The Packard Door That Wouldn’t Close (or, The Al-Can Highway is No Place for a Nap)

Before my parents married my father was in the Air Force, stationed for most of the duration in Alaska. He spent his time as a radio operator on a Tin Goose, the historic Ford Trimotor. When he left the Air Force he was given a plane ticket home to Wisconsin.

Another chap who got out at the same time sold his plane ticket and bought an old Packard, declaring it was cheaper to drive home to the mid-west, and then he could sell the car.

I’m not sure if it was my father’s love of adventure or his notoriously thrifty spirit, but he sold his plane ticket and rode along.

He regretted it.

To Sleep, or Not to Sleep

Dad had been a truck-driver and spent half his life behind the wheel or sleeping on the passenger’s side. The other fellow seemed to have a bizarre sleep disorder: he could only lose consciousness while driving.

Barreling down the Al-Can Highway is no place for a nap, but every time my father drifted off on the passenger’s side, so did the driver. Dad would grab the wheel and suggest, perhaps pointedly, that only one of them should be sleeping, and the one behind the wheel wasn’t the best candidate. So, they’d trade sides.

Clutching fists to his chest, his exhausted compatriot would sit, bolt upright, eyes squeezed shut. After just long enough to make it boring, he’d relax, open his eyes, and announce that his nap had really helped, and he was ready to drive again.

Which promptly put him to sleep.

Lather. Rinse. Repeat. For 1500 miles.

The Door That Wouldn’t Close

At 17, my father had been the highest paid mechanic in town. Steve Freund valued his problem-solving abilities highly.

It was a bit of an irritation, then, that the passenger door didn’t close all the way. Door latches on a Packard that age (as with most cars older than you probably are) had a double latch system I won’t attempt to describe, other than to say, this one clicked past the first latch, but never quite made the second.

Mile after mile, the door rattled in a hugely metallic manner, letting the, um, brisk Canadian air through.

On a particularly straight stretch, Dad got out a hammer and, while the Amazing Sleeping Driver did his thing, Dad turned backward in the seat, pushed the door open, and banged at the door latch, mounted on the frame upright between the front and rear doors.

When it looked right, he turned around and slammed the door shut. It closed!

And, apparently, stayed that way for the rest of the car’s life. They never got it open again. Good thing it’s easier to crawl across the front seat of a 40s-era Packard than a modern minivan.

The Whitehorse Gravel Patch

The stopped for a night in Whitehorse, Yukon. Leaving their hotel room in the morning they noticed that all the cars parked on the street were running, with no one in them.

Somehow it hadn’t occurred to them that at -50F, oil in the engine freezes into a solid block.

Toward the middle of the day, when the temperature was closer to zero, they found someone with a tractor and located a patch of gravel road that hadn’t frozen over. The tractor pulled them back and forth over the gravel patch until the engine finally warmed up enough to start. They left it running until somewhere closer to the 49th parallel.

I never knew the name of the Amazing Sleeping Driver, don’t remember where he was going.

But I sure as shootin’ know where I got my outsized love of travel.

3 thoughts on “The Packard Door That Wouldn’t Close (or, The Al-Can Highway is No Place for a Nap)

  1. I love it, Joel!
    Excellent idea, to write down those stories Now ~ so much gets ‘lost’ so quickly – 150 years of life-stories are now ‘second-hand-at-best’ in my life, in the last 2 years! And that’s from only 2 guys’ passing…

    1. My brother in law has lots of recordings of my dad playing guitar and singing. He’s starting to make MP3s of them so we all have copies.

      I need to get my brothers and sister and mom to start recording their stories.

  2. My Grampa Reines would only buy Packards, as long as I knew him – I seem to remember at least 2 – but I was very very young when he passed.

    Thanks for the memory jog! Karen

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