Memories of my Father - George Willard Gibson, 11/18/1918 - 9/3/2012

Entry 4: The Mini-Airstream

The Gibson's were a camping family. We spent our summer vacations touring the sights of the West (with the exception of the famous 1960 trip to New York City and Washington, DC) and to make it affordable, we spent almost every single night in campgrounds. During the first few years of my life, my position in the camping schematic was the front seat of our family station wagon. Mom and Dad slept in the back end of the station wagon and my brother and sister shared a tent outside. In 1962, my sister Janet was born - and if you do that math, the odds are good she was conceived in the back end of our station wagon the previous summer in Mesa Verde National Park with me blissfully snoozing in the front seat.

We camped in similar fashion in the summer of 1962 through 1964, adding Janet to the mix. That meant getting a larger tent so instead of Rog and Kathy in a little pup tent, the three of us now slept in a Coleman umbrella style tent with Janet consigned to the front seat of the car. It was becoming obvious that when Janet outgrew the front seat, we'd either need a bigger tent or one of those fancy camping trailers we saw on the road. And my parents really couldn't afford a fancy camping trailer. But by 1964, I had already come to realize at age 7 that my Dad never saw anything in this world that he wasn't convinced he could build for himself with half the cost and twice the functionality. So he set about building a camping trailer.

The first thing I remember of the trailer was a framework of steel bars with an axle and a hitch. It consisted of two halves - an upper half and a lower - that collapsed together. Dad riveted panels of sheet aluminum on this tubular steel frame. He built a two-part door and designed it so you cranked the top half up and locked it into position with cotter pins. There were windows that were overhanging panels of aluminum you pushed outward with wire handles and locked into position. Inside were bench seats and a table that could be placed between them. two frames would be raised in the back part and tray-like bunks could be placed in those frames so that the trailer easily slept four people.

The trailer was ... unique.

In those days, when you saw a shiny aluminum trailer in a campground, it was usually one of those expensive Airstreams.

OK, now imagine it cut down to about ten feet long and take away any semblence of streamlining, put the door on the end and cover it with hail dents. Voila! Dad's trailer!

Mom and Dad enjoying the freedom of mobile living.

We camped in that trailer for several years. It wasn't until both Roger and Kathy had left the nest that my parents finally broke down and bought a real camping trailer - one of the pop-up kinds with canvas. So for around 5 years, we camped in Dad's creation. It got a lot of strange looks. Families would pass us on the highway, pointing and staring. People walking through the campground would pause as they passed our site and take in this strange creation. A few less-observant folks actually thought we owned a smaller, economy-sized model of Airstream trailer they'd never seen before.

End view showing the door - that's Mom with Kathy behind her, me and Janet on the other side of the table.

It served us pretty well but there were two rather unique problems with the construction. First, it sweated. We were often camping in the mountains where it got a bit chilly at night and with four or five people inside it, sweat and the moisture of breath would make things a bit humid. If you unleashed any sort of heat source inside it - a Coleman stove or even a lantern could do the trick - any moisture in the air would start to condense where the temperature difference was greatest through the trailer's skin which was usually the ceiling. It was not unusual to settle into your bunk for the night and have an icy drop of water plunk down onto you from the ceiling.

The second problem was noise. Camped next to a pine tree, if the wind blew a branch so that the needles scratched against the side of the trailer, it was amzaingly loud. Should a chipmunk lose his grip on a pinecone and drop it on the roof, it sounded like a gun going off. When it rained on that thin aluminum skin, whatever family activities we had going on inside were drowned out by an unbelievable cacophany of drumming. And on rare occasions, we even experienced the sheer pandemonium of a hailstorm inside that contraption. Literally deafening!

Before we moved on to a modern manufactured moving vacation home, we built several years of summer memories around Dad's camping trailer. Like everything else he built, it was not stylish and it did not win any awards for design beauty, but it was functional.

This is the trailer when collapsed down for travel. By this time we'd begun putting stickers from national parks on the end next to the door. It is officially a veteran.

There is a breed of ingenious, mechanically-minded men that I think is fast disappearing in America. The shade-tree mechanic or the backyard engineer - whatever you want to call him.

If there is a Hall of Fame for such men, my dad should be in it.