Restoring My Vintage Spartan to Glory

...and crafting a purposeful recovery

Month: April 2016

Time waits for no one

 

“There’s time to conceive in and time to expire, though the time ‘twixt the two tells the tale that transpires”Ambrosia

If you have not already noticed, this is not your basic DIY blog.  So, for a minute, I am going to look at what was and let the present wait.  Indulge me.

I have always been fascinated with and enjoyed old things.  No, not ancient relics so much as those created within my lifetime that connect me with a time and place I can recall.  Take, for example, my 300 disc cd changer that sits atop my desk.  This Rube Goldberg contraption whirls and clicks as the gears turn between discs and I derive an odd comfort from hearing those machinations versus the dead silent, seamless efficiency of my Spotify.  I don’t know why this is, but it’s true.  I do have a tendency towards nostalgia which, my kids have pointed out, can border on the morbid.  And they are right.  In my drinking days, I often used alcohol as a sort of time travel – it put me back in a romanticized version of my life that felt better than current reality.  Of course, at the depth of my drinking days, I had loused things up pretty good, so the times that came before looked preferable.  But as Taj Mahal sang, “There is just no percentage in remembering the past”.  Thankfully, now the present feels great, clean and sober, and I realize it is okay to look at the past as long as I don’t stare at it.

There are so many beliefs that old fogies (which I am dangerously close to being) cling to:  “They don’t make ’em like that anymore”, “Those were the days” and my personal favorite, “How can you listen to that shit!”.  I remember vividly my mother rolling hers eyes and lamenting the “noise” coming from the back and white Zenith as the Beatles rocked my world on Ed Sullivan.  So I have to laugh at my foolish judgments  of hip hop.  Some day that “shit”, too, will be playing in elevators,

Ok, so where’s this going?  It is with this respect for the past (including its limitations) that I stepped into my Spartan yesterday.  Not with my old morose colored glasses, but with an appreciation for what was.  Dali’s “The Persistence of Memory” is also so known as “The Persistence of Time”, and this alias occurred to me as I entered my trailer time capsule yesterday.

It is obvious that Sparta had not been lived in for awhile, I doubt it had even been someone’s clubhouse or meth den.  As I looked around it struck me that, like the ghost town, Bodie, people just cleared out and that was that. That exodus, fittingly, seems to have happened at the millennium. I will give your eyes a rest and let some pictures tell the story:

Dust, debris and the detritus of time requires some protection

Dust, debris and the detritus of time requires some protection

 

Last registered in 1997. By 2000 these folks were already into arrears with the DMV.

Last registered in 1997. By 2000 these folks were already into arrears with the DMV.

This I founded pinned to the wall, a flimsy and ineffective stake in the heart of time's unrelenting march.

This I found pinned to the wall, the tack a flimsy and ineffective stake in the heart of time’s unrelenting march.

 

 

Half finished, this chicken side was unrecognizable as food, but the logo timeless and iconic

Half finished, this chicken side was unrecognizable as food, but the logo timeless and iconic

Wells, although their eating habits were questionable, they were solid citizens

Well, although their eating habits were questionable, they were solid citizens

By 2000, these were already quaint and archaic. If they were 8-tracks, they'ed be on Ebay.

By 2000, these were already quaint and archaic. If they were 8-tracks, they’ed be on Ebay.

The term "spartan" became synonymous with fearlessness..., endurance or simplicity by design. From Wikipedia

The term “spartan” became synonymous with fearlessness…, endurance or simplicity by design. From Wikipedia

So, I will leave you with the above logo and sign off for today.  Forgive my ramblings but I warned you that this blog would be a sort of journal and , as such, self-indulgent. I promise that tomorrow I will chronicle some actual work.

