~Living in Trailers~
Quote: “Get over it.” Antonin Scalia
Space: “1 there was not enough space for them all: room, expanse, extent, capacity, area, volume, spaciousness, scope, latitude, expansion, margin, leeway, play, clearance; headroom, legroom, elbow room.2 the green spaces in and around San Francisco are under constant threat from developers: area, open space, open area, unoccupied area, empty area, expanse, footprint, stretch, sweep, tract.3 the space between the timbers was filled with mud and straw: gap, interval, opening, aperture, gulf, cavity, cranny, fissure, rift, crack, breach, break, split, flaw, crevasse, interstice, lacuna.4 make sure students have written their name in the appropriate space: blank, empty space, gap.” (Internet, Dictionary, Version 2.3.0 (268),Copyright © 2005–2020 Apple Inc.)
Trailer № 1
Where I live, what my space is like, is super important to me. It isn’t that I am happier, not even more content, the fancier the home. I like million dollar houses, more or less, but a short time inside one brings a perplexing weight upon me. The beigeness, the browness, no matter how fine the trim or the furniture or the floors. The ceilings way too high. And horrors, the extra little halls to move around the place.
But I was age 19, nearing the end of year one at Minot State Teachers College, in Minot, ND, and didn’t think about such things when I moved into Trailer No. 1 in my life. Bound for adventure and a chance to be part of history, my classmate Jill and I headed for two rural schools in northwest North Dakota. She had just learned that the district was closing some ten rural schools that year, leaving two open. Both of us would have our Rural Teaching Certificate. Jill would be about 15 miles from my school and 35 miles from her parents. My school was about 100 miles from Minot.
The Superintendent, a School Board member in tow, met with us at MSTC, and we signed our contracts. Roughriding Theodore Roosevelt could not have been more pleased. Each of us would live with a school family and do what we were trained to do.
The Superintendent called me: no family could be found where I could live, but the School Board would purchase a trailer at a rental to be determined. It would be placed near the school, and there was a family of two brothers and their mom, who lived nearby.
Not good, but doable, and what the hell, right? I myself had attended a rural school; I’d student taught in one earlier that year, so it wasn’t as if everything were totally new. My college part time job was changing records and counting money for a juke box company; my bosses thought I was crazy.
When I saw the trailer, ceiling heights and extra halls were the least of it. It was a little old wreck of a place, tiny, tiny. I was 5, maybe10, miles from the nearest town; no car and no hope of getting one. I remember some disquiet, but only a little. I met my nearby farm neighbors, and they were lovely people. The Superintendent and his wife drove out to see whether I had arrived and scooped me up for the weekend, taking me back to the trailer the night before school started. I had a radio, but no tv, and no telephone though the school got a phone near the end of the year. A little toilet, but no shower. No trees; nothing but prairie grass.
I wanted a piano and learned that there might be some, or one, in the schools that had been closed. I could look–there were no keys–and if I found one and could figure out a way to get it out and over to my school, I could have it.
The children came. Spectacular beyond belief. Four families, eight kids in grades two through eight. So good there were no first graders as I would not have had adequate time for them. So good also that the eighth grader worked greatly on his own and helped the younger kids. I would check in on how history and geography seemed to him; make sure he was getting the math.
Parents stopped to visit as they ferried their children to and from. One set took me home with them from time to time; I would make poppy seed cake, just the best. (Scroll down for the recipe.) Maybe I’d wash some clothes. In those first days, I cruised the closed rural schools with my neighbors in search of a piano, climbing through windows when doors were locked. And we found one! Great big old upright. My kids’ parents brought a truck and shortly there was a piano in the corner of my school. I loved it.
I would eat as soon as I got home from school— usually a can of tamales, always Hormel, they had to be Hormel; or ravioli, hash, stew; also canned peaches, cottage cheese. Is that all that I had? Shades of John Steinbeck in Tortilla Flat: “Jesus Christ. What more do you want?” After dinner, it was typically over to the school to play the piano. I was afraid of the dark as I ran back to the trailer; but then I was also more than a little afraid light in the school, which was set close to the narrow gravel road, might be inviting. I was afraid of nights in this cold, dark, sad remote trailer. No one ever bothered me.
