Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Voyage of the Titanic - An Epic RV Adventure

Chapter 3 – We Christen Thee Titanic

Charles A. Manson stood in the doorway of the 33 1/2’ Southwind beaming, his fat belly swelled out with pride, straining the front of his shirt.

“I told ya she’d start right up, runs like a top, nothing wrong with this baby.” I was guessing he was more excited about the fact that it did start right up, at least in front of me.

He said he would leave the charger on it for a while to make sure the batteries were good. “We’ll put new ones in if they don’t hold a charge.”

From “new” I assumed “different” and coming from the pile of batteries that was just inside the gate where the man and the battery charger had emerged.

“So, we ready to make a deal? This one isn’t going to last long, and we’re practically giving it away.”

I would later remember that statement vividly and think that they probably couldn’t have given it away, let alone find a sucker like me that was willing to actually pay money for it.

“I guess,” I replied. I was figuring that my credit wasn’t good enough to get the loan anyway so I had nothing to lose but the rest of my afternoon going through the motions of buying the Southwind. Filling out the credit application, waiting for the credit check to come back, talking about the N.A.D.A. suggested retail price for a “pristine” 1982 Fleetwood Southwind, 33 ½ foot with all the options. Well, there were some options missing. It did have an awning, a 3-way refrigerator, a driver’s side entrance door, air conditioning on the roof and a dash AC that didn’t work, but we didn’t know it at the time. You can’t live in Arizona without air conditioning and literally very few did until air conditioning was invented. After AC it became one of the fastest growing parts of the country.

Anyway, that was the list of options, and the N.A.D.A. book said it was worth $12,000 in its current excellent condition, low mileage and new rubber all around. Charlie looked it up himself, but declined to show me the book page where he got the information. One epic RV adventure later, I checked the N.A.D.A. book myself for that big box on wheels and it clearly showed an average retail of $3,065.73. Pretty close, and with a slight profit, to the amount that Mr. Manson was telling me would be required for the down payment. But then, I was just expecting to be told that the loan didn’t go through, and so I told him I had the $4,000 and I did.

“Okay,” he said. “How do you want to give me that four thousand, check, cash, credit card?”

“I’ll be writing a check,” I said, “but you’ll have to give me a couple of days to move the funds from my savings account.”

He didn’t think that would be a problem, just that we wouldn’t be able to pick up the coach until it cleared, and he had to check out all the systems anyway before he could, in good conscience, let us drive her cross country. Then he wanted to know when we wanted to pick her up.

“Don’t I have to fill out a credit application,” I asked a bit confused?

Charles A. Manson, turned around and pointed to the sign above his head behind his desk that screamed out, “Good Credit, Bad Credit, No Credit, We’ll Give You Credit.” Funny how I hadn’t noticed that before.

“Don’t need that,” he said, “just sign this retail contract right here. We’ll finance the balance at 15.3%. It’s all detailed right here.” And he pointed to the barely legible standard contract entries detailing the total cost, down payment, financed amount, total interest, total financed amount, monthly payment and late fee. I didn’t remember Charlie making all those calculations, but there they were.

I turned to my wife, hoping she would put a stop to this insanity. “Well, hon, what do you think?”

She didn’t even pause. “I think we should we do it,” she said. And Charles Manson smiled what looked to me like a very wicked smile.

So we wrote the check. I made my wife do it because I have a real problem writing checks with one zero, let alone three. We signed the contract and told Charlie we would pick up the coach the first week in April. I’d like to think it was April 1st, because it would fit the story real good, but it was probably that Saturday, the 5th,1997. That day may live in infamy. I reminded Charlie again that I wanted the windshield fixed and he said he would. I didn’t however have a “Due Bill”, that list of things the dealer promises to do before delivery, but I didn’t think about that then, just took Charles Manson’s word for it. I did have a contract that said I was buying this “As Is” and without that due bill, you have no proof that anything other than that was agreed upon.

