Our Summer Job

We left Fort Meade on a slightly overcast, warm and humid Sunday headed for Killens Pond State Park outside Fenton, Delaware. We topped off the propane prior to leaving the RV Park at Fort Meade. The drive was an easy 85 miles with one stop to purchase our last diesel for the next few months. I had done my research and found that we could fuel up just a few miles from the park for about $4.60 per gallon instead of the $4.75 per gallon fuel I had been salivating over just outside Fort Meade. I would also have the added advantage of having a completely full tank while sitting for two months. A full tank is always better than one with any significant air volume while sitting as that air volume will be the source for moisture entering the tank from condensation. So, it was a win-win situation.

We arrived at Killens Pond just before 1:00 PM where we were happily greeted by the gate attendant and directed to our campsite. When we got to the campsite we were greeted by three of our four co-workers for the summer. The campground consists of six rings (A through F) with varying numbers of campsites situated around each ring. There is a seventh elliptical area (G) that is designated as a primitive camping area. One camp host position is situated on the edge of a clearing between the C and D rings. There are three more camp host locations occupying sites D-8 through D-10. Due to budget issues that have resulted in a hiring freeze there are not sufficient numbers of paid staff to maintain the park this summer. Therefore at the last minute the director authorized the addition of a fifth camp host to take the pressure off the staff. The gentleman filling that position had been on our assigned site, D-9. He is driving a pick-up with a camper in the bed. His power, water and sewer requirements are significantly less than any of the rest of us. Therefore, he will spend the summer opposite the campground area on the other side of a very large field separating two stands of trees. He will have power and water but will have to move to the dump station to empty his waste tanks. His location puts him within a hundred yards of the dump station.

So, who are our co-workers? The volunteer with the greatest longevity and the best campsite is Peg. We don’t know Peg very well yet, but we do know she is unfortunately a widow and the mother of a once feral cat. She has been volunteering here for ten years now. Next in line is Klea who is working her fourth season this summer. Klea is really a local, but spends her summers living here at the park and working. A former college administrator, Klea has taken on the responsibility of getting all the processes reduced to paper so that each new volunteer has the same base to work from. She could have been a Navy nuke as she has missed no details in her production of the various procedures we are to follow. She is on Site D-10. Pat is on site D-8 and has one week more experience than us. He is a quiet person who does his work and then sort of disappears into his motorhome when not on duty. We will get to know him better in the days and weeks to come. The fellow in the Truck Camper is named Frank. While we don’t really look alike at all, a casual description could cause confusion. He is a rather slow moving man with a longish hair and a gray beard. If that were all you were told and the two of us walked by on a hot afternoon you could be confused. We don’t know much about Frank either except that he belongs to the Escapee camping group that we have romanced for awhile now. We also know he is a veteran, but to date do not know of which branch nor how long ago. With his campsite so far from the rest of us it could be a little tougher to get to know Frank, but I bet we figure out a way. I would be remiss if I didn’t mention our supervisor, the coordinator of volunteers, Lisa. Lisa works out of an office on the other side of the park. She is responsible for not just the five campground volunteers, but several others who support the water park and various pay stations around the park. There are a number of paid staff at the park who are augmented by a volunteer force from the area known as The Friends of Killen Pond. As we move through the summer I am sure we will learn more about the volunteer services provided. At any rate, Lisa is responsible for keeping all of us gainfully employed.

At first we did not understand why all of the camp hosts were co-located in a rather small area. Given that there are five rings it would seem to make sense that there should be a camp host supporting each ring or at least some spread across the rings. However, when you look at the entire layout of the campground it becomes clear that all of us are very close to the only bath house and therefore close to the sewer/septic system. By co-locating us several thousands of dollars were saved by not having to put sewer in more than one ring of the campground. Only the camp host sites have sewer connections. The rented sites have only water and electric, a fact we have come to expect in most state parks and the few national parks we have investigated as well.

Although we are only really one official day into our orientation, it would also appear that the duties of the camp hosts do not really include a lot of interaction with the campers as we have grown to expect in most of the military and private campgrounds we have been to that have camp hosts. So, if we are not really expected to socially engage the campers, it doesn’t make any difference that we are grouped together rather than spread out. I have an opinion on this, but will hold it until we have at least completed our orientation.

