For years Uncle Eugene and Aunt Vera rode motorcycles and at every holiday dinner we boys wanted to hear some of their old stories repeated.
“Aunt Vera, we want to hear about when you and Uncle Eugene first came to California from New York on your Harley with a sidecar.”
“You mean when we came cross-country at the beginning of World War II? You boys have heard that story before. I bet you can tell it as well as I can.”
“No, no, Aunt Vera. No one can tell it as good as you. You tell it just like you were there. No, I mean just like we are there.”
“OK; after dinner, I’ll tell you boys again all about the trip.”
We, of course, could hardly wait. It was our favorite story. Uncle Eugene had bad lungs and was classified 4F for the draft; it was a medical deferment from the army. But he wanted to do his part for the war effort, so he and Aunt Vera decided to go to California and work in defense plants and build airplanes or tanks or whatever they could.
Finished with dinner, Aunt Vera settled into her favorite chair and we all sat around her. “OK; what part of the trip do you want to hear about?”
“The part about how you camped all across the country. We like the camping part.”
Aunt Vera sat back and closed her eyes. As she talked she would take you there; she was there again with Uncle Eugene. “You know, boys, your uncle was a very clever man, a man who concentrated on all the details…” She began telling the narrative like she was reading a historical novel about other people.
On their first night out, Uncle Eugene’s red and black 1937 Harley-Davidson ULH sidecar rig stopped 100 miles east of Albany, New York. A mile off the main highway Eugene and Vera set up camp. He erected the tent and added army cots, sleeping bags and wool blankets. He attached the platform he had invented to the back of the sidecar to create a cook table. The fire grill was taken out of the canvas bag and a rock ring was formed to make a fire pit. Their kitchen was laid out. The extra room in the sidecar allowed them to take anything they needed to create an elaborate encampment. Instead of being forced to throw a blanket on the ground, a meticulous man, Eugene had honed every detail for this extended road trip to The Coast. By any standards, this was a well-thought-out serious camp for which any traveler would be proud.
Eugene was responsible for setting up the camp, but Vera took care of the cooking. Over an open fire, coffee, beans, spuds and onions and a grilled steak was dinner. A bottle of bourbon, for snakebites and to ward off the cold, was sipped on for dessert. The sky was black; the stars shone so brightly that they hurt the eyes. A book could be read by starlight alone.
Eugene and Vera watched the sky move and tried to identify the different constellations. They thought of Cousin Iris and Cousin Rose and hoped that they could be stronger together than they were alone. They wondered if Mrs. McFadden and Mr. Saperstein had gotten married. They hoped that Captain Livingston and Mr. Miller were all right in the army. On any trip, first nights take some getting used to. This was when you thought of everything you left behind and whether you would again see those you had once known.
It was nearly midnight before Eugene and Vera rolled out their bags, added the blankets and tested the cots. Eventually, the silence, the cold, the blackness and their breathing created a four-part harmony that sang the song of restful slumber.
In the morning Vera told Eugene, “Damn, I make a damn good cup of coffee, if I do say so myself.” Things eaten over a campfire always tasted better than anywhere else. Eggs and bacon were fried in the same pan as dinner. Spuds and onions were added. They ate well and took pride in what an excellent camp they had set up and how self-reliant and well prepared they were. It was over 3,000 miles to the coast and they could save a lot of money living rough and passing up hotels.
After the meal they boiled water for washing dishes, to do some personal cleanup and so Eugene could do his morning shave. Eugene always shaved with a straight razor and for the first time he broke out the ivory-handled straight razor Mr. Saperstein had given him as a going-away present. Attaching the strop to the handlebars, he gave it 20 strokes on one side of the strop and 20 on the other. Dipping a cloth in the boiling water, shaking it to create the perfect temperature, he held it to his face to soften his beard. Stirring up his shaving mug and using the mirror on the motorcycle, he shaved with the razor for the first time. “Wow, that’s a damn fine razor. That’s the best shave I’ve ever had,” he said to Vera.
With their grooming out of the way Vera cleaned the dishes while Eugene deconstructed the tent and cots, rolled their bedrolls, packed everything and put out the fire. The ashes were stomped out and spread, the fire ring rocks were scattered and as they rode back to the highway the only thing that said they were ever there were their tire tracks…
“Yes, boys; that was our first camp and that is the way we did it all across the country. If you don’t disrupt anything when you travel, you don’t ruin it for others who will be camping behind you. It’s a good thing to remember.”
“Aunt Vera, tell us about when you got to the Mississippi River and the bridge was out.”
“Can’t you boys hear your Aunt’s voice is just about gone? That story will have to wait for later.” Uncle Eugene brought Aunt Vera a cup of coffee with a shot of brandy in it. “She’ll tell you more later after she has her dessert and drinks her toddy.”