In the summer of 1978, my dad bought a beat up old caravan like the one you see in the photo (minus the outside table and the shack) and he dropped it off in an otherwise empty parking lot in Lincoln, Nebraska.
Dad had landed the contract to paint the nursing home (he was a commercial painter) that had just been built in Lincoln and rather than paying for a hotel every night, he bought the caravan.
As a 12-year old boy who was getting to spend the summer with his dad, the caravan couldn’t have been a more perfect place to do so. My parents divorced when I was eight, so I took any opportunity I could get to spend time with my dad. Throw in the fact that we didn’t have a shower, and we could eat whatever we wanted and it felt as close to heaven as a boy could ask.
At night, after a long exhausting work day, we would hole up in the caravan and play Gin Rummy (the card game) on the small table near the door while an AM radio station played in the background. The cards gave our hands something to do while we bonded and they made conversation more natural. At that age, I doubt if I would have just sat at a table and had a conversation with my father. Too much pressure.
“How’s school?” he asked.
I had just finished 7th grade – my first year in junior high school. It was a whole new world for a shy overweight kid who couldn’t figure out the delicate balance between wanting to fit in while at the same time not wanting to be noticed, or picked on. So I told him what any kid in my situation says. “It’s fine.”
“How’re your grades?”
I was an average student who didn’t take to the rhythm of cramming for and taking tests very well. I was more the creative type, so I just wanted to dream. I got 2s and 3s, with the occasional 1. Algebra hadn’t tripped me up yet. That looming monster was waiting for me in 9th grade. Since I wasn’t honor roll material, I said what any kid in my situation says. “They’re pretty good.”
More than once, I turned the conversation toward a more adult-like topic. “Why aren’t you and Mom together anymore?”
My parents never spoke ill of one another in my presence that I can remember. That’s a good thing, but it does leave a kid wondering who to blame.
Dad always made eye contact during a serious conversation. I often saw hints of pain he never verbalized when I was young and that made me even more curious.
“Someday, when you’re old enough, I’ll explain,” he said.
Seven years later, he kept his promise. He struggled with alcoholism and it came with a price.
Later in his life, our conversations went deep: failures, disappointments, unrealized dreams – no topic was off limits. But I don’t think we would have arrived at that place if it weren’t for those card games that broke the ice and allowed us to be natural around one another. We also didn’t have any distractions that summer – no phones, no video games, no television.
It was a simpler time, for sure. And I don’t think we can or should go back to it. But intentionally escaping to it once in a while isn’t a bad idea.
A few weeks ago, my niece and her boyfriend called me because they needed a ride to the laundromat. After they filled the washers with their clothes, I went out to my car and got a scratch pad, a pen and UNO (the card game). They snickered at first. They may have even rolled their eyes. But five minutes into the first hand of our makeshift game on a small table near the door, we were having a blast.
“So, how are things going?” I asked my niece.