 

 

 

 

 

The Eagle Has Landed

Perhaps my boast is premature.  After all, my title quotes Neil Armstrong (C’mon youngsters. The moon dude) and has come to mean “mission accomplished” and we all know I have a very long slog ahead of me with Sparta.  But it felt like a mission just getting her up here from Fresno.  I won’t bore with too many details, but if you read my earlier blog about moving and trailering such a beast, the process is fraught with peril.  Here are the salient facts to emerge from the move that may be useful, instructive or simply amusing to you.  I found a great website that I would heartily recommend called Uship (No, this is not a bogus plug offered by the recipient of free services in exchange for an “objective” 5-star experience).  Uship is an aggregator that introduces haulers, truckers and shippers to those in need of such services in a seamless and easy bid format.  The site is simple to navigate, fast and protects the customer by not releasing funds to the driver until the load is satisfactorily delivered.  Best of all, I paid half of what I was hearing from those responding to my Craigslist appeal for movers. It was $500 door-to-door and my driver, Gus, earned every penny because, with a 60 year-old, 45′  trailer, shit happens.  There was nothing serious but the trailer brakes did not work as expected (again, making the case for a truck bigger than you think you will need), safety chains were missing from the hitch (oops, my bad) and, despite the meticulous map I drew for Gus to access the destination property, he was unable to make the extreme right turn into the driveway. This necessitated a go-around and he literally had to come back to the property driving on the wrong side of a divided highway during rush hour at a speed not recommended considering the target was a 12 foot entry bordered by stone pillars.  Get the picture?  It was both funny and frightening as hell.  Although successfully up the driveway, Gus then confronted the difficulty of making an extreme right onto the pasture.  His only option was to back Sparta in through another 12′ opening.  He was a gamer.

Once on the property, I had to create a passageway through the canopy of trees with a cordless Sawzall (a wonderful, all-purpose instrument of destruction), bringing down any branches that threatened to peel the top off of my sardine can.  The entire process yesterday took my driver from 8 am in Fresno until 4 pm in Santa Rosa.  With a 5 hour drive back to Visalia, his home base, Gus headed out with a much-deserved tip and a legitimate 5-star review from me.

Gus: "You want me to do what?"

Gus: “You want me to do what?

Tom: "Just back it through the gate. What's the big deal?"

Tom: “Just back it through the gate. What’s the big deal?”

 

Final approach

Final approach and victory close at hand

The real work can now begin.

The real work can now begin.

 

 

 

I’m baaaack…

Good morning followers of my trailer blog.  I am sorry to have kept you both in suspense, but for the past week there has not been much to report on the Spartan front.  And I really didn’t want to launch into another recovery manifesto, at least, not so soon.  By the way, for those interested in recovery and the voyeurism that inevitably makes our stories compelling (to each other), check out http://www.thefix.com It is a decent newsletter about the ever-growing world of  descent into and recovery from addiction.

But back to Sparta.  It is 5 am on a Saturday morning and I don’t have to be at work until 9 but here I am blogging about my new obsession.  Actually, there are two obsessions – Sparta the object and Sparta the subject.  I lay in bed many nights thinking about how I plan to trick out my trailer and I also toss and turn while composing blog entries in my head.  As if I didn’t have enough to think about (like a 6 week old Grandson – my first!), this new vanity project is now taking up space.  The hamster in the Habitrail (better known as my brain) is exploring the new wing of his already Byzantine home and working overtime in the process.

This is my brain. This is my brain on blogs.

You will often hear in AA, “I don’t have a drinking problem.  I have a thinking problem.”  from people who rightly recognize that endless thought loops can be dangerous to sobriety.  We often indulge the fallacious belief that we have a choice only between the seeming insanity of repetitive, negative self-talk and drinking. That, of course, is a dangerous cop-out.  But with this trailer I have a new and productive focus and, other than losing a bit of sleep over her, Sparta is a great puzzle.

So the next jigsaw piece I will place is concerning her temporary resting place.  As I mentioned a couple of entries ago, I found a lovely field to park her in.  It is beautiful – grassy, dotted with poppies and a few gnarled trees long past fruit-bearing.  But it is perhaps better suited to a picnic than a trailer project.  The weeds are tall and vigorous thanks to an El Nino winter and they will provide cover for nasty rats and their nefarious plans.

