On a quiet morning in early September of 2005, Roger Bishop sat in Becky's Cafe in Wychbold, Michigan, feeling sorry for himself. He was a couple months shy of being forty-nine years old, a widower, and retired. He was just under six feet, lean without being thin, and had thinning brown hair.
He was also incredibly lonely and just about bored to tears.
In the four months and change since he'd last punched a time clock at the Ford plant in Saline, he hadn't managed to reset his internal alarm clock enough to keep him from being fully awake at six in the morning, even though there was no reason for him to get up. Retirement, he thought, was clearly going to be a pain in the butt.
Being retired was something he'd never really thought about much until it happened to him. For twenty-six years, six months, and eleven days he'd gotten up before dawn and driven forty-five miles from his home in Wychbold, a real country town, to Ford Saline, close to Ann Arbor, where he'd worked on the line. Most days he'd enjoyed the drive, since he'd worked out a way to go down back roads that weren't too crowded.
That had been the good side. The work in the plant was dull and repetitive. Downright boring would be a better way to describe it, but those paychecks with the word "Ford" on them made the boredom almost worthwhile. There hadn't been very many days when he hadn't thought about when he could finally hang it up, but most of the time it was out in the vague somewhere. He'd had visions of doing some fishing, some yard work, watching some TV, puttering in the shop, maybe a little travel -- but retirement was always so far off that there hadn't been any need to do detailed planning.
In the spring of 2005, with Ford's (and the UAW's) thirty-and-out policy, it was still a while before he'd thought he really had to get serious about what he was going to do. But then Ford needed to cut some costs and offered a big early retirement buyout package for workers of sufficient seniority -- to be precise, twenty-six years and six months.
Over the course of the summer he'd had plenty of time for second thoughts about retiring. TV was boring -- daytimes especially so; the yard could only take so much work, and nothing in particular called to him in the shop. Worse, he'd discovered he didn't much like fishing or traveling by himself, and didn't know very many people his age who were retired. His wife had died unexpectedly in a car crash several years before; he thought he'd gotten used to being by himself, but between buddies from the shop and a few old friends who were still working, his last few years on the job hadn't seemed as lonely as they really were.
As summer became fall one thing he found to help pass the time was to head downtown to Becky's Cafe not long after he got up and sit in on the community breakfast table. Becky's was a typical small town breakfast-lunch place, not unlike tens of thousands of similar places around the country, if a little on the small side -- usually Becky herself waited tables, with a cook taking care of things in the back. While the people around the table were mostly regulars, they came and went at different times for different reasons. There was a lot of gray hair among the regulars, and it just made him feel older.
That morning, Roger was sitting at the table, sipping at his coffee, trying to think of something to do to kill another day and occasionally joining the slow-flowing conversation around the table. Time passed without many great ideas coming to mind, and the table emptied out as people went to work or whatever else they happened to have going.
Pretty soon the only person left at the table besides Roger was Jason Daugherty, who ran a small insurance agency across the street. He was a tall, skinny, good looking dark-haired guy, maybe thirty or so. The talk about him around town was that he'd never been married because he liked playing the field so much, but from what Roger knew, he was a pretty good insurance agent. "Damn," Jason commented a little glumly, "Maybe I'll just sit here, have another cup of coffee, and let Sally open up. I hate like hell to go to work today."
"Shit," Roger snorted, "Just be glad you've got work to go to. I always thought being retired would be easy, but the truth is that it's even more boring than working."
"You're retired?" Jason asked as Becky came up and topped up his coffee cup. "Hell, I thought you worked thirds."
"No, I took Ford's buyout a few months ago, and now I'm almost wishing I hadn't."
Jason shrugged. "You could find another job, just to have something to do."
"I'm not so sure I want to do that, either," Roger admitted to himself for the first time. "I don't know what the hell I'm doing with myself, and that would just delay the issue for a few years. Besides, I'm not all that interested in being a factory rat anymore. I'm tired of bosses and production schedules."
"Boy, I can understand that," Becky said, topping off his cup for the umpteenth time that morning. "I decided I wanted my own place so I could be the boss, and I'm busting my ass harder than ever."
