“LIVING IN A TRAILER” by James Jones – July 1952

THE FIRST TIME you tow a house trailer you keep jerking the wheel to compensate for that crazy sway in the back end. It takes a long time to get enough used to it to ignore it. The first haul I ever made with mine—a trip that, although I didn’t know it then, turned out to be the first leg of a junket that would take me clear across the country and back and consume a year and a half—was to Memphis, Tennessee, from my home in Illinois. That’s about 400 miles, and it took me four days to make it. A year and a half later, on my way home from California, I hauled from Tucson, Arizona, to El Paso in one day. I had left a green-eared neophyte, and I was coming back a veteran. There is no pride in the world more rabid than that of a confirmed and dedicated trailerite. The next winter I took my trailer to Florida in four days, just about 1,200 miles.

In between those trips was a year and a half spent living a couple of months in one town after another, one state after another, one trailer park after another, all the way from Memphis to the West Coast, and always in my own home.

On your way somewhere, you roll into a strange town in the evening just at dusk. You know you can’t make the next town before dark, so you find a park. You talk to the man and pay him, park your trailer, connect up your water, sewer and electric lines, step inside and turn on the lights—and discover with a kind of weird surprise that you are home. The same identical home you closed, locked and left this morning. You take the radio and books off the couch (where you have to keep them, traveling) and set them back up on their shelves and look around. No matter how many times you repeat this experience, you never get over that weird surprise at finding everything here, just as you left it. You’re ready to cook your own supper with your own food on your own stove. All around you are people in other trailers, both transients and permanents, doing the same thing. You can’t help but feel a kinship with them. After supper, you can unhitch your car and go downtown to see a show, at home in a strange town you maybe never saw before. And the next time you pass that way, it won’t be a strange town any more.

With a trailer there’s no house-hunting when you move, no high rent stickups. A year ago the average trailer park charged five dollars a week for space. A dollar a day for overnight is standard.

Curiously enough, a lot of people who own trailers don’t have cars and cannot drive. When they move, they hire someone to haul the trailer for them. Many of them don’t even move. Some people live for years on the same lot in the same park and if they ever do move to a new town, they sell the trailer and leave it there like a house and buy a new one when they get where they’re going.

I learned all this at the park in Memphis, where I got my first such hauling job. Mr. Leahy, the rotund but hardheaded little Irishman who owned the park, knew I didn’t have much money and, knowing I was a writer, I think he worried about my ability to come in out of the rain. He put me onto the job of hauling a lady’s trailer up to Blytheville, Arkansas, for her, about seventy-five miles, for twenty-five dollars. That was my start as a professional hauler, and I picked up a good bit at it during the next year and a half.

The lady from Blytheville, it seemed, didn’t get along with her husband. They fought all the time, and he—a crack master mechanic—would periodically go on a great drunk when marriage proved too much for him. She always retaliated by hiring someone to haul the trailer up home to Blytheville where her mother lived. She didn’t go home to mother’s; she took home to mother’s, a much more effective maneuver. The husband would come back to an empty lot and no place to sleep and have to rent a tourist cottage from Mr. Leahy. He would stand this extra expense and lonely freedom about a week, then his pride would vanish and he would go up to Blytheville and get his wife, who was wait­ing for him fearfully, afraid he wouldn’t come, and they would have to hire someone to bring the trailer back. Mr. Leahy always saved their trailer space for them. Ten days after I hauled her up, I made another twenty-five dollars by going up and hauling them both back. They spent the trip in the back seat of the Jeep with their arms around each other. I left Memphis soon after that so I missed the next trip.

Trailer parks differ across the country. In cities and around industrial centers like Memphis they are usually bigger and built for utility; small cities in themselves with miniature blocks laid out along rigid squares of streets, and mostly populated by the skilled and semiskilled labor who have come to work in the various defense industries. Rarely is there a tree in sight. There were a few trees in the park at Memphis, which covered a full city block—mostly old ones along the drive back in to the Leahy’s big home—but space under them required a year or so on the waiting list.

