A Real American Thanksgiving

We called it Truck Trollin’.

It was like trolling along in your boat in the hopes of catching a fish…

Only it was on Interstate 5 and without any of the satisfaction of finding something that could feed you or bring any type of pleasure. Well, possibly a deranged kind of sport pleasure for masochists.

Truck Trollin’ was the term my mom and dad would use when they had to load up the old F150 pickup to the brim with stuff destined for some storage unit they were continually moving in to and moving out from.

My dad was a master of packing and loading all kinds of things, from tools and furniture to lumber he milled himself. He loaded up appliances, garbage bags of clothes, and Andre Champagne boxes from Costco. The champagne had long been drained from the bottles, and the boxes now contained things like a popcorn bowl and old pictures of a half-naked hot tub party from a bygone era.

Then, they would get their overnight bags and hop in the cab. A ferry schedule stretched across the dashboard, and a coffee thermos balanced precariously in a cracked cup holder with a tray of quarters that always came in handy at the Anacortes laundry mat.

“Steve, we’re gonna miss that ferry.”

My mom was a pragmatist.

“Well, I gotta get this stuff secured. And then we gotta tarp it. You never know if it’s gonna rain.”

My dad over-tied, over-secured, and over-built everything he ever put his hands on.

“You already tied three lines across every square foot of that hutch!”

“And all it takes is one wrong turn, bump, or slippery hill, and it all ends up on the freeway. You want us to end up killing ourselves and everybody else, woman?”

“Steve, we gotta go!”

“Ellen, I’m going as fast as I can. I have to do it right, ya know. Jesse, hand me that extra line and that bungee cord.”

They had to be in a hurry because they were slaves to a ferry boat.

My parents spent the last two decades of their lives calling some island their home. Whether it was Fidalgo Island, joined by a bridge, or Shaw Island, reached with some difficulty by the not-frequent-enough visits of the overburdened Washington State Ferry system.

They didn’t own the place but were caretakers of sorts for long-distance landlords, which just emphasized the transient nature of it all.

My parents were endlessly fantasizing about moving to their own property somewhere sunny. Luckily, storage units were the staple of both vagabonds and luxury homeowners with a bad case of consumerism alike, and my folks always had at least one unit at any given time.

Of course, they ended up on the island with the most infrequent ferries, the most cancellations, the most delays, and that allowed the least number of cars to get on each time.

Typically, they’d go down to get in line an hour early and hope that they’d be the seventh car, desperately praying to God every time that they weren’t the eighth. The eighth car would watch in horror, dismay, and terror as the ferry left the dock, stranding them and forcing them to turn around and go back to a wet campsite or sleep overnight in their car.

My parents were constantly having to go to the mainland to do anything, from shopping to hospital visits. After the hour on the boat, they drove all over Timbuktu. Moving stuff from one storage unit to another, refueling, filling a cooler with groceries, and occasionally playing Russian Roulette by seeing if they could get the ice cream back to the house before it melted all over the bread and cheese. Finally, they’d have to race back to get in line to catch the last ferry home.

And that line might be a six-hour wait, or perhaps an expensive night in the motel.

The poor 1990’s F150 had replaced a 1970’s blue F250 with a red door and blue smoke spewing from the tailpipe (as if to undo all of their careful conservation work and recycling efforts).

My dad loved his Ford, but he always felt a little sad having to “upgrade” from his friend, Ye Old Red Door.

The Red Door earned its name one evening after my late cousin Stacey’s wedding reception. My dad very responsibly drove the two of us home and came to a stop at the top of our steep driveway in Edmonds.

Just as we got out, we turned to realize the emergency brake had not been set, and the massive blue F250 was rolling back down the hill, like a wild horse not yet tamed.

“My Truck!” He yelled as he made a futile attempt to dig his claws into the hood.

As the truck creaked, swung around, and began speeding in eerie silence, barreling down the driveway, the driver-side door hit a tree and was knocked clear off.

The only thing that kept the truck from crashing through our living room was a metal pole he had cemented in the ground, placed for a future fence project that never seemed to get finished.

He drove that truck for a while without a door. Eventually, however, he was forced to go to the junkyard and find a replacement.

At least, that’s what we feed the frail masses who can’t handle the truth. I prefer to remember the story this way (and I admit to a little bit of embellishment)…

Like the old story The Sword In The Stone, my father successfully accomplished what many valiant knights were unable to.

There were terrible fanged junkyard dogs all around barking viciously at the old mailman as he deftly fought them off and climbed the tallest junk heap on the hill. It was there he pulled the Red Door from a huge rock that sat atop the mountain. The heavens opened up, a beam of light struck him, and power surged through his sinewy master woodworker’s body. His belly might have jiggled a tad, but only as if laughing and mocking the world.

