Part I: Working the “Clock”
Apple’s map-app says that a non-stop trip from west-central Indiana to the Outer Banks takes 13 hours. It took us four days.
–Sunday Evening: Southern West Virginia
Dad’s RV sat in an uneven side-lot, covered in chunks of gravel so large, if you stepped on one carelessly you could roll an ankle. Above us the incessant traffic racing across I-77 produced a steady buzz, an auditory, repeating Doppler-effect. A balm soothing our frustration and anger. Dusk settled, and the day’s dying sun cast its final glows along the west. The RV, a 1986 Itasca Windcruiser, was dead. The old man and I had limped the thing off the interstate feeding it just enough gas to roll down the off-ramp.
“Are we staying here tonight?” my then-wife, Amy, asked me. Her voice was half-hushed. By “half-hushed” I mean she wanted Mom and Dad and everyone to think it was a quiet conversation between us, but she also made sure she was loud enough for everyone to hear. It’s a nuanced skill, the sort of veiled passivity which any top-level diplomat would envy. It’s actually kind of impressive…that is as long as you’re not the one caught in the middle of it. I was most decidedly caught in the middle of it.
“I don’t know I said,” passing the buck as fast and as far as possible.
Dad let go one of his long, vocal sighs. They started as a breathy release of CO2 but by the end became a low-hummed whine. Before he could answer the question, a deep gray Chevrolet pickup pulled alongside of us.
“You guys having trouble?” the driver asked. He had pulled up “passenger-side to” and spoke to us across his seats from the other side of the cab.
“We’re a little broken down,” Dad answered.
“You’re not going to stay here tonight are you?”
“We were thinking about it,” Dad said.
“Well,” the driver said kicking open the passenger door, “if you’re going to do that, then you’ll need some protection.” The door now out of the way, the driver lifted a small sofa pillow resting on the seat. Beneath it lay a glistening silver, snub-nosed revolver.
“You can take it,” he said. “I’ll be by in the morning to pick it up.”
“We’re going to need that?” my mom asked, her face a contorted mixture of confusion and terror.
“I would think so,” the driver said. “A few weeks ago someone shot at me out here. When I got home I found 11 bullet-holes in my truck.”
Instantly Amy turned to my mom: “We’re getting a hotel.”
We had been on the road for over two days. In that time we had covered six hours of what should have been a one-shot 14-hour drive to North Carolina’s Outer Banks. Instead of sitting in beach chairs, watching night settle into the eastern horizon, we were here looking at that gun. Almost two decades have passed since our family loaded up in that motorhome blissfully anticipating a relaxing week along the Atlantic Ocean. And even though we had experienced so many roadside breakdowns we practically scheduled them into our itineraries, we never thought we find ourselves so hopelessly stuck as this.
–Friday Evening: Spencer, Indiana
My dad has always been an avid “RV Guy.” After two family fishing trips by car to Canada in the late ‘70’s, he gave the idea of a third cross-country journey crammed into a mid-sized sedan a tepid “hell no” and bought a Winnebago truck camper. In the years which followed Dad would take us to every corner of the country in one makeshift RV after another. When it comes to moderately functional, unattractive motorhomes, Dad was a proverbial Han Solo. By the time I had moved on to college he had run through a veritable fleet of RV’s, most of them those hideous ‘70’s model Winnies. Those ugly hard angles and that trademarked “W” stenciled along the side screamed “hunk of junk,” but as Dad would say, pulling his head from under the wheel-well, stuffing a greasy rag into his back pocket: “It may not look like much, kid, but it made the Kessel Run in 12 parsecs…” or something like that.
This is not to say those journeys didn’t come with near disasters. An ’84 beach trip came with a light night plumbing crisis, with the old man staring at the pipes crisscrossing under one of the sleeper bunks mumbling something about “Goddamn sweated copper…” And there was the night at home when Dad fiddled with yet another Winnebago, crossed a couple live wires, and burned the thing down to the chassis. That was the only time I’ve heard someone cuss and whimper at the same time. Nonetheless, he got us to Mt. Rushmore; the Grand Canyon; the World’s Fair in Knoxville, Tenn.; and Washington, D.C. Put me in the most state-of-the-art commercial jet, and I will always feel safer traveling to the edge of the world in one of my old man’s beaten up RV’s.
