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patterns of ink

How fruitless to be ever thinking yet never embrace a thought... to have the power to believe and believe it's all for naught. I, too, have reckoned time and truth (content to wonder if not think) in metaphors and meaning and endless patterns of ink. Perhaps a few may find their way to the world where others live, sharing not just thoughts I've gathered but those I wish to give. Tom Kapanka

Saturday, August 26, 2006

Kansas Tags and Sleeping Bags

It was my third summer as a part of Julie’s family. We’d traveled together before (to Colorado and Charleston), but we were about to embark on what would be our longest road trip ever in a vehicle I will never forget.

To this day, I love spending time with Julie's folks and two sisters who are now married with grown kids. That summer, it was just the six of us. We traveled from Kansas to Michigan, to Niagara Falls, to New York City, to Philadelphia, to Washington DC, and back to Kansas, camping all the way—except in New York City.

Oh, how I wish I had a picture of my father-in-law’s 1974 Dodge pick-up truck with its over-the-top camper. (It was “over the top” in every sense of the word.) Compared to my childhood camping experiences, this was The Ritz on wheels (in a Kansas-sorta way). [That's not it in the picture. Theirs was a sort of bronze color.]

You don’t see many of these boxy, truck campers anymore. They appealed to hard-working folks (e.g. farmers, ranchers, small-church pastors—and my father-in-law is all three) who loved that their go-anywhere-do-anything pick-up could be transformed into an RV. Box-campers were eventually replaced by “fifth-wheel” trailers, which utilize the truck with more style.

Style is a word that could not be attached to this camper—just about anything else could be attached, and we proved it in the summer of 1982. Strapped on top was a Webber grill and small hibachi; tied to the cargo ladder were three aluminum lawn chairs. Sticking out the back was a window air conditioner that went through a hole in the rear door. And welded underneath was an extra axle with smaller wheels to help share the load. This extra pair of wheels only touched ground when the camper pressed the truck down, which in turn raised the front up. Dad's conestoga was "good to go."

As we began our road trip that June morning, the whole rig lumbered down the gravel two-track driveway like a stout man giving a stouter man a piggy-back ride.

The truck camper slept six in a pinch—or should I say in a squeeze? (two over the cab, two on the bench seat that pulled out, and two on the dinette that collapsed into a bed). Julie's dad rigged the back entrance door to hold a “window” air conditioner. It those cozy quarters it was a real life-saver, but the weight of the AC unit made it impossible to open the door, so we put it in place only after the last person came in at night. Once we were settled in, the cool air lulled us to sleep, and since the only way out was crawling through the window to the cab, there was no “bathroom” traffic at night to wake us up.

By day, we rotated drivers and seats every few hours. It was a large cab-and-a-half, with fold down seats behind the front bench. Two extra passengers could sit knee-to-knee behind the split bench. We also rode in the camper, of course. It was a great way to travel and "bond" at 60 MPH.

After spending some time with my family in Michigan, we cut across Canada to Niagara Falls, crossing into Sarnia, Ontario at Port Huron's Blue Water Bridge. National security was nothing like the world we now live in. Entering Canada was so common for my family back then that we used to do it just to buy cheaper gas, but this was my father-in-law's first time. Everything was going fine until....

Dad pulled a gun on the customs agent.

At customs, we answered the same old questions the border guards have been asking all my life, which end with “Any fire arms?” I had forgotten to warn my father-in-law about that question. He is a pastor in rural Kansas, where vermin and rattle snakes can really mess up a day of choppin' wood. In that part of the country it's common for pick-up trucks to have rifles in the back window or (in this case) a small .22 caliber pistol under the driver’s seat.

So Dad reached down with a smile and pulled out a revolver. “I’ve got this ol’ pea shooter, but it’s not loaded.” [The ammo was in the glove box.] The agent’s jaw dropped. Evidently in all his years in the booth, he had never had anyone tell the truth and actually show a weapon.

“Sir, put down the gun. Or here… give it to me. No better yet…keep it in the car and drive over here to the office.” Other than that initial stammering, the officer was calm and in charge without a hint of over-reaction. Far from the lanes of pausing traffic, the officer secreted the gun inside. About ten minutes later, he came back with a heavy paper bag folded over many times.

“Look, Mister,” he said, “We’re not allowed to let you into the country with a gun, but since you’re not coming back to the U.S. via this office we’ve no choice but to give you this bag and instruct you not to open it until you get to New York State. Do not discuss this bag or its unknown contents with anyone in Canada—and by all means... do not load it.”