Roger glanced over at the woman with the coffee pot in her hand. He was tempted to say something about the ass that she was busting looked awful good to him but decided it would be just as well if he kept his mouth shut. Becky was about his age give or take, medium height, maybe five-six, and could stand to lose maybe fifty pounds. She had a nice chest and usually wore shirts that gave the possibility for a good look down them. She looked rather plain with no makeup, in her waitress outfit, and rather worn from too many kids, too many hours standing on her feet, and too much worry about her struggling business. "That's sort of what I'm afraid of," he admitted. "I wouldn't mind doing something, but I don't want to get trapped by it, either."
"Any ideas?" Jason asked as Becky sat down at the table -- nothing else needed doing and she was always ready for a little bit of conversation.
"Not really," Roger sighed, "Or I wouldn't be sitting here talking about it. I really haven't thought it out too much. But then, I don't have to be in any big rush. I'm not hurting. I had a big settlement when my wife was killed, so I'm totally out of debt, have the house paid off, and have money in the bank. It's not enough to live off the interest, but so long as I get that direct deposit the third of every month, I really don't have to work for a living. So, there's no rush."
"You might want to think that through a little more," Jason frowned. "Back when I was in college, I had a summer job as an in-home interviewer for a project on senior citizen needs. I don't know how much anyone learned about senior citizen needs, but I took one thing out of that: the people who retire and stay active are the ones who are healthy and happy. Those who just veg out in front of the TV set are the ones who develop problems. I had one guy tell me that nothing will kill you quicker than a rocking chair."
"There is that," Roger agreed. "And I believe it, too."
They sat and shot the bull for a while, but finally Jason had to admit he had to go to work, leaving Roger alone at the table with Becky. "Hey, Roger," she asked, "You mind if I turn on 'Good Morning America?'"
"No, go ahead," he replied. "But it'll just be full of more of the same thing about how Hurricane Katrina tore up the Gulf Coast."
In a few seconds, Becky had used the remote to turn on the TV, and it was no surprise that his prediction was right. Devastation and destruction, suffering and misery, and the morning shows were milking it for all they were worth.
"Boy, that's a darn shame," Becky commented solemnly at the scenes on the TV. "Jeez, I wish I could close this place up for a while and go down there and help out."
"Lot of people doing that, I guess," Roger replied, more or less to make conversation. "What would you do?"
"I don't know, Roger," she sighed, looking right at him. "Maybe I could find some place that's feeding a lot of homeless people and offer to cook or something. But I can't really take off. I have to keep the place open; I've got bills to pay."
"That's one of the downsides of working for a living," he agreed. "At least I have the opportunity to take off and do something like that if I wanted to..."
That's when the idea hit him -- in fact, most of it sprang into life at full bloom.
Roger knew he wouldn't be much good as a cook -- he could stand to eat what he cooked but usually didn't get too elaborate. But looking at all the wreckage on the TV, it struck him that there must be a lot of places down there that would just about kill to have a carpenter come and offer to work for free. He didn't think he was all that great as a carpenter, Back in high school he sort of had it in his head that he wanted to be a carpenter, and took classes at the vocational school with that in mind. Things were a little tight in the trade right after he graduated, and a union rep told him that time swinging a hammer in the Army would count toward his apprenticeship. So, he'd signed up to be one when he joined the Army in the days after the Vietnam War wound down. It was a little bit of a surprise that he actually spent most of his time in the Army doing carpentry -- nothing very complicated, but he had a good hand with the basics. Over the years he'd done little odd jobs around town, just helping people out when they needed something done that was a little beyond them but not big enough for a real pro to consider.
It made a lot of sense, and he was in a perfect position to do it. Other than the need to mow his lawn and pay a few routine bills each month, there wasn't much to stay home for. That was, especially true with Colleen gone, and his daughter Erin on her second enlistment in the Air Force in Germany and not likely to be home any month soon considering all the hassles in Iraq.
Most importantly, it was something to do, and something worthwhile at that. He could stay with it as long as he wanted, and if it got dull he could do something else. What's more, it's something he could do for years if he happened to feel like it. There wouldn't always be hurricanes to clean up after, but there are always tornadoes and floods and earthquakes and other natural and unnatural disasters. On top of that, he knew Habitat for Humanity was always on the prowl for short-term help.
