Trailers and me

If I see someone backing up a trailer, I will stop and watch.

I don’t watch with a critical eye, but usually eyes filled with admiration. Guys (or ladies) who can back up a trailer or a boat without jackknifing it, going off course or hitting something are my heroes.

I didn’t do much of that sort of thing until we got a little popup camper, when the kids were very young, and took it several times to Colorado and other scenic spots for those memorable family vacations. Among my worst nightmares is pulling into a campground with a tired family and having to back that little camper into exactly the right spot while a host of leathery veteran campers watched — and some, inevitably, offered advice.

“You need to aim for that third tree and then cut it all the way to the left when you get even with the outhouse door,” was usually followed by, “No! Not your left! My left!” After several attempts to help the unhelpable, they would shake their heads in disgust and trudge back to their rigs to watch cable TV.

My family would huddle on a picnic table, watching this scene as Mom explained to the kids why Dad is so grumpy. She painted it in the best terms possible, but I could see the doubt creeping into their minds, that maybe I wasn’t Superman after all.

I finally did get the hang of backing that little guy, and a few years later when my friend Jerry asked if he could park his 20-foot flatbed trailer out on our place, I gladly agreed. He bought it and took care of it — all I had to do was supply a parking spot and we could use it any time we wanted. We hauled kids’ households to college and back with it, and I got more practice.

Jerry and his wife moved to the lake and he took the trailer to park there, but he still graciously told me I could use it anytime I needed it. On a recent Saturday, as a daughter moved across town, I did.

He had it pulled out, ready to go, and I smoothly hooked up and coaxed it out of his fairly steeply sloped driveway without hitting the brick mailbox or running over his lawn. All day, as we loaded and unloaded, I was the Safety Officer, making sure everything was neatly stacked, carefully settled and tied down.

By the time the move was finally accomplished, and pieces of furniture unloaded at three different households, I was on my fourth t-shirt of the hot summer day. I tried to call Jerry to see if he was home yet — ironically, he was also moving a daughter, but one who had enough stuff that they’d rented a U-Haul truck.

He didn’t answer, but when I pulled up at the house there were several vehicles. Putting the trailer back in its place was not an option, so I decided to put it back where he’d had it out for me that morning. A car out on the street across from the driveway made this extremely difficult, but after pulling out and circling the block, and much ooching back and forth, I got it.

His neighbor, who was out at the street painting his own mailbox, watched. I’m sure he was much better at backing up trailers than me, but at least he was silent.

I was, however, ready to get out of there and get home. This haste, and fatigue, are what I blame for what followed.

I unhooked the chains, undid the cable that makes the lights work, dropped the little front metal plate to the concrete, cotter-pinned it in place and began cranking the hitch up off the ball. I recall looking for the block Jerry had given me to chock the tires — but somewhere along the way it had gotten lost, so I just blew it off.

As soon as the trailer’s hitch cleared the ball, I realized what a mistake that had been.

I grabbed on as the heavy, steel trailer took off, digging in my heels and yelling, “NO! NO! NO!” every time the metal plate scraped the concrete driveway. My braking seemed to have very little effect, but if you consider each “NO!” a fervent prayer, I would say that prayers are answered.

As the trailer bounced toward the front wall of my friends’ house, the ground leveled a bit. I’m thankful for that, and for the low curb around their front flower bed. By the time my heels rested against that curb, the ramps on the back of the trailer were about eight inches from the house.

But the trailer stopped.

I sat there a moment, feeling my heart race, breathing heavily. Then I furtively looked around to make sure no one had seen my little escapade. The neighbor was standing there, arms resting on the fence, no doubt working hard to stifle his laughter and cursing himself for not having videoed what he had just witnessed.

“You okay, buddy?” was all he said. Then we talked, remembered our boys had played soccer together and I had even helped him cook burgers at their house a few years ago. To his eternal credit, he did not laugh, but instead loaned me some blocks to chock the tires after I pulled it back up into place.

As I was finally headed home, Jerry returned my call. I explained to him what he would find when he got home: the trailer, parked where I had found it that morning, skidmarks from the front prop scraping against the concrete of his driveway, tire tracks through the vinca in the front flower bed, and about a half-inch of rubber off the heels of my Nikes.

He would not, however, find the trailer in his living room.

He and I both considered that a win.

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