January 1, 2022by Jon Kramer

The Trailer | The Devil Has Four Wheels

Copyright 1-1-2022 / 6,477 words, by Jon Kramer
Nonfiction. These events took place circa mid1970s

A family of four rowdy kids, two frazzled parents, and a long-haired Persian cat named Boomerang, makes the ideal mix of mayhem and calamity necessary for a long, hot summer road trip inside a cramped station wagon devoid of air conditioning.

It was the mid-1970s and the Kramer family was going West. Going west was really nothing unusual – our summer road trips always went west. We lived on the East Coast and in the summer lit out toward the setting sun. But this time our vacation was not to Minnesota – as had been the case for several years – it was to the wild west of the Badlands and Black Hills. The land of Wall Drug, Cowboys & Indians, prairie dogs & buffalo. And rocks – fossils, minerals and gems – which we aimed to find and bring back with us.

Rust brown is a perfect color for a car from DC that’s motored too many winters on the salty roads of the Capitol Beltway. Indeed, such a color is becoming (that is, will become) most older cars in the Mid Atlantic. It’s a law of nature: Ample crystalline precipitation = ample salt = ample rust. The fact our vehicle started out rust colored made our 1968 Ford Galaxy station wagon appear quite a bit healthier than it really was. A kind of an optical illusion, if you will. With over 100,000 hard miles, the family vehicle was well into the malignancy of its geriatric years –- a veritable archeological relic at the time – and anything that camouflaged its aging exterior was a blessing.

Not that there was any choice in the matter of color. We could never afford a new car and were forced to get what we could. Color never entered into the equation. As Henry Ford himself famously said back in the day “You can have any color you want, as long as it’s black.” Or, in our case, brown.

For reasons lost to obscurity, and possibly cheap marijuana, once I got title to the vehicle some years later, I named it Conquistador. (See my previous stories: Justice in a Broken Gearbox (2018) and Bitter Springs (2019)) For convenience sake, herein I shall retroactively call the family station wagon by the name I gave it years later. Sound confusing? You’ll get used to it.

Why do they call these things “station wagons” anyway? What stations are they talking about? For the life of me, I have no idea. Gas stations? Train stations? Stations of the Cross? Can someone please set me straight on that? I never got an answer to how they came up with the phrase “station wagon” even though I spent a lot of my early years riding in them. Admittedly, car makers are not known for naming conventions that reflect anything appropriate. Our Ford Galaxy Station Wagon was a good example.

I must say, however, to me car labels seem prosaic in comparison to the incredibly asinine titles assigned to some RV models: Don’t get me started on that! Well, I guess it’s already started and now we all have to deal with it, so here goes: RV’s christened with names like “Pathfinder” and “Eagle” are anything but what their name purports. One would think such names would be insulting to upright, ambulatory, bipedal hominids that claim to have a brain cell or two between their ears. Yet the manufacturers continually crank the bullshit meter to 11 with such names as “Panther” – a 26 foot long, four-wheel monolith that weighs in at, oh, about 50 times the weight of its namesake and has the sleek outlines of a brick.

And then there’s the “Tango”, a 35-foot tow-behind behemoth that weighs 7,850 pounds. That is, of course, with no furnishings, no pots and pans, and its holding tanks empty. I’m not sure how much it would weigh once filled with crap. Do they honestly think someone will be lured to buy such a monster by slapping it with the sparky name of a Latin ballroom dance? Were they expecting hordes of Tango dancers to swing in and order one? Did that happen? I doubt it.

But, then again, I don’t dance Tango. Actually, I don’t dance anything, at least not formally. It’s one of my great failings, I suppose. But my wife dances Tango and she’s good at it. She’s been doing so for years. I asked her and she disavows any knowledge of members of her dance troop buying this particular RV. They apparently missed the ads.

So, who’s buying all the Tango RVs? Maybe people who can’t dance Tango but fancy themselves as being the kind of person who could? Are Tango-Posers buying Tango RVs? I have no idea. Actually, I don’t want to know. Don’t email me.