I have learned through web research and actual inspections that rats and other vermin are hell on trailers, especially vacant ones.  While you might think an aluminum box would be impervious to their mischief,  rats have found much to like about old trailers.  Spartan floors are wood (as are Airstreams’) and often they are rotted out in sections.  Rats will chew through soft wood and wreak havoc on trailers, chewing though wiring, pulling out insulation for nesting and pissing all over cabinets rendering them foul and reeking.  The last thing I want to find while peeling back a water-stained section of birch paneling is a rat’s nest made of trailer parts festooned with a thousand turds.  Yuck!  To avoid this, I decided to lay down a barrier against weeds and the undergrowth which might provide rats a beachhead from which to launch an invasion.  Yesterday I took a weedwhacker to a 10′ X 50′ section of pasture and then rolled out a corresponding spread of 6 mil. plastic (actually two 10′ X 25′ pieces purchased at Home Depot for $50).  I then laid out 5 foot pieces of thin bamboo all around the perimeter which I tacked into the earth with 4″ U-shaped staples (also purchased at HD in the landscape section). I am satisfied that I have created a welcoming and rodent-free plot for Sparta.

Final approach and ready for landing

Final approach and ready for landing

Having wrestled successfully with the question of where to place my trailer protected from weeds and rats, I have now turned my nocturnal musings to the subject of the renovation itself – specifically the debate of faithful and very expensive versus updated and just expensive.  A quick visit to Pinterest reveals an amazing array of Spartan redos, from those that reproduce accurately the original, down to door latches and light fixtures, to more modern interpretations of a classic (there are also hippie hamlets done on the cheap with cast-off cabinets and fixtures but I’ll not go there).

Before deciding which way to go I had to answer the question of purpose (yes, besides the soul satisfying process of working with my hands while bringing back the dead).  “What”, asked Tom, “is my exit strategy?  Am I building this to fashion a great asset for resale or to create a wonderful place to use and enjoy until the day I am carted out of it feet-first to take a dirt nap?”  I decided upon the latter.  This decision was helped, in part, by the tremendous expense of reproducing faithfully a 60 year old anachronism.   Do I really need to drop $25 on an original brake light cover, $50 on a door latch or $3000 on a working and reliable vintage refrigerator?  No, my kids will be just as happy with my modern take on classic.

 

Lovely hospital green $3,000 replica

Clean stainless with timeless lines and a better bottom line. Note bamboo stakes to the right.

Not to mention that the $2,000 savings will fit nicely into my retirement fund.

Ooops, where did the time go?  Off to work.

Waiting…waiting…

Good morning.  It’s Saturday and I got up at my usual 5:50 AM to brew a cup, run through my morning gratitude list and blog.  I have learned that I am definitely a morning person and my desire to bloviate peaks while still in my robe.  But, on the Spartan front, there is not much to report today.  Sparta, my feminized pet name for my new project, sits in Fresno awaiting work on tail-lights and brakes.  My most excellent friend, Dwight (a man who moves large loads for a living with his commodities/trucking enterprise), is determined that I not make the kind of mistake described in my previous blog.  So he has parked Sparta temporarily in a metal salvage yard in Fresno.  He joked that, with aluminum prices at $.40 per pound, I have already broken even.  Funny guy, that Dwight.

So while she sits, I will write a bit about recovery.  I did mention earlier that this blog will address directly and tangentially my sobriety.  For those of you that have no interest in that topic, take the day off.  For those that do, I am sorry that it’s taken me this long to get around to the topic.

