A teenager’s first time behind the wheel of a motorhome left a lasting impression on his father.
By William Childress
This story goes back a ways, but you can learn from it. My old man sure did. He learned never to trust my driving again, especially in a motorhome.
Dad was a small farmer with a big appetite for motorized things. In his 82 years of life, he owned 81 cars, pickups, and light trucks, and one “house on wheels.” That’s what he called the contraption that rumbled into our rutted Oklahoma farmyard one day with him at the wheel. It was 1948, but the vehicle was already old. I would discover that it had been patched together in 1930, but the wear and tear on it made it look and act far older. The motorhome’s clattery motor died three times while Dad parked it above the barn. I was helping Mom can her first batch of jams and jellies when he came in, after scaring the chickens half to death.
“Bought ‘er at a farm sale,” he said. “Hundred bucks.”
For some reason, Mom declined to review his latest toy, so he took me out and cranked the engine. What a racket! I didn’t care if it was ancient and sounded like a thrashing machine; it ran, and I wanted to run it. Still, Dad’s casual question caught me off guard.
“I suppose you want to drive it?”
I was gratified with my quick response.
“You’ve driven the pickup,” he said. “You’re 16 and it’s time you moved up.”
I was so excited, I shook. What teenager wouldn’t want to drive a monster like this?
“She’ll sleep four people,” Dad said, giving me the inside tour. “See those hammocks?”
Netlike things clung to the wood walls. Other homey “” or homemade “” devices included cabinets, two skinny bunks on either side of a very narrow aisle, and a one-holer in the rear. An in-house outhouse!
“What keeps it from perfuming the interior?” I asked, only not in those exact words.
“Guy who made it drilled ventilation holes in the back. But you ain’t seen the electric stove yet.”
The builder had installed an outside plug-in, and had a 100-foot extension cord piled on the floor. A hot plate sat on top. Obviously, serious cooking would have to be done outside.
“Two-burner,” Dad said admiringly. “Sonofagun thought of everything.”
The “motorized home” (my label) was all wood, had a flat tarpaper roof, and sat on a 2 1/2–ton World War I truck frame.
“Okay,” Dad said, once I was gripping the steering wheel and he was in the copilot seat. “Set here a spell and listen! This takes muscle. The foot feed [gas pedal], clutch, and brake have strong springs. Push ’em in, and learn the different pressures so’s we don’t end up in a ditch.”
I was amazed at how much strength was needed. Obviously, this was not a job for namby-pambies, but I was sure I could handle it.
“Push the clutch in, put the truck in low, and let the clutch out real slow. Got it?”
I nodded, stiff as a plank in the seat. If the cops ever wanted my fingerprints, they were embedded in the rubberized steering wheel.
“Stay on top of the ruts, not down in ’em!”
Why scientists felt the need to invent super glue when they had Oklahoma gumbo, I’ve never understood. But 60 years ago we lived in red clay country, and when the stuff dried after a rain, ruts were left that could dismantle a tank. Avoiding them was no mean feat, but I did okay until I shifted into second, where I ground several teeth off the gears and jolted a few cusswords out of Dad.
The motorhome lurched forward and stuttered like it was about to die, which it was, so I tried for the clutch. Suddenly I was all thumbs and big toes. I missed the clutch and hit the foot feed instead. The engine roared.
“Slow down, slow down!” Dad bellowed, but his volume was wasted. The wheels had found barnyard ruts, and we might as well have been on rails. My old man grabbed for the steering wheel just as it cranked sharply from a bad rut, and it almost broke his thumb.
“Owwww!” he yelled, shaking the tingling digit.
The house on wheels hurtled on. I tried for the pedals, hoping to hit one that would do something. I did. I hit the gas pedal again and the engine roared even louder.
There followed a mighty time of terror and excitement. Dad leaped for the wheel, and so did I. We connected, but not with the wheel “” with each other’s heads. The truck found more and better ruts and zeroed in on the barn (all of this, mind you, occurring in just a few seconds).
That was it for my old man. He rewrote the obscenity book without even a pencil, and braced for the coming crash. In 1930, seat belts weren’t even a gleam in Detroit’s eye. I gripped the wheel, eyes glued to the red wall of the barn rushing toward me.
Dead! I thought. I’m going to die!
“Turn, Turn!” Dad screamed. “Turn the damn wheel!” But my brain stalled and died.
Somehow the RRV (Rapid Roaring Vehicle) threaded the barn’s open doors and thundered down the center aisle. The stanchions of startled cows flashed past. A barn cat scaled a wall as though levitating. Chickens squawked and scattered.
We exited through the back doors of the barn. Next in line was the orchard. Mom’s prize peach, apple, and pear trees “” source of many fine pies and cobblers “” were suddenly flanking us. The tarpaper roof rattled the low-hanging limbs like a picket fence. Fruit and juice sprayed from the trees as though hit by a cyclone. Pulp and bits of peelings covered the windshield, and Dad “” who hadn’t been inside a church since World War II “” was frozen in prayer with steepled hands and closed eyes.
Finally, the old clunker plowed to a steaming halt in the loose soil. There it banged, shuddered, and died. My motorhome driving lesson was over, and as Dad stumbled from the vehicle, whiter than flour, I knew it would be a long time before I got another one.
But the news wasn’t all bad. I knew how much Mom valued the jars of fruit she canned for the winter. Gathering fruit from the trees was a lot of work “” and it looked like I had invented the first mechanical fruit picker.