On the flip side, some manufacturers are actually keeping up with the times. Here’s a modern one for you: The Bullet Crossfire. Yep, that’s an actual RV model name. Look it up – it’s made by Keystone RV. By the way, they are not based in the murderous downtown of LA, Detroit, or Chicago. Their factory is in Goshen, Indiana, a small rural town of about 30,000 inhabitants. So how did they come up with such a name? Maybe trying to appeal to the OGs (Original Gangsters) of the big city? Are hoodlums and drug dealers the target audience?

The point is RV names are pathetic. Sorry I brought it up. We’re now moving on.

Roof-rack notwithstanding, there was scant little room to cram all the living beings and attendant junk of the Kramer family into Conquistador. So, the obvious thing was to rent a utility trailer to accommodate our luggage and necessary bartering stock of rocks.

Yes rocks. We had recently become retail rock merchants, opening our lapidary shop – Nature’s Exotics – in Kensington, Maryland. We sold gems, minerals, jewelry, carvings, fossils, and just plain old rocks. Well, maybe not so plain, but certainly old. Naturally, we were eager to fill the shelves with as much “exotics” as we could find. This western trip was just the ticket.

In those days the leading magazine of the rock industry – Lapidary Journal – published an annual “Buyer’s Guide” that listed all the rock, mineral, and jewelry stores in the country, as well as all the lapidary and fossil clubs. It was as fat as a Sears catalog. They sorted everything out state-by-state and by product. Any shop that sold even the slightest amount of rocks could get a free listing. These included establishments such as Luke’s Rock Shop and Vacuum Cleaner Repair; Whitey’s Rocks and Farm Feed; and Thompson’s Truck & Rock Stop. There was even a place in Iowa called, believe it or not, Hell-yeah It’s Old! and another in California called Little Bit Stoned (yes, Stoned – with the ed, as in high – which is the exact state the proprietors were in when Hal and I met them in person many years later).

Over the prior winter, armed with the Buyers Guide, Dad and Mom printed up preaddressed postcards they sent to every rock shop on our route. The cards were simple, typed, and to the point: Would you be interested in trading some of your rocks for ours? We had Epidote, Unakite, and Appalachite from Virginia and were eager to trade that for exotic material from far away west. All one had to do was check off a box, indicate how much of our stuff you might be interested in, and drop it in the mail. Encouragingly, several cards came back showing there was a definite need for rocks from the mid-Atlantic in the Wild West.

At first, we hoped to get by with an inexpensive 2-wheel open utility trailer. Just throw the stuff on and put a tarp over it. Easy access all the way around. But as the luggage list ran to four pages, and the postcards continued to trickle in, it became apparent we’d need the largest 4-wheel enclosed trailer that we could realistically haul with Conquistador. The rocks alone were going to weigh a ton. No exaggeration.

So, we went to the local rental outfit and got the biggest they had: A shiny new 6’x 10’ enclosed model tall enough to stand in. When Dad went to sign the Rental Agreement, the slick salesman asked him if he wanted to sign up for the extra insurance “Just in case.”

Well… I dunno… Dad responded. I think my auto policy covers trailer rentals.

But only to a limit! the guy retorted. God forbid, if someone stole it, you’d be on the hook for the entire cost. This trailer is top-of-the-line and brand new. I doubt your insurance would cover it all. I always tell people to buy the extra insurance, just in case.

You could tell Dad felt he was being railroaded by the salesman. Dad was an imposing bear and not easily hoodwinked. He would have liked to square it with his insurance agent but this was the weekend and we were in a hurry. So rather than argue about it, he went ahead and got the insurance adder. But as we drove away, he was steaming.

I Suwanee, that guy bamboozled me! he spewed. (“I Suwanee…” was Dad’s own coinage, used when he needed something more emphatic than simply “I swear!” It was delivered with such force that you felt a bomb was about to explode. Sometimes it did, sometimes it didn’t.) When we get back, I’m gonna talk to the manager and demand a refund!

