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The Travels of Bucket List Bessie

John & Pat decide to go fulltime in an RV

How to stay connected in an RV anywhere

I’m going to geek out here so it may cause some to go cross-eyed at the goofy tech.   I have been giving some thought to how to stay connected when we’re on the road.  It’s something that most Stick & Brick folks don’t think much about.  In our house we contract with a cable TV company for TV and Internet connectivity, and our setup hasn’t changed much over the past 20 or so years (unless you count the ever-increasing advances in Wifi).   It looks something like this:

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Rather than keeping important files on cloud sites like Google Docs, Dropbox, etc. – that cost me money to rent and may not be very secure or accessible in a 4G blind spot, I prefer to keep my stuff close at hand.   I bought a Seagate 4-Terabyte portable USB hard drive, and then spent $15 on a Hootoo Nano – a tiny travel router that serves no other purpose here than than to turn the hard drive into a NAS – a Network-Accessible Storage Drive.  It connects the hard drive via Ethernet cable to my main house router and allows anybody on the LAN to access it for things like E-books, videos, music, sensitive financial and medical records, photos, etc.

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This setup is inexpensive, so small that I can slip it into a pocket, and seems like just the thing for an RV where space is at a premium.   At home I use a power brick to provide juice via the micro-USB port, and on the road I can either use the brick, a cigarette lighter adapter or even my laptop’s USB port.   The problem with keeping files local rather than in a Dropbox is that things like an RV fire could wipe out all that data, so I bought a second 4TB drive that I use as a mirrored backup to the pictured drive, and I keep it in a Sentry fire safe along with all of our paper records that can’t be scanned into PDFs and stored on the drive.   I pull it out every month or so to sync it up with the data on the NAS so that nothing gets lost.

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A cable modem and Ethernet router won’t do us much good on the road, so I’m planning on leaving them – along with my two security cameras that watch the house when we’re not at home – with the house when I sell it.   Instead, we’re looking at Pat and I both having individual Internet plans on our mobile phones to the tune of about 30-35GB per month each.  One of us will keep our current AT&T phone and the other will get a Verizon phone to increase our chances of being within range of a cell tower, no matter where we are.  A simple click turns the Android phones into WiFi hotspots.

I plan on buying something called a WISP router for the RV, to take the WiFi from our phones – as well as the occasional and usually not very frequent decent-quality campground WiFi – and provide an Access Point for things like our PCs, Wifi printer, Rokus, and as a wired connection for the above NAS setup (the Hootoo travel router can be configured for Wifi only, but the slower speeds cause a lot of buffering if you’re watching a video stored on it).

As anybody who uses a Roku TV-top-box or its Google equivalent, the Chromecast, knows, it is really only good if you have an unlimited Internet connection, something that we will NOT have in the RV.   Watching just one longish YouTube video takes a nasty bite of our mobile phone plan.   On top of that, most campgrounds do not allow you to stream internet movies, sports, etc. from their “free” wifi links, so downloading Amazon movies just isn’t going to happen very often.   We’ll likely rely on Redbox DVD rentals for movie entertainment, as these do not use up our mobile gigabytes.    But I plan to keep my two Rokus because they are useful for streaming stored videos, family photos and music from the above NAS setup to all of the TVs on the RV (newer RVs usually come with up to 4 TVs).  So our RV LAN will likely look like this:

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Also regarding TV/video, we plan on having a DirecTV or Dishnet satellite TV plan, and many (I would say most but I’m not sure of the stats on that) RVs come with a satellite dish on the roof.  That’s separate from my RV Internet plan and food for another post later. Bye for now.

The House is a Hole, into Which We Throw Money

   Under the premise of “Spend a little to get a lot” we’ve been judiciously pumping money into our house to get it ready for sale, which has to happen before we can hit the road as full-time RV’ers.   Figuring on a remodeling budget of $50K against a likely sale price of $380-400K, so far we’ve put in new concrete walkways, stairs and patio extensions, mostly to erase the ravages of time on a 60-year-old property, some of them pretty severe.   We’re done with the concrete contractors, who ripped out the old walkway, poured  us a new front porch across the entire front of the house, and fixed sagging bricks caused by the failure of the old, original porch cement slab.   

