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Home is where the wheels are

A motor coach association rally is expected to draw nearly 5,000 people and transform the Hernando airport into a small mobile city.

By SAUNDRA AMRHEIN

© St. Petersburg Times, published February 10, 2000


BROOKSVILLE -- Like the circus, it rolls into town once a year with tents and a cast of characters.

Yet the gathering of old friends and their 2,600 motor homes at the Hernando County Airport looks more like a mobile family reunion.

The rally has drawn people from across the United States, as well as Canada, England and Switzerland, converting a 100-acre patch of land into a thriving city for the annual winter meeting of the Southeast Area Family Motor Coach Association.

Even before the sun and morning fog lifted from the Hernando County Airport on Wednesday, more than 2,000 of the boxy motor homes were lined up like lambs, parked on the grounds for the official start of the four-day rally, which is expected to draw about 5,000 people.

Most are well-to-do retirees, and some of them have traveled from California or Connecticut just for the rally. For others, it's a pit stop where they can buy parts for their motor homes or learn maintenance tips. Others fold it into vacation plans.

Whatever the reason, campers are here. By 10 a.m., the airport was buzzing. Dozens of volunteers zoomed around on golf carts, muttering into hand-held radios and coordinating foot and motor traffic.

Group members tool about on bicycles and electric scooters. Tractors pull trams and their passengers along a U-shaped stretch of concrete that borders rows of motor coaches, an entertainment tent, funnel cake stands and two vendor tents. FedEx and United Parcel Service make stops. The U.S. Postal Service collects mail in a vendor tent.

"At this point I don't know where there's anything else like it," Mary Lawler, president of the southeast area association, said about the airport's ideal location.

The Hernando airport has welcomed the rally since 1998. Before that, the group rallied at an airport in Titusville.

While Lawler and volunteers coordinated the massive movement of people, members such as Helen Ryder of North Carolina moseyed to an ice cream social at noon. Ryder walked her red Huffy bike with a group of friends on the way toward the entertainment tent.

"I'm going to decorate it for the parade (this afternoon)," she said, ringing the bike's bell.

Before the rally, Ryder and her husband met friends at highway rest stops to form a caravan of nine motor homes upon entering the airport.

"We just go from rally to rally," she said. Neighbors forward their mail. "W-o-r-k is a four-letter word for us. We don't do any of that anymore."

Her friend Fran Greenan is someone known as a "full-timer." Greenan, originally from Michigan, and her husband, John, and dog, Barney, are among a large number of motor coach owners who sell their houses and live out of their homes on wheels year-round. "We don't have a home. We're homeless," she said, laughing.

At the entertainment tent where the women have walked, association members are treated to live entertainment by bands with names like the Frustrated Maestros, a group of red-jacketed association musicians that played God Bless America and other songs Wednesday afternoon on saxophones, clarinets, tubas and a washboard.

"We even have a toilet seat," said group founder and tuba player Bob Gobrecht of California. The toilet seat, converted into a banjo, was not part of the ensemble Wednesday.

Bob and Jean Hadley were present with their banjos. They drove from Connecticut for the rally. Their grandchildren will meet them at Disney World in two weeks.

"I think this is all about having some fun, meeting nice people and then getting on with your life," Hadley said. Some members dropped awnings from the sides of their motor homes and set up lounge chairs outside to gather, gossip and cook on grills.

The rally is a chance for many to catch up with old friends, for others it's a chance to start over.

This year's rally is the first that Jim Block, a retired schoolteacher from Sarasota, has attended alone. His wife died in December.

"I have to go on in life and figure out what can I do. I rearranged the motor home and am making it my own," Block said.

"In fact, I may give my house to one son and a duplex to another and live in this (motor) home the rest of my life."

If you go

WHAT: Southeast Area Family Motor Coach Association rally.

WHEN: Open to the public 8:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. through Friday and 8:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. Saturday.

WHERE: Hernando County Airport, 4 miles south of Brooksville on U.S. 41.

COST: Non-member visitors pay $4 for day passes and are restricted to vendor tents and the display of new motor homes.

HIGHLIGHTS: A parade at 4 p.m. today includes school bands, association members' decorated bikes and cars.

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