He had no idea….

The trailer seemed as big as a barn, with sturdy plywood walls and a molded fiberglass roof that allowed daylight to filter through. The two swinging back doors interlocked with a single latch, making it easy to open and close. It came complete with running lights, tail lights, and indoor dome lights. We’d never seen such a fancy trailer.

Now we were outfitted with ample room for rocks, luggage, and camping accessories. I nicknamed the trailer – Tadpole. Why? I don’t know – pure stupidity, I suppose. Regardless, “Tadpole” , like Conquistador, is what you’re stuck with here. I’m the author. Tadpole -get used to it.

We lined the floor of Tadpole with milk crates and filled them with rocks. (Even today I use milk crates as my preferred bulk rock containers.) There was nearly 2,000 pounds along the floor. The plan was to sell, trade, and otherwise off-load the stone product as we went, allowing us to return much lighter than we started.

Loading a trailer for several people going on an extended expedition is not something one should approach lightly. You’re asking for trouble by just throwing stuff in willy-nilly. It’d be mayhem and wasted hours of frustration to try and find anything in the mountain of belongings. No, this is serious business, guided by the laws of physics and social interaction. It is a high-level skill that combines art, science, math, and diplomacy. If you’ve never done it before, don’t be a fool – ask a Kramer for advice. Every one of us has earned a Masters degree in Trailer Packing.

Some fundamental laws of nature must be observed when tackling such a task:

First, we start with the Omnipotence Paradox which holds that a truly omnipotent being is capable of realizing any and all outcomes, even a logically contradictory one such as creating a square circle or, in our case, cramming two tons of junk into a one-ton trailer. Since we were obviously, omnipotent, there was no reason we couldn’t do just that.

The Law of Original Horizontality states that any given series of sediments are originally deposited in horizontal layers. But, as any qualified geologist can tell you, that is likely to change, especially in the case of a trailer full of stuff on a Kramer road trip.

Law of Cross-cutting Relationships sounds like a domestic dispute and, no doubt, it sometimes is. But in our case, it refers to a principle of geology stating that a geologic feature which cuts through another is the younger of the two. How this has anything to do with Trailer Packing, I don’t know. But it seemed like a good one to throw in.

Then, finally, there is the Law of Righteous Access also known as the LRA (not to be confused with the NRA), which holds that when someone decides they want something that’s buried in the trailer, they will righteously declare that it’s an absolutely vital necessity, stopping all forward momentum in the expedition until such time as the object is unearthed. Or said person is killed.

A natural stratification of the trailer evolved: The rocks went on the bottom. Tents and camp gear lay atop them. Packs, duffels, and ice chests went above that. Suitcases, camp chairs, and overnight bags on top. Thus packed, Tadpole was filled to the ceiling. When the doors were closed you couldn’t fit an extra fart inside it.

After three days of packing, we finally weighed anchor and headed out on a warm July day. We were all excited, eager to embrace the open western sky. Except for Boomerang – he was not so thrilled. But he was one of the family so in the car he went, whether he liked it or not. Mostly not. Actually, completely not. Boomerang lived a life of oppression under the tyranny of his 6 human jailers. He was an unwilling adventurer.

Old Conquistador groaned as he struggled to pull the overloaded trailer. It was obvious that weight limit guidelines for both the car and trailer were grossly exceeded – thrown out the window in favor of the more pressing matter of making everything fit. As was always the case in our family, we endeavored to persevere, weight limits be damned.

To save both money and time, rather than stop and sleep at a motel after 12 hours of ruthless confinement, it was Kramer custom to drive all night. Night driving was safer during the 70s. There was much less traffic and not as many deer on the road. So, off we went out Interstate 70, then connecting with the string of toll roads that led us through Pennsylvania, Ohio, Indiana, and Illinois. After the nightmare of Chicago, we finally hit the prairielands.