Early on Saturday, we went down to Desert RV and picked up the 33 ½ foot Class A motor home that we had been wanting for years. Charlie went through all the systems with us, showed us the repaired windshield, went through the engine compartment, and showed me where to put in the coolant, where to check the oil and the transmission fluid. He just walked us all over that Southwind and we were feeling pretty confident after a while that we knew how everything worked. An hour or so later we were tooling down Benson Highway on the way home, trying to keep the monster between the white lines and wondering how the hell I was going to park it at the house. We had been on the road about 10 minutes.

All of a sudden an incredibly loud rushing sound started up and built into a louder and louder roar, like the sound of a jet engine when an airplane takes off. Almost as loud too and I couldn’t hear or talk to my wife sitting in the seat next to me across the engine cowling where the noise was coming from.

“What the fuck is that?” I screamed in her direction.

“I don’t know,” I heard her yell back, faintly.

Just as quickly as it started it wound down and stopped.

“What the hell do you think that was?” I said it in a normal speaking voice.

“I don’t know,” she said again, “but it’s stopped.”

Well, I guess that made it all right, because it didn’t do it again as we maneuvered the coach down the narrow streets of the mobile home park and pulled up in front of our house. There was barely enough room to pull around us on the street and the front of the coach was up in the small grass patch we had in the front of the double wide, the rest on the driveway, half over the curb. Within seconds our neighbor’s across the street, Mel and Mary, came running out of their house. Their two girls followed.

“Weeeuw,” Mel whistled, “What the hell did you do? That thing is big, ain’t it?” I was looking out at him through the sliding glass window on the driver’s access door.

“Easy to drive though, like driving a Cadillac,” I said, acting like I was an expert.

I wonder why everything big you drive is described like driving a Cadillac? I’ve never driven a Cadillac. I was in one once, and I remember it feeling like driving down the highway sitting on your living room sofa. This was like that, only you were on a recliner chair instead of a couch and you could even cross your legs under the bus-like steering wheel.

“Reminds me of the Titanic from that TV show, Trapper John MD,” Mary says.

Dr. “Trapper” John McIntyre of MASH fame worked with a Dr. George Alonzo “Gonzo” Gates. Gonzo was a resident surgeon at San Francisco Memorial and he lived in a rusted but, by all appearances, functioning Winnebago that he lived in out in the hospital parking lot. He called it the “Titanic”. He often spent time on the roof drinking and relaxing in lounge chairs. I immediately envisioned myself doing that on the trip. It was never determined during the run of the show whether the Winnebago could move, and where he was getting his utilities for that matter.

My wife jumps right in. “Yeah, that’s it, we’ll name it the Titanic. Perfect.”

If you haven't already figured it out, we name all our vehicles. Our current vehicles, a 2008 Toyota FJ is Burgie because of her burgandy color, and the 1999 Ford F-350 Dually we just traded in was The Hulk because it was big and green. The new 2008 Tundra Limited is still waiting for a moniker.

“Okay,” I said, “I’d break a bottle of Coors Light over her bumper and say, ‘We Christen Thee Titanic’, but the bumper would probably fall off and it would be a waste of beer.”

A few minutes later, while we were giving the “tour”, I caught a glimpse of the park manager out the front windshield, leaving what appeared to be my front porch, and walking off quickly, trying not to be seen. I walked over to the porch later and retrieved the letter which was stuck between the jamb and the screen door. The gist of it was that we could not park the Titanic in front of our house and we would have to move it immediately. It was against the park rules. We figured that, hell we knew that it was against the rules to park a motor home on the street. We fought with the managers every day about something that was against the "rules", but cheeeeeeez, the Titanic had only been docked for 15 minutes. He must have seen us drive in and typed our name on the letter as we were driving to our space. Maybe it had leaked out that we were bringing a motor home on the property and he had the letter already prepared. I started to wonder who the leak was, Mel, no he would never tell. Someone Mel told? I would never find out but I knew they weren't that efficient in posting notices of violations. At any rate we would discuss with them the need to have the motorhome parked there for short periods so we could load it, we had already arranged a place to store it.