    This week’s project has been to put two patio roofs up, one over our back stairwell into the basement and the second over our patio, and it has been an interesting time.  Mother Nature intervened in the project, and rain and snow caused delays that put the workmen back in their schedule by a couple of days.   Nobody in their right mind could expect somebody to work on top of a frozen, slippery roof, so a 1-day job begun on Friday just got finished on Sunday afternoon.  We’re pretty happy with the results.  The company we went with was Bright Covers, out of Cleveland, Ohio.

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For years we’ve had problems with fierce downpours filling up the bottom landing of the stairwell and threatening to spill over into our carpeted basement. No more.

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   The next project comes next week, when we replace the patio entry door on our garage with a fiberglass and leaded glass french door that matches one we had installed in the front of our garage a few months ago.

The Old (yuck) and the New (next to its mounted, older brother)

   That’s about it for this installment. Nothing much about RV’ing in here, it’s all about the house.

T Minus 1 year and counting

I follow a number of bloggers who love to talk about their fulltime lifestyles, from major strategic decision-making right down to what a great beer they had last night.  The ones I find most interesting are the “I wish I knew that before I set out” posts, that every fulltimer seems to have once a year or so rolls around and they take stock of their experiences, or a forehead-smack moment happens.

A blog that I follow pretty closely is “Technomadia“, created and run by Chris Dunphy & Cherie Ve Ard, who have been fulltiming for a number of years in a 60’s-era converted GMC bus.   Apparently Chris is very knowledgeable about electronics, mobile connectivity and RV tech, and despite their much-overhauled, 50-year-old vehicle, they have pushed the envelope of cutting-edge RV tech considerably .  I bought one of their books, “The Mobile Internet Handbook”, and it has helped me develop a picture of what I think I need to stay connected once we hit the road.   Other bloggers, who mostly write in order to generate an income stream from advertisers, write about different aspects of the full-timing lifestyle: the places they go, unexpected problems like mouse infestations, RV cooking, DIY and a host of RV trivia about things most folks don’t think about very much in their weekends-only RV experience.  How do you wash an RV?  How do you change the oil yourself? Service a generator? Where do you park when boondocking and for how long?  How do solar panels work on an RV?

Another great source of information on RV life is YouTube, where video bloggers like the RVGeeks, Gone with the Wynns, RVwithTitoPippi Peterson and RVLove throw out a steady stream of RV advice on repairs, upgrades and generally anything having to do with the RV experience.

 

Healthcare

At this stage of our preparations, we’ve done a lot of the strategic decision-making for our RV escape.   Being government employees, Pat and I have separate, self-only, Federal Blue Cross/Blue Shield plans that we’ll take into retirement with us.   As anybody who moves a lot knows, BCBS wants you to incorporate your plan in whichever state you reside (Blue Cross Massachusetts, etc.), and it can be difficult when you don’t own property in any one state.  But the Federal Employee BCBS plan doesn’t tie itself to one state, has no problem with us using a mail forwarding service as our official address, and since we each have our own plan (cheaper than doing a “self plus one” option), if we need to see a doctor or refill a prescription in any one place, the BCBS folks won’t give us any guff about the location in which the service is performed.  I’m still a bit confused about how to transfer my medical records between doctors in distant states, but that’s one of the things we’re working on.

We also plan to keep our current Maryland doctors in the loop, with the possibility of doing a yearly stop in MD to visit kids, get physicals, dental cleanings and vision checks.

Pharmacy

Speaking of prescriptions, Pat and I both take regular drugs for mundane things like high blood pressure, cholesterol, diabetes management, etc.  We decided to go with Walgreens as our usual provider since they have a nationwide computer network and we can simply use their app on our smart phones to scan the barcode off our empty pill bottle, choose the Walgreens nearest to us, and half a day later pick up the drugs.  At the time we decided on Walgreens. it boasted a larger nationwide network of outlets than CVS, and Wal-Mart didn’t make the short list due to other factors.  Hopefully this plan will stand the test of time, but if not, we’ll adapt and overcome.