By midafternoon the second day we had crossed through Minnesota and entered South Dakota. We were closing in on the Black Hills. Mike was at the wheel, Mom in the passenger seat, with Diane between them. Dad was sleeping in the back seat, while Billy and I camped in the far back.

Both Mom and Dad were a little uneasy having Mike drive, never mind the fact he had been driving for years by this time and had only lost one passenger out the door of his jeep while driving down the highway (that’s another story – probably best told by Mike since I wasn’t there, thankfully). But since Mom didn’t like driving with a trailer attached, Mike became Dad’s de-facto alternate on this trip and was at the wheel as we tooled our way across the open prairie of South Dakota. Mom tried to sleep, but was too nervous with Mike driving. So she sat in the front seat periodically nodding off and then jolting awake when her head hit the door frame.

At some point along the sizzling highway east of Wall Drug, the car suddenly began bucking and swinging, jerking left and right while the trailer fish-tailed wildly from side to side. The tail was wagging the dog something fierce as Mike struggled to maintain control, letting fly a few choice expletives in the process. About this time, out the passenger window, there appeared an aberration: a wheel spinning down the road beside our car. Funny thing was, the wheel was not attached to anything – it was just freewheeling along at 55 mph right next to us. Mom took a puff of her Pall Mall cigarette, glanced over and said, Will you look at that? Someone lost a wheel…

In the far back, my brother and I were being thrown from one side to the other. Despite the carnival ride, Bill got a clear view of things and shouted – That’s our wheel – it’s from the trailer! By this time Dad had bolted upright and was trying desperately to reach consciousness and comprehend the situation. What? What? I Suwanee…

Mike gradually, and skillfully, slowed the thrashing beast down and wrestled it over to the shoulder. As he did so, the wheel in question, being the independent type, decided to take a tour of the adjacent corn field. It zoomed right past us, veering off the road into the ditch. It hit the other side with gusto and launched through the air into the maize.

We were all relieved that a crash was averted. It was clearly due to Mike’s calm and expert handling. When we collectively regained our breath, we got out and examined the trailer. The front passenger side wheel had broken off its lug nuts and was thus set free. The wheel mount then dragged on the road. Despite the grinding, it didn’t look too bad, all things considered. It certainly wasn’t road-worthy without a wheel, but the upshot was we might be able to administer a temporary fix without too much trouble.

The search party fanned out into the corn field and soon found the errant wheel. Using rock hammers and chisels, we pounded out the broken lugs. Next, we robbed one lug each from the other three wheels and fitted them to the problem wheel mount. That left us an even three lugs on each wheel. It sufficed until we got to town.

We got to the Black Hills in the early evening, thoroughly frazzled by the all-night drive and the trailer mishap. Rather than camp as planned, Mom and Dad decided to spring for a more relaxed introduction to the Hills and rented a cabin in the woods for a couple nights. It was tucked away on the side of a hill not far from Custer State Park. Conquistador struggled mightily up the steep dirt drive and just barely managed to get us and our tonnage of rocks to the homestead on top.

Here, finally, we relaxed among the forest with pine-scented views from the deck. We unwound our troubles while planning the next day. The adventure of the Black Hills awaited us: buffalo, gold mines, caves, rocks, and the Wild West. There were also the Faces” – local slang for Mount Rushmore – and the new Crazy Horse monument.

The temperature dropped nicely and we all slept like logs – or rocks, as the case may be. In the morning the energy was palpable. Our Black Hills adventure was about to begin. Dad was getting things in order for the day – Why don’t you boys go unhitch the trailer so we don’t have to lug that beast around with us? he suggested. Good idea. Me and my brothers filed out to relieve Conquistador of the burden attached to it.

