I suppose it’s only appropriate that on Labor Day weekend, I keep thinking of sunsets. I have seen some gorgeous ones in my lifetime in all sorts of settings, but if I had to choose my all-time favorite sunset it would have to be the one I watched when I was seven years old and spent a couple of nights at the beach with my grandparents.
Now, if you’re my age and come from the south shore of Long Island, a summer at the beach means taking the ferry over to Fire Island for the day, and an overnight probably means that you are staying at someone’s house, either out in the Hamptons or as part of whatever share you have on Fire Island or somewhere else. But Grandma and Grandpa Chopping were part of a different sort of beachgoing culture, one that doesn’t get as much attention as it used to back through the middle of the Twentieth Century. Instead of a beach house or time share, they owned a camper; specifically, a 1978 Shasta Camper, which they used to take every summer to the RV camp site at Smith Point County Park, which makes up the easternmost part of Fire Island.
Shasta, along with, say, Winnebago, is often associated with the RV and camping subculture that still exists and I’m sure that people who still hitch a trailer to their cars or drive their camper to a park would say is still going strong. After all, most national and state parks still have campsites and in my travels both up and down interstate highways on the eastern seaboard, I have seen my fair share of signs for campgrounds. Although, to be honest, I associate Shasta campers and trailers more with ephemera from the 1950s than with the 1980s of my childhood. I hear “trailer” or “camper” and I think of spage-age-looking silver trailers with check-pattern tablecloths on the fold-away table and a family of four very happy people using a campsite grill for that evening’s dinner. No, really, like something out of an old Dick & Jane book or an ad for the suburbs.
And for a while I think that it was. The Shasta brand is pretty well-recognized and if you do a search for the campers and trailers you see those classic models (which sometimes come in the red and aqua you might associate with that era. However, what my grandparents owned was manufactured after Shasta had been bought by a competitor, Coachman, in 1976 and it had less of the charm of the 1950s and more of the stifling interior design that you’d expect from the 1970s. The floor on the inside was a deep brown carpet and every single surface was some other shade of brown, right down to the wood-looking laminate that covered the particle board composite counter. Even the dashboard of the camper’s cab was a light mocha, as were the padded steps of the ladder that led up to the “Grandma’s Attic” where we could sleep. This, of course, was in addition to the harvest gold and rust orange stripes that ran across the side and the front of the camper, which itself had the same sort of utilitarian design that so many cars of the late 1970s and 1980s did. But it did take leaded gas (or “regular”), which I don’t think that many people born after 1990 are that familiar with because it’s been at least that many years since I saw a “regular” pump next to an “unleaded” pump at a gas station. But back then, when they pulled out of the side yard of their house near the foot of Foster Avenue, my grandfather would lumber the camper down to what was then an Amoco station on the corner of Foster and Montauk Highway and pull up to the yellow regular pump to make sure he had enough to make it all the way out to Smith Point.