He became the Truck Trollin’ King.

Later, when bystanders questioned him at gas stations, they would often ask him if he ever planned to paint the Mighty Red Door to match his blue truck.

He only laughed and finished topping off the duel gas tanks. It was then that the bystanders would notice the hose he used to fuel his steed wasn’t even attached to the pump at all; It was coming out of an old oak barrel.

You see, it was not gasoline he was feeding the Red Door, nay not even diesel, but in fact, was straight finely-aged 200-proof Barbados Rum.

After sleeping in the barrel for so many years, the distilled spirits contained the perfect balance of tannins and esters, which gave the rum a slight vanilla flavor as well as a smoky oak tone.

Naturally, it was the perfect fuel.

As he climbed back on his metal steed, he winked with a glimmer in his eye and flicked his half-smoked, yet still lit cigar over his shoulder.

As he fired up the engines, the toxic blue exhaust spewing from the tailpipe hit the cigar and created an instant ball of flame hurtling toward the gas station door at supersonic speed.

Of course, the average onlooker gasped in fright. That is until they realized the ball of gaseous flame had the perfect trajectory to knock over a crook who had just held up the cashier and was attempting to escape. It didn’t kill the rogue bandit, but simply stunned him and singed his hair into a funny-looking bald spot, allowing time for the police to arrive, and a good hearty laugh from the crowd.

…At least that’s how I remember the events. I was an eye witness but might have had something in my eye.

So it was a sad day when my father had to put his mechanical companion down and take on an inferior breed. He didn’t have the money for a more powerful one, and frankly, why bother, since nothing like the Red Door has ever, nor will ever exist again.

The newish F150 was white, and respectable, and could carry a load, but couldn’t help but pale in comparison in every way.

On this particular journey to the mainland, I was fortunate enough to accompany them.

On a break from the University of Washington, I was getting a rare chance to work with my dad. I enjoyed helping here and there and watching him do many things far more manly than I had any ability to achieve.

It was Thanksgiving, and we wanted to spend it with friends and family. We were invited over for a Thanksgiving dinner, and it sounded like a great reason to break the solitude of island living.

Of course, one doesn’t leave the island for only one thing or a singular venture. No, you always combine objectives, leverage effort and time, and generally multitask on every departure. The time and money were just too scarce and limited resources to not stop off at a storage unit on the way.

“We should make it there just in time,” my dad said.

We were all very hopeful. My mother had fixed her famous green bean casserole, mashed potatoes, a pumpkin pie, and a salad to bring as an offering. They were nestled carefully in the cooler, ready to be quickly reheated upon arrival, likely in a microwave.

Partially because heating dinner a second time was often involved, the food probably lacked something that most sophisticated pallets would require. Still, we were nomads traversing the seas and concrete deserts and had adapted to the life of the wanderer. It was not sophisticated and neither were our pallets.

The ferry was running late. The weather wasn’t great, and the crowds were swollen. The traffic was terrible. Apparently, other people wanted to drive that Thursday also.

“Hey dad, maybe we should just go straight to dinner. I mean, if we don’t go to the storage unit, we—”

“Don’t go to the storage unit?! That’s nonsense! We can’t leave my tools in the back like this! We’ll come out of there, and the entire load will be stolen, along with the wheels.”

“Steve, we can drive in the carpool lane. Oh, never mind, that guy is tailgating, and he won’t let you in. These people are driving like crazy today!”

“Ellie, I have this all under control. Better to be safe than sorry. Don’t forget, I had a thirty-years perfect driving record and got the Safe Driver Award every single year.”

It was true, my dad had spent his workday delivering mail for the United States Postal Service. He was likely the only human being to never have so much as a speeding ticket or minor infraction. They got so tired of giving him the safe-driving award that they had to come up with other things to award since everybody else lost motivation. It was impossible to be safer (i.e., a slower driver) than Steve Stoddard.

Some companies will give their prized employees a Rolex watch when they retire. I hear at the United Parcel Service they have some famous leather coat they’ll provide. At the USPS, my dad got a piece o’ crap little pin each year that he affixed to his logo embroidered hat. He had so many pins he looked like a cartoon version of a 5-star general with a Purple Heart and seventeen other awards. He kept that hat forever.

I keep that hat in my father’s memory to this day—Protected by 4 armed guards in a very, very slowly moving armored car that stays in the far right lane at all times… and never gets to its destination.

