It wasn’t my favorite car. That would be the 1965 Ford Mustang, especially after I wrecked it while driving on wet black ice and had the repair shop guy change the color from gray to turquoise.
No, the vehicle I want to tell you about wasn’t even a car. It was a Willys Jeep, surplus from World War II, no doubt, because they were only built from 1941 to 1945. Somewhere along the way some handyman had adapted the Jeep to a “passenger vehicle” by building an attractive wooden “cab” behind the two front seats.
There weren’t any upholstered bucket seats in the Jeep, just the original two front seats with the Army’s idea of padding. In the back, we kids sat on two wooden benches running down each side, leaving plenty of room for groceries when the folks went shopping on Saturdays at Piggly Wiggly. Seat belts? Never heard of them.
This was a machine meant for bad conditions and hard work. It was not a touring vehicle. In fact, and I kid you not, my dad once took my very pregnant mom for a ride in the Jeep to induce labor.
How our Jeep got to Alaska is a mystery. Might have been barged in, though the port of Anchorage was pretty primitive back in the late 1940s. Could have been flown in, I suppose, in a military transport plane. Then again, it might even have survived that miracle of a highway that the US military punched through the badlands of Canada and Alaska during the war.
Whatever its provenance, in 1948 it came to live with us on the outskirts of Anchorage. You’d think, wouldn’t you, that everybody in Alaska would have a garage, and a heated one at that. Not us, not for the Jeep. It sat out there in the driveway in all kinds of weather and very rarely did it fail to start, but then vehicles back in those days didn’t have onboard computer systems and persnickety parts. The Jeep was as basic as it could be.
Of course, dad sometimes had to drain the crankcase oil, bring it in the house to warm it up, and then pour it back in the engine. Other times, he’d put an old Army quilt over the hood and stick a light bulb under the hood in an attempt to keep the engine warm enough to start in the morning. The fastest thing to warm up the whole engine, though, was dad’s old-fashioned plumber’s blowtorch. Stick that medieval thing under the engine, swaddle that hood in quilted OD, and pretty soon the Jeep would be purring along.
The best thing about the Jeep was that it could climb C Street hill from the Alaska Railroad yards, even under the worst winter driving conditions. And that hill just east of the railroad tracks on KFQD Road? The Jeep would go right up it, though dad often stopped to pull other vehicles out of whatever trouble those fancy cars had gotten themselves into.
The Jeep never was MY vehicle. Instead, when mom and dad acquired a 1953 Ford Fairlane, the Jeep was set aside as a substitute. By the time I was old enough to acquire a car of my own, I made the unfortunate choice of a Studebaker Lark. I chose it mostly for its aqua color. Oh, and also because of its $500 price, which was all the money in the world I’d managed to save in the early 1960s.
I should have paid more attention to the mechanical condition of the Lark than its color, because I had to borrow the Jeep fairly regularly when the Lark was throwing a snit of one kind or another. Fortunately, dad knew how to handle Studebaker snits, all except for the Lark’s habit of jumping out of gear, or insisting on running in only one gear.
One evening in March of 1964, I left the radio station where I worked early. Less than a mile later, I pulled into my folk’s driveway and asked if I could borrow the Jeep. The Lark was okay, but a five-minute-long 9.2 earthquake had just revised my opinion of shakers being fun (“Let’s go to the store and see the mess!”) Earthquakes weren’t fun any more, not when they killed people, knocked down buildings, and tore up roads.
I needed that four-wheel drive Jeep to navigate the destruction in my town, at least until temporary repairs made roads passable.
My younger brother took the Jeep to Fairbanks when he enrolled at the University of Alaska. It served him faithfully, starting in the horrid 50 below zero temperatures to which Fairbanks is prone.
And then came the summer of 1967. The Chena and Little Chena rivers got tired of all the unusual rain, so they combined forces and flooded downtown Fairbanks. And that was the end of the Jeep.
Oh, I suppose dad and my brother could have resurrected it. They could have disassembled everything and cleaned out all the silt and such. Maybe re-wired it. I’m sure the old Jeep would have started right up.
But no doubt the wooden “cab” was ruined, and that was very much a part of the Jeep’s charm.
Anyway, by that time, my folks owned a black and pink (!!!) Nash Rambler station wagon, and didn’t need the Jeep.
You thought they drove a yellow Ford Fairlane? Well, see, before I bought the Lark, I just happened to be driving the Ford and was sitting at a red stop light at 2 AM one night when a drunk driver came around the corner of Fourth and Gambell and ran right into the driver’s door. Not my fault.
Not at all.
Well, except for that 2 AM thing…