<center>Thirty Years in a Housetruck
In commemoration of having lived in my housetruck for the last 30 years, I thought I'd put together some text and photos describing some of the less well-known aspects of that lifestyle.
I'll start off with a bit of the background, then probably drift off into obscure rememberances from the past in more-or-less chronological order. I'll add things as I think of them, so this will be a running thread for the month of April.
The year was 1974. I was renting a small rear house in Los Angeles and working as a TV repairman. I had known that I wanted to leave LA since I was in my teens, but hadn't quite figured out how I was going to do it. Reading magazines such as Mother Earth News, and books like the Domebook and Foxfire series and the Whole Earth Catalog inspired me to join the back-to-the-land movement, as it did many young adults. I was seriously obsessed with geodesic domes, and made models of them from soda straws and popsicle sticks.
Then Lloyd Kahn published 'Shelter', which contained "Domebook 3'. In Domebook 3, Lloyd revealed that domes weren't the perfect habitation. They leaked, were noisy inside, made ominous creaking noises when the wind blew, and were not a efficient use of materials.
I guess that my vision would have been crushed, except that I found a few pages on Nomadics in Shelter, including a few photos of house trucks and buses, and some brief descriptions of life in the same. This interested me.
About the same time, I was having regular correspondence with a high school buddy who was in the Army, stationed in Mainz, Germany. He had married a native of Eugene, Oregon, and invited me to come up to try out the rural lifestyle when his hitch was up.
In order to make the move, I needed to rent a moving van. Checking with U-Haul, etc revealed that a one-way truck was going to cost about $600. I decided that it might make more sense to purchase a used truck for a bit more, and then resell it once I had moved. I located a used cabinet maker's delivery van with a 20-foot box and purchased it in October 1974 for the sum of $1,000. Once I owned this vehicle, I realized that it wasn't all that much smaller than the kitchen and dining room of the house that I rented, which is where I spent most of my waking hours anyway (the dining room contained my four-track recording studio). The 8-foot ceiling made it seem that much more like a small studio apartment. The housetruck section of Shelter worked on my brain, I worked on the truck, and the rest is history.
Building my home on a truck chassis was in part the only way that I was going to be able to afford my own home. Without a high paying career, I would have been consigned to renting for the rest of my life. On the slight chance that I could get the credit to purchase a home, I'd have been tied to a 30 year mortgage and been a wage slave until I was too old to enjoy a meager retirement.
After putting up with landlords, experiencing discrimination due to being a young single man, and being evicted after doing much remodeling at my own expense on my rented home because the landlord's son wanted it for his own bachelor pad, owning my own place was a requirement. Building it on a truck chassis mean that I could "take it with me".
(To be continued)
When you own a moving van, you're suddenly everyone's friend. I got plenty of "offers" to help friends and neighbors move, which kind of led into a part-time self-employment. Every time someone would move, they would have things that they wanted to get rid of. I was also called upon to clean out garages and basements of superfluous belongings and appliances, for which I would chage a small fee. Some of this stuff went to the dump, but a lot of it was still useable, and I began making a weekly routine of selling at the Long Beach Swap Meet, held at the Long Beach Drive-In Theatre. Every Saturday and Sunday, I'd arrive at 4:30AM so that I could be one of the first sellers into the lot. Arriving later meant that I would have much more difficulty getting the huge truck into the two parking stalls that served as my "shop" space.
As soon as the rear doors of the truck were opened (it was still a stock moving van at that point), a crowd of buyers would assemble to be the first to buy my wares. Most of these were other sellers who came to recognize that I usually had a truck full of resellable merchandise and that I was most interested in getting rid of it all by the end of the day, no matter how cheaply. Most of them would take their purchases back to their own stalls, mark it up, and sell it later in the day when the public was admitted. If I went to the back of the truck holding a box, a dozen hands would reach up for it and once they got ahold of it, I'd better let go or get pulled off the truck. Buyers would be tossing me money as fast as I could collect it. Clothing for $0.25 a garment, a box of dishes for $1, shelving units for $4, etc. No reasonable offer refused, the idea was to get as much sold before setting up for the day as possible. Anything that I thought would fetch a good price from the paying public was always kept in the front of the truck box, and brought out after the frenzy subsided.
