Saluting Our Veterans
There's no place like (motor) home:
One man's journey from military service to an RV-ing retirement
As a longtime RVer and president of the Fleetwood Motorhome Association, Sam Whitaker has a passion for service, a curiosity for the world and a love for traveling. But years before he and his wife Ginny bought their first pop-up trailer in 1972, it was Whitaker's service in the U.S. Army that set the stage for a life of traveling and an ongoing dedication to those around him.
Whitaker grew up in a small town in southern Georgia, and in 1948, at the age of 19, he found himself searching for a future in an Army recruiter's office. "I was working at the best place that I could find a job, and that was at a meat-packing plant," says Whitaker. "There was really not much chance for advancement, and I just decided there had to be a better future than that."
That meeting led to a 26-year military career, and set Whitaker on a path that led to assignments in Alabama, Maryland, Michigan, California, Texas and Massachusetts, as well as in Guam, Japan, Korea, Vietnam and Germany. It would also eventually launch a successful 20-year civilian career working in the burgeoning digital technology industry.
"If I had not gone in the service, there's no telling what I'd have ended up doing," Whitaker says. "I was always looking for something that would help me better myself and that I could make more money at, but growing up on a farm, those opportunities didn't exist."
After spending a few years working in various roles within the Army, Whitaker's calling soon became clear. "I was always interested in how things work," he says. "That's kind of what drove me there, and as I went on, I could see that the world was going to go to the digital side of things."
"I remember telling an instructor, 'I want to go digital,' and he kept saying, 'Well, it depends on how well you do on the test,'" Whitaker recalls. "And I just kept saying that I was going to do it. I really made up my mind; I studied and made sure I got in. You know, you just gotta make things happen sometimes. And I knew I wanted to go digital."
As he moved his way through the Army, he began working exclusively on programs for developing and testing early digital communication, all the while gaining expertise and earning promotions. It was during this time that Whitaker and his wife also discovered a love for traveling, exploring cultures and meeting new people. "That was really the most memorable thing," he says. "I always enjoyed the traveling."
While living in Germany, the young family took tours and sightseeing trips throughout Europe. "One of my favorite things was in Holland," he fondly recalls, "We went to a place that was nothing but tulips. All of the tulips were in full bloom, and they had every color of tulips that existed. That has been one of my favorite memories, particularly of Europe."
But once back in the United States - working for technology companies and living in southern California and New Mexico - Sam and Ginny began to search for ways to explore the country with their two young children. "We bought our first fold-down, pop-up trailer in 1972," Whitaker says. "We thought we'd enjoy taking the kids out and exposing them to something other than just around home."
Whitaker laughs at the memory of the first overnight trip they took as novice RVers in their new trailer. "We went to a place called Joshua Tree, in the high desert. We went out, and it was a beautiful day," he says. "And we had four beds, so that night, we each took a separate bed." He stops, chuckling at the thought. "Well, we about froze to death - it got down to 18 degrees that night, the water pipes froze, and all kinds of things happened. The next night, we left the sides folded down and slept together, and we were fine. So that was a good experience, for our first camp-out."
He and Ginny also have fond memories of a cross-country trip they took with the kids one summer. Starting from their home in southern California, they drove up through Las Vegas, stopped in Wyoming and South Dakota, drove around Chicago and visited Niagara Falls before gathering in Connecticut for a Fourth of July extended family reunion. "I think what the kids took away more than anything was the enjoyment and the memories from having been to different places," Whitaker says. "They just looked forward to the travel."
As time went on, the family upgraded to larger, more livable trailers and fifth wheels, eventually buying a Fleetwood Avion trailer. "It was probably the best workmanship you could find in a trailer back in those days," Whitaker says, recalling that much-beloved chapter in the family's RV ownership experience.
And it wasn't just the Fleetwood quality that made an impression on Whitaker. Since their Avion purchase, Sam and Ginny have been loyal and active members of the Fleetwood family. They joined the Avion Travelcade Club in 1988, were instrumental in the club's rebirth as the Fleetwood Travelcade Club, and later assisted in organizing the Fleetwood Motorhome Association.
When they made the decision to start driving a motorhome instead of towing fifth wheels and trailers, their involvement in the owners clubs made all the difference. "I'd gotten down to a few motorhomes that were comparable in price," Whitaker says. "And we thought, if we wanted to stay in the club, we've gotta have a Fleetwood. So that was the final deciding factor."
As they embarked on their retirement, Sam and Ginny began taking longer trips and participating in group caravans and "rolling rallies." They took group vacations throughout Alabama, Arkansas, Montana and Kansas, toured the state of Minnesota, and took innumerable fishing trips - including a three-month trek through Alaska.
Through their involvement in the clubs and rallies, they've been able to build both friendships and memories. "It's about the camaraderie, and meeting all the people, and just going different places," he says. "And we've made some very strong friends, lasting friends."
For Sam and Ginny, it felt only natural - after laying their family's foundation upon an unpredictable and often culturally diverse military career -to live out their golden years in an equally nomadic way. The similarities between his Army career and his RVing hobby aren't lost on Whitaker. "The thing I enjoyed about the military the most was that it's kind of like a camping group," he says. "We always felt more like gypsies. You know, we can travel from coast to coast, and we can stop and see old military friends almost every night."
And after spending so much time overseas, Sam and Ginny have relished the chance to use their motorhomes to explore their native continent. "We really wanted to travel and see the U.S., because there's a heck of a lot here to see," he says. "[The military] has caused us to enjoy traveling and seeing customs. And when you're traveling, you see that customs even vary in different parts of the U.S."
As it turns out, the RV lifestyle has also become a family legacy. When their daughter was raising her family, she bought an RV almost identical to the one her parents owned. "She had a lot of fond memories from [RVing]," Whitaker says. "And she wanted to expose her kids to the same things she was exposed to growing up."
Joining the military is another family legacy that Whitaker is proud to pass down. His youngest grandson is in the Army and was recently deployed to Afghanistan. "I asked my grandson one day, 'Why do you want to go in the Army?'" Whitaker says. "And his answer was, 'I want to find myself.'"
As he shares his story with fellow RVers, it's clear that for Whitaker, the military certainly helped him find himself. And along the way - with the help of Fleetwood, his RVing companions and his family - he's also discovered a whole lot more.