I am writing this early in the morning on Thursday, July 03, 2008. As I said we got here on Sunday. So, for those paying attention you must be wondering why we have only had one day of orientation. Sunday was our setup day with a short tour of the entire park by Lisa late in the afternoon. Monday was supposed to be our first day of orientation, but everyone in the office had been in the damage control mode early in the day, so Lisa decided to give us a quick tour of the area surrounding the park trying to familiarize us with the general area. Klea talked to us a bit about what we would be doing and we received a package with most of the procedures Klea has developed over her years of service. Then we were let go as Monday and Tuesday are our days off. Tuesday we took advantage of the off day and drove up to Dover to visit the Air Force Base and check out the Base Exchange and Commissary. We also checked out the golf course and then found a mall. We got back to Killens Pond in time for me to spend an hour getting some orientation from Klea at the boat rental location. I will be working there four to six hours over two days each week. Yesterday we did the maintenance in our assigned campground areas without supervision as Klea was off, Peg was doing her own thing, Frank was off and Pat has only seven days on us. We followed the procedures and made our emptying sites look like those that were already empty. No major science involved. We picked up a lot of trash and that is important. Just as were finishing our cleanup of the primitive area we were met by a couple who work in the maintenance department. They had come out to check-out the condition of the porta-potties and were surprised to see us doing the same. As it turns out they thought they were supposed to clean the bath house since the assigned volunteer, Frank was off. However, when Frank is off Connie and I are supposed to clean the bath house. We gladly let Bill and Ericka come over and show us how it is done. By 2:30 PM we were done for the day and unable to find Lisa to get more of the administrative orientation done.

Since this is Independence Day week, everything is a little crazy with the park’s administrative staff. It seems that everyone we talk to is happy to have us aboard, but is willing to wait to next week to complete our orientation. So, we do what we have been trained to do and we will learn how to clean cabins on Friday, as that is the day that they all turn over. Then on Saturday evening we will learn how to clean the pavilion as it is reserved for all day Saturday and then again on Sunday. Our schedule has us clean it on Saturdays.

The most difficult part of this first week is learning what we have to do on what days. Connie made a large sized calendar page and I populated it with all our tasks on the days we are to perform them. Now it is a little easier to see day by day where we need to be. Of course our primary responsibility is to ensure that our assigned campsites are ready to receive their new renters as soon after the last occupants depart as possible. Some days that will seem daunting, like July 6, but days like July 4 when no one is leaving are pretty good, but then there are those cabins to clean on July 4. Oh well, we will survive.

I must comment on our personal campsite. We are ideally situated to monitor the comings and goings into the D ring. From our patio we can monitor what is going on in most of the C ring. Our spot is nestled among some large trees that completely block the view of both our Direct TV dish and our HughesNet dish. The antenna television reception is poor to spotty. There are a few channels which come in quite clear at times. Those times do not necessarily align with our viewing times. Shoot, my handheld GPS devise has trouble holding an acceptable signal. The good news is that we have decent cell reception thereby allowing us to connect to the internet via our air card. It had been our plan to discontinue the air card once we were comfortable with the HughesNet. We have now decided to keep it as a backup.

The good news about this campsite is that even when it is in the mid-nineties our patio is comfortable. It seems there is always just a hint of a breeze and, of course, between the trees and our awning we get very good shade. Another feature that has surprised us is even though the park is nearly full and each site seems to have an average of 1.75 children, the noise level is remarkably low. There is the occasional joyous screaming of little girls and then the not-so-joyous screaming and/or crying of the little person who gets put into time out or some other form of discipline for some bad behavior, but those seem to be the exception so far. Therefore, we are able to spend a lot of our off time sitting on our patio enjoying the beauty of the park and watching birds or just reading.

In my last post I simply skipped over several hundred miles of travel and provided nearly no details of our adventures in the places we visited along the way. As we stay here at Killens Pond State Park I intend to detail some of the highlights of that period. I will start with our visit to Elkhart, Indiana.

I think anyone who has ever visited a Recreational Vehicle (RV) dealership and spent any time at all with a salesperson has wound up developing a mental image of Elkhart, Indiana. I am without statistics, but I don’t think anyone would dispute that the Elkhart area is the RV Capital of the country, if not the world. Long ago I lost track of all the manufacturers who call the area home. It is the Detroit of the RV industry. It makes sense that a large portion of the RV manufacturing is in one area, as most of the components that go into an RV are pretty much the same from one manufacturer to another. Of course there are quality and glitz differences, but the same suppliers provide a continuum of products to suit most manufacturers’ needs. Anyway, knowing that there were a lot of builders in the area and after having more than one salesman try to describe the layout, I had a certain mental image of what we would be driving into.

