When my dad first stepped inside our 1968 FAN camper trailer, festooned in dead flies and the previous owner’s drab olive curtains, he gently lifted the rotted ceiling panel in the corner. He tapped the broken pilot light on the furnace. He flipped a loose tile from the floor, opened and shut a cabinet door, then opened and shut it again. He pressed his thumb on the locking mechanism, up down, up down, ostensibly testing the springs. It was like watching a Stomp solo act—or a kid in a candy store, only the kid was 64, and the candy was a panoply of broken items. He didn’t smile, just raised his eyebrows and said what would become his mantra for the next ten months: “It’s gonna look a helluva lot worse before it looks any better.”
My girlfriend Mel and I had been looking for a change. We’d spent the majority of our lives in Nebraska, both of us born and raised in towns that made Lincoln—where we first met at the university—feel like Metropolis. We’d spent two years away during graduate school, but we’d since moved back to Lincoln, where she was rapidly climbing the ladder at a local advertising agency. She excelled at the job and found it stressful, too. She sometimes called in sick just to get ahead, free to work from home without her coworkers competing for her attention. Having just earned a master’s degree in creative writing, I pounded the metaphorical pavement looking for freelance work and other writing gigs, anything to avoid letting Mel pay my share of the rent. I reviewed terrible self-published books for $50 a pop. I profiled local restaurants for state interest magazines. I worked a temp job for a losing U.S. Senate campaign. One day I found myself live on MSNBC above the title “New York Times correspondent.” A few hours later I begged my mother to transfer a few hundred bucks into my checking account.
That we were still in Nebraska at all was a source of unspoken regret between Mel and me. We loved Nebraska—really, we did—but we’d grown tired of it. The whole state felt like an old rental: no matter how many times we rearranged the furniture, it just didn’t excite us anymore. At the summit of our malaise, we took a bike ride along the Salt Creek. Several miles in, Mel turned to me and said matter-of-factly, “Let’s buy a camper, and you can write from the road.” I didn’t know how to respond, so I didn’t. We’d talked about it before, renovating an old trailer, traveling more, but it was always hypothetical. “I’m serious,” she said. “What if we just did it? If it’s a mistake, it’s a mistake. We’re still young. No kids. No mortgage. Now’s our chance.”
Two months later, I sat in a McDonald’s parking lot in Stuart, Iowa, waiting to meet a guy named Ray who was selling his 16-foot trailer on Craigslist. He’d called once already, just as I was pulling off the interstate. “Hey, I tell ya,” he said. “I was backin’ her out of storage just now—dang if I didn’t bust out the back window.” Ten minutes later he called again. “Hey, I tell ya,” he said. “The lights aren’t workin’. Hell of a thing. Tell you what, I’ll drop her $200 and meet you in 15.”
I drove back to Lincoln in the dark, a 16-foot trailer with broken taillights in tow. What should have been a two-hour drive took four. I had no experience hauling a trailer, and though technically my car packed a V6, I wasn’t convinced it was equipped for this sort of thing. I drove 20 mph below the limit, stopping every half-hour to check the tires, the hitch, my nerves. After one of these stops, the taillights magically flickered back to life, only to cut out again another ten miles down the road. Then Mel called.
“I knew I should have been there,” she said.
“Ray dropped her $200!”
“He told me it was probably an easy fix,” I said.
I cringed hearing myself say it. I knew she did, too.
“Hey,” I said. “We own a trailer. Be happy.”
There was never any question of whether my dad would help us fix it up. He’d been an optometrist for nearly 40 years, but he’d always been a construction worker at heart, using paint thinner for soap, muttering “son of a bitch” under his breath. He’d built houses to pay for optometry school. When he moved back to Broken Bow, Nebraska, to start his own practice, he purchased an abandoned two-story farmhouse for $1,000, lifted it from the foundation, moved it into the heart of town and spent nights and weekends for the next three years renovating every square inch of it. It’s the house I grew up in, and nary a weekend passed when he wasn’t fixing something, though I often wondered if he hadn’t broken it on purpose first.
