Wandalene, the Airstream
A Memoirish Tale of a Life in the Round
by Sonny Brewer
When I told my writer friend Mandy what I’d gone and done, she said, Well, you’re still Sonny.
I reckon she’s right about that.
And, if she’d followed-up with a bar from Paul Simon’s Still Crazy After All These Years, you’d know what she meant by still Sonny. But, in my defense, that Persian poet, my beloved friend Rumi, wrote 700 years ago, “be instead bewildered…Forget safety. Live where you fear to live. Destroy your reputation. Be notorious. I have tried prudent planning long enough. From now on I’ll be mad.”
So I went a little mad and bought a sad and neglected forty-five year-old Airstream Argosy 26, sure that she had been just waiting for me to come and rescue her. A thing I’ve also done before, as Mandy knows, having stood inside looking around, the first one I bought.
She also knows that a travel trailer is a tiny space, and wondered when she saw my ’67 Airstream Safari, a 22-footer, where would there be room for a guest to sit?
Maybe we’d sit outside.
For that’s what guests and I have done for these last four years that I’ve lived in a 9×12 hot tub gazebo belonging to long, longtime writer friends Joe Formichella and his wife Suzanne Hudson.
I remodeled the gazebo into the Rough Draft Cabin. It’s smaller than Henry David Thoureau’s famous Walden Pond 10×15 that he lived in for two years, two months, and two days and was furnished with a bed, a desk, and a table and chair. Thoreau was sweeping his front stoop when Ralph Waldo Emerson walked up, surprising him with a housewarming gift, a welcome mat for placing outside his front door. Emerson unrolled it and handed it to his friend. Thoreau rolled it back up and asked him to please take it away. I’ve come here to this small cabin to lessen my considerations, he said, and you see that I already sweep off the stoop. I don’t want to also shake out a rug.
To compensate for the small space I tried to bring the whole outdoors inside my cabin by making one entire wall of glass. Randy, an artist friend, was casting-off four storefront panels of aluminum and glass he scrounged someplace. Together the panels matched up to the length and height of my cabin wall to within a half inch. It was meant to be.
So, I loaded them onto a trailer and now I look through them every day. And the picture is good through those windows. I see giant live oaks tending like fathers and mothers these woods; the tallest, skinniest pencil-straight cypress I’ve come across, muscle-twisted junipers, and silver poplars, all of them guarding a mossy green slope that rolls down to a meandering creek called Waterhole Branch. Together with the company of writerly souls, true friends, and nature’s warm embrace, it all worked together to smooth out whatever wrinkles and creases were left in my psyche by a divorce at near 70. Joe and Suzanne invited me to be a part of their world while I healed. I mean, right on their rear deck, out their back door! None of us thought I’d still be here. But as far as I know, they are okay that I am.
Four years in one place as a single man, since leaving my mama’s house, is a record. In college at the University of Alabama I moved twice in one semester, and at least once in the others until I dropped out after four Fs and an X altered my draft status from 4F (yes) to 1A. Meaning I could be conscripted into wading through some rice paddies in Viet Nam, and maybe getting shot by some other boy like me from the other side and dying there like one of my Millport, Alabama hometown friends did.
But the dean of students told me I could earn back my draft deferment by going to both terms of summer school, taking four classes, and making an A in each. First term, I made an A in both classes. It was clear to me that I could easily do it again, and yet I sat down on my bed, leaned back against the pillow, and still wondered what in hell’s name I was doing in this town of Tuscaloosa in the year of our Lord, 1967. Something happening here, Buffalo Springfield sang that same year, what it is ain’t exactly clear. I was filled to overflowing with that old hippie existential angst. Depressed and lost like a ball in tall weeds. Drinking too many beers and eating too many pizzas.
So I joined the Navy.
At least, I was told by my recruiter, being soaking wet on the worst rolling and pitching deck in the South China Sea was way better than the warmest and driest foxhole in Viet Nam. And, I must say, I grew quite fond of my sea-going address even in fifty-foot seas on the edge of an Atlantic hurricane. My home for two-and-a-half years aboard the aircraft carrier USS Intrepid with some 3,000 other men was my second longest stretch in one place. But out of the military and on my own, I once again couldn’t be still.
I can name 18 different addresses where I lived in just my town of Fairhope.
Aw, go ahead. Okay. I might as well make the list of residences as they pop into my head, not in chronological order: 112 Atkinson Lane, 500 Pomelo, Magnolia Bayhouse condo at 710 South Mobile Street, 9631 Bay Meadows Avenue, 9390 Mosely Road, 500 Washington Drive, Virgil Spivey’s guest cottage, Jim Griggs’ guest cottage, Ms Gatty’s bayside bungalow on South Mobile Street, Pauline and Ferrell Anders’ 2-story tiny home in their back yard on North Bayview, Clare Gray’s place on North Summit, Jim Nix’s condo apartments overlooking the Big Pier, Eastern Shore Marine aboard two different sailboats, Fly Creek Marina aboard a 1942 Chris Craft sedan cruiser, Beverly Cortright’s cottage behind her real estate office on Fairhope Avenue, 52 Morphy Avenue, 564 Bellangee Avenue, a townhouse at 110 Fairhope North, South Church in Wayne Holder’s rental, Grayson Capp’s place on Sandy Lane in a Keystone Outback travel trailer, Mike Francis’s Fly Creek Cleaner Marina in a Norwegian lifeboat and a Canadian sloop,
Mike Francis’s shoreside parking lot in a 1967 Airstream (yes, that same one). And there was a brief stay as writer-in-residence at the Wolff Cottage, Fairhope Center for the Writing Arts at 9 North School Street.