My image was somewhat simplistic, yet very efficient. I saw a wide boulevard along a very flat former plain with huge signs along the way indicating the names of the manufacturers occupying the buildings. My image went so far as to have the parts suppliers located real close to the RV manufacturers so delivery times could be kept to a minimum.

There was a lot wrong with my mental image. To begin with, RV manufacturing, while a big part of the local industry, is not everything that is done in Elkhart. In fact, I am pretty certain that the town was more important to the farming and ranching that goes on in the area long before the RV industry got its start. Second, there is no wide boulevard. In fact it really isn’t the greatest area to drive a large RV or truck. The roads are adequate, but not real wide and I’d have to say not all that well maintained. Much to my disappointment all the RV manufacturers are not in a long row making it easy to find them all and to get tours of several plants over a relatively short period in order to compare products from the frame outward a little better.

Now that I have had some time to reflect on what we saw versus what I expected from my mental image, I can easily understand how I went astray. While the RV industry has some years under its belt, it is a relatively new industry. I believe it was more happenstance than purpose that the industry came to be sort of centralized in the Elkhart area. A few of the early pioneers were in the area and others started there probably more because of parts availability and other economic reasons. Those followers did not come overnight and there was never a plan to put organization into the equation in order to keep them all together. Then of course there is also the fact that the large tracts of land required to build any industrial plant the size required by RV manufacturers were already owned and in most cases by farmers who had farmed the land for generations and not eager to sell.

So, with that in mind I can tell you that what does exist is a farm community with RV manufacturers and RV component manufacturers sort of scattered about in all directions and seemingly co-existing rather nicely.

Our purpose in taking this side trip was to visit the Damon plant where our coach was manufactured. We did not plan well beyond that notion to try to include tours of other plants while in the area. Therefore, when we planned our stop we included just enough time to visit Damon and the RV Hall of Fame and Museum. After checking into to the RV Park where we had made reservations, Connie picked up a map that showed where all the manufacturing plants were located and even discussed their tour policies and times. There was only one other plant in the greater Elkhart area that builds diesel pushers that was offering tours. Most of the other diesel pusher builders were a bit of a drive from Elkhart, but still very close to their parts providers. In retrospect I wish we had known all this going in or at least planned for more tours going in thereby giving us time to adjust in order to see all we may have been interested in.

As a side note, when I was driving pretty much at idle speed through the RV Park going to our assigned site the engine stopped one time. This was the first sign of what would become the saga of the failed fuel pickup pump.

Our Damon tour was scheduled for Wednesday afternoon. On Tuesday we spent a few hours at the Hall of Fame and Museum. The museum was really worth the time and money. I won’t bore you with all the details, but I will tell you that ever since there have been motorized vehicles there have been people making RVs for personal use. Most were quite simple and not much more than a flat dry place to sleep that converted to a place to eat, but the idea of getting off the grid was alive long before the grid was anything like it is today. The museum started in the early days and came forward. The newest rigs in the museum area were several years old. However, near the exit there was a continuously playing video that was a tour of the Winnebago plant. Nearly anyone who has ever seen a motorhome is familiar with the Winnebago name. I once had an office mate who referred to all motorhomes as Winnebagos or just bagos for short.

Winnebago is one of the largest motorhome manufacturers and they have quite a plant according to their video. After watching the video I became pretty excited about what we would see at Damon. The video made the Winnebago plant look pretty pristine; brightly lit work area with a continuous stream of coaches working down the line. They highlighted all the building techniques that go into making their product and the post construction destructive testing that selected finished products go through. When we got to Damon we had trouble not comparing our actual tour with the video tour of Winnebago.

Unfortunately, Damon did not score well on aesthetics. When we arrived at the plant we were told we had to park in the large employee parking lot and walk in the rain to the building. When we got to the building I was surprised to find several visitor parking places nearly all of which were empty. The same person who told us where to park told us to go to the employee break room to await our tour guide. We were the only people there for the tour that afternoon, so there was not a group to join up with. There was also not anyone waiting for us either. A few employees walked through, but no one spoke to us for several minutes. Just before the tour’ scheduled start time a management type walked in and asked if we were there for the tour. When we told him we were he said he would call for a guide. He also told us that there were brochures in the bookcases along the wall. I went to get a brochure only to learn that of the thousands that were there none were for current models and only one was for a diesel model, the same year and model as ours. So much for the brochures.

