Americans are among the most mobile people on the planet, so my wife and I spent the Fourth of July weekend in the most patriotic way possible: We helped somebody move.
According to various sources, average Americans move about 12 times in the course of their lives. I’m way above average. By my fingers-and-toes count, I’ve lived in 25 different places, if you count Army barracks and the nine months I lived mostly out of a Volkswagen van.
The number is more remarkable when you consider that I moved only once in my first 19 years and haven’t moved at all in the last 24. So there were a couple of decades when I averaged just about a move a year.
The number of times I have helped others move is lost to history, but I think I have roughly reached break-even point. The number of beers I have consumed while moving or helping others move must be well into the hundreds.
Not all of the moves were equally challenging. In the Army, it was mostly just fill the duffel bag and go. One move our tiny new family made was literally from one house to the house next door, although next door was about a half mile away over a dirt road.
But the moves also have included a 1,500-mile haul from Texas to Montana, creeping along in a U-Haul truck at 55 mph when the ground was level and much more slowly through Raton Pass. Now the interstate speed limit for trucks in most states along that route is 75 mph, but I don’t think the U-Haul would have hit 75 if you had dropped it out of an airplane.
If you are a patriotic American, you have moved often enough to know the drill. My daughter and her husband moved from Missoula to a fine old home near Huson, with room enough for them and the baby on the way. It’s a lovely spot, practically on a mountainside and surrounded by fruit trees and a raspberry patch. One evening, a pair of deer were feeding near the raspberries when we pulled in.
On Friday in Billings, we got help from a couple of professional movers to load my daughter’s piano into a trailer, then a crew of Senior High School wrestlers helped load a couch, a secretary and a china hutch. They were a hardworking crew, and one of them squatted before the loaded piano to play “The Moonlight Sonata” while another tied the furniture down.
A long, slow drive to Missoula was blessedly boring, then the real work began. The cursedly cumbersome washer and dryer had to be wrestled up narrow and uneven basement steps. The mattress flopped with every step up the winding staircase, and the box springs refused to. That cantankerous old dresser had to be lifted with fingertips, then slow walked out of the trailer a few inches at a time.
Then there was the usual motley crew: the male nurse who had majored in philosophy, the musician wearing the black “Fuck the revolution, bring on the apocalypse” T-shirt, the woman bartender so sturdily constructed that she never balked at her share of any load.
The philosopher sought to impose a “no crankiness” rule, but I immediately claimed a 65-and-older exemption. As cussin’ fools go, I retain amateur status, but at least two lines of work require a full and rich vocabulary of foul and fragrant language: moving and computer repair.
There were the usual debates about how to pack the van, accompanied by a handful of false starts and recriminations. Then there was the usual relief and self-congratulation at the end, rewarded by freshly grilled burgers, watermelon and Shiner beer, all consumed while sitting on the porch under a cooling breeze nudging across the mountain valley.
We helped my daughter and son-in-law with the first inevitable steps of making a new house a home: setting up the bed, the television set, the computer and enough of the kitchen to heat coffee and frozen pizza.
On Sunday, my daughter posted on Facebook one of our favorite tunes: the Holy Modal Rounders version of Charlie Poole’s classic “Moving Day.” No song better captures the experience: the humor, the poignancy, the sheer Americanness of ripping that carpet up off the floor, getting on your overcoat and out the door.
My own philosophy of moving draws heavily on my pal Roy Bragg, a legendary journalist who once fashioned a story about how extraordinarily average that year’s weather had been. While the rest of us were planning a move, he would be grabbing boxes. When my wife complained that he was ignoring her carefully inscribed instructions on the boxes, he would say, “I don’t have time to read; I’m moving.”
But it occurred to me over the weekend that I honor his example more in the breach now than in the performance. I took more breaks and backed away from more heavy loads than ever. Two days has not yet been long enough to get over the strain on an old man.
An ancient family story tells of my grandfather—the man who started every morning by dipping his head in a water trough—inching down a North Texas street with a fully loaded wagon pulled by a team barely up to the task.
“Are you movin’, Oren?” a passerby asked.
“Jes’ barely,” he replied.
From here on out, that’s me.