My Story Through Houses: The Manufactured House
“‘What is real?’ asked the Rabbit one day….‘Real isn’t how you are made,’ said the Skin Horse. ‘It’s a thing that happens to you.’”
–Margery Williams, The Velveteen Rabbit
Lots happened to me as I left New Mexico on Route 66 headed for the “promised land” of California in June, 1950. I was driving a wreck, a flatbed, 1936 International pickup that I bought for $100 and that was worth less than $10. The engine had little compression and burned about as much oil as gasoline.
The brakes of my old, battered pickup went out in Gallup, New Mexico, a several-mile-long tourist town spread out on both sides of the highway. I had an accident hitting the back end of a car stopped at the one traffic light. The family in the car must have seen the look in my eyes and felt sorry for me. I gave them $20 and they sent me on my way with a “good luck.” Thanks. I needed all the luck I could find.
The temperature in Blythe on the California border was 109 degrees F when I pulled in at 8:00 p.m. in the evening. At least there was no snow, for which I was grateful. I carried a 10-gallon cream can with extra water for the radiator and several quarts of oil for the engine so I made it across the vast Mojave-Sonora Desert looking like I came straight out of the dust bowl. I stopped only once at a small, hungry-looking village that had a huge billboard urging travelers to come in and see their “50 foot python.” I bought gas and felt no disappointment that the snake was a come-on. My mother had long ago told me to stay away from snakes of all kinds.
I struggled to cross the 4,200-foot El Cajon pass between the San Bernardino and San Gabriel mountains. From then on it was all downhill to Los Angeles, the palm trees, the wide streets, and the cool, moist air coming from the endless Pacific Ocean that was bigger than any sight I had ever seen. Where I grew up we had a few streams in the canyons and earthen dams on the prairie with muddy water where livestock drank. There wasn’t even a place to learn how to swim. What was I supposed to do with an ocean that stretched from here to Asia?
It didn’t take me long to find a place to live, a teardrop trailer house in an affluent area not far from UCLA. The owner agreed to rent this manufactured, mobile home to me for $15 per month if I would water the plants, flowers, and fruit trees on his property. The trailer house was small, with little more than a kitchen and a place to sleep. I had to go outside to a shower room that had an inside, flush toilet with real toilet paper. Things were definitely looking up!
When we talk about a manufactured home, it can get confusing. Manufactured is often used as a generic term applied to many different types of living spaces from the “home on wheels” you see on our highways, to prefabricated houses that can be delivered wholly or partially assembled, to trailer houses, and even to modular homes. What they all have in common is that, unlike a pre-cut house, they were partially or totally put together in a factory.
MOBILE HOMES as we know them today began to be manufactured around the mid-1920s on an assembly line much like an automobile. Roads were improving and people were earning enough money to travel on camping trips with their “home away from home.” Over the decades this type of dwelling has had many different forms, shapes, and uses. After World War II, mobile homes provided cheap housing for veterans and their families, allowing them to travel to wherever they could find a job. Trailer parks sprouted across the land like mushrooms. Travelers could pull into a park, pay a fee, and stay overnight or longer. In the county in Oregon where I now live there are many trailer parks where people live on a permanent basis. A number of these parks are “on the other side of the tracks” where some of the poorer people, often elderly, in our world live.
In 1954, brother Joe and I went to St. Ignatius, Montana, to build a pre-fabricated modular home for our parents. They had decided to move there to be close to the Stockton family, Ed and Hester, our childhood friends the dugout dwellers. Remember them? Hester was born on the Flathead Indian reservation and wanted to return to be near her family. St. Ignatius lies in the Flathead Valley between the Mission Range to the east and the Bitterroot Mountains to the west. It is one of the most beautiful valleys I have ever known, full of waterfalls, trout streams, abundant wildlife, and endless spectacular mountain views. It is anchored by Glacier National Park to the north and by Yellowstone Park to the south. If you go there with an open heart, it will take your breath away.
The pre-fab house we put together was a modular home pre-used by the military at a base in Utah. After the war, they sold off many of these housing units. My parents bought their building–a simple 1,000-square-foot, rectangular house with a gable roof and two bedrooms and a bath–for a thousand dollars, $1 per square foot. Today it is not uncommon to pay $200 a square foot to have a new house built. At least this pre-fab house wasn’t destroyed and hauled off to a landfill. It was delivered to the site by a trucking company. Wall sections, roof trusses, cabinets, and windows and doors, all crated, bundled, and ready to be set in place.
We took one day off and went to the falls near St. Ignatius where I remember having my heart broken. A beautiful little girl, maybe 6 years old, was there with her parents. She was playing with a yellow butterfly by streamside, calling to it, twirling round and round, jumping with true glee. Once it landed on her arm and a look of bliss came over her face. Then it happened. The butterfly flew too close to the spray from the falls, was hit, and knocked into the water. She called for her parents to help. They held her while she put her head in her hands and wept, sobbing! Lots of sadness and sorrow in our world, no? Best we take our joys where we can find them.
Reflecting back on the time I spent in that peaceful Montana valley with my parents and brother, it went well. We had no need to be worried about clock time. We were on no one’s payroll. We often worked steadily from early morning until the sunlight started to fade away, stopping now and then to watch the birds and the small animals as they went about their lives, building nests, raising little ones, all the while keeping an eye on us.
I realize that those were the times when I began to understand what time is actually all about. We tend to think, so it seems, that the longer we live the more we will get from life. We do gain more in quantity, actual number of days lived, but quality of life is not measured in clock time, years full of duties, worries, jobs, possessions, joys, and on. One minute, one given instant, can be worth a lifetime when we are fully present.