Monday, November 17, 2008

Voyage of the Titanic - An Epic RV Adventure

Chapter 2 – New Rubber All The Way Around

Manson sat in the middle of the faded blue fold-down sofa, his arms outstretched, his legs stretched out across the blue kitchen-type carpet, almost filling up the entire space. The carpet was not original or new. He revealed damp pools of sweat in wide circles under both arms. The top of the sofa was now soaking it up too. Sweat was running off his forehead like a dripping faucet. He repeatedly pulled out a handkerchief and dabbed at his forehead with it. It was getting hot already in the desert southwest, and, even in March, it was pushing 90s this late in the afternoon. It was pushing 200 degrees inside this box with wheels.

I sat in the passenger seat of the rig, which was a love-seat of sorts, a blue vinyl two-seater high back that could be turned around to face the sofa and also could be reclined into a bed, “for a tike”, as Charlie put it. I was watching my wife look and touch.

“This baby’ll sleep 10 easy,” he had said earlier.

I only saw beds for maybe four and a small kid, if you counted the love-seat. Maybe he was talking about putting sleeping bags on the floor. Like those tents they tell you will sleep up to eight. You have to lay out the sleeping bags and the sleepers according to a precise diagram to even remotely attempt to fit eight people in the tent. They don’t tell you how to get the eight people into the tent and into the sleeping bags, which will clearly take some sort of plan. They don’t explain how you would get out of the tent, if you need to take a leak in the middle of the night for example, either.

Barb is walking around inside the 6’ 8” X 30’ interior box. She sits on the queen-size mattress that takes up the entire bedroom area in the back, and looks around, pleased, then down the aisle, through the open door, at me way up twenty-some feet in the love seat. I’m watching her, following her with my eyes. She steps in and out of the bathroom quickly, not much to see in there, toilet, sink, medicine cabinet. The medicine cabinet is clearly not one of the original components, and not designed for the RV industry, so it looks out of place. The bathroom door shuts but she can’t get it to latch, so she gives up. The tub and shower stand alone on the other side of the aisle, and there is nothing that shuts this bathroom area off from the rest of the living space. Presumably someone could be watching TV….. wait, there’s no TV. I just notice it. Not even a place where a TV might have been. I see there’s a “custom made” plaque of sorts, where TVs go in the newer coaches, in the center of the area above the windshield and the roof, with three circular needle gauges about three inches in diameter, a temperature gauge, a barometer, and a compass. None of them appear to work. The temperature needle, I notice, is off the grid, so it might be working. It feels like its well over its maximum possible reading, in the coach. She pulls the shower curtain aside and checks out the tub.

Next she looks over the small L-shaped kitchen with the three-burner stove and the little oven. She pulls the oven door down, looks in. This obviously reveals a non-appropriate situation by the look on her face. She does the same to the micro-wave, a forty-nine dollar Target add-on probably bought at a garage sale. The micro-wave shelf is a hastily built box, stained a color that isn’t even close to the rest of the cabinetry. The cabinets above and below the sink all have a mismatched assortment of latches and pulls. She opens each one and looks in. She tries to open the little slatted window over the sink but the knob appears to be stripped and turns with no effect. There are broken and missing slats in the mini-blind covering it also.

Next to the tub, on the other side of the aisle, is a built-in wardrobe with two drawers underneath. She pulls out one of the drawers and has difficulty forcing it back shut. I make a mental note that the drawer slides are obviously damaged, maybe missing. She opens the wardrobe doors and looks in. Next to that is a three-way refrigerator.

“This refrigerator works on propane, 12V battery, or 110 house current depending on the switch you set it on,” is how it was explained by Charlie. Ultimately, I think it worked on 110 only, if at all.

She opens that too though, and I’m sure she almost passes out from the stench, but she tries not to show it. In my case, I’m not sure if the new stench is coming from the refrigerator she just opened or what’s sitting on the sofa. Both are down-wind of me. She flips up the shelf at the end of the counter and it falls right back down on its hinge. This would give her an additional ten inches of counter space if it had stayed up, making a total of two feet of usable counter space, maybe, but very difficult to walk down the aisle without bruising a hip. The kitchen and bath area are covered with a fake wood floor, also not for the RV industry, and not original.