The rest of the day would be spent selling off the remainder of the contents of the truck and cruising the swap meet isles looking for parts and materials for the housetruck conversion. My RV refrigerator ($125), gas cook stove ($25), saddle fuel tanks ($40), propane cylinders ($10 ea), and a variety of other fixtures and fittings were either obtained at the swap meet or procured through my garage cleaning activities.
Here's an old photo, taken with TMAX's camera, and just recently unearthed from it's hiding place after all these years.
We see Crazy Robert, the skinny arms in the black shirt sitting with the back of his head to the camera, and Fat Frank in a blue shirt and in need of a haircut keeping an eye on a lone shopper going through the goods. They were probably both totally stoned on pot, usually were all the time.
The Housetruck is still in moving van mode, and it looks like I had made a lot of progress in sanding and priming the body for paint. The right rear door is open and folded back against the body.
When things got slow, Crazy Robert would go out into the isle and pull people in either verbally or physically and get them to buy something. This actually worked! He would lay guilt trips on them "Hey, even you people on welfare can afford a quarter for clothes." Many times I actually saw people arguing over who saw a moth-eaten sweater first or bidding against each other for who got to purchase a broken record player.
Being the first one in meant being the last one out, as I had to wait until the public had gone home and enough of the other vehicles had moved to allow me room to turn the truck around and head towards an exit. We always drove right past the security guards who were standing at the exit gates to collect the California state sales tax that each buyer was supposed to assess and remit on the day's sales.
The tide of people moving along the isle all day while I sat in the stall watching had a mesermizing effect, not unlike watching a train at a crossing. Hours after leaving, I would still have a sense of motion, even when sitting still in my living room at home.
In all, I was pulling in about $300 a week doing the swap meet, which was fat city compared with $60 a week take-home I was making at the TV shop before I quit. Unemployment kicked in another $45/week (paid in cash!), so I had plenty of time and enough money to follow through on building the truck.
When I previously mentioned that I had been evicted from my home due to the landlord's son wanting to move in, things turned out well in the end.
After searching for a small rental house that I could afford (and that the owner would rent to a single young man), I came up empty handed, in spite of looking at at least a hundred properties, leads all supplied by several rental agencies. Since I steadfastly refused to move into an apartment, I realized with sad resignation that I would have to move back in with my mother, who was living in a trailer park after her divorce from my father. At age 55, and after 22 years of marriage, the divorce, and having to sell the family home in the settlement, her attitude was less than inspiring. It was also a blow to my ego to have to return home after three years of being on my own and having never asked for or been given any assistance. (This was some time before I hatched the housetruck plan).
The day that I was to have vacated the property, I was carrying a box of possessions out the front door of my rear house and looked over to the rear house across the fence, next door, to see my neighbor doing the same. A few minutes later, I had arranged with the house's owner to be the new tenant. It became a simple matter to move next door, saving me from a life (or not) in a trailer park. The rent was comparable, and the house a little nicer than the one I moved out of.
The previous landlord's son did move into my old house, but was never friendly to me, in spite of my attempts to show that I didn't regard him as a jerk like his father. He only lived there for three months or so, then moved out. For this I got evicted?
The new tenants in my old house were a young married couple, Ken and Anne, with whom I developed an immediate friendly relationship. They were both students at Cal State Dominguez, and Anne was working part time to support them both. Between classes, Ken and I spent much time together, as we shared common interests and values. On days off, we would frequently ride bicycles to Hermosa Beach and hang around the strand or go surfing (I should say that I *tried* to surf).
Some time shortly after I bought my moving van and was busy making plans for it's conversion to a housetruck, Ken's wife left him. Without a steady means of income, it looked like he was going to lose the house. Before his money ran out, he made the decision to also build a housetruck, purchasing an International step-van from a laundry company in Long Beach. Once he had the van, and minimal facilities were installed, he let the rental house go and moved in with me, sleeping in the van and showering at school. We shared meals, music, and spent many hours planning our trucks together. We attended trailer and motor home exhibitions, toured RV sales lots, and went to yacht and sailboat shows. We learned a lot more from the nautical side of those attendances.
