The Little Green Trailer

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Status: Finished  |  Genre: Humor  |  House: Booksie Classic

Antoinette Berthelotte

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Word Count: 3578




The Little Green Trailer

By Antoinette Berthelotte


When my twin sister Peggy and I were six, Mama decided she no longer wanted to be married to our Dad. She had met Dick, the son of a friend, while Dad was on Alaska duty with the Coast Guard. Dick was tall, dark, handsome and thirteen years her junior. It was time for a new adventure. Since Dick hated soggy, gray Seattle, not to mention the proximity of the aggrieved husband, they decided they would move to Montana, closer to Dick’s family.  Our mother took her new romance and the relocation and wove them into a new chapter for herself. She would play the role of the courageous pioneer woman and stalwart spouse, caring for her brood in the wilderness.  Peggy and I weren’t overly concerned by all of this. We were used to our Dad being gone for long periods of time and by then Dick was an accepted presence in our lives. We were also used to moving at the drop of a hat and Mama filled us with stories of new adventures in the wild, wild, west of Montana. Most of our possessions, including our previous year’s Christmas presents, were put into storage in Seattle. The next time we saw them, we were 12 years old!

This venture got off to an inauspicious start when our car broke down just after crossing the Washington state line. Limping back as far as Spokane, Dick sold the car for enough to buy train tickets for Mama, Peg and me to Great Falls, where his mother would meet us. He stayed in Washington so he could earn enough to buy another car and joined us in Great Falls later.

The train trip through the stunning high pines of the Cascades and the beauty of the Bitterroot was quite exciting for us. However, I specifically recall my disappointment upon pulling into the Great Falls train station. Mama had played the western scene to the hilt and I fully expected to see a replica of a Roy Roger’s movie.

I turned to Mama and cried, “I don’t see any cowboys or injuns!”

I felt we had been hornswoggled. She tried to point out that some of the men were wearing jeans and cowboy boots but ‘Sorry Toots.’ that just didn’t cut it. At age six I wanted horses tied at the saloon and gunslingers looking for trouble, not beat up pickup trucks at the liquor store and poverty-stricken Indians sitting in desolation. That was my first recollection of Mama’s penchant for painting a picture while looking through rose-colored glasses.

I have bits and pieces of memories of the interesting places we stayed until Dick and Mama could get on their feet.  I know we spent some time at Dick’s mother’s house because I recall my Uncle Pat, who was only about twelve, scaring the daylights out of me by melting wax all over his hands and jumping out of a closet like a monster. It also seemed the warmth of familial love between my mother and her new mother-in-law cooled rapidly while waiting for Dick and we ended up living in an old converted freight car in Black Eagle, which is an Indian enclave on the north side of Great Falls. I recall Peggy and I sleeping on a mattress on the floor and our mother having to step over us in the night to get to the toilet. At six we were just as happy to play in the hard-packed dirt with all the other children and had no idea we were living with the poorest of the poor. As an adult, I broached that period with my Mother one time and as far as she was concerned, I didn’t know what I was talking about. I must have dreamt it.

I suspect we were only living on the child support Mama got through the Coast Guard at that time when Dick showed up and started looking for work. Fortunately, he got a job before the winter started and we moved into a one-bedroom efficiency apartment at the Knotty Pine Motor Court. I thought it was pretty cool because, true to its name, the walls were paneled with knotty pine planks. Very cowboy-ish. In November, Peg and I celebrated our 7th birthday there. Our Aunt Kathy, Dick’s little sister, who was only about 3 years our senior, was our only guest. Peggy and I each got a pair of leather soled, knitted slippers and a cowboy shirt. I also got a tin tractor that made sparks in its exhaust when pushed along the floor. I can still recall the smell of the oily flint when it struck the friction wheel It also was the kind that could be wound up which gave me hours of entertainment watching it traverse the pillows and throw rugs I used to create my own terrain.  I don’t know what Peggy got for her personal birthday gift. As far as I was concerned, it apparently wasn’t as good as mine or I would have remembered.  That was where Mama also told us that we were going to have a new baby sister, or brother, in the spring. I don’t recall being overly impressed by that news. Spring was a long way away and I had my really cool tractor. One note of interest that Peg and I didn’t realize until adulthood is that what with moving around so much, Mama never enrolled us in first grade that August. However, by December, they had found an apartment to rent and we were enrolled in school during the winter break. It’s a good thing Peg and I were lovers of books and that first grade wasn’t as advanced as it is now, for with only a little struggle, we caught up. Our mother was an accomplished B.S. artist so I’m assuming she said that we had just moved from Seattle and the transcripts were ‘in the mail’. It was a lot easier to get away with that type of deception in the days before computers. 

