Every year at this time, as summer approaches and parents start to say good-bye to their departing college students, I’m reminded of how my family sent my older sister off to college. After a few years, long enough for the scars to have healed and the nightmares to have ceased, my dad wrote a story about our family adventure. All of what you will read is true, and even I find it hard to believe that anyone could have talked my father into this trip – a true testament to my mother’s considerable powers of persuasion.
Over the years, we talked about this adventure, and always laughed about it, or at least most of us laughed. We also suggested my dad send it in somewhere to get published, but he never did. This seems the perfect time and place. As the lazy days of summer wind down and my life continues at high speed, I decided to go the easy route and plagiarize my column this month from my dad [the late Phil Cohen – ed.]. It really wasn’t that long ago, but I cannot pass an RV without suppressing a shudder. Goose bumps appear, I break out in a cold sweat, and the memory of a weekend forever encapsulated in our family folklore emerges as a reminder that RVs are not for everyone. It all began when Melissa, our eldest daughter, graduated from high school and opted to enroll at UC Davis. “I have a great idea,” announced my wife. This questionable idea, of course, provides the genesis of what follows. The idea was that we rent an RV and drive to and from Davis “en famille,” so to speak. Our family consists of myself (a lawyer whose ambitions for camping or discomfort achieve the highest limits of enthusiastic empathy); my wife (also a lawyer whose spirit of adventure, however limited, exceeds mine, and at the time of this narrative on crutches due to a broken ankle); of course, my daughter Melissa, who was excitedly looking forward to going away to college; my youngest daughter Kendall, then a sophomore in high school who, being a UCLA aspirant, was totally indifferent to her sister’s preference for Davis. In addition, we have my motherin-law, whose unparalleled saving grace in living with us for these 30 years or more is to regard our various family differences with a studied and bemused tolerance, and then go to bed. Lastly, we must not overlook Angus, our Cairn terrier, who will not, or cannot, assimilate commands, but is much loved anyway.
After having triumphantly negotiated the RV rental, I was given the keys and a few instructions, and drove home to load up for the forthcoming journey. Leaving from the parking lot went off without a hitch, and I negotiated the vehicle to the vicinity of our residence without much difficulty. I must hasten to add that prudence dictated this be done when traffic was at its lightest, and I carefully acceded to the dictates of prudence. The major problem arose when I attempted to make a right turn into our driveway. My first attempt obliterated the rose bushes, and my second attempt left me perilously sprawled in the driveway, with the rear of the vehicle protruding midway into the road. I did not attempt a third try. Instead, I ruminated for a few seconds, backed out into the road, drove to a cul-de-sac at the bottom, drove back up the road and made a perfect left turn into our driveway. I then made a Loretta Young entrance into our living room and nonchalantly informed the family to load the vehicle.
We left home late in the evening and headed for our first night rest stop. A reservation had been made and no problems were foreseeable. What was not foreseeable however, was that the space assigned to me was much narrower than our vehicle (or so it seemed). After two attempts, my wife (rather forcefully, I thought) suggested she park the vehicle. I smiled in a patronizing sort of way, handed her the keys and got out. Of course, she parked with no problem. My primary job was to connect the electricity and the water, but these efforts were of no avail since the cord and plug from the vehicle did not fit the park connection. When I drew this anomaly to the attention of the park manager, he commented (rather offhandedly I thought), that I needed a “pigtail.” I asked, “What is a pigtail?” He replied that all RVs needed one, but fortunately he had just one left, and he could sell it to me for $25. I purchased it, connected the vehicle, and “Eureka!” we had light. I encountered the same problem with the water, and by some freak of coincidence, the park manager had one water hose left. He sold this to me for $15, and we settled down for the night taking comfort with our electricity and water.