“He always needs a project,” my mom tells us. “He always has.”
The trailer quickly became my dad’s project as much as our own. He let us park it in his shed back in Broken Bow, a three-hour drive from Lincoln, which meant Mel and I would have to piecemeal the renovations one weekend at a time. It also meant that in between our visits, my dad would pine over it from his office window, itching to plug in a table saw or strip out a broken propane line—like a dog staring at his tennis ball through the patio door. He’d send us emails throughout the week, suggesting we purchase this type of water heater or that many hose clamps. When we did return, I’d often find his optometry journals covered in supply lists and operating manuals, various dimensions chicken-scratched into the margins.
Mel and I grew to love our weekends back in Broken Bow. We’d wake up late, eat a big home-cooked breakfast, drink a mimosa or two, and spend the rest of the day with my dad inside the trailer, space heater cranked to the hilt, stripping contact paper from the walls and patching leaks in the ceiling. When we lost the sunlight we’d set down our tools and finish our beers. Mel and I would high-five and say something naïve, something about progress and shortened timelines. Dad would take off his ball cap, rub the nape of his neck. “I’m just gonna tell ya now,” he’d say, time and time again. “It’s gonna look a helluva lot worse before it looks any better.”
After dinner, we’d lie around reading books or watching television. Dad would sit under the lights at the kitchen table, glasses sliding down the bridge of his nose, reading the fine print on all the products we’d purchased at Lowe’s the week before.
The next morning we’d wake up to find him already outside, running the angle grinder up and down the aluminum exterior “just to make sure it worked.” He’d finish half the job before we finished our coffee.
Mel and I knew what we knew, which was very little. We knew what we didn’t know, which was almost everything. And to fill in the gap, my dad had a Rumsfeldian penchant for pointing out the things we didn’t know we didn’t know. That’s where things got sticky.
We needed my dad. We relied on him for nearly every stage of the renovation, and for those we didn’t, we looked to him anyway, just for reassurance: to make sure we stained the backsplash the same way he would—“two coats is plenty, right?”—to make sure vinegar wouldn’t eat the coating on the cabinet hardware, to make sure it was a-okay to stick my wet finger in the electrical socket (kidding). But the temptations in that trailer for a man of my dad’s temperament were too much. All the tiny little fixes called to him, pled for his immediate attention. To point each of them out to Mel and me would slow the whole process. Better, he often thought, to just tackle it himself.
It grated on me. I saw the trailer not just as an eventual space to live, but an opportunity to learn a few of those things my dad learned building houses so many years ago. I let the small ones go, grateful for his help. But sometimes I couldn’t hold my tongue. When I found him that morning with the angle grinder, three rungs up the ladder, I couldn’t stop myself.
“Dad!” I yelled, hoping he’d hear me over the whine of the grinder. “Dad! Are you going to save any of that for me? I don’t even know what you’re doing!”
“Sure,” he said, nonplussed by my tone. “I just wanted to test out the new discs.”
He’d finished one corner of the trailer already, and was now halfway up the second.
“Just stop there,” I said. “Seems like you’ve tested plenty. If you keep testing everything, you’re going to finish the whole thing without us.”
He made jokes for the next two days, making a big show of it before touching anything else in the trailer. We laughed, but we both knew there was a kernel of truth in there, buried deep beneath our sarcasm. He knew I had a point. I knew I sounded ungrateful.
The confrontations didn’t end there.
His pragmatism often butted heads with our personal aesthetic—no small issue considering half our interest in the trailer rested in how it would eventually look.
Case in point: the backsplash. After much thought, Mel and I decided to give it a modern rustic vibe by puzzling together random pieces of quarter-inch paneling. But to do so, we’d have to rip out the faux-tile backsplash already in place. Typically, that wouldn’t be an issue, but the 1968 FAN was manufactured to stymie earthlings should they ever try to dismantle it; certain features, backsplash included, can’t be removed without taking half the trailer with it. Dad gave it a quick look, tested it with the Vaughan bar, and declared it impossible.