Dickie was born in May. By June the escrow on house that Mama gave up in Seattle closed and she got a check in the mail. I doubt that it was a big windfall, but it was enough to buy a lot with a trailer on it. The family homestead could now be established.

My mother, step-dad, baby brother Dickie, twin sister and I moved in to the little green trailer when Peggy and I were about eight. It was early summer, and they bought the property anticipating living in the trailer temporarily while constructing a real home on the same lot before the first snows flew. Of course, in Montana that could be as soon as the end of August!

Our mother, Jeannette, again filled our heads with the adventures we would have in the trailer while ‘roughing it’ like the settlers of old. She explained how exciting it would be and then we would be in the new house snuggled in its warmth by the time winter hit. Our mother, if not realistic, was definitely optimistic.  Being children, Peggy and I were accepting of whatever lifestyle was given us. As long as we were fed, had time to play and weren’t in trouble, we were happy. Dickie, at 6 months, was even less fussy about his surroundings and Dick, our step-dad, was from the wilds of Minnesota, so accepted the hardscrabble life and minimal comforts as the norm.  What was amazing to me looking back was that this life no more fit our mother’s persona than a princess willingly working in the scullery, which proved she was as good at deceiving herself as she was at deceiving others.

The 20-foot trailer was not, by any stretch of the imagination, a mobile home. Not even by Great Falls Montana standards in 1953. It had to have been pre-war, constructed of plywood and painted a nauseating shade of pea green.  The domed roof was tar-papered and covered with a silver colored rubberized coating. I specifically recall the shimmering, shiny quality of the roof’s coating, which gave it the dignity of a bag lady wearing a cheap, plastic tiara. The large kerosene tank mounted on the west side of the trailer was nicely balanced by the rough wooden lean-to addition attached on the east side. The whole assembly was set back about 75 yards on the downwardly sloping lot where the proud homeowners could survey their weed crop until the property ended at the graveled street.

Considering our stints of living in freight cars and motels, even I wasn’t impressed by our new home. The deteriorating roof and peeling paint were only precursors to the delightful interior. The original 20’ trailer consisted of a kitchen, a bedroom and a tiny combination toilet/shower/sink compartment. The attached wooden lean-to, emphasis on lean, added a 5’ by 20’ room on that side of the trailer. It had a wall dividing it into two small rooms. One side was used as a shared bedroom for Peggy, Dickie and me. On the other side of the dividing wall was a table, four chairs and a pot-bellied kerosene stove.  The lean-to being tarpapered inside in lieu of insulation enhanced the ambiance. I can still recall the sharp smell of the tarpaper when the stove warmed it.  Since the stove was also in the same room where we ate, this gave most of our evening meals a rather brackish tang. 