In Colorado Springs at the foot of Pikes Peak, where I moved next, I found a totally different type of park, the “resort” park. Small, with barely space enough for ten trailers (in addition to the half dozen cabins), harder to get in and out with your trailer because of a sharply bent road and a rustic bridge to cross, it had nothing but trees, and catered to people with small vacation trailers and retired “summer visitors” (we try not to call them “tourists” any more) who stay the whole season, and then move south to Phoenix or Tucson to become “winter visitors.” Located at the mouth of Red Rock Canyon, which loomed above it, it more than made up for its lack of trailer-toilet facilities by the grove of aspens it was set in and the rocky mountain stream (the reason for the rustic bridge) which ran down through it, drowning the car noises —and practically all other noises, including neighbors—from the highway.

The owner of this park, a gentleman named Thomas T. Newby, was a long lean dehydrated hunter with a freezer full of game. He impatiently attended his park during the “summer season,” so that he might be financially free to hunt deer, antelope, elk and moose during the rest of the year. I spent more than one long afternoon loafing in Tom’s office with Tom and his son-in-law, listening avidly to their tales; and if I made them unhappy by reminding them of their exasperation with civilization, they more than got even by giving me a love of that peculiarly Western-type hunting which I was forced to carry around for three years before I got enough money to do some of it.

In Colorado Springs it begins getting cold in September. I moved on down to Albuquerque. I was coming more and more under the influence of the resort type of trailering, with its seasonal rhythms, north in the summer and south in the winter. Consequently, I was thrown more and more with the resort type of trailerite. These are older people, usually retired. They have to be retired, or else engaged in a work they can carry with, them, to be able to move around like that.

One of the things about writing that lends itself to trailer living is this fact of being your own boss and able to work as well one place as another, and in addition, requiring very little equipment to carry with you. I knew one man in Florida who had the front half of his trailer fitted up as a machine shop with lathes and drill presses and carried his business with him. He had a big trailer, but it still didn’t make for very comfort­able living. But he was an exception; mostly they are retired.

Of the two types, the skilled- and semiskilled-labor people in the cities, and the retired people in the resort towns, the retired group is the harder to get to know. You can usually meet the labor group and their wives by going to the bar nearest the park and ordering beer. They are a stiff, proud, independent bunch, used to traveling, and inclined to be captious if you’re wearing a white collar; otherwise, they’re friendly. If you’re dressed in a T-shirt and Levis, they like you—even if they know you’re a writer. And if you admire crafts and skills you can’t help but like them. Bricklayers, steelworkers, machinists, they follow defense work or construction jobs back and forth across the country. Many of them have settled into permanent jobs in town and just gone on living in trailers anyway; I suspect it gives them a feeling they can always quit and move on, even though they know they may never do it.

The retired people are much more difficult; largely, I think, because of the fact that they are retired. They may be ex-plumbers or ex-executives, and some have more money than others, but they all have that one thing in common which sets them apart: they are retired; they are no longer part of the stream of building, expanding, fighting life—except in their capacity as Consumers; and the knowledge makes them an intensely proud, tight-knit, jealous, crotchety clan which intends you to know they ain’t askin’ nobody for nothin’. As a group, they haul their trailers slower, spend more time fiddling with their rigs, and watch their money closer. They see a lot of the country and see it cheap. It’s a matter of pride with them to see how cheap they can see it. They can tell you by number the highways in and out of almost any city and where each goes and whether it’s a good road. And if it’s not good, they can tell you which one to take instead. They are often hard to get along with, and almost always hard to make friends of, and whenever you get to know one you invariably like him.

One of the growing hazards of life today is what you might call this “retirement neurosis.” In men, it corresponds somewhat to the nervous disorders caused by the change of life in women. And while it may not be epidemic in Europe or Asia, that doesn’t make it any less epidemic here. The retired people I’ve met living in trailers may not have cured the ailment, but they sure have arrested its development.