The best part was he wouldn't be alone: there would always be other people around, new people to meet, and likely interesting and good people at that. This had more than possibilities -- at first glance, it seemed to have everything going for it. It wouldn't be a permanent solution to his problem, but it would be a heck of a stopgap and might lead to a further answer.
All that flashed through his mind in just a few moments and settled well on his gut. "Yeah," he said to Becky as he finished his coffee and fished out a ten for breakfast and a larger than normal tip. "That might be something to think about."
That wasn't all that happened at Becky's that morning. As Roger left he happened to glance at the bulletin board near the door. Normally he didn't bother to look at it -- it was one of those things where people posted business cards, announcements of garage sales, pets to give away, and for-sale items, and he'd seen it every day for weeks. But this morning his eye happened to catch something new, a 3x5 file card with the words typewritten on it: "1978 Coachman Motor Home, 21' Class C, Ford E250 chassis, self contained, Onan generator, holding tank, good condition, low miles, $3500, must sell, 352 Oak St., Wychbold."
He stopped, looked at the card again. The idea of going down to the Gulf to work as a volunteer on hurricane relief was so new that he hadn't really thought the whole thing through. Now, as he looked at the card, it seemed to him that it was going to be pretty unlikely that he was going to find a motel to stay in. "Self-contained" seemed to be a pretty good idea under the circumstances.
He'd often given some thought to buying a small motor home just to make going fishing and getting a little travel in a little simpler. The things had always seemed to be pretty expensive for the relatively small amount that he'd be using it. The stories he'd heard around the plant from people who had them seemed to indicate that they weren't easy on gas, no small consideration when the price down on the corner was over three bucks a gallon that morning. On the other hand, from seeing prices on RVs parked for sale in yards alongside the road on the way to work, $3500 was a pretty good price if the vehicle was worth it. The price was low enough that it would give him a chance to figure out if it would work without being too expensive. If it didn't work out, he probably wouldn't get too badly burned on a resale.
His next stop was at 352 Oak Street. It's not necessarily true that in a town the size of Wychbold everyone knows everyone, but if you've lived all your life in the place like he had, it gets pretty close to true. He recognized the woman who came to the door: Lucile Burns. She was in her seventies; gray hair, medium size, and had a nice smile as she asked, "So how have you been, Roger?"
"Oh, about the same," he replied, his standard response to the standard question. "Do you still have that motor home for sale?"
"Yes," she said. "After Elmer had his stroke, it doesn't seem likely that we'll ever be using it again. We haven't used it for a couple years, now, and we never used it all that much." The fact that Elmer Burns had a stroke was news to him, but then he wasn't tuned into all the town gossip. It was a shame: Elmer had a good reputation around town, and was the kind of guy who was involved with things.
Roger and Lucile headed out back to where the RV was parked. At first glance it looked a little dusty from sitting, but seemed to be in good shape, just a little larger than the regular Ford full-sized van. Not knowing much about the inside of the thing, Roger raised the hood to look that part of it over. Given the fact that it was built about the time he went to work for Ford, the engine compartment was clean and in good shape, and sitting in it was a 351 Cleveland V-8, just about the best engine that Ford ever built in his admittedly prejudiced opinion.
"Have you had this long?" he asked.
"We bought it used in 1990, I think it was," she replied. "We went to Florida a couple times, but mostly just took a few trips north with it for fishing and like that. We've had a good time with it, though."
"Seems to be in fairly decent shape," he told her. "I don't know much about motor homes, I've never had one, but I think I'm going to want one that's pretty self contained."
"This will do it," she said. "When Elmer used to go deer hunting he'd park it out in the woods up north for a week at a time." She went to the right side door, and pulled out a sheet of paper from a stack sitting on the dashboard. "I'm afraid I'm not very exact on the technical details, but my son helped me put this together."
Roger glanced at the sheet: "1978 Ford Eldorado Coachman: Ford 250 chassis, 21 feet, V8-351 Engine, Auto Transmission, 14-15 mpg. 34,670 mileage, sleeps 4. Power steering, brakes with rear anti-lock, power windows and door locks, cruise control, tilt steering wheel, AM/FM Stereo with cassette and 6-CD disk changer, tinted glass, dual gas tanks, 3-way refrigerator, inside shower with power vent, toilet with undercarriage holding tank. Undercarriage propane tank, gas furnace, 2-burner stove, microwave, roof air conditioner, 6-gallon hot water tank, 12-volt water pump, 10- by 8-foot crank-out awning, roof rack, ladder, spare tire cover. Onan generator 4 years old, used very little."