Every other weekend, Jill picked me up, and we went to her family’s home. Played the piano, scrubbed floors, went into town. Ate. Goofed off. Enjoyed the neatest of parents. When the mom wondered if the guys we went with ever fed us and did we have to make so much noise in the kitchen when we got in, we hatched a tableau: Can of dog food. Took out most of it and fed it to the dogs; left the spoon. Smeared it around in two bowls and two spoons and left it all on the table. Clever? Oh my, yes! Every other weekend I went to Minot by bus to my sister’s, the older one, paying my neighbors for transportation. I had two sisters–one 15 years older than I and married with kids, the other a couple of years older and at MSTC. They were a vital combo for me — everyone should have one.
Winter was upon us and the trailer and school became harder and harder to heat. The school had a pot-bellied stove that required painstaking care to keep going, especially overnight; my eighth grader knew his way around such things and took care of most of it. The heating in the trailer was bad and stayed that way; I used a coat as an extra blanket. My clothes reeked of heating fuel. Three or four nights a month I would walk over to the farmhouse, as per my neighbhors’ invitation, and watch tv.
Christmas was coming and Jill implored me to lend her the piano. Her parents would get it and bring it back as soon as their program was over. OK, good. Except they did not bring it back, reasoning, Why the hell should we? My parents went and got it. Just went over there and said they’d come for their teacher’s piano, and took it.
I didn’t know until the School Superintendent arrived that all hell had broken loose. He knew it had something to do with a piano, but hadn’t even known I had found one. His phone was ringing, one side saying that it was their teacher’s piano and he had to make them give it back. The argument was that I liked it, ergo, get it back! The other side threatened charges of trespass and theft. They would by God go get the damn thing back.
The Superintendent left, pleased, no doubt, that everything was going so well. I was fearful of the truck that would pull up for the piano, but it never came.
Sometime in there, I was invited to a farm for dinner, where a mom, a teacher, lived with her son about my age. That means I found a boyfriend. Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday — I would see him maybe two of those days. I didn’t want to see him on Sunday nights, when I returned from Minot or Jill’s, because I’d be just fine by myself. Fridays, I left. He didn’t come down to Jill’s. I never slept with him, nor did much of anything else either. Lots of necking, quite a bit of drinking. I had a dim view of whiny country music and would make remarks about needing to bring my own bale of hay to wherever. Not good. Not endearing. But it wasn’t until a month or so before the end of the school term that he dumped me.
I don’t know how it was that I remained ok with the children. I remember them fondly to this day. The bleakness, the coldness, the darkness, the aloneness were almost unbearable, but not during the day with the kids. I was gratified by how they read, how they got smarter and smarter. The three R’s, some music, some art. Daily checks on hygiene, where my dear little fourth grader told me, “Just put me down for zeroes straight across, Miss Berg. If my teeth are gonna rot if I don’t brush ’em, let ’em rot!” Some years prior, he had an accident that took the tip off one of his fingers; a spike of fingernail grew from that tip. Can you believe it? Pretty neat, huh?
Night after night, I was on the phone to my sister, my big sister: I cannot stay! I cannot stay. She talked to me about how it was only a little while longer, how rough it would be for the kids, maybe even for the Board, who probably couldn’t hire someone else, how close to the weekend I was. Finally, it was the day of the school picnic and graduation, and I left the patch of prairie. The space with nary a tree, but a little old schoolhouse, a blur of a trailer, so dark and scary, so cold, so alone. Within a week, my MSTC sister cajoled and prodded me back into college with her. Within another week I was in Dr. Scheffer’s English Grammar class and back to the juke box company. You couldn’t have driven me out of either place with a stick. Never again would I live in anything like the wholeness of that space with Trailer № 1.
“Like is not a conjunction,” said Dr. Scheffer, providing the following as illustration: Milkman arrives and says to the lady of the house, “It looks like rain today.” And the lady of the house says, “Yes, your milk always does.” I thought, still do, that like should be a conjunction, but I never had the courage to go ahead and use it.