Banking

Our excellent credit union at our workplace has handled our finances for 30+ years, and we see  no reason to change just because we won’t be near one of their branches.    Secure online access to our bank accounts makes a lot of stuff on the road possible with minimal risk as long as we’re careful about only using it on our 4G links.   Our credit union has a share system with other participating CU’s that allows us to make 4 fee-exempt ATM withdrawals per month, wherever we are, and any other cash needs can be handled through cash-backs at grocery stores and other retail outlets.  Our CU’s free bill-paying service facilitates anticipated regular bills like satellite TV, cell phones and 4G, and even features a free, web-based, Quicken-like accounting service for tracking our expenses. Things like pension annuities, social security and 401K disbursements are all handled by direct deposit these days, so the check doesn’t have to be in the mail anymore.

We’ve been advised by many folks that getting a loan becomes problematic when you don’t have a local address to serve as a statement to the bank of your liquidity.  We don’t anticipate the need for a lot of loans since we’re buying the major things – RV and toad- with cash as much as possible, and hopefully we’ll build up a slush fund for things like medical co-pays or unexpected large expenses.   The lack of an RV loan may hurt us in the federal income tax department, as we won’t have the same itemizations that we benefit from regarding home ownership (mortgage interest, property tax, etc.), but if we can save a bit of our retirement income to handle any overflows, it should work out.

South Dakota.  It’s not just for statuesque presidents.

Once we sell our Maryland home, we’ll be free to drive out to South Dakota and become domiciled there, even before we buy our RV.  SD has changed recently to make it a bit less attractive among the three (Florida and Texas are the others) top domicile states for fulltimers due to state income tax breaks.  They raised their vehicle sales tax from 3% to 4% (sort of a big deal if you’re buying a $150k RV), and some counties have a “wheel tax,” so care must be taken to set things up properly in the right county.  But the other states have certain restrictions too, such as vehicle inspections that require a yearly stopover, or a requirement for a CDL if you drive an RV.  Escapees, an RV club favored by many fulltimers (and of which we are members) has expanded out of its home state of Texas and has set up mail forwarding services in South Dakota, so it’s not so hard to choose SD as our home state.

The best thing about South Dakota is its residency requirements.  All we have to do is stay one night in a motel or campground, show the receipt to the DMV, and we can swap our Maryland drivers’ licences for South Dakota licenses.

You’ve actually got Mail.

Most folks handle their snail mail via a mail forwarding service.  We plan on using a South Dakota firm to do this, mostly because of the ease of determining what we want to see and where it’s sent.   Many forwarders have a website that lets you see a scanned image of the envelope so you can make the decision of having it forwarded or discarded as spam.  It costs a bit extra to have the mail filtered this way, but ultimately it pays off by not having junkmail forwarded to our current location.   When we’re on the move, we log onto the website and instruct the forwarder to hang onto the mail until we reach our next destination.  When we arrive, we log on again and input the address of that week’s campground, and the mail arrives at the campground’s office for us to pick up.    Online purchases are done pretty much this same way, but are shipped to our current address directly, specified when we check our cart out.   I favor Amazon Prime ($99/year), which allows free shipping on a lot of items.   The plethora of spare parts, gizmos and upgrades for RVs on Amazon is amazing, and as long as it’s not too complicated, I’m willing to handle most repairs myself with the right parts and tools.

Some mail forwarders go beyond simply handling your mail needs.   At least one will handle the legwork of registering your vehicle and shipping you the plates, and that’s going to come in handy since, following our switch to South Dakota, we’ll likely drive over to whoever has the RV we want – in Texas, Florida or wherever – buy it and handle the registration and insurance issues via the mail.   One forwarder advised me that it takes about a week to turn around an RV registration in the mail.   It’s going to necessitate a deal of motel-ing while we wait for this, but that’s sort of a part of the mobile lifestyle.

That’s enough for now.  More when I get my thoughts sorted out.

 

Maine post-mortem

We learned a lot of things on our week-long trip to Maine last week. It was the first time in New England for both Pat and myself and we had a great time discovering a beautiful state.

