Thursday, January 7, 2010

The Buses

I think the only place to start is with the buses. It just says so much. We lived in the buses the summer after I finished kindergarten. Dad parked two buses side by side and cut a hole out so we could pass between them. The yellow bus was the living room/kitchen and the blue bus was the bedroom/bathroom. Off the back, outside the emergency exits, Dad built a porch where he set up a table for meals and a curtain-enclosed stall for showers. I remember during every meal the ever-present bees buzzing around us.

For the shower, Dad had befriended the neighbor up the hill from us, who had allowed him to tap into his water supply. A series of hoses ran down the hill from the back of this neighbor's house to a 50-gallon drum on top of the buses. This was really ingenious as I think about it. The water must have heated up in the summer sun enough to provide a warm, albeit quick, shower. I never remember Mom in the shower; maybe she washed up at a friend's house once or twice a week. Mom bathed Lauri and I one at a time in a little round blue plastic tub with water she heated in the microwave. Dad might have been the only one to shower on the porch. The shower curtain hung on a wire half-circle, and Dad would pull it around him, the ends each touching a bus. Once, a lady from church who stopped by, probably out of charity as I think about it now, got quite a show. I'm sure Dad didn't realize she was there when he got in the shower, but it was a case of faulty construction. From inside the yellow bus, she could see him showering through the rear window.

In the bedroom bus, Mom and Dad slept on a mattress on the floor. My older sister Lauri and I had bunk beds, which were old doors my dad had covered with blue shag carpet. I seem to remember Lauri was scared of falling out of bed, so that's why I got the top bunk, which I loved. Paul was just a baby, so I'm sure he slept in a box or a drawer somewhere. In the mobile home we moved into that fall - when it started to get cold - he slept on top of the dresser.

The bathroom was right where it had always been in that bus, a tiny room by the rear exit, with a port-a-potty. I distinctly remember a sign above the toilet paper, printed neatly in my mother's hand: "Eight squares apiece." I think that had something to do with the capabilities of the tank, maybe a tendency to clog or how often it had to be emptied. (Now that I've watched my own young children use giant wads of toilet paper, I can see why she might have been worried about clogging.) But surely we used double-ply. Otherwise, it seems like a scanty allotment.

You're probably wondering the reason for our unique accommodations. Well, we weren't just camping. My father's ingenuity only began with the buses. What he was really about was just up the hill. He was working on building a house literally with his own two hands and with mostly "found" materials: glass from an old greenhouse, fieldstone a farmer gave him for digging it out of his field, oak trees my dad cut down himself and helped to plane at a friend's mill. The oak was for the beams. The fieldstone was for the fireplace - three stories high. The glass was made into windows that covered the front of the house. All the floors were pine. I remember when he sealed the downstairs floor with polyurethane, he suspended the piano from the ceiling to get it off the floor. When he sealed the stairs and we were waiting for them to dry, to get upstairs we climbed a ladder and then crawled across a plank. That was one thing my mother complained about, and overall I can't say she really complained that much, considering the unconventional nature of her life with my father. She protested all the way, but she did climb that ladder and crawl across the plank. At the time, she was eight months pregnant with my sister Susan.

As kids, we all thought mom was kind of a party pooper. She wasn't cheerful as she scrubbed panes of greenhouse glass with a bucket of hot water on the kitchen table in our mobile home (after feeding, bathing, and putting to bed three kids in a single-wide.) She seriously fussed when she had to crawl across that plank. And when she knocked herself out when we were leaving for church because she didn't duck coming out of the emergency exit of the bus, she was actually angry, maybe even livid. Looking back now as a wife and mother myself, I don't know how she did it, especially considering that as I am writing this, those are the only three examples I can come up with of her bad attitude. It makes me want to cry. It's sweet to think of her going wherever my dad took her, doing whatever crazy-sounding thing he came up with for them to do, maybe objecting at first but always giving in in the end.

Of course, Dad's plans might have sounded crazy, but for him they were more or less realistic, though they didn't always reach completion in exactly the time frame that was at first agreed upon. The house was supposed to take six months; it took five years. Still, he finished it, and pretty much single-handedly, with a little help from friends on things like pouring the foundation, erecting the beams, nailing the shingles. Someone else would have been crazy to try. Most people wouldn't have even thought to. My dad, as I used to say, "could do anything, just like Jesus." Mom was always quick to correct me and say "almost anything." Like, for example, Dad couldn't save my soul, I guess she was thinking. Maybe she was also thinking about one or two other things he couldn't do. Wives have that vantage point. (Mom, though, was usually too busy thinking about all the things she herself couldn't do, like keep herself from sometimes getting angry or keep her kids happy at all times.)

I think Mom just had a very sensitive conscience; she didn't want us making an idol of our Dad. I don't know if we made an idol of him, but he was definitely our hero. Life with him was a fabulous adventure. Time taken out of working on the house to stand on the ledge of the driveway and throw a weighted rope over and over until he hooked it over the branch of a tree twenty feet up so that he could make us a swing - and not just a swing, a thrill ride - was time well spent in his opinion. A house without a rope swing, after all, wouldn't be much of a house.

Of course, he wanted that rope swing as much if not more than we did, partly because he'd gotten it into his head, and he couldn't get it out of his head until he'd solved how to do it and accomplished it. I just know he lay in bed at night working it all out in his mind - inventing - and then what fun to get up in the morning and try. Nothing could stop him. He was single-minded. But it wasn't just the problem-solving, which has always been his main hobby in life, it was the dream he had and wanted to invite us into. He was creating a place that lived inside his heart and head, a place for his family to experience a thrill ride, even before we knew what one was. And I must say, we certainly did.


  1. Beautifully written and fascinating story. Your dad is my hero as well. Creating a dream and a story to invite people into is one of the most productive things anyone can do - your dad and mom have done that for many people. Just look what they produced in you!

  2. Dad sure did make it hard for his son-in-laws to live up to his ridiculous ingenuity!!! I gave up years ago.

  3. Haha! Thankfully, you have enough Shepherd ingenuity in your house to last a lifetime :) Shep and I just have to call a plumber/electrician/repairman/etc.