I sighed and looked at Mel. She didn’t say anything, but I could feel it: that sensation that arises when you know you’ll be hearing about it later. She hated that old backsplash. She wouldn’t rest until it was gone. Dad said it was impossible to remove. I stood in the middle, perfectly balanced between their opposition, afraid to lean one way or the other.
“We can’t keep it,” I finally said. I tend to overreact when I contradict my dad. “There’s no way! It’s hideous!”
In these standoffs, the next few seconds were paramount. If he took a second look at the project—even a glance—we’d know we had already won. He looked at me under his brow. He looked at us both. He shook his head. We waited…and then he sighed. He pulled the Vaughan bar from his back pocket and wedged it behind the backsplash.
“You can do it if you want to,” he said. “I wouldn’t if I were you, but if you break it apart piece by piece, you can probably…”
It didn’t always swing this way. Occasionally, we let him win. Then we’d lobby Mom.
To act as if restoring this old piece of junk has been anything less than invigorating, and that dad’s help has been anything short of Herculean, would be insincere. By the same token, there have been moments less fit for a sitcom, moments of confrontation that seem comical only in retrospect, times I felt I should say something but didn’t know how. He’s only 64. He’s in perfect health. But he’s old enough now—or maybe I am—that I’ve begun to worry. Not about his faculties—god knows they far surpass my own—but his will, how far he’ll push before recognizing his own limits. He sees them in the distance; I worry they’re not far offshore. Dad will say that’s foolish, and he’s probably right. But it’s easy to push too far. Much harder to call it a day.
When I watch my dad lie supine on the trailer floor, arching his back to reach the water lines beneath the sink, I’m reminded of my Eagle Scout Project, when I was 16, landscaping the area around our hospital’s new helicopter pad. With the help of Troop 48, my dad and I spread several tons of river rock using shovels and a bucket loader. I remember watching him bent over with the shovel, the loader slowly creeping forward. I thought he’d move out of the way when it got too close, but he didn’t. Suddenly his foot and ankle were completely beneath the tire, and he was barking at the loader operator to go back! go back! The whole thing played out in slow motion. For a minute we all just stared, terrified that one step out he’d collapse, or we’d find a bloody bone protruding from his pant leg.
He got lucky. The soil beneath his foot hadn’t been packed yet, and he walked away with little more than a swollen ankle. But it was the first time I realized my dad wasn’t invincible. Renovating the trailer now, that fear sometimes creeps up on me unexpectedly, when he’s running a 2x4 through the table saw or squirming on his back beneath the chassis. Sometimes I’ll offer to do it instead—after all, it is my trailer—but I know he’ll just wave it away, happy to struggle on his own. Worse, sometimes I find myself following his lead, pushing past my own threshold to cross some imaginary finish line. Now and then, usually after the sun has already sunk beyond the hills, and I’m tactlessly hammering away, Mel will softly grip my arm and tell me to leave it for tomorrow. I know she’s right, though I don’t always listen.
We’ve now spent seven weekends back in Broken Bow, seven weekends gutting and stripping and scoring and gluing and painting and sanding and staining and plumbing and bitching and drinking and debating and laughing. Dad called last week. He wanted to know if it was okay to rip out the old water lines, get a head start before Mel and I returned again this weekend. I told him that’d be fine. I told him not to get carried away. He promised he wouldn’t, said he’d show me everything he touched when I arrived.
What I didn’t tell him was that I couldn’t wait to get there, that he should take his time, that as much as I looked forward to hitting the road with Mel, seeing the country from the inside of our trailer, I’d miss our weekends back home.
Carson Vaughan is a freelance writer whose work has appeared in The New York Times, Chicago Tribune, Slate, Smithsonian and more. Check out his website for more on Carson and Melissa's travel trailer adventures, and follow them on Twitter at @localcolorxc.