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tollgate

1. Tolls are expensive, especially when you have two vehicles and one of them is an RV – about twice as expensive as a car.  Going up and coming back we made extensive use of the I-95 corridor that runs up the Atlantic coast from Florida to Maine.   It’s a toll road for most of the trip through the northeast, although I seem to recall that south of Washington, DC it becomes free of tolls clear to Florida.  From Baltimore to Maine and back, we spent close to $60 just for the privilege of using I-95 and the New Jersey Turnpike.   The problem is all of the narrow (North to South, that is) states like Connecticut and New Hampshire.  Every one of them has its hand out and, If in some instances it may be possible to bypass the toll roads, other chokepoints like the Tappan Zee bridge get your money instead.

2. Tank capacity: Full hookups are nice but not strictly necessary.   Although our site only had electric and water, Pat and I do like our showers so we didn’t stint.  This is our vacation after all.   So we lived with the fact that the grey tank filled up every 2nd day.  On one occasion early on, the camp honey wagon came by to empty our tanks, but its pump broke down in the last half of the week and we were on our own for the rest of the trip.   We pulled the RV around to the dumping station to dump both tanks and then returned to our site, thereby learning by doing.  We had to do this twice, once in mid-week and again when we were pulling out of the campground for good.  We lamented the fact that the 30′ Cruise America Class C we rented had a chihuahua-sized grey tank in a bulldog-sized RV.  Two lessons were learned here: tank size matters and back in the woods loop where our site was, the pain of pulling out of the site to go dump the tanks would be double in a larger Class-A like the one we’re considering for our future home.

lynx

3. Levelers are a must.  For whatever reason (and I can think of a few) C/A does not supply them. We tried a solution using scrap wood but later on we just popped for two packs of Lynx Levelers; at $32 a pack they are not a cheap solution but they are adjustable and provided a quality leveling experience.

4. Quiet time is nice, if you happen to be a couple of old farts like us.  Most of the kids in our loop were allowed to run wild during the day, and they did so quite  politely, but by 10PM things got quiet and sleeping with the windows open became really pleasant.   Early in the week was the best time as most folks seemed to go home on Sunday and Monday, and then our loop got quiet on Tuesday through Thursday.  By Friday things picked up with the new weekenders.

5. Cooking over a fire is pleasant, convenient and congenial.  It only rained once, just before a visit by our local relatives.  Since we were doing burgers, dogs and s’mores over the fire as a key part of the visit, I had to stand over the fire for about a half-hour with an umbrella to keep it from going out, looking like an overweight male Mary Poppins trying to avoid a hotfoot.

6. In tandem with #2, shower size quickly emerged as a major factor in which motor home we will buy.  The shower in our Class C was about 24 inches by 30 inches – doable but pretty awkward – several times we opted to just use the shower house, which was clean and well-kept, because it wasn’t as cramped.   I decided that at least a 30×40 shower will be a must-have in our future retirement vehicle, and adjusted my short list of potential coaches accordingly.
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Parade during the Yarmouth Crab Festival.  It was a good thing no houses caught fire during the parade since every piece of firefighting gear from every town around Yarmouth was parading past in review.  Including this somewhat extreme example.

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The Freeport/Durham area is a very pleasant place for an RV’er in the Summer and I recommend the KOA.  When we weren’t visiting with relatives, we attended small-town parades and crab fests, we shopped in Freeport (an upscale boutique town with much to offer the tourist shopper), and deflated by and in the CG pool on days when nothing particular happened.   A Maine dinner is all about seafood (Got Lobstah?), and we ate way more of this than I’m used to.   We’ll definitely be back one day.

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Seals catching the rays in Portland Bay

Trial Run continued

We’ve been at the KOA in Durham, Maine for two days, and the learning experiences are piling up.  We’ve had enough experience with this RV (30-foot Cruise America rental class-C) to start to realize the good and the bad, about Cruise America, this particular RV, and our own decision-making process.

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The good:  This RV has the ubiquitous Ford F53/V10 362HP chassis/engine combination common to most gas-powered RVs, and I have no complaints about the power and driveability.   Granted, we weren’t towing a vehicle as Pat decided to follow me in our Honda Civic, so it remains to be seen how hard it is to tow with this thing, but I was favorably impressed at acceleration, even on inclines.   The engine likes to rev but doesn’t seem to do so with effort.  Even though the temperature was in the high 80’s, the dash A/C kept the whole coach cool and we only ran the generator for the roof A/C, due to high daytime temps on the East Coast this week, when we stopped.   Cruise America added a sticker recommending that users keep the transmission in Tow/Haul mode “for increased fuel economy.”  This means that the engine winds out a bit more and helps brake the coach on downhill runs, much like a car with the overdrive turned off.  We tried it in both modes (Tow/Haul on/off) and preferred leaving it on.

