On the first weekend in May, there is an antique car show and flea market in Rhinebeck, NY. When I was a kid, this was arguably one of my favorite weekends of the whole year.
We’d pack up our little family camper with clothes and food. Then my dad would pack his stuff, filling the rest of the camper with antique car parts, old manuals, tools he no longer needed, and the like. He liked to refer to it as “Solid Gold.” My mother liked to call it “junk,” or if she was feeling particularly salty, “crap.”
My dad and all my uncles love antique cars. They’ve owned, sold, bought, refurbished and fixed up dozens upon dozens of classic cars since they were all teenagers. Even though we could never identify the make and model just from a glance at a bumper and tail lights (like our dad can), my brother and I grew up with healthy appreciation for them. Looking back now, I understand why Dad anticipated these weekend trips.
After backing up the camper into just the right place on the lot, he’d set up old card tables or wood tables he’d built himself. He would carefully put out his Solid Gold treasures so as to get the best viewing from people walking by. Sometimes he would write a price on a piece of ripped cardboard with an old marker. Other times when people would hold up something and ask about a price, he’d say “What’s it worth to ya?” There would be no need to get up, comfortably seated in his plastic lawn chair, can of beer in a koozie in his hand. If he said that, I knew he was more interested in just getting rid of it and not having to lug it back home, rather than making money. There were always a few items though that he was hard and fast on a price- whether it was a set of front/rear bumpers for some 1930’s Packard or some OEM steering wheel. He knew someone would come along looking for those specific things, and it would make their day to find it. Someone might inquire if my dad had seen this or that around the market. They might trade classic car stories, or talk about scavenger hunt finds (“You wouldn’t believe where I found these fog lights for this old clunker…”), or their latest rebuilding projects. The tables in front of them with rows upon rows of chrome hubcaps was a language they both knew well. It would be two solid days of Boomers Shootin’ the Shit, and my dad loved it.
For me and my brother, it was a homey kind of junkyard playground. We were free to ride our bikes pretty much anywhere on the fairgrounds, which was much less than half a square mile all around. We learned to find the vendors that sold more than car parts- some sold cool hats or bandannas or pins with funny sayings on them. The vendors that caught my eye sold colorful feathers with beads on leather cords, bound together with a metal clip on one end. I loved those colorful feathers so much, I always bought at least one to clip to my headband, so it would hang down over my long hair. Sometimes it would take me a whole day to decide which one to buy, I’d go to sleep dreaming of those brilliant colors. I didn’t have the faintest idea what a roach clip was, and a “roach” was just a gross bug to me. My parents, bless their hearts, let me just carry on wearing those feathers in my hair.
My favorite vendor was a couple who made dollhouse furniture out of tin cans. I looked forward to seeing them every year. They would use the bottom of the can for the base of a table, or chair, or crib; they would then cut strips of metal from the can itself, painstakingly curling them into swirls, fastening them around a frame. The intricately designed piece was spray painted and some fabric cushions would finish it off. Those would be my most treasured finds. I would be so excited to get home to rearrange the dollhouse that Boppa built to make room for them.
Our little camper was cramped for the weekend, but we didn’t spend much time inside of it. We must have been pretty lucky, because I only remember a few rainy days spent under a tarp that my dad rigged up connecting our canopy to our friend’s van. The camper wasn’t for living in during that weekend. We spent all day outside; we ate outside, we played outside, we socialized outside. As a matter of fact, I remember my mother interrogating us every time we stepped in the camper- whether she was concerned about how much dirt we’d keep tracking in on our shoes, or how much of the snacks we’d eat if left to our own devices, I’ll never know. It was probably both. If we had to use the bathroom during the day, we were strongly encouraged (read: this is not a choice) to use the public restrooms on the grounds.
At bedtime, we took turns brushing our teeth in the tiny sink. My brother and I climbed into our bunks, over the table and the couch respectively, and we knew to roll over carefully otherwise we’d smack our heads or elbows good and hard on the ceiling. We learned to ignore the snores from our parents below us, and to pretend that the bathroom door was thicker than the plywood it was made from.
We rented the same two lots every year, shared with longtime friends of my parents. There was always the same couple in the lot behind us (with the lavish motor home that I envied), and this guy named Obie a few spaces down. I never knew if Obie had a last name, or if Obie was his actual first name. He was a perpetual bachelor, calling out his Hello! in that particular nasally voice (I would know this voice anywhere), with a can of Schafer predictably in his hand by 10 am each morning. Whether it was his weird sense of humor or the occasional swear he’d let fly in front of us, my little kid memory tells me that even though he “was a nice enough guy,” my parents did not want me or my brother hanging out with him.
None of the people we knew there had kids our age, so my brother and I entertained ourselves. We rode our bikes constantly, we played cards, and I always brought books to read. We learned early on that would could make money by selling our old toys, and we loved the freedom of spending our own earned cash. We also learned not to repeat a lot of cursing, and began a fine education in the nuances of sarcasm. The adults would take turns putting a sign around another’s neck that would often say something like “FOR SALE- CHEAP!” or “WILL TRADE FOR BEER”. We did not question why we always brought two good sized coolers- one for the food and one for the beer.
Actually, we didn’t question anything, not really. We just went along for the ride. And sometimes the strangest silliest rides make the best memories.