After several minutes our tour guide arrived. As it turns out the company uses wholesale sales representatives to give the plant tours. On one level that makes a lot of sense. In order to be able to sell the product to the dealerships those folks should know them inside and out. Also, customer feedback that has not been filtered by public relations folks could be instrumental in future product refinements. On another level it is not a good idea. At Damon they rotate from week to week between touring the diesel line and the gasoline line. If you happen to get there during the week of the line you are most interested in, good for you. If, like us, you get there on the off week, then you get someone who is quite knowledgeable on the gasoline line, but a little dim when it comes to specific product questions on the diesel line. And, as is the case with way too many sales people now-a-days, our guy was not quite as intimate with the gas line as he would have wanted us to believe he was. I was better able to explain the function of a couple of features on the coaches than he was.

Now, I am not trying to say that the tour was not good. We learned a lot about the process. We learned that there is an incredible attempt to identify and correct any leaks before any coach leaves the plant. That was important to me due to the issues we had endured with our leaks. I appreciate the effort Damon invests in demonstrating that the coaches are tight. I now know why neither they nor the dealerships we visited could duplicate what Mother Nature threw our way. I may have even convinced myself to forgive them for not finding the problem. Since I did find it though, they should consider some additional testing and or inspection methods to prevent what we went through. The tour also gave me some ideas on how to make our coach a little more comfortable. One of the more disappointing things we learned was that Damon does not do any customizing on the production line. By that I mean the buyer cannot have any adjustments to the offered floor plans made during construction. The tour guide rather bluntly told us that many customers take the finished product to a customizing shop right after delivery to have modifications to the floor plan made. While this policy certainly makes the manufacturing process more efficient and therefore keeps the per unit costs to a relative minimum, it is not at all a customer friendly policy. I suspect that those companies that do allow on the line changes to the plan to be made have higher base prices for equal quality coaches. I came away from that discussion with a mixed feeling about the whole issue. I think the “take it or leave it” attitude demonstrated by the tour guide was more off putting than the actual policy.

We came away from our tour a lot more knowledgeable on the construction techniques employed by Damon. We saw a number of great looking coaches in various stages of completeness. I was impressed by the fact that there were various models flowing down the line at the same time. They seem to have mastered getting the right components shuffled into the mix so that each rig has the correct parts waiting for it as it reaches each station. Although the presentation lacked all the glitz of the Winnebago video tour, it was none-the-less very informative. It did, however leave me really wanting to visit other plants before we ever start thinking real seriously about our next coach.

Finally, it would have been nice to have had the tour during working hours so we could have seen the technicians performing their work. While at the Freightliner factory we were able to talk to the technicians while the tour guide ensured that safety was maintained and that we did not throw the line off time.

By the way, we had been leading a series of thunderstorms along our route. While we were in Elkhart the bad weather caught up to us. We got some major rain and wind, but no leaks from my repaired slide roof leak. Of course I made a point of letting the tour guide/sales representative know that.

One other related note, related to the RV industry, not the weather. As we were making our way to Elkhart we learned that National RV was closing its doors. Somewhere along the way we also learned that Alfa, the maker of the See Ya brand motorhome was closing down. Initially we felt that the sagging economy and high fuel prices may have played a major role in the loss of these two companies. During our tour we asked about production rates since the slowdown. Our guide told us that there had in fact been a slowdown, but he tempered it with a seasonal connotation. While he feels that the fuel prices will keep folks closer to home, he says all the market indicators point to a continuation of the Baby Boomers getting into the lifestyle.

Taking a closer look at Alfa’s situation makes me think they had some efficiency or marketing issues that did them in. National RV, the other company to stop production I am not very familiar with. However, both these companies were based in California. Labor costs could have been the underlying issue for both companies. All of that is speculation on my part. Some weeks have passed since I made this note. I am now less certain that the sagging economy and high fuel prices will have the minimal effect on the industry that our guide suggested. Whereas I am certain many will still want to participate in this lifestyle, I think the industry will likely lose a few more marginal players before it is all said and done. That said, though, we may find a really great deal on an overproduced rig somewhere down the road.

Anyway, even though the trip to Elkhart took us off our straight line path, it was very much worth it. I am a much better educated consumer now and I have a whole list of questions to ask other manufacturers or their sales representatives in the future.

Our adventure continues and hopefully, I will be able to get you all up to date on what has happened as well as what has yet to occur in our journey.


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