The bad:  I’m going to itemize this just to arrange my thoughts.

1. Small holding tanks.  We made a choice when we reached the KOA. We could have set up in a treeless field and gotten a full hookup, or we could opt for a forested site with water and electric only. We chose the latter, and this brought with it a chance to try out the holding tank capacity of this rental RV.   We like showers, so we didn’t stint on water usage.  This means that we need to leave our site periodically to hit the dump station before returning to re-setup in the site.   Most experienced RV’ers would put this in the PITA dept. but since we need the practice, it affords us the opportunity to work on our tank-dumping skills at least a couple of times before we leave at the end of this week.

2. No slideouts.  Big negative here.  While I’m sure many folks like their class B’s with no slideouts, that’s not the way we roll, and we really like the added room that slideouts give us.  Next time we’ll be renting from a company that features coaches with at least one slideout.

3. No leveling.  Our woodsy campsite is not level, and slopes downward toward the driver’s side of the RV.  For coaches with leveling, this is solved with the push of a button.  We had to improvise, and fortunately our nearby nephew owns a sawmill and provided us with a wooden solution to raise the low side of the coach.  Another reference to renting from a different company here.

4. Fit and finish.  Our RV had 30K miles on it, and had passed through many hands on the way to our temporary stewardship.  Cruise America says “the renter is responsible for all damages”.  We did a walk-around inspection and noted the obvious imperfections, but after two days we’re still occasionally discovering something that didn’t make the list we gave the guy when we left, like roof vent screens that hang askew, roof and stove vents that scream when turned on due to tortured bearings, a bathroom sink faucet with a missing aerator that causes water to gush all over the countertop, Note to self: every switch, every vent, pretty much everything with a button: check.

5. Flimsy house construction.   In order to keep the weight down and increase driveability (see “Good” above), the house construction is very flimsy, with walls less than 1/4″ thick.  This isn’t enough wood to give bite to things like trim staples in corner moldings, screws for brackets to hold doors open, etc.  Aside from the obvious mechanical issues of maintaining the powertrain, this adds a lot of man-hours to just keeping the coach interior in shape not to lose our deposit.

All in all, so far this trip has been a great one for seeing the dirty little details of RV stewardship.  Every day it seems I learn something I didn’t know.   More as the week rolls on.

Our First Trial Run

Pat and I really wanted to visit our nephew and his family in Maine, and we decided to turn it into a dry run for our RV retirement. We’re renting a Cruise America Class C RV in Hartford Connecticut and driving it the rest of the way to Durham, Maine, to the KOA campground where we’ll spend a week getting reacquainted with our family diaspora and checking out the black fly population.

Lessons learned so far:
1. Don’t ever, ever drive the I-95 corridor on a weekday, and possibly at any time.  Even avoiding NYC at rush hour by taking 287 thru the catskills added 2 hours to the trip.  Road construction, rush hour traffic thru Philadelphia and bottlenecks like the Tappan Zee bridge over the Hudson River all contributed to our 9PM arrival at our hotel in Hartford.  On the return trip we plan on cutting West from Hartford to Scranton and down to home via Harrisburg PA. Much nicer drive.

2. New York State roads are as bad on the eastern end as they are on the western end of the state, where Pat’s family (and all of my previous NY driving experience) hails from.  We didn’t even need a sign to tell us when we crossed over from New Jersey; my lower lumbar region suddenly got into that New York state of mind as I did the giant pothole slalom.  It disappeared nicely after we got into Connecticut.

We’re overnighting in Hartford and picking up the coach at 9AM tomorrow for the 3-hour journey to our destination.

The Long Wait plus Kicking the Kids Out

I haven’t written in awhile because we’re in those long doldrums between making the decision to sell our house and pop for an RV, and actually doing it.   Things are going on, but they’re just so not-very-interesting that I often don’t think to sit down and write about them.