"Sounds pretty good to me, for all I know," he said after studying the paper and glancing around the interior. "Do you know of any problems?"
"Not really," Mrs. Burns replied. "But on something this old, you never have any guarantees. Something could go wrong at any time. That's why the price is so low. I don't think it needs anything much, but I can't guarantee it."
He climbed into the back and looked it over. It was small, and "sleeps four" for much more than a night or two was probably wishful thinking, but he could see that he could live there for a while fairly comfortably. "Would you mind if I had a mechanic look it over?" he asked, pretty well knowing already that unless the report was something like "Not just no, but hell no," he was going to be buying it.
"Feel free," she said, handing him the keys.
For a vehicle that had sat as long as this one, he was surprised that it turned over and started right up. "It's sat for long times before," she told him. "But Elmer always came out on the first of the month to start it up and let it run for a bit. I've kept doing it." He was impressed -- that seemed to indicate that Elmer had taken good care of it in the long run.
He drove it out to the edge of town where Marty had his shop. Marty was a friend, and had done most of his car work for ages. About ten or twelve years before Marty had decided he'd had enough of bosses, so quit the local dealership and started his own business in his heated barn. The business had grown to where he now had three guys working for him, and they stayed pretty busy.
Just in that short distance Roger could see that the RV drove pretty well. It was a larger vehicle, but no worse than a big pickup or van, and he'd had a fair amount of experience with those over the years. Marty was on the phone when Roger got there, but soon got free. Roger explained he wanted Marty to look over the RV that he was thinking about purchasing, and the two of them headed outside.
"Well," Marty immediately said with a smile on his face, "I haven't seen this old girl for a while."
"You know it?"
"Yeah, Elmer used to bring it out here every spring so I could go through it. Never found much wrong, though. You thinking about buying it?"
"Real hard," Roger admitted. "I'd like you to look it over and see if there's anything that needs to be done."
Marty took a good look under the hood, then got a creeper for a look on the underside. "Nothing sticks out," he said after a few minutes. "'Course if you were going to buy it, you ought to have me go through it a little more thoroughly."
"Figured on that," Roger told him. "How soon could you get at it?"
"This afternoon. You gonna buy it?"
"Yeah, I think I'll head back over and settle up with Mrs. Burns."
He didn't even bother to dicker with her at that price, especially considering Elmer's stroke and the likelihood that they could use the money. He wound up taking Lucile to the bank so she could get the title and he could get that much cash out of his account. The bank even took care of the notarization. That much done, he drove the RV back out to Marty's, and had some kid who hung around the shop drive him back to Lucile's so he could get his car. After stopping off to talk to Jason about insurance, he headed to the Secretary of State office in Bolivar to arrange for new plates.
Roger wasn't all that happy about that. The state office had a reputation for being very slow, and it always seemed like it took forever to get anything done. Even if you were first in line it seemed like it took an hour or more to take care of a few minutes worth of work. He was not first in line, but this time the wait was worth it since it gave him a chance to do a little planning. The big thing he worked out was that while he wanted to get going before his interest evaporated, there was no need to be in a frantic rush about it. There were things that needed to be done, and he figured he might as well take a little time and do them right.
With the paperwork done, he stopped off at a small place near the state office in Bolivar for lunch, then headed back to Wychbold. Since he had the new plates and registration, he decided to stop off at Marty's to get them on the RV. Sure enough, Marty had a list of a half dozen items that needed attention, like new front brake pads and a couple hoses that looked iffy to him -- nothing major -- but all worth taking care of. He told Marty to get on it, and while he was at it he might as well give it a full oil change and lube job.