The night was not comfortable. My bed was a double slat affair which I had to unfold. Since both sides were at an angle, I naturally slid into the middle, and spent the night lying on some sort of elongated crack. This, coupled with Angus, who spent the entire night racing up and down the RV, did not leave me in the most sanguine of humor when we resumed our trip the following morning. My wife, in view of her earlier demonstrated driving expertise, suggested she start out the morning drive. I growled my concurrence and off we went. The drive was pleasant enough, until we heard a loud screeching and grinding noise to the right of the vehicle. I looked out saw a most depressing sight, a crying driver, sitting in his imported twodoor coupe, gazing into my eyes with a woebegone expression. We made our way to the parking lot of an adjacent shopping center and all trooped out to survey the damage. It didn’t take long. Our two-door coupe driver took one look at the RV, and said, “Let’s forget it, your damage is worse than mine,” and with that, he took off at high speed.
At this point in time, I adopted my superior male demeanor, and advised all and sundry that I would drive the rest of the way. Our journey toward Davis then resumed until suddenly we found ourselves at a toll bridge. In my ignorance, I didn’t even know toll roads existed in this area, but I thought, “This isn’t the first surprise on this trip – I could easily handle this one.” Sensing my apprehension at the narrow approach, the toll collector left his booth and carefully guided me through. For my part, I was most carefully watching the wall on my left side and was most pleased at my skill when all at once (you guessed it), I experienced a loud screeching and grinding noise to the right of the vehicle. Because of the line of traffic to the rear, I had no choice other than to go forward. Once over the bridge, we stopped for a survey and found that both right fenders had gone, and a large gash which had not been there before was now in full and embarrassing view. I can only say our drive to Davis continued in explosive silence. It was with some relief we pulled in and parked at the facility where I had with foresight made a reservation. After all, I had a pigtail and the correct size water hose, and “nothing could go wrong now,” I announced with pride. I cheerfully connected the sewage disposal and my wife prepared to take a shower. A few moments later, she called out and told me the water was rising in the shower and the sink was backing up. All I needed at this stage was a sewage back up, so I raced to the park management to locate a serviceman. After a two-hour wait during which we all, including Angus, filled the time by glaring at each other, and a Sunday service call charge, I was informed that there was absolutely nothing wrong with the system. I had merely neglected to “open the gate.” “What gate?” I asked in my innocence, only to be shown a small flap at the rear underside of the vehicle which must be opened in order that the sewage can flow. It was time for a family meeting. Melissa felt it would serve everyone’s best interests if she completed her college check-in by taxi. We all agreed, and after checking Melissa in decided we would return home immediately rather than, under the circumstances, stay any longer. To do so would only invite further unforeseeable, yet certain, disasters. I did not demur to my wife’s suggestion that she drive, and we wended our way to the I-5 South and home. Things were progressing smoothly. We were cruising at 55 MPH with my wife at the wheel, and I was sitting by a table midway down reading the paper. Without warning, there was a screech of brakes, and I took a swan dive straight through the table, ripped it completely off its hinges, and ended up lying on my stomach in the co-driver’s seat next to my wife. She was quite impervious to my predicament and somewhat weakly explained that a car had swerved in front of her and she was merely taking “evasive action.”
About 2 hours north of home, and counting the minutes to that delicious time when I could return this self-inflicted torture chamber on wheels whence it came, we all noticed a steady and ever widening swerving from side to side. “Don’t worry,” I called out with confidence, it’s only the wind.” Within seconds, a trucker pulled up alongside and with a panic-stricken look on his face, motioned us to stop. We did, and to our chagrin, disgust, hysteria or whatever, found ourselves faced with a flat tire, right side rear. We limped along to a service station, installed the spare, and arrived home very late at night and very tired. The next morning, I returned the RV to the dealer who, after having inspected the vehicle, commented that I had “returned less than I had rented.” I fought hard and succeeded in making no response. Over the years, the family in toto (with my exception) found the trip a laugh – not a big one, true, but nevertheless a laugh. I’ve never been able to find much humor in it, and simply ask, wouldn’t it have been better if Melissa had chosen a college a little closer to home?