There was plenty of room in the turn-around outside the cabin to disconnect the trailer and leave it where it was – no need to even start the car to move it. We got right to work disconnecting the trailer – unplugging the light cable and unscrewing the lock on the ball. We grabbed the chains – me and Bill on one side, Mike on the other – and with a mighty Heave – Ho! popped the trailer hitch from the ball. We pushed the trailer back a hair and dropped the hitch. Mission accomplished.

A short primer on trailers: A two-wheel trailer, if properly packed with 55% of its load ahead of the axle, will obey the laws of physics and, once disconnected from the car, its hitch will fall to the ground and dig in. A four-wheel trailer, by contrast, if packed accordingly, will obey its own laws of physics. By virtue of having four wheels, once disconnected from the car, its hitch will not fall to the ground, nor dig into it. These observations are important to note, especially if the trailer in question is on inclined terrain.

In mountaineering you learn quickly that one of the primary hazards of high peaks is ice on an incline. Don’t even think of attempting a tall mountain without basic equipment and training designed to deal with it. There are, to be sure, ways to mitigate the hazard – using crampons, ice axes, and the like – but you cannot eliminate it. It is an ever-present and constant threat you must pay close attention to, least you fall prey to an inevitable finality: the death-plunge. Many, many people – even highly experienced and well-outfitted professionals – have died from a simple slip on ice. The annals of mountaineering are filled with morbid accounts thereof.

As we all know, play the game long enough and the odds catch up with you. It will happen – you will slip sooner or later. As my old boxing coach used to say, You step into the ring knowing you are going to be hit. It’s gonna happen. There’s no way around it. Knowing this, one of the most important self-preservation techniques in dealing with inclined ice is to learn self-arrest. The basic concept is this: when you feel yourself slipping, you must immediately drop onto your ice axe and dig it in. No looking around, no thinking about it – just drop and do it.

Lost time is your mortal enemy in this game and gravity holds the advantage. You have to act fast to stop the slide or you’re a goner. Even a nanosecond of delay allows the situation to accelerate quickly – VERY quickly – out of control. Mountaineering is replete with many tragic stories of a vital second lost. Just one second – or even less!

By now you’re thinking – What’s all this mountaineering bruhaha have to do with a trailer in the Black Hills? Well, I’m glad you asked…

While letting go the hitch, Mike asked an interesting, and logical, question: You chocked the wheels – right? The response he got must have been a tad bit disquieting, especially in light of the fact it appeared the trailer was not acting as it should under the circumstances. While the three of us stood looking at each other, ever so slightly Tadpole began to inch itself backwards – on its own.

Well… nobody told me to chock the wheels…Bill and I responded in unison. Mike stared at us incredulously – not knowing if this was a joke. My siblings and I were constantly joking around, yanking each other’s chain. It was a trait we learned well from our father. We were especially adept at pushing one another’s buttons at critical times. As Mike contemplated our response, precious seconds disappeared. The inevitable soon followed.

About this time, we glanced at the trailer. Ever so stealthily, it was leaving the meeting. What the hell, man!…. Mike yelled, and sprang forward in an attempt to curtail its action. In the abrupt confusion, Bill and I collided with each other Three Stooges-style while scrambling for the chains that were slipping away along the ground.

Admittedly, the trailer wasn’t on an icy slope. But it was on a slope all-the-same and the same laws of gravity took over. Our momentary confusion was just enough to put the wheels in motion, to quote a phrase. Further, we had trouble grabbing the chains as they skipped along the rocky ground. That cost another couple seconds. By the time we gave up on the chains and had a grip on the hitch, it was too late. Tadpole was already building momentum and a couple hundred pounds of off-balance teenagers was not near enough to stop the slide. The trailer laughed at our puny efforts and pulled us downhill along with it, our feet sliding like skates over the gravel drive.

The upper part of the drive was fairly straight, giving Tadpole the maximum advantage to pick up speed. And so it did – enlisting the benefits of gravity and taking full advantage of the completely unobstructed runway. Eventually we had no choice but to let go and allow the forces of nature to play out as they may. My brothers and I went running down the hill chasing after it, yelling and hollering, as if that would somehow help.