It became obvious that some of the materials that we would need would have to be purchased new. Shopping for RV/trailer supplies revealed that the prices were geared towards people who had a lot more disposable income than us. At some point I came into possession of a Rogers Supply Co. catalog, kind of a Sears catalog for recreational vehicle parts and supplies. Calls to the warehouse confirmed that they were a wholesale-only outfit, and did not make sales to end users. No problem, time to become a manufacturer.
The first step was to create some nice, safe aliases for ourselves. I fell into using the name George Huxley (it's a whole 'nother story in itself), and Ken became Herb Woodley. If that name seems familiar, it's because that's the name of Dagwood Bumstead's next door neighbor in the comic strip Blondie. Hey, he used to live next door...
Next we needed a business checking account. Calls to the bank allowed us to create a "club" account, with no minimum balance, no service charge, and checks imprinted with the "club's" name. So was born Huxwood Associates, an amalgam of our respective aliases. We had letterhead printed up: Huxwood Associates / Mobile Environment Systems (ie, motorhomes). We even had a rubber stamp, I've probably still got it around here somewhere.
Rogers supply was more than happy to sell us anything we wanted from the catalog on a cash-and-carry basis under these terms, and didn't even charge us California sales tax on the purchases because they were supposedly being resold to end users who then would be paying the tax.
My home recording studio had a "phone patch" which allowed recorded audio to by played back down the phone line. I had also rigged up a hold switch on one of my phones. If we knew that Rogers would be calling to confirm an order, I'd be ready with a recording of saws and pounding to play over the conversation. "Just a minute" I'd shout into the phone, "I'm going to put you on hold and go into the office where it's not so noisy". Then I'd put the caller on hold while cutting off the recording, wait a few seconds and pick up the phone again, resuming the conversation in the quiet of the "office". It was a great farce!
When we would go to pick up the order, we would wear blue work shirts from the swap meet with name tags like "Joe" or "Bill" sewn above the pocket. If the will-call counter help started asking any questions, we'd act stupid and tell them that we were just the runner, if they had any questions, to call the "office".
Anyhow, this is how we ended up getting a lot of brand-new gear such as gas/electric water heaters, stainless steel sinks, plumbing parts, RV-sized cook tops, table hardware, roof vents, and a lot more for less that 50% of the retail price.
Of course, we took to calling each other by our aliases, I was "George" and Ken was "Woodley". Mine fell by the wayside rather quickly, but Woodley fit Ken to a 'T', as he was an accomplished woodworker. His name stuck, and to this day, he is known as Reverend Woodley to his friends, family, and parishioners.
"Huxwood" ended up being an all-purpose code word. If uttered out of context, it meant that something was wrong, or that the situation was dangerous, or that one or the other of us should clam up until we both understood what was going on. It probably saved our asses more than a few dollars on RV parts.
Preparing the truck for the move and to be converted into my home involved doing a lot of mechanical work. The original 235 straight-six cylinder engine was worn out at 78,000 miles. As fortune would have it, Woodleyâ€™s brother-in-law had a GMC 305 cu. in. V6 that he hade removed from a Carryall. I purchased it for $25 and disassembled it for rebuilding.
Woodley quickly realized why the laundry company that he bought his step van from wouldnâ€™t let him test drive it on the street. Besides having a worn-out engine, the brakes were poor and the front springs broken. Working together, we removed his engine and disassembled it, taking the block and head to the same machine shop that was doing the work on my new V6.
When it was time to pick up the parts, we loaded it all into the back of my beat up old 1962 Rambler American station wagon. I had hauled a lot of stuff in/on that old car, including the rear axle out of Fat Frankâ€™s Camaro race car and Wardâ€™s Suzuki 350 motorcycle (heaped onto the tailgate), but it was never as much of a low rider as it was with two truck engine blocks, three cylinder heads, two crankshafts and the rest of the parts loaded in. We did get followed by a cop for a while, but didnâ€™t get pulled over, which I found kind of amazing.
Here's a old photo of "LaBondo", my old Rambler sitting on the side street behind were we worked on Woodley's truck's engine rebuild install:
The engine assembly took place at "The Shop", which was an industrial warehouse that was rented by several of my associates from the old car club (the "T-Timers", if anyone is interested). The club had since disbanded, but Frank, his brother, and several others had rented the place to have a location to pool their tools and store their race cars. Big James had set up a paint booth, and did body work there, so there was a big three-phase air compressor that could really supply the volume of air needed to run air tools.