There was also no indoor plumbing! I discovered this when Dick told us we couldn’t use the toilet in the trailer.  Well, after 7 years of intense training regarding bathrooms, I was confused about this until Mama took Peggy and me out back and showed us the outhouse. It was a large family two-holer, which meant Peggy and I could socialize while taking care of business. We thereby christened it amongst a flurry of giggles never considering the future pleasure of dropping our drawers in 20 degree below zero weather or struggling through snowdrifts to get there.  We did, however, have running water. The bad news being that it was from a single faucet mounted on a three-foot upright pipe approximately 25 feet from the trailer. This was the modern day equivalent of getting your water from a well.In this environment and with an infant, Mama had to cook all our meals on a two-burner stove, where she also heated the water for bathing, dishes and laundry.  I recall the first night there; Mama heated the water for dishes, washed them and pulled the drain plug in the sink. She was suddenly standing in a pool of soapy water and realized the drain was in no way connected to any drainpipe.  It was necessary to put a bucket under the sink to collect the dishwater. In fact, we had to have a number of buckets. We had buckets for hauling fresh water in, buckets for hauling used water out and buckets assigned for personal use when it was too dark and cold to go to the outhouse.  We had to be careful to select the right bucket according to its use.  I recall one hectic morning when Mama was trying to get Dick off to work and us off to school. A freak cold snap froze the pipe overnight so there was no water from the spigot. The only recourse was for Mama to get some water from a neighbor with indoor plumbing. Just as she was leaving the trailer, Peggy stopped her just in time. Mama was heading out the door with the nighttime pee bucket by mistake.

As much as I am amazed at how Mama managed to get herself into these circumstances; I am even more impressed at how she managed to do it all.  I consider myself a ‘You just do what you’ve got to do.’ person, but I’m not sure I wouldn’t have pulled up stakes, grabbed the kids and said “Adios.” if I had been her. She probably had little choice though by then.  However, she adapted amazingly well, if not happily, to this harsh dose of reality and came out all that much stronger.

Mama put Dickie’s crib next to the wall that divided the eating area from the kid’s sleeping area. That was the warmest spot because the kerosene stove stood on the other side. Two bunk beds were roughed in across the back of the room and hooks were installed for our clothes. I don’t recall how I won the rights to the upper bunk. It was either my seniority as I was 7 minutes older than Peggy, or I threatened her with bodily harm. Being the tomboy of the two I had a tendency to do that. An unrealized benefit to the upper bunk was that heat rises so when the weather turned colder, I was warmer. Warmer being a relative term in an un-insulated trailer in Montana.

The time line for building the house on the lot was delayed due to the fact that we had to dig a trench to bring the waterline up to the trailer where we could use it and to make it available to connect to the new home’s plumbing when the time came. Since hiring labor was out of the question as the money needed to be stretched as far as possible, Dick worked at Mayflower Van Lines during the day, while digging the trench was done during the long summer evenings and weekends. Peggy and I were in charge of keeping Dickie as entertained as possible since he couldn’t be let out of his playpen. We also were in charge of hauling pails of dirt a short distance to keep the dirt from running back into the trench during the many sporadic summer rains. I can still see us in our striped tee shirts and jeans with cowboy patches on the knees, our hair in pigtails with wispy damp tendrils sticking to our foreheads. Needless to say, we were all pretty grubby at the end of each day, but Mama would strip us down to our little undies and hose us off while we stood on a palette of wood near the trailer. I remember being fascinated by watching the rivulets of clean skin appearing through the layers of dirt on my legs. Then, voilà, two clean little girls. Primitive, but efficient.

I don’t recall being bothered by the heat of that summer. However I do recall that at least once a weekend, after working all day on the trench, Dick, or Mama, would take the car down to the A & W Root Beer stand and bring home a gallon of ice cold, almost black, frothy root beer. No root beer has ever tasted as good as it did then. 

As the trench got deeper, it was necessary to keep an incline from the far end to enable us to walk into the trench to dig and haul dirt out of it. Peggy and I would each grab one side of the bucket handle and haul it up. We were probably the healthiest, strongest little kids our age on the block.  During periods of rain we had to call off the trench digging due to the muddy conditions. I recall on such a day Mama was preparing dinner and asked Peggy to fetch some water from the spigot. After a bit, sputtering in anger, she told me to go find out what the heck was taking Peggy so long and to get back with the water.  I looked around the yard as I walked toward the spigot but didn’t see her anywhere until I got to the end of the trench. That’s when she saw me and called my name. There she was, standing ankle deep in muck at the bottom of the trench, unable to climb up the incline due to the slippery wet clay-like soil. In my attempt to pull her up, I soon joined her. Well, two little girls in a slippery mud hole, a situation designed for giggles if I ever saw one, and that’s just what Mama found when she came looking for us. Even she couldn’t be angry when she saw such a gruesome twosome.