As you can imagine, the driveway was not straight for long. After about 75 yards Tadpole zigged when the road zagged, and the overloaded fugitive bounced over the dirt berm of the shoulder. It then proceeded crashing through the forest, jumping wildly as it hit logs and rocks along the hillside. Audio of the event would have been enhanced by three screaming teenagers in its wake. As it was, the attendant noise became an invitation to those in the cabin to come out and witness the events.

Along the wooded warpath, a sizable pine tree had selected an inconvenient spot in which to grow up, placing itself in Tadpole’s path. A meeting of the two commenced and the trailer’s cacophonous downward acceleration was brought to an abrupt halt. Tadpole struck the pine squarely: KABLAM!. But big trees – being big trees – are known for being uncooperative when it is suggested they move at such times. This tree did not budge one iota as the rear end of the trailer crashed into and wrapped around it.

While this unfortunate encounter did, ultimately, arrest the trailer motion itself – albeit with a lot of crumpling metal and splintering wood – it had no effect whatsoever on the contents – especially the stony payload – which continued down-slope as the laws of physics and forward momentum demanded.

The one-ton store of rocks exploded out the back, completely demolishing the trailer’s rear end, shredding the doors and walls into confetti. Rocks, lawn chairs, tents, and luggage flew down the slope, scattering in a debris fan all along the hill. Boxes and suitcases launched through the air. When they hit – be it the ground or other trees – they were blasted to smithereens, blowing their contents helter-skelter through the forested hillside.

My brothers and I careened down to the scene, getting there just as the holocaust wound down and the noise died away. The devastation was impressive. Tadpole looked as if it had been hit by a torpedo. The contents were strewn hundreds of feet along the slope. We stopped and looked up the hill – Diane and Mom stood awestruck, mouths agape. Dad was atop the driveway, legs apart, arms outstretched, imploring the heavens, I Suwanee ….

The next ten days were, thankfully, without trailer incidents. We camped in the midst of the Black Hills, at beautiful, remote sites, usually along a stream. It was incredible and we all loved it (excepting Boomerang, of course. He remained unamused by the whole affair). One site in particular afforded me and Bill a valuable lesson in where not to set up your tent. We were yet novice campers at this point and had decided that the soft sandbar sticking out into the river was the perfect spot for us. It was. Until the flash flood. Then it wasn’t.

While we had made some successful exchanges and swaps of rock along the way, it was apparent we grossly overestimated the amount of raw material we could barter. And with the prior trailer incidents weighing on everyone’s mind, we collectively voted to jettison some of our extra payload and relieve Conquistador of the unnecessary burden. We took several crates of lower grade Unakite and Appalachite and dumped the contents into the riverbed at one of our camps. In the years since we’ve all wondered if any geology students might come across these pieces and felt they had made some incredible new discovery. I myself have tried to track down where we dumped those rocks years ago – I’d like to see what we pitched out – but so far it’s been to no avail.

As it turned out, in the long run, offloading the excess product didn’t lighten the trailer load. We collected just as many hundreds of pounds of rose quartz, agate, fossils, and miscellanea that, in the end, there was no real difference in the payload. Tadpole remained just as overloaded as before and Conquistador never got a reprieve from the torture imposed on him.

After almost two weeks exploring the Black Hills and Badlands, we commenced the long drive back to Maryland. The Midwest heat was oppressive and draining. As Conquistador had no A/C, only a modicum of relief was gained from having the windows cranked down. We were all sweaty, and irritable. We needed a break. Mom and Dad decided to pull over and splurge by renting a couple rooms for our last night on the road.

In rural Ohio we pulled off the interstate and spotted a motel with a quasi-space-age look of broad sweeping angles, cantilevered overhangs, and neon facia. The office was tucked under an imposing, wing-shaped canopy that jutted out from the front of the building. The outside tip of this imposing triangularity appeared to be floating in space. I didn’t know it then, but this was an example of classic Googie architecture.

