Thursday, November 27, 2008

Billy Beach

I had a job once (yes, it’s true) in Ocala, Fla. I unloaded pot trucks. It’s not what you’re thinking. I worked for a plumbing wholesaler to the mobile home industry. I spent a good share of my time unloading semi-trucks that were filled with toilets. I worked during the winter and traveled during the summer. It was a great gig. I was actually a very good pot truck unloader, and the people I worked with were some of the finest I have ever known. They always rehired me when I returned from a summer of traveling, and treated me as if I had never left. I always showed up around Thanksgiving and received a turkey and holiday bonus like everyone else. Same thing happened at Christmas.
But the real magic about this one time career is centered around an individual who I can truly say was one of a kind. He was a clown of the highest order. He made Robin Williams seem like a straight man. He was one of the most incredible characters I have run across in all my days of rambling. He made showing up for work a pleasure.
His name was Billy Beach. He looked like the NFL great, Lyle Alzado. From what I could gather from others, he once played school football with the same enthusiasm as Lyle. He could get away with anything around the warehouse because he worked twice as hard as everyone else.
At first I didn’t know how to take him. I didn’t have a checking account, so on payday I would go to the bank with Billy and he would cash my check through his bank. The first time we drove up to the teller window, Billy deposited his check and sent a note in to the teller to cash mine. I could see all the girls in the bank giggling and laughing and wondered what was so funny. Billy sat in the driver’s seat as if nothing was going on. Finally, I asked him what the tellers were laughing about. He said, "I sent a note in with your check that read, "I love you."
During the spring, before I would leave for the summer, Florida would begin to get very hot and humid. In a warehouse full of plastic plumbing fittings and fiberglass showers, there wasn’t much that water could damage. Spring would often break out in water fights toward the end of the week on Friday afternoons when all the shipping was complete. It happened much like a football coach’s being ambushed with Orange Crush when his team was assured of a championship. As a first-time victim, I was sweeping up the warehouse when Billy dumped a garbage can full of water on me. That was my initiation and my lesson to be combat ready on hot Friday afternoons. I can only remember once getting the best of him. He was usually thinking quicker than everyone else. I must have caught him on an off day. I saw him filling the can and knew he was targeting me. It was the day I took water combat to a new dimension at Service Supply Systems. The old plant did not have a sprinkler fire-prevention system in the ceiling. Instead, it had a fire hose with all the pressure of a New York City pumper truck. I made sure I continued to sweep the floor within easy access of the fire hose. Billy came bounding around the warehouse storage racks struggling with his heavy burden of water. I can still see the shocked look on his face. He looked like a deer caught in the headlights of a speeding car. He was screaming, "That’s not fair!" as I blew him straight out the back of the building through the loading dock doors.
There is a Garth Brooks country song with the verse, "I’ve got friends in low places." It’s about a beer joint called the Oasis. It’s a place that Garth Brooks has never really been. The Oasis really did exist. The song was written by a fireman from Ocala. The Oasis was on the north side of Ocala. The front of the joint had plastic palm trees. It was probably the classiest part of its decor. The boss held our Christmas party there once, and if I remember right, I think we almost got thrown out of the place. Billy was singing, "Somewhere Over the Rainbow" using Judy Garland’s voice. He was even doing the high Auntie Em and Toto parts.
Billy’s father, Clifford, worked with us. He was quiet, mild mannered and serious. I always told him I thought he must have brought the wrong baby home from the hospital. Clifford always knew if he scolded Billy he was going to get put in a headlock and have the top of his head kissed. All joking aside, it was a joy to see the relationship the two had. In fact, Gaila and I had the pleasure of knowing the whole family very well. We still have sweet potato casserole every Thanksgiving. It was a dish that Billy’s wife Louanne served the first Thanksgiving we spent with them.
Friends are the real value of a lifetime. Good memories are a commodity that can only be traded through the heart. Sharing with others is the bond that welds the two forever.
When I heard that Billy had passed away. I found it no surprise that hundreds of people attended his funeral. He was a welder of bonds, a special individual, a maker of memories.
--Dick E. Bird,

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

The RV Lifestyle

My grandparents bought an Airstream travel trailer in 1956. It would end up having a huge impact on my life. It was actually my grandmother’s idea. She saw one at a gas station one day and had my grandfather turn around and go back. The owner gave them a tour of the trailer and before long they had one parked in their driveway.

Not long after that my dad brought one home. I don’t think my mother was all that thrilled. It wasn’t like getting diamonds or pearls. It actually meant she would be busy every Friday for years loading the trailer for weekend camping and unloading every Sunday evening.

During my dad’s summer vacations we would travel all over the country like a bunch of gypsies. It was long before trailer parks were common or franchised. We would camp while traveling wherever they would let us plug in our electric cord. Gas stations, A&W root beer joints (my personal favorite), city and county parks in small towns across the U.S. and Canada.

In those days you could do things that would now have you arrested and thrown in jail. Each new trailer came with a narrow shovel for digging gopher holes. That was the polite way of describing the septic disposal method. Even in the state parks, digging a gopher hole was standard operating procedure. The septic dumps on trailers at the time were designed to be located on the shoulder side of the road. In rural areas my brother and I would pull the pin and my dad would drive down the shoulder. We made a wide berth to catch up with him. It was no different than the railroad passenger cars dumping on the tracks. Needless to say, people discovered, as RVing became very popular, that the practice was not acceptable and unsanitary and some would say, "The idea just plain stinks!"

We spent many summers exploring National Parks and Monuments. I learned to love nature, camping, hiking, backpacking, fishing and just plain traveling, meeting new people and exploring. I guess you would define it as wanderlust. I have been rambling ever since.

After graduating from high school I lived in my ’64 GMC suburban for several months traveling and backpacking through the Northwestern states and the Provinces of Canada. For graduation people gave me canned goods. I would make Rice Krispy treats in a metal bucket. That was a large part of what I lived on that summer. When I had extra money I would splurge and buy hamburger, cooking it on my engine block driving down the road.

After the Marines and marriage, wanderlust struck again. My wife Gaila and I bought a trailer and worked our way around the country for several years. We would stop and find work whenever we ran out of money, which introduced us to some of the most wonderful and interesting friends we have had throughout our lives—not to mention some of the craziest jobs.

After spending years parking long trailers in short spaces—such as small ferries in Alaska’s Inside Passage—we switched to a motorhome. Gaila loves to drive the motorhome and after spending five months searching for me as I hiked the Continental Divide from Mexico to Jasper, Alberta Canada, she has decided that me walking and her driving is an excellent way to travel. She says that if she sees me once a week—that’s plenty.

Traveling across the continent in a self-contained mobile unit of any kind is an adventure. I guarantee when you return you will have new friends and stories to tell. We have been stuck in spring snowstorms in the middle of New Mexico’s Gila National Forest, near hurricanes along the coast of Texas, broken down along 1,200 miles of the Alaskan Highway and changing flats in 110 degree Arizona heat. But to temper those rough times we have watched majestic sunsets across the plains, sunrises full of life in the Everglades, warm summer nights in the heart of the Rocky Mountains, spectacular fall colors through New England and sunny days along the rocky Oregon coast. We have seen Denali from the backcountry and life from many angles that would never have presented themselves to us had we not been there to seek them out. If you have a sense of adventure, traveling is one of the pure joys of life. Living in an RV allows you to feel right at home on the road. --Keep Smilin', Dick E. Bird