Finally, the inevitable words come out of her mouth.

“I really like this one.”

That was all she said. I didn’t really like this one much at all. It was too big. It had clearly seen better days, and even worse, I was to find out later. It had a lot of “extras” that were not, shall we say, engineered correctly. It did only have 54,000 miles on the odometer though. Not bad for a 15-year old coach, less than 4,000 miles a year. I was going to have to succumb to the illusion that the mechanical on this Southwind was maintained better than the interior of the coach.

There were a lot of things on this coach that might not work properly, even though Charlie promised that everything would work when we drove off the lot. For one big thing, there was a one and a half inch gap above the windshield on the passenger side, and it looked like the glass was ready to fall out of the opening completely. A good push would have sent the huge piece of glass shattering to the gravel parking lot below.

“Gonna have to fix that,” I said.

‘Of course, no problem, we were going to fix that anyway,” Charlie shot back.

“I don’t know,” I start. I’m talking to Barb. “Lot of work here.”

“I know, but we can do it,” she said. “Mostly just needs to be cleaned up.”

Eternal optimism, if we just clean it up it will be good as new. This place was going to take a lot more that just a sponge, a mop and a bucket, a lot more.

I got up and walked outside to check out the exterior. Manson grunted himself up and followed me. You could tell he was happy about getting back outside. Then he said it again.

“New rubber all the way around, lotsa miles left in those tires, that’d cost ya a thousand by itself.”

The tires did look new; they at least looked shined up. They all had air. Each of the six of them has about 100psi, for future reference.

The outside of the Southwind was clean but had a dingy, un-waxed look.

“You can wax this right up,” Charlie says when I bring it up. “Just been out in the sun a lot. You’ll get it to look like new.”

I glance over the huge exterior surface of the coach and think that if I ever get this to look like new, it will kill me for the effort.

Well I figured I better ask, since we seemed to be sidestepping this issue, “does it run?”

“Sure it runs, starts right up.” Mr. Manson seemed offended. I dare I question that it would run.

My wife is walking around the coach and is at this very moment on the other side, away from me.

“I’ll just go get a key and be right back.” He disappears into the sales shack.

My wife comes around from the back of the motor home. “So what do you think?” she says.

In my head, I think we’re crazy, but I say something else. “It could work.” Pause. “We can probably afford the down. Did he say how much it was?” Pause. “I wonder how much the payments will be?” Long pause. “It does have new tires.” My wife doesn’t answer any of these queries.

Manson comes waddling back with a key on what looks like a hotel key ring. Big orange oval with a number on it, Room 237 I think.

He climbs back into the coach with a grunt or two and plops down in the driver’s seat. The big coach sways. I follow him in and watch him as he, inserts the key, pushes the shift into park, and turns. Nothing. He turns the key back then tries it again. I could hear a few faint clicks and then nothing.

“Battery’s dead, been sittin’ out here too long. I’ll get her plugged in and the batteries will charge up just fine. You should keep it plugged in anyway when you have it parked, just to make sure you have a full charge in the batteries.” Another lesson on the proper care and operation of the motor home, from Charles Manson, whom I am now convinced has never owned one of these.

He left out the part about motor homes having two, sometimes three DEEP CELL batteries. “DEEP CELL” translates into “fucking expensive”. In fact the most expensive batteries you can find, and, at the moment, I just believe that all they need is to be charged.

Charles Manson, sweat pouring from his brow again, yells out into the junkyard.

“Kurt, bring that charger up here and get the Southwind hooked up. Batteries are dead.”

A short, bent over, old man appears from the shadows, through the gate, pulling a large industrial battery charger, the cord unraveling and falling behind him as he goes. It’s plugged in somewhere back in the abyss of motor home parts and pieces, in a lean-to shed that will, I’m certain, ignite with the smallest of sparks, and has no business having power run to it. Certainly a Code issue. He hooks it up and, I assume, sets it to start the engine, because Charlie goes back in and, in a few brief seconds, the beefy V8 roars to life. It runs.