Googie – not Google – architecture was a movement that coincided with – and is sometimes considered a subset of – Midcentury Modern. It was popular in commercial structures, primarily travel-related buildings like motels, coffee shops, gas stations, and drive-in food joints, from the mid 1940s into the 1970s. It continues to persist today, primarily with property owners that have an interest in preserving these retro styles.

The origins of Googie can be traced to coffee shops designed by John Lautner, an American architect. Following an apprenticeship in the mid-1930s at the Taliesin Fellowship of Frank Lloyd Wright, Lautner opened his own practice in LA in 1938. In the late 1940s he designed Googie’s Coffee shop in Hollywood using an innovative, futuristic, space-age look that was fueled by the post war interest in atomic energy and space travel.

“Googie” happened to be the nickname of the owner’s wife, Lillian Burton. As the story goes, sometime in the early 50s, an editor of House and Home magazine was driving through LA and happened upon Googie’s. He was impressed – but not in a good way. He took photos of the shop and printed a feature article in which he derided the style and even Hollywood itself for allowing such abominations. Much to his surprise – and apparent chagrin – the style took off and Googie became its namesake. It just goes to show there’s no such thing as bad news. Don’t know whatever happened to that editor, but he inadvertently launched an architectural genre.

The jutting motel canopy gave one an illusion of futuristic giganticness, which I suppose was the whole idea considering the motel building itself would otherwise appear rather plain. Dad pulled the car around into the drive and circled over toward the office, deftly maneuvering Conquistador under the overhang. That’s when the inevitable occurred.

CRRRRAAAASH! The upper part of Tadpole was squashed like an accordion while being forced between the pavement below and the awning above without the necessary clearance between the two. The momentum of the whole rig was so great that it wasn’t until the entire trailer had been mashed like a tin can under the awning that we came to a stop amid the wreckage. Upon hearing the deafening noise, Dad instinctively added some of his own.

I Suwanee! For Christ sake! he howled. What more is this goddamned trailer going to do to us! It was, after all, Tadpole’s fault. If the blasted trailer hadn’t been so righteously tall, it might have fit under the overhang like every other self-respecting rental tag-along.

Attempting to undo the mayhem, Dad threw Conquistador into reverse. That clearly made matters much worse. If the original impact had sorely tested the awning’s construction, by reversing the action the whole wing was wrenched almost completely away from the front wall, taking a good portion of masonry with it. The once-floating wing settled disquietly onto the trailer roof.

It became, as we say in Kramer Family parlance, a “regrettable situation”. Dad – I Suwanee ! – was fit to be tied. Mom was beside herself. The rest of us were simply dumbfounded.

The motel owner, meanwhile, was witnessing these events from inside his office and soon became a show unto himself. His short, pudgy frame stood like a deer in headlights, watching through the windows as the entire front façade of his establishment was being torn asunder. His eyes were as big as cantaloupes.

At first, he just stood there petrified in place. But after the initial shock, he started yelling and jumping around behind the glass. When Dad tried to reverse the rig, chips of masonry showered down, and the guy went ballistic – screaming and dancing about, flailing his arms every which way. He was hollering so loud and fast that you couldn’t understand a word he was saying. It appeared he was displeased.

Finally, seeing the extent at which the trailer had become captive, Dad stopped the car. I Suwanee… I Suwanee… I can’t believe this! he exclaimed exasperated. We all got out. About that time, the proprietor flew out the door, positively apoplectic. He was so livid he appeared as though possessed by the Devil, twirling his arms and actually spitting as he yelled and thrashed around.