Dad thanked him kindly and we went on our way through Ontario. A couple hours later we could see the rising mist of the falls and breathed a sigh of relief as we crossed another bridge back into the U.S.. Our outlaw day was over—or so we thought.

Unfortunately, Dad made a wrong turn at the end of the bridge and we were somehow heading back to Canada. There was no way to turn around without going through customs again. I knew my father-in-law to be a man of integrity (a good quality for a life-long pastor), and I knew he would wrestle with not telling about the gun. I reminded him that he had promised the Sarnia office that he would not tell anyone in Canada about the bag’s contents. He agreed that his promise trumped the question we would be asked by this Niagara customs officer. And besides, he did not look in the bag. For all we knew, he had a baked potato under his seat.

There were two Mounties on horseback beside the booth. As much as Dad McNabb admires horses, he tried not to look at them. “They're probably just here to impress the tourists,” I said, but we all got a little nervous as the questions began through the rolled-down window. My father tried to pre-empt them with a short explanation.

“We’re actually coming through from Canada not going into Canada. We made a wrong turn and ended up in this lane. We’ll be turning around right there and going back into the U.S.”

“That happens quite often, Sir, but I have to ask these questions just the same.”

Dad nodded… answered the questions…and kept his promise. We crossed back to New York without incident, but coming that close to being busted by the Royal Canadian Mounted Police made us feel like drug-mules waiting to pass balloons.

We took an hour to stroll "The Honeymoon Capital of the World" with my in-laws and then continued on to New York City.

A college friend of Julie’s sister Melanie—I'll call him Bill—had invited her to visit for a few days, and we were to be at his house by late evening. They weren’t quite “dating,” but it was an awkwardly undefined relationship. She didn’t want to visit him by herself (which basically defines her side of the deal), but she thought it would be fun to go see him with the whole family. This entire trip was designed around these three days in New York City.

We knew that Bill was a successful CPA—with accounts of some impressive clients like Billy Joel, and we had reason to believe that he and his parents lived in a nice home. What we didn’t know was that they lived in a very upscale area of Long Island, and we failed to consider the full meaning of the term “gated community” until our truck entered the soft glow of ornate street lamps beside a guard house designed to keep "riff raff" out of this cloistered world.

We rolled to a stop like lost Okies who didn’t know east from west. (If you’ve never read The Grapes of Wrath and don’t know about the Okies' exodus to California, think Beverly Hillbillies and you’ll get the general idea.

“Come in,” said the gatekeeper. “You must be the Wagner's friends. We’ve been expecting you. I’ll show you where to park your truck after you unload your things.”

It's been said that “the surest test of your manners is how you treat those who have none.” There’s a lot of truth in that. (The same can be said about "social status" and education and religion.) I’m not suggesting that our truck-load of weary travelers had no social grace at all, but at that hour in that rig, we definitely looked like country bumpkins. In spite of this, we were given the red-carpet treatment from the moment we arrived. Bill and his folks were our gracious hosts for three days of non-camping. (They even took us out to a fine German restaurant to help Julie and I celebrate our second wedding anniversary.)

Bill knew NYC like the back of his hand. From Wall Street to Ellis Island—from Grand Central Station to Time’s Square—from Saks on Fifth to Broadway—from the Empire State Building to the World Trade Center. We saw it all on the fast track with no wrong turns.

And then when it was time to go, we “loaded up the truck and moved to Beverly…Hills that is…swimming pools…movie stars.” Actually we loaded up the truck and continued on our camping trip down to the Washington D.C. area. We camped somewhere near Annapolis and Chesapeake Bay and took the Metro in to the sights each day.

One night, the campground "ranger" came to our site and told Dad he had a call from Kansas. One of his parishioners had died. He flew home to do the funeral and then flew back on our last day, just in time to pack up. I don’t remember much about the trip back to Kansas. Maybe it's because this was the same summer Julie and I moved to Waterloo, Iowa, and once the sights out east had been seen we set our sights on a new chapter of our lives—a book actually... It turned out to be eighteen chapters long.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

I have jus added your site to my favorites. My daughter goes to your school and has had your wife as a teacher. I have gotten to know each of you a little better over the last few years and you have both been a blessing our families life! Thank you! I love your writing style how blessed we are to have so many talented and God loving people at our fingertips! ( I found your site thru Jody Ferlaaks site) See you when school starts. Julie B.-mother of a first grader

28/8/06 9:44 PM  
Blogger patterns of ink said...

Thanks, Julie. We enjoy your family and "office visits" with my little candy-eating friend. =)

29/8/06 1:08 PM  

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