by Bruce Barnes

In a book on urban legends I read a few years back, there was the one about the naked man found dead on a freeway. The book traced the beginning of the legend back to California in 1966 or so, with no foundation in fact. Sorry, but the story goes back further than that, to a different continent. I spent most of my pre-teen years living in a caravan, at various locations up and down the eastern coast of Australia, and came across that same story – minus the macabre touch about the man being dead – around 1959. This far down the track it is hard to pinpoint the exact year.

Some personal background: I was born in Tasmania in 1950, but my parents moved to Geelong, Victoria, about 1952. We were still there in 1957 – I remember seeing Sputnik I from our front veranda – and moved to Queensland shortly afterwards. We sold the house, put all the big stuff in storage, and headed northward with a caravan Dad had made. (He was a builder, so a caravan custom-built for the family was something straight up his alley.) The idea was that we would go north to sunny Queensland, find a place we liked, buy some land and build a house, and live there. That was the plan, but things happened. Allergies were making me sneeze and not cold weather, a real estate boom went bust, relatives died, jobs fell through, and when it came to things like finding employment a distance away, living in a caravan was outright convenient. When things finally stabilised enough to get our stuff out of storage, we were back in Tasmania in time for me to be in my final year of primary school in 1962. The story that became an urban legend therefore had to have been doing the rounds between 1957 and 1961, the earlier years being the more likely, when I was still small enough to fit through tiny caravan windows.

The story we came across, on one of our caravaning treks northward, went like this:

A man and a woman were in a car towing a caravan, when the man got tired and decided to sleep in the caravan while his wife drove. (( Dad was dead against anything like this. There were too many things that could happen, from the caravan being rammed by a truck – this actually happened to some friends of ours – to a fire starting and roasting people behind an oblivious driver. That last one actually happened at least once – no legend. I remember reading a magazine article about it. It was probably one of the things behind the law against people being in caravans under tow.)) The man then decided to have a shower, after waking up, or before going to bed, or instead of sleeping, or something. Now the way this particular caravan was designed, the shower was located right in front of the door. From this, you have probably already guessed what happened next. The caravan went over a bump, the door had not closed properly, and the man fell out.

There are any number or reasons why this would not be fatal. If it happened on a freeway with car and van at high speed, it could well turn out the way the American version of  this story has it. However, nobody is going to tow a caravan up a steep hill with any great speed. Likewise nobody is going to tow a caravan along a rough road at high speed, and the story did mention a bump. Whatever, the man was not hurt, but was not able to catch up with his car and caravan. Totally oblivious to goings on behind her, his wife drove off into the distance.

Totally starkers in the middle of nowhere, the man was then forced to wave down following cars from the ditch. He called out explanations to the first car which stopped, then – while the people averted their eyes – nipped in to the back seat, and covered up with a travel rug. His new lift then caught up with the caravan, and waved his wife to pull over. The wife's reaction to seeing her husband in the back seat of a passing car can only be imagined.

This story, with minor variations, was encountered all along the coastline from northern Victoria to southern Queensland.

About 1959 or so we were camped in the Paradise Caravan Park, in Burleigh Heads. (I went back there in 1989. The place still looked incredibly the same, except all the visiting caravans were different, of course. The old couple with all the potplants, who intended to live out the rest of their days there, were well and truly gone.) One of the hazards of living in a caravan is the possibility of getting locked out. Most caravans have only one door, very easy to slam shut, whether the key is in your pocket or not. One day this happened to some people in a caravan close by ours, where a small crowd was beginning to form to study their plight. Only one window was open, very high, and very tiny. An adult could get as stuck as Pooh Bear trying to go through, but a child could easily be lifted that high and get inside without too much trouble. Enter me.

As I was fed in through the window, the man who owned the caravan said (a) excuse the mess, and (b) there might be some trouble finding the door. (Come again? I had seen where it was before I went in. How hard could finding it be? The caravan interior was not that big a mess.) The door – he said – was located inside the shower recess. If  I could find the shower, I would find the door. And he was right! "Hello," I thought, remembering the story about the naked caravaner. All these years later I'm struggling to remember if the shower recess I saw had a shower door or a curtain, whether the floor was tile or tin. But there was definitely a shower-head and a drainage plug in the floor. I opened the door, thereby bringing an end to the saga of the locked-out caravaners.

Dad looked at the drainage plug and the shower tank, turned to the caravan owner, and said, "This reminds me of a funny story I heard driving up here."

The man looked at him and snapped, "Well it wasn't all that damn funny when it happened to me!"

That would have been around about 1958 or 1959.

That couple locked themselves out of their caravan more than once while they stayed at that caravan park. I remember seeing other kids being hoisted in through that tiny window, in the weeks that followed.

Finding proof about all this, from 1998, is another kettle of fish. I recently asked Dad what he remembered, and the answer was "Nothing." Not even the story. It was a long time ago, for heavens sake. Though he did remember helping a woman in through a caravan window who had locked herself out, and who was wearing extremely short shorts….

I can personally verify that the naked caravaner story was definitely doing the rounds in Australia, years before the Americans adopted it, and that I met a couple who claimed it happened to be them.

- Bruce Barnes, 1998 -

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