Dad approached the man, his 6’3”, 235-pound, monolithic stature towering over the guy. He was apologizing profusely. Gosh Mister, I sure am sorry about this…

The demon’s fury was not quelled – not one bit. He was wildly skipping around the car, screaming in tongues and lashing out. Dad kept trying to calm him down, but the fellow would not be consoled. Finally, Dad reached his limit, got pissed off, and fired back at the guy:

Sir? Sir? – SIR! he screamed at the top of his lungs, like a foghorn, If you don’t stop yelling and get ahold of yourself, we won’t stay here tonight! Only Dad could: a) Think up such a threat, and b) Deliver it with such nonchalance, and c) Mean every word of it!

Meanwhile, the Boys – aka the Three Stooges – went checking what was left of the wrenched supports that connected the overhang to the building. In the know-it-all omnipotence of youth, we delivered a report of the situation:

Oh, it’s not so bad… we declared, as if we were structural engineers. All we need to do is jack it back up and tighten the screws. Maybe throw in a couple support posts here and there for good measure…

Truth be told, the awning itself was relatively intact, if somewhat disconnected from its parent structure. It could, in fact, sit atop any number of supports without compromising its appearance. That is, until the next family towing a trailer comes along.

Mom was off to the side, visibly worried but doing a good job at keeping it together. She was always strong that way. Even in the worst hard times, during the most hellaceous darkness our family had to endure, Mom had an unfailing resiliency and ability to keep her cool. She was the solid rock that kept our family from falling apart on many occasions. While upsetting, this incident was really nothing to her.

Dad got sick of trying to talk the owner down. He turned about-face and went over to Mom: I Suwanee! That dumb little bastard acts like we wanted to do this! Does he think I planned it?! If he doesn’t get a grip on his attitude, we’ll just get back in the car and drive away, so-help-me Hannah! (“So help me Hannah!” was another of Dad’s originalities, used in place of So help me God! Dad was a nonbeliever).

Eventually, after what seemed like an hour, but was probably only a third of that, the owner had exhausted himself. His anger drained away. He was deflated. Defeated. Depressed. Dad once again approached the man and gently reiterated his sincere apologies. Sure am sorry about this, young fella…. The man nodded tiredly. In times like this, Dad had a calm, take-charge benevolence about him. Don’t you worry, mister, we’ll make it right…

Like a skillful maître d’, Dad gently grabbed the man’s arm and ushered him toward the office. How about we go inside and you sign us in? Dad said encouragingly. Then we’ll relax over a cocktail. The owner stumbled toward the office as if on autopilot, stopping only momentarily to look at the chunks of fractured brick and cinderblock that had accumulated on the sidewalk. Mike, get a broom and sweep this up, will you please! Diane, go grab that bottle of bourbon from the back seat. This poor fella deserves a drink!

It was too late to do much that evening, so it wasn’t until the next morning that we got down to extracting the trailer from under the awning. As it turned out, the tip of the wing was supported by a narrow post hidden in the shrubbery. We managed to salvage that and jack up the end high enough to get the car and trailer out. But when we went to lower the structure, the post couldn’t hold it and we had to lay the outside tip on the ground. The broken wing sagged pathetically, effectively hiding the office entrance under it.

As Dad drove the car slowly out from under the awning, it became apparent the destruction of Tadpole was complete. What was once a shiny new trailer was now, after two weeks of Kramer adventure, scrapyard junk. The roof was a shattered and crumpled mess of fiberglass and aluminum. The side walls were splintered and buckled in from the weight of the awning. The back end, already demolished from Tadpole’s downhill mishap, had devolved into a heap of broken metal, torn-to-pieces plywood, knotted wire, and shredded duct tape. As the remains of the trailer emerged, the door frame crashed to the ground and dragged behind in the dirt. Pieces of luggage fell out as Dad pulled around the drive.

There was scarce little left of the original trailer. If it drove over a landmine, there wasn’t much more damage that could be inflicted on it. But we managed to lash everything down on the remaining frame and floor and drove it all back to DC. When we returned the trailer, the guy refused to believe it was the same one he had rented out two weeks prior.

Good thing we got the added insurance…, Dad said smugly.