I could spend a week going on about some of the antics and exploits that took place at The Shop, but Iâ€™ll just mention that they included home made explosives, fisticuffs, cheating the phone company, getting ripped off by burglars, turning in some tool thieves, playing detective, and even some actual work on cars. It was the utlimate guy hangout. There was no safe harbor at The Shop, and one day I came in to find that someone had intentionally broken a beer bottle over the top of my partially assembled engine. It was time to leave.
A brake job and a new radiator were added to the project list after the new engine was shoehorned into the engine compartment.
Next on the housetruck came body work. The original box van was badly rusted. Many hours were spent with the pneumatic air tools grinding and removing rust from the exterior of the box, and applying primer and pale yellow paint. The roof leaked pretty badly, so I went up and spackled on some roof goo that didnâ€™t really help much.
I had been parking the truck around the corner from my rental house, on a less busy side street. I did my best to keep it out of anyoneâ€™s way, but being as big as it is, someone was bound to complain. One of the neighbors who lived on the corner of the alley made some noises about calling the police about it being parked there, but I told him that I was kind of interested in what they might be able to do if it was used/moved regularly, and he shut up. In fact, he got rather friendly after a while and started giving me advice on the painting.
Each morning I would pull the truck into the alley behind my rear house and go to work on it. My intent was to have at least a few of the interior amenities installed before I gave up the rental house and put myself on the road.
The door and some of the windows in the truck were recycled from the Flamingo Trailer factory before it was torn down. The site was abandoned for years, and was in the last stages of deconstruction when the Huxwood Demolition crew donned their blue work shirts and added hard hats and tool belts. We pulled two doors off of the former guard shack, and salvaged six or so HEHR brand three-tier awning windows. Many of the electrical outlet boxes and some of the wiring came from this factory as well. So complete was our disguise, that a California Highway Patrol officer made a routine traffic stop directly across the street from where we were working an never even glanced at us or what looked to be a tradesmanâ€™s work truck parked in the lot.
Two days after our visit the remains of the Flamingo Trailer factory was bulldozed into splinters and hauled off to the landfill.
After that, Woodley and I talked a lot about urban camouflage and how to blend into the background while still dwelling in our trucks. We often kidded one another about painting "Goodmill" on the side of his step van, installing a "donations" chute and parking it in supermarket parking lots to see if we could collect any valuables.
The fiberglass insulation was quickly installed in the truck, along with some one-inch styrene (Styrofoam) insulation that we picked up behind some industrial buildings. There was quite a pile of it most of the time, sheets with damaged corners or small stains/cracks. There were also some sheets of Â¼" flexible foam that made good under floor insulation and added some extra insulation to the walls against the steel siding.
The floors were built up with Â¾" lath, insulated between, and then decked over with Â½" plywood, screwed down.
My friend T-Max was around a lot and at one point, he asked me how long I expected that the materials I was using would last. The question kind of took me by surprise, as I hadnâ€™t considered that they would need to last much longer than the trip to Oregon. Ten years seemed an eternity then, and I allowed as though they should be good for that long at least.
With the help of George, one of the more responsible members of The Shop crew who had a welder, I modified the framing in the curb side of the truck, and installed one of the Flamingo doors. The rest of the windows and the other door would be packed up to Oregon to be installed as the truck was completed.
When it came time to build my sleeping loft, Woodley's expertise and confidence in woodworking helped a lot. I had taken some wood shop classes in jr. high and high school, but hadnâ€™t done all that much construction aside from some rough framing and a nicely finished cabinet for an old tube-type Harmon Kardon stereo preamplifier (lots of 12AX7A vacuum tubes!). I was concerned that my housetruck would end up looking a lot like my first club house, boards all sawn crooked and bent-over nails.
In fact, my first attempt at a loft collapsed when I tested it by placing body weight on it's frame. The new frame was made of 2x4's and was much sturdier, built across the front of the van body, about five feet from the floor, with a deck made from my familyâ€™s former ping-pong table, which was a 5x10' sheet of Â¾" plywood.