I am not an alcoholic.  I am a man whose adult life has been characterized by way too much drinking, who often substituted intoxication for genuine human connection, who ignored mounting consequences (some of them threatening to my life and freedom) and who has witnessed a progression of physical symptoms commonly associated with the affliction of alcoholism.  But, I am not an alcoholic.  AA purists will cry “Heresy !”.  Yes, you have a point and, to be sure, I did answer in the affirmative all 20 questions on the standard “Are YOU and Alcoholic” questionnaire that some of you have answered in private and lost sleep over.  But, I am not an alcoholic.  Ahhh, “methinks though doth protest too much”.  There. I have said it. I will not say “I am not an alcoholic” again in this blog.  Nor will I say “I am an alcoholic”.  Bear with me but this tiresome exercise in semantics serves a purpose for me.  You see, in the last 15 years I have attended thousands of AA meetings.  In almost every one I raised my hand on one or more occasions to speak and announced, “I am Tom and I am an…”.  This self-identification as an alcoholic, repeated over and over again, for me, is no longer helpful or productive.  Early on it was necessary for me to admit my alcoholism and quash the denial that so often prevents us from dealing with the problem.  But after years of drifting in and out of the program of AA, with more relapses than I care to remember, I can honestly say that, while AA has served its purpose, it no longer suits me.  It did not fail me, nor did I fail AA.  I have simply chosen a new path.

My path does not renounce AA.  There are many things about it that I admire, respect and utilize in my daily life.  I sincerely believe that Bill Wilson was one of the greatest and most influential men of the 20th Century.  The AA concepts of taking ownership of one’s shit and making amends, of finding comfort and strength in the company of similarly-afflicted people, of embracing a power greater than oneself and of helping and being of service to others are powerful tools in a satisfying and lasting recovery.  I get that.  I am as transparent as possible now.  I hide nothing (this blog is evidence of my tendency to overshare). I try to own my stuff and keep my side of the street clean.  I manage a spiritual sober house and try to be of use to my fellow residents and I have a God, not that I understand (I am just not that evolved) but that I experience each and every day and in so many ways.  But I will not say “I am an…” because that is a label that I no longer need to self-identify with.  I believe to label oneself is to diminish oneself.  It no longer frees me, it limits me.  I am Tom and I am a father, a brother, a son, a friend, a chef, an erstwhile dipsomaniac, a skilled amateur creator of beauty, a gardener, a talented writer, and so much else.  I am nothing and I am everything.

 

Fitting a Square Trailer in a Round World

Even before I bought my Spartan, I began my education in vintage trailers 101.  To a neophyte like me, virtually everything about old trailer ownership has proved challenging and it has become clear that the modern world doesn’t necessarily appreciate these old relics.  Nor are they understood.

Let’s talk about transporting one of these beasts.  Forgive the cliche, but when it comes to moving one of these around, size matters.  And size means different things to different people.  Consensus is hard to find.  For example, at http://www.goodsamcamping.com there is a chart called “Rules of the Road” that summarizes allowable length/hauling limits by each of the 50 states (yes, for the curious, there is at least 1 Spartan in Hawaii. I found it for sale online, and like almost everything else on the islands, you’ll pay double what you would on the mainland.  But I digress).  According to my good friend Sam, only 16 states allow transporting a trailer over 40 feet.  However, when I checked a similar chart compiled by Triple A (http://www.drivinglaws.aaa.com/trailer-dimensions) I began counting, in alpha order, those states that allowed hauling trailers over 40 feet.  I stopped at 20 and was only half way through the alphabet.  Clearly the laws vary by state and, depending on who you talk to, within each state.  Lesson #1 of vintage trailer ownership.  Do your homework.  Decision-making by the “ready, fire, aim” method (one favored by recovered alcoholics with still undeveloped impulse control) is to be discouraged.