The classmate seated next to me invited me on a date. He pulled up to my sister’s house and gave a couple of toots on the horn. “No!” said my sister. “You will not respond to the honk of a horn.” My almost boyfriend left, but came back and parked and came to the door. On our second date, I had to work late and my woman boss told me to take a car home, but I must bring it back when I left home for the evening. Done and done. I explained to my boyfriend, and we headed off, pulling into the downtown garage and taking the keys upstairs to my boss. The party had started by the time I left, and I knew from the loud music of the juke box it had ramped up a good bit in the couple of hours I was gone. “Keys to my car?” said my boss, the other boss. “What car?” I said it was the pink Continental. “Jesus Christ!” he said, and I must get the quote exactly right here as he earnestly told my date: “You have got to watch out for this little bitch. She’ll steal the goddamn eyebrows right off of you!” The gesture of his thumb showed the clean removal of his eyebrows.
I don’t know if caution for his eyebrows had anything to do with it. Probably not. By the end of summer I had been replaced by the not-anymore boyfriend with the woman he would marry.
He visited me some 30 years later at my Bismarck, ND, office. We had a nice chit-chat conversation. As he was leaving, I introduced him to my two secretaries, who were beaming, as an “old boyfriend.” I thought it was a fun trip down memory lane, but I was so wrong. My old boyfriend turned the beetest of reds and fled like he had been spooked.
Now, where was I? I am back at MSTC, OK? And like is not a conjunction. Part way through the summer my boyfriend of the dark and scary and alone space came to see me. He had thought it over and really needed to stay broken up with me. What a relief!
Mrs. O’Neil’s Poppy Seed Cake (1957): three 8 in. pans, 350 °, 20–25 min.
Soak ¾ C poppyseeds in ¾ C milk
Thoroughly cream 1 ½ C sugar and ¾ C butter
Add 2 C cake flour and 2 t baking powder
Mix the above.
Fold in 4 beaten egg whites and 1 t vanilla
Filling — prepare in double boiler ’til thick
4 egg yolks
1 C milk
Pinch of salt
2 T flour
Cool and add ½ C nuts and some vanilla.
Excellent chocolate frosting recipe comes with it, but I have used a can lo these many years. Can use a 9x13 pan; just refrigerate the cake and topping before you put on the frosting.
Trailer № 2
Being married was tough for me, but the word was that the silence didn’t have anything to do with me. It didn’t until it did. The divorce came when the children were 2 and 6. It turned out that the world of teaching English had changed. We had moved to Wisconsin, and I did not have the good sense to get a Wisconsin teaching certificate, which I didn’t need for subbing, though I had them for Missouri and Florida, plus a lifetime one in North Dakota. There were so few vacancies that a school would no longer wait for credentials to be shaped up. It was the reason I didn’t get the job in the high school in a town down the road from where we lived.
But I had people in North Dakota that I cared about, and more to the point, who cared about me, and the offer of a teaching job at an extra neat high school. There were nice apartments near the school, inhabited by at least one other teacher.
Alas, the search spiraled down to where the only choice was to get a mobile home. But great, there was a brand new trailer park going in on the edge of town. The trailer was a Marshfield, meaning it was relatively nice. It was new and big. Imagine my distress when I found our new home parked in a ploughed field, roughly smoothed over. I was assured that landscaping would be done soon and was buoyed by Christine, a second grader, telling me that I was looking at the space as it was now and should think of how it would be with grass and flowers. I hired some steps built, and we moved in.
Shortly, I found that the promised laundry connections were a few holes drilled in the wall. Holes! Very soon, I was told that I was not very ladylike to complain when I cannot understand the meaning of laundry connections. I do not often scream and yell, but scream and yell I did. I got the connections, defined by me; he never budged on the ladylike. And, you know what? It wasn’t a slam dunk. Getting the connections could have gone either way.
I worried terribly about a custody challenge based on where we lived — I had taken my children to this–and panicked when papers were served. But it was only about money. Relax. I was fairly certain that my ex did not want custody, but utterly certain that he knew how much I did.
The school and community took in my little family. Christine went to school and Andrew went to a sitter with two little boys. He was happy to be dropped off every morning and happy to be picked up every afternoon. I did have to take him home from a basketball game once because he wouldn’t stay off the floor. The guys brought him out for warm-up, and he didn’t want to quit just because the game started.