About the best way to meet them, I’ve found, is to have something to go wrong with your trailer. Then groups of them suddenly materialize from nowhere with advice and directions. They will usually end up in a violent argument as to which of their methods is the best for you. I remember once I pulled into a park in Marathon, Florida, late at night. My trailer had contracted a weak spring on the right side, but I hadn’t noticed it myself. I wasn’t out of bed next morning before my next-door neighbor, a crotchety old-timer, was over examining it, grease all over his hands. He already had it all settled for me. As I stepped out the door, he told me what was wrong, where to take the trailer to get it fixed, how long it would take and how much it would cost—and offered the additional advice that I ought to get the same thing done to the left side because if I didn’t it would go bad eventually. The group that was forming dispersed regretfully. The old one and I (he was a retired car dealer from Columbus, Ohio) ended up by becoming good friends and I was invited fishing. I probably would never have met him if my spring hadn’t gone bad.

#

I didn’t mean to give the impression that there were only two types of people in trailers. Actually, almost every type of person lives in trailers nowadays. Ten years ago it was assumed that only unshaven fishermen and other failures lived in trailers. Some aspects of this attitude still hang over. For instance, you still don’t find many white-collar people in trailers, but they are getting to be more numerous lately since trailering has begun to be more respectable. When I lived in Tucson I knew a high-school teacher who lived in a trailer. He wasn’t exactly a typical high-school teacher, but he was a high-school teacher.

A big, gentle, bearlike man, he lived with his wife and three small daughters in a big thirty-three-foot Spartan. He had lived and taught in the same small town in Minnesota all his life, until he got the idea that he didn’t know enough about his own country to teach. It oppressed him so much that he finally quit his job and sold his home, packed his family in the trailer, and started out to see the country. He would teach a couple of years in one place and then move on and teach a couple in another. Sometimes he had trouble getting teaching jobs because he lived in a trailer. When he did, he took other jobs. His family loved it all as much as he did; they were seeing the country too. I think he taught civics. But it was probably “Philosophy-Made-Understandable-for-Teen­-Agers” when he got through with it. When I knew him, he had just gotten a job teaching after six months of pushing a concrete buggy on a construction job and was filled with an intense enthusiasm for the build­ing trades and the people who worked in them.

Of course, such a man is rare. Few of us have that much of the idealist in us. Yet I’m about convinced, by now, it’s that same strain of the foolish romantic, though in a lesser degree perhaps, that is working in all of us who get trailers, driving each of us out in search of some private dream. Maybe we hunger to be cosmopolitan and well traveled. Or maybe we just want to live in the Far West where we can wear a big hat, Levis and boots without being laughed at.

I remember one man out in California. He was from Iowa where he had run a small dry-goods store for twenty-five years. He sold it and he and his wife bought this trailer and had it hauled out to the Coast. He had a car but he refused to haul a trailer with it. That was how I met him. We both lived in the Valley Park out on Lankershim Boulevard in North Hollywood, and he hired me to haul his trailer over around Van Nuys for him, where he’d bought a small orange grove. He told me all this in the Jeep going over. You could see he had always dreamed of owning an orange grove, but he was worried because he’d invested all his money in it and hadn’t left himself any capital.

Their plan was to live in their trailer till they made enough to build a house. The other thing that worried him was the mud. It had been raining and he was afraid I couldn’t get the trailer in.

I couldn’t reassure him about the orange grove, but I could assure him that if anything short of a winch truck could get his trailer in, my Jeep could. I got him in, all right; I had to get him and a passer-by to stand on the front bumper to give me traction and put it clear down in low gear, low range in the four-wheel drive, but I got it in, and around among the orange trees, and parked just where he wanted it. By this time he had fallen in love with Jeeps and was going to trade his car in on one. I don’t know if he ever did. I left him there with his wife, who had driven their car out, sloshing around in the mud under his orange trees, getting his trailer set up. He hadn’t come back to the Valley Park when I left California. Maybe he made a go of it. The oranges looked awfully scrawny to me, but I don’t know the first thing about oranges.

Apart from the philosophical considerations, living in a trailer is a lot of fun. There is always a sort of picnic feel, for one thing. A sort of holiday air. It makes you feel you’re living on a perpetual vacation, even if you’re not. You’re much closer to the outdoors than you are in a house. In winter this can be bad, but in summer you have all the fun of camping out, and yet all the comforts of living in, too, such as innerspring mattresses, refrigerator, hot-water heater, stove and bar. Consequently when the weather’s good, you spend a great deal more time outdoors, which is probably good for you.