And so we stayed in the far right lane, driving at least 15 miles under the speed limit. At the time, my mom and I were impatient, but looking back now, father probably did know best. He never lost a mattress off the roof of his car like so many idiots on the road today.

We finally arrived at the storage unit and went to unload, but realized we had to move around most of the contents that already took up the majority of the free space. It was a game of Tetris we all enjoyed for only a few hundred dollars per month in rent… every single month… year after year.

My dad wrestled with the glove compartment digging through a hundred years worth of license tab receipts, insurance cards, and old losing lottery tickets, to find the keys.

When he finally got the metal door open, the light poured in. It revealed the Stoddard Family Massive Gigantic Extendable Ebony and Cherry (and whatever other exotic hardwood) Table. The massive structure was at least fourteen feet long, and that was without the leaves installed. It looked like it was built for royalty, or for some Norman Rockwell illustration where the perfect American extended farm family would gather at for a giant reunion.

Incidentally, I will have you know that I hauled that same table up and down three flights of stairs to my apartment in college several times (with the help of some poor unwitting friends). My friend Gary had to get knee surgery. He claims it was from rugby, but I think it was caused by going up and down the steep stairs with that behemoth table on his back on several occasions.

I dragged it in and out of my first home. I took it back and forth to several of my own storage units, to appease my parents and honor the Stoddard Family Storage tradition. Alas, I must save the many adventures involving the behemoth table for another time.

Wedged between the sides of the table and the walls of the unit was stuff. Underneath the table from floor to tabletop was stuff. On top of the table, up to the ceiling was stuff.

We started to move things out of the unit so that we could move them back in. Then we moved stuff out here and there to re-shuffle and put the load from the truck in the cracks and crevices. I was reminded of a song from a musical that my friend Scott McKinstry’s dad Steve wrote in the ’90s.

We performed an original musical by Steve McKinstry called Bumble’s Garden in our senior year in high school. Scott directed it, and I thought we were ahead of our time. There were anthropomorphized animal characters like a beetle and a couple of cockroaches. They sang a song poking fun at materialism…

Stuff is the stuff
You never get enough of.
Stuff is the stuff
You work your whole life for.
Life can be rough
When you don’t have enough stuff,
But when you have enough—
You want more!

And here we were, epitomizing the American dream. The dream of having your own storage unit someday, full to the brim with stuff.

Even the word stuff sounds like it is for the purpose of stuffing something in or filling up something somewhere, like a greed-obsessed squirrel foaming at the mouth, desperately trying to bury enough of his nuts to prepare for the coming nuclear winter.

We were beaming with pride. Or, at least we would have been had we not been sweating, grunting, and throwing out our backs.

“Dad, I don’t think we are going to be able to make it to dinner now…”

“Oh, well, maybe there’s still time. Let’s just clear off this table, and then we’ll see.”

We finally had the table clear, and the various piles were becoming more organized. Paths had been established, but when we looked at the time, we were not only late but had completely missed any chance to go anywhere for Thanksgiving dinner.

We looked at each other with a hesitation that can only be described as a combination of anticipation and dread. We knew what was about to happen next. It was inevitable.

Slowly my mother walked to the truck and looked back at us.

My father simply nodded.

Without uttering a word, dad and I cleared off one end of the table and moved three chairs out and into place. Dad took a rag and dampened it with his half-empty water bottle. He carefully and gently wiped the layers of dust from the surface.

As if in a funeral march of shame, my mother opened the cooler and began to bring over the cold dishes of Thanksgiving feast one at a time.

We sat and put fancy paper napkins on our lap. My mother placed the paper plates and plastic sporks saved from some fast food joint or another in front of my father and me.

We said grace.

“Thank you, oh Lord, for this bounteous blessing. We are so grateful for all that you provide. Thank you for this storage unit, this luxurious table, and the long lost Sawzall along with my old set of golf clubs. We haven’t golfed in fifteen years, oh Lord, but it’s good to know we have them in case we ever decide to take up golf again. P.S. Lord, the winning lotto ticket might help us to use those golf clubs more. Amen.”

As the sun went down, the buzzing lights of the storage unit cast shadows across our rectangular metal domicile. At the same time, an unusually large daddy longlegs pranced across the lightbulb over our heads.

And we all had a good laugh, realizing that others might have warmth, emotional stability, and a home. Still, we were one of the rare lucky families who had indeed achieved the real end-result of the American Dream; so much decadence and wealth that we needed a storage unit to hold it all…

Including us.

Thanksgiving in a Storage Unit
A Real American Thanksgiving
Truck Trollin’ with Steve Stoddard

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