Another aspect of moving a 45′ (including hitch), 8,000 lb. (minus refer, stove and other heavy fixtures) trailer is, “Oh, whadaya mean I can’t hook this up to my Prius?”.  I’m kidding but this is definitely not like buying and trailering a 22′ boat, something I have considerable experience in.  For one, there is the age factor.  Spartan stopped building these trailers in 1961.  You will not find one any younger than 55.  They are all AARP eligible.  With age comes problems.  The vast majority of old trailers have outdated wiring harnesses, shorts in lighting and braking systems and seized brakes largely due to the aforementioned rust factor.  These are solvable problems but take time and a little money.  They are not to be ignored prior to transporting due to factor number two – their tremendous weight.  Basic physics reminds us that momentum = mass(wt.) X velocity(speed).  To ignore this immutable law by mismatching trailer and truck is to invite potential disaster.  Put an 8,000 lb. trailer behind a 1/2 ton “Full Size” pickup and you will have the proverbial tail wagging the dog – not a pretty metaphor at 55 MPH on a busy freeway.  So be conservative.  Before moving your new passion, get or rent or hire more truck than you think you will need ESPECIALLY if there is any doubt about the reliability of the trailer’s braking system.

This important topic of matching truck to trailer is expertly covered by Mark J. Polk of RV Education in North Carolina, http://www.rveducation101.com/articles/TowVehicleTrailer.pdf.  Read and heed.  Thanks Mark!

Having addressed the topic of transporting your new hobby, we now confront the thorny issue of where to put it once it is moved.  This, too, is a subject that deserves a little research in your locality before you buy.  You will quickly learn that you are up against not only size discrimination but age bias.

With regard to size, of the 94 trailer-accessible campgrounds in California (see http://www.parks.ca.gov/rvlength), only 4 have spaces large enough to accommodate a 42 foot trailer.  Or, there are size limitations due to problems concerning maneuverability while trying to get in or out of many campgrounds.  While this is not a big concern of mine, as I will be parking my trailer semi-permanently on private land, it is definitely a consideration for those hoping to see the country in your not-so-portable home.  Do a little research before purchasing any trailer over 32 feet.

The subject of age is even more vexing.  Having placed many phone calls with Santa Rosa area trailer parks, I learned most will not accept a trailer over ten years old.  What! I went online and found a post that bemoaned the paucity of RV parks in the greater Portland area, a seeming bastion of progressive-minded inclusivists (you heard it here first), written by a gentleman who could only find one park that would accept his pristine 1994 Coachman.  This situation, which leaves me no choice but to invoke the “A” word, smacks of Ageism pure and simple.  Most RV parks, where people go and park months on end, are privately owned.  So, owners get to make the rules not only with regard to size but also appearance.  Most park operators don’t want shabby-looking trailers bringing down the desirability of their neighborhoods. But since beauty is often in the eye of the beholder, age has become a proxy for appearance.  It is cut and dried.  Not at all subjective.  Why ten years and not twenty?  Who knows, but like most forms of discrimination it probably has no basis in fact, fairness or rationale.  So, before you buy an old trailer, you best figure out if and where you can take park it short or long-term.

Finally, in addition to size and age, you will (as I did) run into problems if you want to work on your new obsession.  You can forget about RV parks.  If size and appearance hasn’t already disqualified you, fears of noise, dust and debris will.  Even RV and boat storage yards are not likely to accept your application if you plan on working on it, at least in the Santa Rosa area.  I did finally find one yard that would accept a 45′ vintage Spartan for the purposes of renovation, but it was over 20 miles away.  Your best bet is to go on Craigslist and post a classified asking for space to store/work on your trailer or search under “Housing” and click on the “parking/storage” tab. After a few days of looking, I came across a lovely little patch of earth 4 miles from my house, with access to power and a barn to store tools.  It ain’t cheap, so plan on factoring those expenses into your renovation costs (in my case, 18 months x $275 = $4,950).  This will definitely keep me from procrastinating.

Springtime poppies will greet my trailer upon its imminent arrival

Springtime poppies will greet my trailer upon its imminent arrival

A shady grove under which to park

A shady grove under which to park

 

 

LET’S GET THIS PARTY STARTED!