Dad’s “Millennium Falcon” of choice for the 2000 Carolina trip was the Windcrusier, and when we rolled into his driveway late Friday afternoon, we thought we had an understanding. We thought we would hit the road that evening, roll deep into the night, and reach the Outer Banks sometime the next day—probably around lunch time.
But as we clamored out the family minivan, we noticed the old man, deep into a wholesale remodeling project inside the RV. The interior wall panels, slabs of quarter-inch pressboard with a repeating geriatric pattern of lavender lilacs, were strewn about the yard, long since settled into the strands of bluegrass curling around them. What had begun as some sort of simple wiring fix escalated as he spotted one problem, then another, then a third. The sleeper’s mattresses were stuffed in the small bathroom, and the lounge cushions were long past AWOL. The entire scene reminded me of Tyler’s El Camino during the first ten minutes of Pimp My Ride. And to my left, over the driver and shotgun seats, the overhead bunk hung at a painful angle. The hydraulic piston which normally kept it tucked away when the RV was rolling, dangled over shotgun and the rest of the pins, bolts, and washers lay scattered between the seats.
The old man worked deep into the evening, and I helped…much the same way I helped when I worked on his job sites as a boy.
“Hold this,” he said, positioning an interior panel for reassembly.
“Not there…!” he said. “There!”
“Not like that,” he sighed. “Like this!”
By the time we had crawled into bed, he had managed to rebuild the RV’s interior, and—as always seems to be the case with the old man—he had done so brilliantly. If he were a Renaissance sculptor, he would have rolled in his block of marble on a Wednesday, stared at it until Sunday, carved all night Monday, and cranked out the Statue of David by Tuesday morning.
The late hours, however, never afforded Dad the chance to fix the dangling hide-a-bed in the front. Fatigued and bleary-eyed, he improvised a fix using an iron c-clamp, a stray bungee cord kept taught by a skillfully wedged flat-edge screwdriver.
“There,” he said. “That should hold it.”
–Saturday, Midday: Spencer, Indiana
By lunchtime—the same lunchtime we had planned to be chowing on breaded grouper and third-rate oysters by the beach—we were rolling out of Mom and Dad’s driveway. Two hundred feet down Indiana’s State Road 46, the Itasca hit a bump. Above my head, the bungee cord/c-clamp/screwdriver cocktail gave way in the form of a high-pitched “Pa-ching!” The right half of the sleeper fell onto my head. For the next two miles, as we navigated Highway 46 into town, I assumed my best mythic Atlas, tucked the bed into the palms of my hands, and thrusted it aloft.
Fortunately for me, those aforementioned two miles ended at my grandma’s house. Given that we were heading in the general direction of her Virginia upbringing, we (meaning my mom and dad) offered to take her along with us for the first leg of the trip. In northern Kentucky, in a small town south of Cincinnati, we would drop her off with her century-old sister, who was herself a late teenager when Grandma was born in the winter of 1918. Once settled along Grandma’s curb, Dad finagled with the sleeper bed for a final time. I don’t remember if the problem stemmed from one too many twists of the screwdriver around the bungee cord, or because the flat-edged flange was improperly wedged into the frame of the bed. Whatever the cause, the old man worked at for all of five minutes, wrapped up the exercise with an emphatic grunt, and stepped away.
“There,” he said again. “That will hold it.” This time it would.
We sputtered into Aunt Bertie’s driveway, the RV’s electric fuel pump holding onto life as Dad brought it to a stop. After killing the motor, his hand still on the key, he cast me a knowing gaze before turning the ignition for a test start. One slow, moaning turn and a set of rapid clicks answered him.
–Saturday Afternoon: Near Portsmouth, Kentucky
The late afternoon sun was dipping behind those foothills-of-the-foothills of what would become the Appalachian Mountains as we neared our great aunt Bertie’s modest home in Portsmouth, Kentucky. On a road meandering in unison with the Ohio River, I spotted Dad sneaking mildly concerned glances at his dashboard. When I craned my neck around the lip of plastic framing the gauges, I spotted the glowing red icon which had caught his attention.
“What’s wrong?” I asked him.