Katie is our child at home, and she’s somewhat of an activist regarding food (she’s a very opinionated nutritionist with most of her masters done in the subject) and small-footprint living.  She knows she’s going to have to strike out on her own when we sell the house in a couple of years, so, given her small-footprint leanings she decided not to opt for just renting an apartment; instead she wants to buy a used Sprinter-type cargo van and trick it out as a van conversion to live in, with solar panels, composting toilet and the whole off-the-grid scenario.   There are quite a few downsides that go with this lifestyle that would make it a quick loser for me, but she’s working on making it as easy a transition as possible.   I think she’s expecting to make this conversion a family affair and, since I’ve got the tools and I’m not shy about tackling new projects, I’m going to get drafted as the carpenter/mechanic/woodcrafter.  She’s saving her money and, just to get an idea what we’re looking at as a base vehicle for the conversion, we took a trip up to Lebanon, PA, to have a test drive of a 2004 Daimler Sprinter cargo van with very high mileage.  The mileage sort of put her off, so she’s going to wait a while to see if something better comes along.  I think that, when her boyfriend graduates his nursing program, they will build themselves a tiny house and keep the van for recreational travel.

Our son, John, is finishing his 3rd year at college and due home this weekend.  He finally settled on Political Science as his major and is not likely to change before he graduates.  He will get done next Springtime and will also be minus a place to stay when we sell our current house so between graduation and “Bye, Kids!” he’s going to have to set up a lifestyle and job for himself.

So for Pat and me, we’re experiencing the game of Chutes and Ladders that results when you deal with remodeling contractors in our quest to get the house to the point where it’s saleable but without putting money into it that we won’t get back in the sale.   We are waiting on a contractor to pour us a new front porch, and another to put a new roof on the house.  I’m learning that, for small jobs, it’s better and cheaper to call a handyman rather than try to bundle it in with a vast remodeling project costing tens of thousands of dollars, or do it myself if I don’t have the experience.

That’s all for now.

And the Van Played On

I read this novel many years ago about a guy in Europe who owned a Volvo and hated it.  He hated it so much that he wished it would die just so he could be rid of it, and every time he went somewhere, he would give the door a swift kick when he walked away from the car.   Somebody saw him do it, decided it was too good a fad to let go and started doing it to his own car, and before long Volvo-bashing spread throughout many countries in Europe, a backhanded compliment to the durability of that brand.   I have such a relationship with my old Kia minivan minus the fad.  I’m too cheap to do without it when I need to take something big somewhere, but I will be oh so glad when it’s history.   It’s rusting, my son has had a fender bender with it so the front bumper hangs askew.  The blue book says it’s not worth more than $1500, so we’ve just been hanging on to it, waiting for it to die for good while using it to shlep things like yard waste to the dump.  Nothing says fun like hunting down the centipedes with a shop vac, when they get into the van after you dump a load of brush.   Having them crawl up your leg while driving is just too fun for words.

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The Beast, ready to rear up and bite my wallet right through my back pocket

Pat drove it to work last Friday while I had to stay home for a repairman to come and fix our dishwasher.   She calls me up. “We got problems.  It just bucked and died”  Fortunately it died just shy of reaching her parking place at work, and some helpful cops came along and pushed her into her space.   But she had to go to work.  “Could you come and babysit it while the wrecker comes to haul it away?”  Well, OK, the repair guy wasn’t going to show for a few hours yet.  So I drove down to work, opened up the tailgate and tried to keep warm (16 degrees that day).   Wrecker shows up, we manage to get it loaded and off he goes to our trusty car repair guy of many years.  During the whole ride home I had a smile on my face.  “Oh boy,” I thought to myself.  “Maybe this is the day!”

Today (Tuesday) we learned that, alas, the van will live to dump another load and spawn more centipede hunts.  At least.  It turned out to be a couple of wires to a “crankshaft sensor” that needed replacing.  $200 was not too much to pay for that service, but now I sit at home, rather disappointed that it will be with me yet.   I’m going to go outside and give the door a kick.  Just because.

You can thank the undertaker

So here I am on a snowy Sunday in my S&B thinking about what to do with myself.   I was reading a news item and, in a context I can’t remember, came across the name “Strowger.” Like so many weird things that happen in this old brain, it sparked a synapse that led to a memory, and so in a strange synaptic parody of a telephone connection (read on) I thought about, yes, The Undertaker.

