The motorhome was packed in secret and taken to a private hangar at the airport. A limousine arrived for France and Coe, complete with a “concierge” to accompany them. They were taken to the airport and escorted into a private plane. The kids told them they were being sent on a nice trip to Rome to see the Pope, said Chrissie (number seven). “But [they were] mad. They said they’d rather go on a motorhome trip.”
After the plane taxied briefly on the runway, France and Coe got their wish. The Executive, decorated in balloons and fully loaded with all of their children, emerged from the hangar and circled the parked plane. A decal on the coach’s front cap proclaimed, “Motorhome to Roam.”
The entire gang of 12 (plus this overwhelmed writer) piled out for a smile-filled reunion. The grown-up kids were dressed appropriately in the same style of clam diggers they had been made to wear as children, as well as “Betten Bunch” jerseys, numbered according to his or her place in the family progression. From there, everyone got back into the Executive and headed south for a road trip to Stuart, Florida. Along the way, they sang all their old traveling song favorites, such as “She’ll Be Coming Around The Mountain,” and shared their best road memories. Upon arrival, they re-created the 42 year-old newspaper photo “” more or less.
There was no way everyone was going to sleep in the motorhome, so for “secondary” accommodations the children rented a beautiful private home on an island, complete with personal catering staff and live entertainment. Over the course of the weekend, along with ample amounts of celebration, the nine kids presented their parents with many more gifts and surprises, including edited DVDs that had been made from 200 rolls of old 8mm family films. As the images of motorhome adventures across America flashed on the screen, the family came together to reminisce and count their blessings.
“I think a lot about the fact that we almost lost our father a few months ago, and this is a second chance,” Mark said. “Most people don’t have the opportunity to have their life pass before their eyes this way. He literally gets to write his final chapter.”
For France and Coe, it was a blissful experience that not even the Pope could inspire “” only family.
“They fooled the fooler,” France said. “It’s amazing. I’ve said before that we’ve lived three lives: one with our nine kids in a motorhome, one running an enjoyable business, and one with our extended family of motorhomers and Monaco employees. Well, this weekend felt like a fourth life.”