“The battery’s almost dead,” he said. His spoke in a tone I have heard him use so many times growing up with him on one job site after another. It wasn’t the tone he used when portable concrete mixer shorted out. It was rather the tone he used when he realized the wire he needed to fix the shorted concrete mixer was the wrong gauge…or maybe it was the tone he used when he further realized that the truck keys he needed to return to town to get the proper gauged wire to fix the short in the concrete mixer were locked inside the cab of his pickup.
A dying battery after a four-hour road trip always means a bad alternator. One of the advantages of growing up in rural Indiana is that swapping out alternators is rite-of-passage akin to holding a paper route or playing little-league baseball in blue jeans. It would be a hassle, but just another hassle in a proud history of headaches and aggravations. We sputtered into Aunt Bertie’s driveway, the RV’s electric fuel pump holding onto life as Dad brought it to a stop. After killing the motor, his hand still on the key, he cast me a knowing gaze before turning the ignition for a test start. One slow, moaning turn and a set of rapid clicks answered him.
To his credit, the old man’s slow frustrated sigh was a far cry from explosive, hammer-throwing tirades we had all mastered before puberty. The average Wheeler garage offered a rich archeology of chips in the floor (transmission replacement) or holes in the wall (differential repair). Like the heads at Easter Island, they would only add to the mystery a millennia from now when more evolved humans would one day unearth it.
Still, sigh or not, we were stuck in Portsmouth. Beside Aunt Bertie, her neighborhood was aplomb with distant family, from a long-removed cousin (or was it my aunt) Alice, to another cousin (or maybe an uncle) Francis. The latter was an affable fellow. Mostly bald, his eyes shielded by thick lenses. He talked constantly: the slightly jittery, nervous type, uncomfortable around prolonged silences.
–Saturday Evening: Portsmouth, Kentucky
Rather than unhook mom’s ’88 Honda, tethered to the back of the motorhome on a tow-dolly, Francis drove us across the Ohio to a nearby auto parts store. He talked the entire way, small talk about family, about crossing the river, about daylight savings time…
Not in the mood for small talk, Dad at least tried to engage, but that effort was little more than a smattering of “yeahs” bookended by a handful of “uh-huhs.” I said nothing. The sun had set about an hour before. It had been almost 30 hours since our intended start time, but we had covered four hours’ worth of actual distance at best. Below me the Ohio River blended into the darkness, the reflections of living room windows from the hills above it the only thing giving it away.
Because a 1986 Itasca Windcruiser is a weird machine, we couldn’t find a matching alternator. Dad’s best option was throwing fifty bucks across the counter for an aftermarket Ford replacement and “clocking” it a half-turn.
Despite the benign terminology, “clocking” an alternator is a delicate task. The part, a miniature electrical generator, spins a set of magnetic brushes sending a steady charge to the battery. Back at the RV, Dad gingerly held the device in his palm, partially wrapped in a dirty off-pink shop rag. Carefully he removed the tiny outer screws holding the two halves of the alternator casing together. Once free, he began dislodging the halves. If he pulled too far, or too abruptly, the brushes would pop out of their placements in the cylinder wall. Putting them back in place would prove a nightmare.
In a moment Dad would later call “fateful” he set the alternator aside on the kitchenette counter so he rummage through his toolbox. His had planned to find some spare wires and manufacture a makeshift “brace” to hold the brushes in place. But in that moment Francis, consumed with a sort of nervous energy, reached for the device. He cupped his palm around the top half, and when he lifted the bottom fell free. In each hand rested a half. In one of those halves, the now freed brushes lay in a tangle.
Silence. A full 15 seconds of silence wafted through the Itasca.
“Well,” Francis said handing both halves to the old man, “it’s getting late and I have a long day tomorrow. Good luck, Kenny!”
The next three hours amounted a virtuoso collection of religious and regional epithets. I stayed up as long as I could, but fatigue overwhelmed me. I drifted to sleep to the soft whispers of “goddammits” and “fuck me’s.” When I awoke the next morning, the alternator was in place, the air filter remounted, the engine cover secured, and the battery charged. Dad had done what he always did: he plodded on, life’s arrows protruding from his back, and he took care of all of us. Following a pleasant bit of eggs, bacon, and coffee we were back on the road. The Outer Banks awaited just ten hours away.
Coming Soon: In part two, fuel lines make West Virginia loads of fun.