And the teachers, OMG, the teachers. A partying bunch. Not all of them, but a good slice. “Want to go to the Missile Site on Friday night?” It was a place near where silos with atomic missiles were located, either then or formerly. I said I didn’t like country music but soon learned: the music that I said I liked was country. Bring it on!
I heard that students expected first day to be getting their books. We got our books and were well into them on the first day. I knew I was coming into a slot that needed “shaping up” with scant idea of how that was done. I seated students in alphabetical order and knew all of their names by the next day. This was deliberate, and I was satisfied to hear that it was a bit intimidating. How precariously those names were loaded into my short-term memory! I struggled to get them into my brain so that I could attach names to students when they weren’t in their spots.
The owner of the local newspaper was a product of the lauded University of Minnesota School of Journalism. He heavily subsidized our school paper as he made his space available to us. Instructions were simple: Stay out of my way until Wednesdays, then lock the door when you leave. Many a night and weekend we were there doing our high school paper in a real life newsroom. What an exquisite space to be!
I remember that I was supervising a study hall, remember what I was wearing, when it hit me: I was back to my old self. It wasn’t like a sudden event, more like bits of information and feeling had been mulling and churning and now bubbled to the top. Hooray! I didn’t like supervising study halls, BTW. A colleague told me I didn’t do a very good job of it either: if there was not an active case of intercourse going on in the back of the room, he said, I thought everything was fine. How’s that again? Say what?
The non-existent Richard C. Greiter wrote for every issue of the paper. If things didn’t get better, was his constant refrain, he would pack his bags and leave. He was always pictured with a rear end view, whatever one happened to be around, and the day came when a mom told me of a young man loading her purchases into her car at a grocery store. Her thought was, “There’s Richard C. Greiter!”
The U.S. Army came for a day of information and recruitment. Journalism students were doing a story and needed permission to get a picture. Richard C. Greiter was expected, and I was a little uncomforable at the disingenuousness involved lest I be teaching more than the meaning of a word. But they got permission and worked with haste. What a picture it was! Richard C. Greiter, head first into the vehicle and hanging out the door window, with the brilliant cutline: Richard C. Greiter investigates opportunities in the U.S. Army.
Up near the driveway to the high school stood Big Juli — a snowman Julius Caesar bloodied with red food coloring and full of icicle daggers. Wanna see where Casca rent him through? Et tu, Brute? How I hope everyone remembers Mark Antony’s speech on January 6, 2021. I will walk with you.
We were working on a patch of A. A. Milne of Christopher Robin fame and the creator of Winnie the Pooh. Maybe Winnie the Pooh was on the market as a stuffed toy, but not yet the others. A woman in Wisconsin had made them for us. You know who they are: Winnie the Pooh, Eeyore, Tigger, Kanga and Roo; Piglet, made with some strange, pink piggy fabric. I brought them to school to sit in the cabinet and provide some atmosphere. Before the school day began, students swooped in, and they were gone. “Please, may I take one? I’ll bring it back.”
An hour or so later, the principal appeared at my door. He had seen people with Pooh toys, seniors, football players! It was a tad disconcerting how quickly and easily he connected dots that took him straight to me. A kid in physics class petting Tigger? I was ok with it, and fortunately, so was the principal. A little head shaking, maybe, but nothing more.
It seemed–seems– to me that verb tense can be important, but not so much as voice. Why do we use passive voice? Well, we either don’t know who did something, or it doesn’t matter, OR we don’t want to say. Mistakes were made? The kids thought it was great and a very important part of their education. Maybe not so much. Hard to know.
Somewhere in there, I flirted my way to a boyfriend. We danced our way into each other’s hearts. Stagger Lee, Proud Mary. Old Time Rock & Roll. Live bands, maybe at a Vet’s Club, or maybe at a little street pub. My juke box days are never far away. I loved it. I couldn’t get enough. But it could not last–I can’t forget, but it could not last. I had to get my income up. I had been accepted at the University of North Dakota School of Law. We had lived in the trailer park for three years. Other trailers moved in, but the landscaping never happened. Little bit of grass seed, maybe. The towering ragweeds were abundant and took up way too much of my space. I hated them.
(Photo used by permission.)