This one is for all you gizmo geeks who think you know it all.  You pick up your cell phone, dial your number and Voila! (we pronounce it Voyla where I’m from) you’re talking with your mother or whomever.   But you never think about how you’re talking to that other person.  Where does your voice go and how does it get there?  Does it travel through a wire, through cyberspace, backbones, switching centers, etc.?

It all started with the undertaker.  After Alexander Graham Bell invented the phone and went “Ta-DAH”, towns began offering services to their citizens.  If Edna Spruell wanted to talk to her beau, Ralph, she would pick up the phone, push a button or turn a crank that sent an electric current down her phone wire that caused a light to come on over Edna’s socket on Ernestine the Operator’s switchboard.  After Ernestine picked up the connection, Edna would say, “I want to talk to Ralph”.  Ernestine, who undoubtedly knew it all about the dating action in town, would plug a cord into Edna’s socket, press another button that caused a bell to ring on Ralph’s phone, tell him that Edna wanted to talk with him, and then connect each end of a cord to the two subscribers.  That’s the way it worked back then in the horse and buggy days.

Almon Brown Strowger was an undertaker in 1891.  There were two undertakers in town and Ernestine happened to be related to one of them.  So whenever somebody died, the bereaved relative would call Ernestine and say, “I need to talk with the undertaker.”  She naturally connected the caller to her relative, who didn’t happen to be Almon Strowger.  He was losing a lot of business.

Convinced that there was a way to take Ernestine out of the picture and breath life into his, um, dead business, Almon invented “The Strowger Switch,” which allowed callers to choose their local destination without bothering with Ernestine.  She remained in the loop for a few years more, mostly to connect long distance calls outside the town’s network.

The early strowger-enabled telephone had one or two buttons.  There weren’t many subscribers in town back then so you pushed the button once for the operator for long-distance calls, and however many more that were needed to reach your intended called party.  Pushing the button caused a magnet to rotate a metal arm until it touched the intended contact, so if Edna wanted to talk to Ralph, she knew his number was 9, and she would push the button 9 times.  The arm would move 9 spaces to Ralph’s, er, contact stud. There could be a maximum of 10 spaces that the arm could reach.

Once the telephone network became popular, however, telephone numbers became longer, and the strowger switch handled the load by adding layers onto the switch. The first digit rotated the arm, and the second number caused a magnet to shift the whole arm-rotation apparatus onto a second level, or a third or a fourth, etc., as needed, up to a max of ten layers (99 subscribers and Ernestine).  Thus, a local telephone company in a town that had, say 2000 homes in it would need upwards of 20 strowger switches to handle the load.   Before long people got tired of remembering how many times they’d pushed the buttons, and the bright idea of replacing them with a spring-loaded rotor with 10 digits on it was born. Turning the rotor with your finger in the “9” hole built up a charge of electricity, and as it recoiled back to its start position it sent 9 pulses of electricity down the line.  This was the standard phone of my childhood.

With all of those electro-mechanical strowger switches, the early telephone switching center was a place of constant clacking, clicking noise.   It required at least one technician to run around with a rag and oil can just to keep them running smoothly, and since metal parts wear out quicker than electronic circuits, the strowger switch wasn’t exactly low maintenance, but it got the job done.strowger-wall-mdg-300

strowger_4  Strowger patented his switch but sold the rights to it for $1800 and went back to the undertaking business.  He was still active as an undertaker in 1899 and was buried by his own funeral home in 1902.  Strowger Switches, alas for Almon’s inability to know a good thing when he saw it, caught on globally and were the switch of choice in some countries well into the 1960’s.   We’re a bit more advanced in the U.S., so they began to be replaced by crossbar switches and, eventually, in the 1950’s, electronic switching, which needed no Oilcan Harry running around to keep them running and were far more capable.

So, if you’re reading this on your smart phone and thinking how slow the data connection is, give a thought – and maybe a tip of your hat – to old Almon Strowger and his failing undertaking business.  And if you’re at a campground near any of these places, take the time to check your telephone history knowledge.

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