After that Roger headed home. There was quite a bit to do, and he had started a list back at the Secretary of State office. Since he didn't have the RV at home yet, he decided to start in the shop. He got out his carpenter's tool box -- an old fashioned open-top wood one -- cleaned it out to get some of the sawdust and junk out of it, then loaded tools back in, being a little picky and adding to the collection a bit. He got a newer metal toolbox down from the rafters and loaded it with power tools -- a couple Skil saws, a Sawzall, a couple drill motors, blades and bits to match, of course, and some heavy-duty extension cords. There was a lockable outside storage compartment on the RV, and he figured everything would fit in it pretty well.
It had been a productive day, but there was still a lot to do. That evening Roger called his folks at their retirement home in Arizona, told them he'd bought the RV, and would be using it for a while. He didn't tell them what he had in mind, since there was the possibility it might not work out. He tried to call his daughter Erin in Germany, but it turned out she was TDY someplace, so he e-mailed her with the same message.
That set him to thinking again. It would probably be useful to have a computer with him, if for no more reason than the e-mail, but the RV seemed a little small for his desktop. So, the next day he headed into the computer store in Bolivar, where he was able to get a used laptop at a pretty good price. It had a built-in modem, so he could connect by dialup most places he went, even if there was no high speed connection available. He didn't have lots of special software, so he was able to set it up fairly quickly.
By the middle of the day Marty had finished up with the RV. Roger drove it home, got some cleaning stuff and started in on the interior. It really wasn't in all that bad a shape, but after sitting for who knows how long there was still quite a bit to do. Along in the afternoon Amber, the kid next door, got home from school, and he got her to help with the cleaning. He hardly had to look at her to realize she was sure growing up quickly, and it seemed like just last week Erin had been babysitting her; now, in her short shorts she was showing off long coltish legs and a nicely developing chest for fifteen. She was bright and cheerful, and it almost made him wish he was fifteen again, instead of pushing hell out of fifty.
As he and Amber went through the RV, he checked everything he came to, making sure he knew it was working and he knew how to work it. There were a few things that confused him, but Amber could help with some of them, since her family had a similar if newer RV. That evening, when Amber's dad Larry got home, he helped out with a number of things. Lawn season was winding down, but Amber and Larry agreed to take care of the lawn, and do some other things around the house like water the plants and take in the mail.
Partly to avoid the tedium and the paperwork, Roger already had a lot of the routine bills like internet and electric deducted directly from his bank account, but he took the time to make arrangements for some other regular bills. By the time that was done he didn't expect to have a bill that he'd have to physically pay until winter taxes came along. He could finagle with that a little if he needed to.
The next couple days were busy, loading stuff in the RV while trying to keep from overdoing it. Clothes were mostly work clothes, jeans, T-shirts and denim shirts. He pretty well cleaned the cupboard out of canned and dry foods, and stocked up more at the supermarket. He loaded a pretty minimum amount of cooking gear and a lot of odds and ends. There was always something else that seemed to be a good idea to take along.
Pretty amazingly, exactly four days after Roger had his big idea down at Becky's, he was having breakfast there again, with the RV sitting outside loaded and ready to go. It had been kind of a big rush, and he was concerned that he might have missed something, but he didn't think he'd forgotten anything critical.
The last stop Roger made in town was at Oak Grove Cemetery. He didn't go out to Colleen's grave very often but somehow felt like he had to this time. He just stood there, not saying anything, letting his memory roll back.
He'd gone to school with Colleen, and the two had just never got along then, but somehow that changed when he was in the Army. One morning shortly after he got out he'd run into her downtown. They got to talking, and the next thing he knew they were having lunch and sharing old times. They were getting pretty serious when the job at Ford Saline came down, and got married not long after that. Erin came along before too much longer, and they bought the house. They mostly got along all that time; she had an irritating tendency to gripe and complain, but mostly he lived with it since it wasn't bad enough for him to gripe back. Although they hadn't always gotten along, she had been a big part of his life, and she left a big hole in it after her van was hit by a semi running a red light. That had been five years ago, and he'd come to think he'd more or less managed to put things back together, but he had the suspicion he really hadn't -- after all, if she'd still been alive he probably wouldn't have had the problems he'd had adapting to retirement.
He stood there for a few minutes, feeling just a touch awkward before he looked around and headed back to the RV. He couldn't have put it into words at the time, but somehow he felt he was finally leaving Ford and Colleen behind and moving on to the next thing, whatever it was.