Trailer Life at Dreux By Douglass Donnell

I can only imagine the sinking feeling my parents must have felt when we arrived at Dreux and found out that we were going to have to live on base and the only on base quarters were trailers. But to me at 10 years old, it simply added to the adventure. When we arrived we were assigned to temporary quarters - a "hotel trailer" - which simply meant that it was fully furnished. Because the base had been recently phased down almost all the trailers were vacant, but in good shape, so they handed my dad a bunch of keys and told him to pick out any one he wanted. We ended up in T-1245 just across the perimeter road from the base fence.

Home sweet home - Trailer T-1245

A little background: the trailers were brought to the bases being constructed in France in the 50s to make housing immediately available to the thousands of people being assigned to the new bases. Dreux had two trailer parks - one for officers at the east end of the base, and the other for NCOs in the area west of the main gate. There were about 100 trailers in the officers' area and 200 or so in the NCO's park. Each trailer was exactly the same as the next  with a few minor exceptions. . They were about 40 feet in length and 8 feet wide     
and were permanently mounted on blocks with a skirt at the bottom so you couldn't see under the trailer. There was a "lean-to" built on the side to expand the living space (from "really small" to "just small". There had obviously been some self-help construction done on some of the lean-tos as those were larger than others. The attraction of T-1245 was that the lean-to had been extended in the front so we had a bigger living room than most. This was all built, though, on a poured concrete slab with tile applied directly to it, so it wasn't fancy and was pretty darn cold to step on. As for the trailer itself, at the front was a small dining area with a table that could be opened up to accommodate more than four people when needed. Moving toward the back, next came the kitchen - same room, of course - which consisted of a small gas oven/stove, counter, refrigerator, and sink. On the left side walking back was the main door to the trailer and just beyond that the main heater (more about that in a minute). Hanging on the wall just to the left of and above the sink was the gas powered hot water heater. It didn't have a storage tank and consisted of a bunch of coils that the water went through - the gas flame came on when you turned on the hot water, so there really was an endless supply of hot water. At least as long as the gas held out. The gas came from one of two propane tanks that were located outside on the front of the trailer. There was a small valve to switch from one tank to the other when the gas ran out. Of course, that could only be done outside, so when the gas ran out, somebody had to go outside, turn the old tank off, turn the new one on, and flip the feed valve from the old to the new tank. You also had to remember to hang a small square of wood on the empty one to let the gas supply crew know that the bottle was empty. They came by in a truck a couple times a week to swap out empty tanks for full tanks. If you forgot to leave the "flag" on the empty tank you faced the unfortunate situation of having no hot water or cooking gas until the next trip through the neighborhood by the gas crew. The duty of going outside and making the switchover normally fell to the youngest person in the house that could be trusted with the chore. The likelihood that I, as an 11 year old, would have to switch the tanks was inversely proportional to the outside temperature, rising to near certainty when the temperature fell below freezing.

Picture: my sister Susie's birthday. Looking from the front of the trailer toward the back. Kitchen table in front with oil heater on the left with refrigerator just behind it. Sink is behind the cabinet on the right. The white appliance hanging on the wall is the water heater. Sliding door goes to the first bedroom.

Anyway, back to the trailer. Just beyond the kitchen was a sliding door that led to the first bedroom (my place). Like everything else, it was small, but the bed was comfortable and the bed had its own light for reading, a small shelf to keep all of your valuable junk and a small window so you could enjoy the view of the trailer next door. On one side of the little room were bunk beds and to the left was a large (by trailer standards) closet. In some trailers the bottom bunk had been taken out and replaced by a washer and drier. Such was the case in our place, so I got to nod off to sleep from time to time to the gentle sound of the spin cycle.

Moving toward the back, the next room was the bathroom. It had all of the essentials, of course, including a tub that you sat in. No room to stretch out in a trailer tub. At the back of the trailer, through another sliding door was the master bedroom. Our lean-to also had a bedroom, slightly larger than the one in the trailer, so that became the master bedroom.

Heat was provided by an oil fired furnace that was just to the right of the main door of the trailer (from the perspective of looking out). The fuel tank was a 55 gallon drum that was located outside the trailer and was placed on a raised support structure to gravity feed the furnace.  The furnace did a pretty good job of keeping the trailer warm, but didn't help out the lean-to very much. That place was really cold in the winter. Almost everyone had kerosene fired Aladdin heaters to provide additional heat as the insulation varied from light to non-existent and without supplemental heat the lean-to would have been pretty much unusable in the winter.

Each trailer also had a storage shed which was really just a wooden overseas shipping crate that had roofing tar paper added to make it weather resistant. This proved to be handy as there was very little storage space in the trailer - even with the lean-to.

Since most of the trailers were unoccupied by mid-1961 due to the base's phase-down, my buddies and I appropriated one of the sheds as our clubhouse. It served us well during the time we were there and was the source of many adventures.

A few other thoughts about the trailers:

Since they were elevated off the ground and the outside temperature got very cold in the winter time, we were told to leave the water running at night if the temperature was expected to be below 32 degrees to keep the pipes from freezing up.

The base commander had special quarters - two trailers side by side with a rather sizable room connecting them.  This was the Taj Mahal of trailers at Dreux, only to be later matched by the commander of the DACCC-Eur when one of the existing trailers was lifted by crane and placed next to another to create an additional two trailer palace - watching that was certainly the highlight of the day. Construction on that one was completed in time to allow his family to move in for a few months before DACCC-Eur was relocated to Paris in the summer of 63.

We had an extra bedroom added to our lean-to as well. Since my father was required to live on base, DACCC-Eur must have coughed up a little money to add an additional room on the back of the lean-to. It should have been a 2 - 3 week project that the building contractor managed to stretch out over the better part of a year. First they poured the slab, then they framed the room and, finally, months later, came back to complete the interior. Fortunately we got to use it for a few months before it was time to move. It was because of the foundation for the extra room that I was able to confirm the location of our trailer when I went back to the base in 1994 since it was the only trailer with the extended slab in the back.

Here's a picture of me with my sons standing on the step that went from the lean-to to the main trailer that was taken in 1994.
Here's the same step back in 1963:

Since electricity came off of the French power grid it was supplied at the 220 volt 50 Hz European standard. All American appliances needed a transformer to convert from 220v to the American 110v standard (didn't change to the 60 Hz American standard, though, so everything with a motor ran slower). Anyone who has been stationed in Europe knows about this. Speaking of electricity, one of the interesting aspects of living in France at that time was the occasional strike by the French electrical workers. While it may amazing to us as Americans (and certainly did at the time), the French national electric company used to go on strike from time to time and turn off the power for a few hours, just to make a point. Not sure what the point was, but I supposed they wanted to show the strength of their union. So they would announce in advance that they were going on strike for a few hours and everything that wasn't on generator power would go dark for a while. It was one of those strange aspects of living in a foreign country that you just got used to. Just part of the adventure.

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