There is also, in a park, a curious sense of poignancy which is lent to trailer-camp life by the awareness that before long you’ll be leaving. It’s the same thing that makes a man’s life seem more sparkling in a war, simply because he may shortly lose it. And the better you like the park, the stronger the feeling. Even a simple thing like going to the community wash-house for a shower can become an intensely emotional act in a trailer park you like.

One of the best memories I have of trailer-camp life is that park in Tucson where I knew the civics teacher. It was called Princeton Court, because it was located on Prince Road, I guess, and it was the pet and darling of Bob Heinig, who owned it. All Bob’s time and energy went on the park. So did most of his wife Helen’s. Even their two small children did a lot of things around it although, I must admit, somewhat reluctantly.

At the Princeton Court, every trailer space had a concrete patio for an awning “porch.” (That in itself is unusual.) There was a good-size concrete-block recreation hall. Next to it were a couple of shuffle-board courts with night lights, and next to them a playground complete with basketball court. The fixtures in the community wash-houses—for those who didn’t have bathrooms in their trailers—always worked, and were always clean. I had a bath in mine, but I preferred to go over to the wash-house for my shower anyway, and listen to the conversation of the men and boys as they shaved or washed up after work. I knew almost all of them. There was a curious sense of closeness and intimacy about the whole park, and anyone who came there immediately became a part of it. It was the antithesis of a New York apartment house.

In the center of the park there was a remada (Southwestern for roof without walls), with a concrete floor and a Ping-pong table, which was the social center. In the evenings there was always a little group, constantly changing in personnel, to sit in the remada and talk, while the little kids played Ping-pong under the light or “flag raid” all around us in the dark, and the music drifted out to us from the lighted rec hall where the teen-age kids were dancing to the record player. The talk would usually wind up on trailering, but it covered everything.

I remember it was on just such an evening that the civics teacher told me about the social stigma he encountered everywhere because he lived in a trailer. People in a town, especially the teachers, school board and PTA, seemed to think he was unstable and irresponsible, disreputable and vaguely immoral, because he lived in a trailer in a trailer park. He laughed about it when he told me. He wouldn’t live anywhere else.

I don’t know what screwy romantic dream I (like the civics teacher) first had that started me out in a trailer. Probably I had fifteen or twenty; and I don’t think I realized a single one. But I do know that one of the results of chasing them is that I have a lot of fond memories that I wouldn’t have had otherwise. Maybe that’s the way it always is with dreams.

Anyway, I know I’ll never go back to any of the places where I lived (or to the states in which they’re located) without feeling in a sense I’m coming home. I remember the profuse woods of Overton Park in Memphis lovingly, and all the neon signs on Union Avenue as you drop down the slope from Main Street and the river. In Dodge City I bought my first Western hat at Eckle’s Dep’t Store. I remember Colorado Springs, where we drove the Jeep up Pikes Peak with the top off and almost froze; and The Garden of the Gods there—long thin slabs of red sandstone thrust up on edge six, eight hundred feet—which I know like the back of my hand because I used to climb all over them in the after­noon to relax from writing. In Albuquerque we hunted jack rabbits from the Jeep with the top off and the windshield down. Tucson means little air conditioners on all the houses, and the trip up to Mt. Lemmon where the big pines are; and Nogales means Mexican food that turns your eye pouches fiery red.

When I left Tucson, I crossed the border at Nogales and went on down through Hermosillo—brown ‘dobe building blocks baking in the sun along deserted streets at noon—to Guaymas, the fishing center on the Gulf of California, stayed there two weeks (I couldn’t afford to fish), then came back up to Tucson and on to California. Guaymas was a hundred calendar paintings come to life, and other people’s fish hung up to show on block and tackle. Hollywood was fast-driving, futuristic “Free­ways” where I learned the art of traffic driving from the experts, and encountered not one single soul who had anything to do with making movies. And then the long trip home, two weeks with the top off driving in a pair of trunks, clear across the desert, up through summer Texas, and on into the gradually greening East with the best tan I ever had.