That was as far as the house construction went before I left for the Beaver State. No appliances, no wiring or plumbing, no cabinets. It was mostly insulated, with an entry door that had a double hung aluminum window, and a platform to hold a foam mattress. All the rest would have to wait until I was away from Los Angeles.
Someone, probably Fat Frank, decided that I needed a "going-away" party. I think it was Frank, because I seem to remember most of the guests being his friends. I wasn't really looking forward to having a whole house full of people, but since I'd be moving soon, it didn't seem to be too much of a risk. I was concerned about word of my four track recording studio falling on the wrong ears, and getting a nefarious visit by undesirables.
At any rate the party was on April 1, 1975. There were two refrigerators full of alcohol (my regular fridge, and the RV reefer that wasn't installed in the truck yet). About all I can remember of that night was lots of too loud music and some very forward woman who was intent on teaching me how to down tequila shooters.
I had informed my landlord that I would be moving out and that I was applying the security deposit towards the last month's rent. Naturally, he was concerned that the condition of the house was adequate, so I sent some time scrubbing the kitchen floor and making sure that my waterbed hadn't leaked in the bed room. Frank approached the landlord, and worked out a deal that allowed him to move in when I moved out.
Since there wasn't enough room in the truck for all my furniture and appliances, I "loaned" Frank my couch, living room rug, refrigerator, washing machine and kitchen stove. Of course, I was never paid for this, and never saw any of it again.
OK, here's the first image of this thread. I've been doing some research on this topic, mostly reading old letters that I wrote to my mother. When she died, I inherited a box full of letters, apparently every one that I ever wrote to her. It's actually an interesting chronicle of my life told to me by myself.
Last week while digging through another box of old papers, I found the original floor plan for the Housetruck, and at least some of the construction paper cutouts that I made to allow me to try out various interior layouts:
The large yellow area at the top is my sleeping loft, five feet off the floor, with my desk beneath. I had originally planned a bathroom, with a shower and toilet combined in one enclosure, just to the left of the kitchen. It was never completed, as I found after living in the truck for a while that I wanted/needed more kitchen counter and storage space. Besides, who needs all that steam in the house, anyway?
The narrow red line on the right is the entry door. I had (still have) two old metal and leather office chairs which were going to be used on either side of the table that was also never built. I'm actually sitting in one of the chairs right now.
It didnâ€™t take too long for Woodley to be included in the plans to more to Oregon. Kim, my old high school buddy, made several visits to LA after his discharge from the service to pick up machine tools, visit, and get his possessions which he had stored before entering the Army and getting married. Everything we did from that point on was preparation to move out of LA and to Oregon to escape the rat race.
The date for our final departure drew near. My rented house had been pretty thoroughly emptied, and the possessions that I was taking along placed into the moving-van-turned-housetruck for the trip, along with several large pieces of welding equipment that I was delivering to Kim.
The night we were to vacate the house and move into our housetrucks for the road journey, Big James invited us over for a small going away party. T-Max was there, along with Fat Frank and Crazy Robert. We cracked open a couple of beers and probably inhaled something illegal. Robert spent most of the evening in the bathroom. Eventually James told us that Robert had been vomiting almost non-stop since he arrived, and that we had to take him somewhere else, as his wife was tired of it. Great, just what I needed. Robert had always been the stone around my neck since high school, always getting me involved in his disputes and generally being a pest. Once he managed to almost get me shot by six nervous cops who were chasing him for brandishing his .44 Magnum. Now I was saddled with his sickness.
Anyway, we took him over to my old house and tried to talk him into seeing a doctor. He would have no part of it, and continued to puke his guts out into the toilet. I tried calling his parents and was told that they â€œhad tried everything over the years and Robert was an adult nowâ€
Although it's giving away future interesting parts of this story, here's the short answers:
1) The cab-over loft was built in 1979. It was framed out of 1-1/2" square steel tubing, all gas welded, as I was living so far back in the woods at the time that the nearest utility power was a half-mile away. The exterior sheathing is galvanized steel on the roof, mild steel on the walls and aluminum under the loft. I did borrow a gasoline generator to run the electric drill for making holes for the rivets, and used a small air compressor to power the pneumatic riveter.
2) The rear doors still open, although they open to reveal a framed and insulated wall separating the interior from the opening. There is a small space between the doors and the wall, and this is where I used to store my storm windows and window screens alternately.
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