I can’t tell you how excited we were the day the water was finally connected to the kitchen sink. Peggy and I probably drank 5 gallons of water just for the thrill of it all. Of course, that no doubt instigated additional trips to the outhouse, but we didn’t care. In the interim, Dick had connected a pipe from the sink drain to a depression in the backyard for a makeshift gray-water trough. Therefore, we were functional for water in and out. We were down to requiring only the outhouse and night buckets…whoo-hoo.

Having water in the house achieved our move up the socio-economic ladder in late August.  By then, Mama and Dick had found a house that could be moved onto our property. However, since a foundation needed to be dug and laid, plumbing and electricity run etc., there was no time to accomplish this before winter set in. Therefore, we settled in for the season, not in a house but in the little green trailer.

Winter created new adventures for us although the majority of effort was focused on keeping warm. The kerosene stove served double duty since Mama could use it as a second source to heat water, cook a pot of beans, or stew, and simultaneously keep the trailer warm. It was turned down low at night to conserve fuel, but it sure got cold in the trailer before morning. I soon got in the habit of wearing three or four pair of socks to bed at night and no one dawdled getting dressed in the mornings. The several pairs of socks habit was a real benefit early one morning. Apparently, the stove had been turned down too low and the fire went out, so when Mama tried to relight the stove, it was full of kerosene fumes. It went off like a rocket and belching flames. The tarpaper caught fire. Mama threw the baby to Dick, and herded us past the flames and out of the trailer. Dick was able to put out the fire, although I recall he burnt his hands and lost the hair on his arms. As we stood outside, I was very grateful for the extra insulation of my multiple socks!

After that incident it was decided it would be best to turn the kerosene off at the outside tank at night to prevent another such incident. Dick bought a couple of electric heaters, which weren’t overly efficient, but kept us from freezing. I remember turning the kerosene off and on was a real pain. Not only did the trailer get colder at night, it meant someone had to go out on those frigid mornings and turn the valve on. Mama or Dick usually did this. However, for whatever reason, she asked me to do it one morning. First, I had to find a box to stand on so I could reach the handle, I couldn’t turn the handle with my mittens on, so I removed them and grabbed the handle again.  Well, my hand must have been damp because it stuck to the metal and Mama had to come rescue me. I never had to do it again.

About November, we got our first hard freeze; I mean the kind where even the dirt is frozen as hard as ice. This was exactly why water pipes are buried so deeply in Montana. Unfortunately, when Dick ran the pipes to the trailer during the summer, he understandably tried to save some money by using plastic pipe for that section. After all it was just temporary for the summer and he’d use the correct type of pipe when he put in the plumbing for the new house.  Dick tried to thaw the plastic pipe by pouring hot water down it in the sink. He finally had to leave for work and told Mama to continue to use hot water, or to wait and see if it warmed up enough later to thaw it out. Our mother, having to keep heating the water by melting snow on the stove and assuming it was a safe bet that the day was not going to get above freezing, thought she’d try something else. She assumed alcohol would melt it faster, so she carefully poured Dick’s Aqua Velva aftershave down the pipe. The result being: it did not thaw the pipe and the plastic picked up the flavor Aqua Velva. Our water had an interesting taste for several weeks.

There was a joyous celebration and sighs of relief when we were finally able to move into the house that next summer. The little green trailer was relegated, without fanfare, or tears, to the back of the lot where it served very well as a storage shed.  We did survive and all of us became hardier for the experience. It undoubtedly made us appreciate so many things that we used to take for granted. We learned to work as a team and count on each other, and we learned that the pioneering spirit is still alive in the America.




Submitted: July 08, 2019

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