Not long ago a friend of mine in the oil business was telling me about an old friend of his, a man I didn’t know. Sixty-three, hearty and healthy, a big eater and drinker, with the astute inquisitive mind (that had made him a top executive) still unimpaired by age, he would be retired at sixty-five; and with the fatal date still almost two years off, he was be­ginning to lose weight over it. My friend, whose own rather questionable hobby is the nerve-racking job of supporting and administering a colony of temperamental young writers through those first lean years, and whose work is thus cut out for him when he retires, was worried about his old friend. He had seen them retire before, he said. If they lasted two years, they were lucky.

I wasn’t being asked for advice, but I stuck my oar in anyway. “Hell, that’s easy,” I said. “Tell him to buy a trailer.” I could see my friend was startled by the suggestion, but as I talked on, he began to look elated.

“There are approximately one hundred and seventy-five National Parks and Monuments in this country alone, not counting Canada. And at least twice that many other places that aren’t parks. If he started out to see them all, like they ought to be seen, it would take him twenty years. If he’s a loafer, tell him to go to Florida and make a year’s tour around the coast. They’ve got trailer parks right on the water’s edge from Key West on up.

“Or,” I said, “if he’s the adventurous type, and don’t mind the food, he can make the haul over the mountains from Laredo down to Mexico City.”

That was one of the trips I had always had a hankering to make, and I began to feel that rabid vainglory of the trailerite stealing over me. “Say, did I ever tell you about the time I hauled over Guadalupe Pass in Texas? That’s right on Signal Peak, you know, the highest point in Texas. There were three garages with tow trucks at the bottom. They made their living off of trailers. But I had my little old Jeep. I—”

My friend had to get up and go to work in the morning. Besides, he had heard them all at least twice. After he went to bed, I made coffee and got out my old Rand-McNally Road Atlas I had red-lined all my trips in, and sat up just poring over it. On the big map in the front is a red network of lines clear across the southern half of the continent; but there weren’t any on the northern half—except for Illinois. It got me to figuring.

Maybe this summer I could take her out across the Dakotas and Mon­tana to Seattle. My Jeep’s about through the book, and I traded my old twenty-six-footer in on a big new thirty-three-foot Spartan that I never meant to haul, just live in in the summers up home. But I’ve got a new big car I could haul her with. What I figure, if I was in Seattle maybe I might go on down the West Coast in the fall and cut over to Reno and Vegas for a while. And then this winter I could try that haul over the Sierra Madres down to Mexico City.

Or maybe I might go up through New England, instead. I’ve never been up there.

I wish I’d never started writing this article. ◊

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13 responses

  1. Cool story.

    For those who might have missed the connection, it’s also something of a literary artifact. Although there’s no mention of it, the writer is likely the same James Jones who won a National Book Award for his first published novel, From Here to Eternity, in the same year this Holiday piece was published. Both it and a later novel, The Thin Red Line, went on to be made into major Hollywood films.

  2. Pingback: Living in a Trailer, by James Jones – July 1952 | James Russell Ament

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  4. Thank you for sharing that story. I have been trailering around for about 8 years. I moved to Austin TX in one, stayed so sold it and got a bigger one to live in. I now live in one and got an old smaller airstream to travel in. I am a 43 yr old white collar female, make a great income, and am loving this lifestyle. I wish I did not own real estate out west. I have worked remotely traveling the country for months at a time. My boss is ok with this as long as I am producing. I love every aspect of living in my rv park. My neighbors all look out for everyone, and it feels like I’m camping full time. I LOVE being on the road, and opening up that atlas map and camping book and figuring out where the next stop is. In fact I pulled out the map the other day to see what route I would take back to Tahoe this summer. Do I hit Jacksonhole again? CO? Zion? Idaho? the Pac NW? a very liberating wonderful feeling:-)

    • My wife and I are in Austin as well. You wouldn’t by chance be at Pecan Grove RV Park? We’re in the GoPetFriendly Winnebago at the front of the park. We’ve been traveling full time for about 20 months now (and we don’t own a home).

  5. Pingback: The “Happy Birthday, George Washington” Daily Quinn « The Daily Quinn

  6. It’s 2012, and not much has changed (except the campground fees). My wife and I travel full time (we no longer own a home) in an RV with our two dogs. My only regret is not doing this sooner … why live anywhere when you live everywhere!

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