 

 

 

Eureka

After my discouraging trip to the Sonoma RV rust belt, I resumed my vintage trailer search in earnest.  I found a decent 28′ Airstream in Sebastopol with good skin, but all of its interior character had been obliterated by a total gutting and laminate flooring (meh).  My search took me all the way to Peru, Indiana (virtually) where I found a nice 1950 33′ Spartan Royal Mansion in good condition and with lots of interior wood remaining.  Shipping costs (nearly $4 k) killed that deal, however, so the search continued.  About two weeks ago I stumbled upon another Craigslist posting that appeared too good to be true. It was a 1957 45 foot Imperial Mansion (apparently imperial sounds bigger than royal) that had a super clean exterior, few dents, most of it’s glass and good tires.  What’s more, the posted price was only slightly more than the shipping costs for the smaller trailer from Peru. Next day I was driving to Fresno, the place of my birth and a generally pleasant childhood, to buy what could be my final resting place (perhaps that’s a bit melodramatic, but it sounds profoundly cyclic).  On my arrival to a scruffy patch of land southwest of Fresno, I found a near perfect example of 1950’s Americana, glorious in its unabashed excess reflective of that “can do, so why not” period of post war America. Although oxidized, it skin glistened in the Spring sunshine (in my mind’s eye).  Never mind that the insides were trashed.  This was a thing of beauty.  I bought it that day, not even knowing how I would get it back to Santa Rosa.

I found this beauty on CL and made haste to claim her in Fresno.

I found this beauty on CL and made haste to claim  her in Fresno.

 

In trailer terms, this is a mansion. A little elbow grease and it will shine like a fresh Mercury dime.

In trailer terms, this is a mansion. A little elbow grease and it will shine like a fresh Mercury dime.

 

Like that little boy in the old joke, I am an optimist that knows there's a pony under that pile of horse shit.

Like that little boy in the old joke, I am an optimist that knows there’s a pony under that pile of horse shit.

Notice the cool detailing on the kitchen wall and on the closet doors on the back bedroom wall. I will make them pop!

Notice the cool detailing on the kitchen wall and on the closet doors on the back bedroom wall. I will make them pop!

mySpartansliders

As I type, she is still in Fresno and awaits the 200 mile journey,  an 18 month Sonoma County stop-over and a whole lotta TLC.

 

The Search

My interest in trailers, specifically vintage trailers, was piqued by my daughter.  Recently she had moved to the northern Sierras and purchased two old Airstreams – one to live in and one to sell.  Over the past year or so, she has gradually adapted to a mountain lifestyle, while slowly resuscitating these two old hulks.

It occurred to me that, as retirement nears, I might enjoy a part time place of my own near her,  but portable enough to follow her should her wanderlust kick in.  Hence, a trailer. Preferably an old trailer…a project…a calling.

A month or two ago I started looking and I visited my go-to website,  Craigslist.  I entered “vintage trailer” and to my delight appeared 5 or 6 Spartan trailers within 40 miles of my Santa Rosa home. I had never seen such behemoths  – boxy and ungainly but, nonetheless, stylish in a retro, art deco way.  I was smitten.

It turns out these 6 trailers were for sale because Lawson’s Landing, a trailer park on the Sonoma County coast, was being shut down…plowed under.  Sixty day eviction notices had been served.  It was a buyer’s market.  I made some calls, set up some appointments and just like that I was headed to the coast and a stretch of beach I later learned is called “the place where old Spartans go to die”.

spartanatlawson'srust never sleeps

The prices seemed unbelievably cheap…$1,000 for this one on the left.  As I looked, I understood why this was deemed a Spartan graveyard.  To the right is one of the least rusty tongues I saw during my afternoon tour.  Most were completely brown with rust and crumbling.  I checked a few under-carriages and found entire cross members dropped to the ground in rusted heaps.  I left Lawson’s Landing dismayed but intrigued, with thoughts of Neil Young’s “Rust Never Sleeps” in my head.