“I’ll make a deal with you,” says my father. “We’ll finance the whole thing, and you pay us back after you sell your next book.”
He’s talking about the Airstream camper Deb and I discovered upon my return from Vermont. It was parked in a parking lot on the Coralville strip, right next to the new Dunkin Donuts. It’s a shiny thing, a 1964 Land Yacht. The sign on the side says $15,000. Peeking in the windows, we can see that the walls are teal and the cushions are a brown and white plaid. There’s a little sink and a little stove and a little loo in the back. The camper's shape is iconic, blunt nosed and bulbous. It reminds me of the shape of the first atomic bomb.
“That’s very generous,” I say. I don’t know what else to say. My father had dreams of me sitting in just such a trailer and writing. At least, that’s what he told me. I wonder if, instead of a dream, it’s a memory. When I was in my mid-twenties, I quit the HVAC trade and took a job framing houses with my buddy, Doug Hanson. I had a romantic idea of what it would be like to be a carpenter. I had always wanted to be one. I thought of straddling a ridgeline at dusk and swinging a hammer. I didn’t know exactly how a house went together, but I learned. It wasn’t hard. The toughest parts were stairways and roofs, and I left these things to Doug. It was fun for a while. We’d go out after a good, hard day in the cold and order steak tips at the Pub and Grub on Route 40. One of the guys I worked with was Mr. LeBleu, who had a camper for sale. I paid him $400 for a little camper that fit in the bed of my Ford F150. I drove all over with that thing. I spent many nights in highway rest stops, lying on the floor, huddled up next to the propane heater. In the morning, I’d heat up baked beans on the little cook stove and then hit the road again. It was cheap to live. Gas was cheap. And I could go wherever I wanted. I had to move back home for a stretch when I decided to return to college, and unloaded the camper in the side yard of my parents’ house and at night, after school and work, I’d go out to the camper and set up my typewriter at the little table that could be transformed into the middle part of a bed and write. I had an extension cord that I ran from the garage. I’d sit out in my little camper, thermos of coffee nearby, and pretend to be Hemmingway.
My father never showed an interest in what I wrote. And I’m sure it was horrible. And I didn't mind. But he never did show an interest. Nor did my mother. They were keen on getting me to the point where I’d stop asking them for things. Or expecting things from them. And parking my camper in their suburban yard. What they wanted from me was to be left alone. What this meant, if I were to grant them their freedom, was employment. I didn’t last long at home. There were a few arguments that included the phrase, “under my roof,” and I knew that Hemingway never had such conversations with his parents. I moved in with a hippie friend of mine who was renting a shack in the woods of New Hampshire. I took my little camper with me and used it for a place to write. And from New Hampshire, I moved to Cambridge, leaving my camper, once again, in my parents’ yard. When my parents left Westford for Shelburne Falls, a bucolic area in Western Massachusetts, they brought my camper with them. Years later, I showed my boys my little camper. By this time, it was home to many wild creatures including two raccoons. But we ventured inside regardless of the creatures and the rotting floor. I showed them the little heater and the little stovetop, the old coffee pot with coffee grounds still in it. I hadn’t cleaned it the last time I guess. I wasn’t the cleanest young man.
Eventually, my father burned the little camper. What else could he do with it? Although my parents didn’t want the camper and never did want it, I had donated it to them and I certainly didn’t want it back. Fire was best. But even that didn’t really take care of it. I mean, what does a coffee pot care for fire? Or a propane heater? Or a stove? A few hundred years from now, someone will unearth what is left of the camper and piece together its history the best they can.
I don’t care about the camper anymore. But I do care that my father had a dream of me writing in an Airstream. He has been combing the want ads for one. He doesn’t know that nobody advertises in the want ads anymore. And he claims to hate the internet even though he seemed to like it pretty well when I used the hotspot on my little Iphone and looked up the words “Ford classic cars,” and then “classic Chevys,” and then, upon his request, remembering the car that John Fort had been so proud of when he stole my mother away on her wedding day for a tour of the little towns surrounding her little town of Dassel, “1955 C-Body Plymouth Fury.”
My father wants to buy me a camper so I can write. He wants me to write. And he wants me to have a little place to do it. A little camper. Like the one that was taken over by raccoons and other animals of the wild. I’m afraid to tell him what I want to do with it. I’m afraid he’ll think I’m being too irresponsible. I’m going too far. But I’m probably wrong about that. My father is perched to take a much more substantial journey. And he is not, as he has told me many times, afraid to go. And so, neither will I be afraid to go. I will go. If my wife will agree to go with me. We will take our son, who loves to go. And who will never stop asking us for things and expecting things from us. And we will not be afraid to go. It’s not difficult, is it? To trade in something that doesn’t work for something unknown?