There’s a pattern here.
And I think I know in what loamy soil the taproot runs.
My daddy moved us around a lot. Tennessee, Arkansas, and Mississippi before I started school in Alabama. Then Louisville, Kentucky, to finish the first grade. On to Fort Wayne, Indiana for the second grade. Back to Millport for the third. A divorce and Reform, Alabama, for the fourth, a remarriage and back to Millport for grades five and six. Another divorce and a new marriage got me over to Columbus, Mississippi, then out to Moses Lake, Washington. Back to Millport. Over to Kennedy. Then to college in Tuscaloosa.
Round and round we go. I must’ve got myself hooked on a feeling. Like the Temptations sang, Sonny was a rolling stone. Wherever he laid his hat was his home. Oh, wait, Papa was the rolling stone in the song.
When I was a bookseller, owning and operating Over the Transom Bookstore in Fairhope, I moved its location within the first two years from the east side of Section Street catty corner to Page & Palette Bookstore, to an alley at 52 South Church Street beside Courtland Inge’s 14 South restaurant, to Delamare Avenue across the street from Page & Palette; then, to 9 North Church Street downhill from the old Fairhope Hardware where I settled in and kept the shingle hanging at that address for more than five years.
But it’s just not my nature to stay put. There’s some galactic spiral and cosmic pull at play. I wondered once was it maybe my karmic payback for refusing to, say, give up my house in ancient Scotland to some poor widow and her nine children.
In my first marriage, I was a carpenter and a partner in a construction company, and I designed and built for us three different houses in three years. Each one was smaller, had fewer square feet, than the previous house. I like smaller. To me, it’s better. One might say that less of a house can be more of a house.
Another quick visit to Rumi’s writing: “Someone who goes with half a loaf of bread to a small place that fits like a nest around him, someone who wants no more, who is not himself longed for by anyone else–he is a letter to everyone. You open it. It says, Live.”
I would add, with half a loaf of bread AND a little dog… .
For this little dog named Bobby at my feet or by my side must be accounted for from days back before I stopped wanting anything else. He’s all about this next Airstream, and can’t wait to move in. Not that we haven’t loved the Rough Draft Cabin. We set a life precedent here. And it’s not that we want something different or bigger. I believe we have truly worked through that by now. I mean, I’ve owned a hundred cars, and yet I’ve been driving my ’98 Subaru wagon now for three years, another record, with no designs on some other set of wheels. Besides, the Airstream only adds about 50 square feet to our living space.
It’s just that we both want no corners in this next stage of our lives. Perhaps I’m adopting for myself the attitude of my main character in The Poet of Tolstoy Park, Henry Stuart.
He was mystically guided by the ghost of an old Lakota Sioux medicine man, Black Elk, to avoid the soul-drain from living in a “square box” and built for himself an odd little roundhouse of handpoured concrete blocks that still stands a hundred years later on the north end of town in Montrose.
And the Airstream (which, from her I’ve learned, has a name—Wandalene, though I’m invited to call her Wanda), it has not one corner. It is roundish on the sides and roundish on the ends and on the top. It does have a flat floor, but the floor doesn’t anywhere wind up in a corner. Even all of Wanda’s built-in rectangular cabinetry and plumb-and-square partitions have been removed. She’s just one big open womb-like room. Perfect for completing that circle of life thing where an older man becomes childlike again.
And I’ve got some time to grow into being a kid again, for this’ll be a longish last phase of life. I have decided I will stay on this plane of existence until my birthday in the year 2036. I’ll be 87. Mark Twain predicted for many lecture audiences that he would die when Halley’s Comet reappeared in the night sky. He was born under it, and told listeners often, that he came in with the comet as it appeared on the night he was born in 1835. And it’s coming again, he said. “…and I expect to go out with it…The Almighty has said, no doubt: ‘Now here are these two unaccountable freaks; they came in together, they must go out together.’”
My seventeen-year old mama brought me in on a feather bed in her father’s house under a new moon on January 28, 1949. The next time there’s a new moon on January 28 is in 2036. Flattering Mr. Clemens with imitation, that’s when I’ll go out, though not likely on a feather bed as I’ve become convinced a memory foam mattress is the only way to sleep. So, Wanda and I will get to know each other very well. We’ve got 15 years. Let’s get to it! The ghost of Henry Stuart and my little dog Bobby and me, holed-up in our roundish house named Wanda with our roundish ways.
PS: There’s a small detail I failed to yet mention: The Coda Home Cabin (sing along once more with Paul Simon, Mama don’t take my Coda Home away). I’ll get to that next, before I go any further with this journal of Wanda’s major surgery (notice there is no trailer underneath; Wanda lost her skateboard) and post-operative facelift.
AUTHORS NOTE: This is the opening chapter of a new book I’m working on. I’ll drop in a few more chapters here to this Over the Transom webpage at sonnybrewer.com during the early stages of the restoration of Wandalene, the Airstream. If you will, please share the post to your Facebook page and other social media places. Thanks for reading.