Lifestyle on wheels

Saturday, August 21, 2004

They are campers, old-school RVs. They are distinctive shimmering aluminum trailers with rounded angles that make them look like silver bullets on wheels. But for Airstream owners all over the country, they are a way of life.

This weekend at the Little Ole Opry Campground in Burfordville, about 20 Airstream owners from all over the region are coming together as members of the Missouri Delta Unit of the Wally Byam Caravan Club International to celebrate how they live.

"I don't guess there's anything really special about the Airstreams in particular," said charter member and past president Russell Sherfield. "It's the people that make the club."

Sherfield was sitting in a lawn chair in the middle of a line of about a dozen elderly men in lawn chairs and talking outside the pavilion that sits just below the camp lot, near the lake. Beneath the pavilion, the ladies of the club sat playing card games -- "hand and foot" and "jokers" -- and sewing quilts to be donated to the needy.

When asked about the segregation of the sexes, current club president, Carolyn Bell asked back, "Are you married?"

"Yes."

"Do you and your wife play cards?"

"Sometimes."

"Are you and your wife partners when playing?"

"No."

"That's why."

One of the men simply replied, "We're not 20 years old anymore."

A more obvious reason may be that these couples spend seven to nine months out the year on the road, traveling from coast to coast in the car and in the tight quarters of their beloved campers. Those Airstreams are now parked in two rows in the lot behind them, glistening in the summer sunlight. Different years, sizes and makes, but almost all of them the classic aerodynamic shape of shiny, riveted aluminum.

Sherfield's a retired trouble-shooter for Union Electric from Dexter, Mo. He's owned three Airstreams over the decades. His first was a 29-foot 1959 model. He then upgraded to a 31-footer from 1972. He now tows a vintage 1962 model.

"They'll last you a lifetime if you take care of them," Sherfield said.

Sherfield was one of 17 charter members of the Delta unit when it started in 1984. It is one of four Missouri units in a four-state region. Nationally, there are 12 regions that make up the Byam Caravan Club. There are yearly rallies at all levels in various locations open to all members.

That bond is also expressed when clubs go on the road together in caravans. Anyone towing an Airstream has an instant all-access pass.

"One time we were towing up by Lake Placid," Sherfield said. "There was a fellow that was towing an Airstream and saw us with ours. He'd been listening on his CB. Most of us carry CBs. The women mostly talk on them and gossip, telling big stories. ...

"Anyway, he asked us, 'Where ya going?'

"I said, 'Going as far down this East Coast as we can.'

"'Well, I'm going with ya,'" Sherfield ended with a smile.

"We're one big family," chimed in Bunk Launius of Malden, Mo., sitting beside Sherfield.

Launius and his wife, Rhoda, joined the club in 1989. They did so because of their dog, Skeeter.

The couple used to travel around the region, showing Tennessee walking horses. They took their little white Maltese along for the trips, but had trouble finding places to stay that would allow pets in the rooms. Finally, through their acquaintance with Sherfield, they bought a used 1972 Airstream from another unit member so they and Skeeter would always be assured a place to sleep. Since then, the Launiuses have owned four other Airstreams, including their current stable of a small, classic, vintage 1961 Bambi and their 2000 model year 39-foot Airstream mobile home, which they brought to Burfordville.

"The Bambi's road-ready, but we still need to polish it," Rhoda said, standing in the neutral zone between the women and the men beneath the lip of the pavilion.

The classics need to be hand polished to get that signature mirror-like gleam.

"The shine will knock your eyes out," said Amy White, standing beside her.

White said that while most Airstreams are uniform in outward appearance, the interior decor varies as reflections of the owners. The inside of her classic 1978 Airstream International is no different. From the laced curtains to the collected miniature birdhouses to the pillows that read "Home Tweet Home," White said that this mobile dwelling is who she is.

"We basically take our lives on the road with us," White said, now sitting back in her Airstream sofa.

White and her husband towed their Airstream from St. Louis with their equally antique 1972 green Buick Estate Wagon, called "Kermie." In the past 10 years, the Whites have put more than 100,000 miles on their Airstream, traveling all over North America.

White said she could have joined other clubs that were more conveniently located, but she was attracted to the camaraderie of the Delta unit. For instance, when an owner joins the unit, they are issued a red registration number that is displayed on the front of their camper. That is their number for life. Even if they sell their trailer or health problems force them off the road, they can always attend meetings and rallies.

But White warns that for many of these retirees, staying on the road becomes a driving force.

"I knew a man that had sold his camper and had been put in an assisted living facility," White recalled. "That didn't last long. He had to get back out on the road. For a lot of people, it's what keeps them going."

trehagen@semissourian.com

335-6611, extension 137

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