Charlie and the
Dowager Packard

by Joe

graflz825@gmail.com

Well, here I was, home from the sea. Or at least the Mediterranean Sea via the Atlantic Ocean to be precise. But I really wasn’t home at all. My ship had returned to her home port in Florida. Not quite the same thing as me being home. Actually, I’d felt way more ‘at home’ with Mario in ‘Bella Napoli’ than I ever did in the Navy. I was now thinking I’d not ship over.

I had just left the locker club where I had changed into Bermuda shorts, flip flops and a casual sort of beach shirt. Light cotton with lots of pockets. I had a beach towel and a vague notion of tanning on the beach for an hour or so. There was a little restaurant I favored, so after dinner, I’d see what fun the evening might provide. It was a vague sort of touristy plan. Certainly not an ’at home’ plan.

I had a proper conservative swimming suit beneath my Bermuda’s though I much prefer Speedos. Wearing them as well as watching them: Speedos in motion, Speedos not quite covering everything, suggestive Speedos, hinting Speedos, altogether delightful Speedos, multi-colored Speedos that draw the eye, Speedos that reveal the tan line, tell all Speedos that show that there is no tan line. Ah, Speedos.

I hadn’t made much progress toward the beach when I saw a black Cadillac limousine on the side of the road with the hood up. Intrigued, I aimed for it as it looked rather like the limo that frequently picked-up Mister Van Doern on the base. I was curious about it; I’m good with cars and I wasn’t sure what year this one was. I thought it was in the 1954-56 range, but it’s hard to tell with limos because of their sheer dignity. In any event, Mister Van Doern was my officer so of course, I was interested.

And there he was, staring into the engine compartment looking vaguely perplexed.

“Good afternoon, sir,” I commented from the pathway that did duty as a sidewalk. No saluting as we were both in civvies though I did have to resist the impulse. “Something broken, I s’pose. That’s odd, you know sir, Caddies don’t usually do that.”

“Oh. Hi Webb. Yes I know; we were motoring along and she just quit. I was taking my mother to an event; her driver retired some months ago and has not been replaced.”

“She just quit?”

“Well, she sort of coughed, or hiccupped, or whatever you call it for machinery; she was sputtering and I pulled off the road and was able to park here just before she died.”

“At least there’s no sparks or smoking parts.” I commented. “Would you like me to take a look at it?”

“Would you Webb. It would be a great help to at least know what the problem actually is.”

I removed the air cleaner and checked the carburetor. “Could you get in, sir, and try to start her.”

Mister Van Doern did so. The starter worked and was strong. The basic electrical system seemed okay. “She’s not getting any gas, sir.” I informed my officer almost as if it was a shipboard report.

“But she’s got a quarter of a tank, Webb.”

I checked the engine compartment for any signs of a gas leak, then I looked underneath the length of the car and the area around the gas tank. “No visible sign of a leak,” I reported. “Might be the fuel pump.”

“Jesus Christ,” Mister Van Doern remarked in that conversational way he has of swearing. He was standing beside me as if to offer me moral support as I considered his problem. I sensed that he was no sort of mechanic.

I went around and got behind the wheel, noticing a lady sitting in the back seat for the first time. I turned the ignition on. The gas gauge indicated a quarter of a tank. I gave it a good tap and it fell at once to below the ‘E’. I turned the ignition off, and then turned it back on and it went right to ‘E’.

“Sir, you may just be out of gas. The gauge may have been stuck. Now it says empty.”

“What? How is that possible? Can a gas gauge misbehave like that?”

“Stranger things have happened, sir. We should just get a gallon of gas and give her a try … and hope it’s not the fuel pump.”

“Very well. Can I ask you to stay here for a moment. I don’t like having to leave my mother alone here, on the side of the road. There’s a station just a couple of blocks back. I’ll go and get a can of gas.”

I put the hood down and closed the driver’s door so as not to attract unnecessary attention and resumed standing vigil on the pathway.

The rear window purred down and I was gently beckoned. Mister Van Doern’s mother was incredibly dignified. She wore a stylish blue hat that accented her styled graying hair; her jacket appeared to be of camel hair, and her blouse was classy. She wore an elegant brooch of diamonds and garnets while the rest of her jewelry, understated though it was, screamed Tiffany.

Oddly, I’ve a good eye for jewelry. My mother loves jewelry but my poor father is oblivious to it. He can never seem to think of something to give her come birthdays or Christmas. For the last four or five years, when I was at home, I had dragooned him off to an estate jewelry store I favored. There, I would select something nice for him to buy so that he could avoid a ferocious domestic frost. He once bought my mother a toaster for Christmas. We had an ice age. Spring was late that year. I always bought my mom some sort of jewelry. It was never terribly expensive, but she loved it and I love her.

“Good afternoon, young man.” Just sitting in the back seat of the Cadillac, she somehow seemed to be serenely poised. “Do we know you?”

“No, Ma’am. I just know Mister Van Doern from the ship.”

“So, then, we do – in fact – know you.”

I pondered this mystery for a moment, perplexed.

“Yes, ma’am,” was all that I could say. I was certainly not going to contradict her, nor point out that I’d never seen her before about ten minutes ago.

But now I had to say something; but what to say? I could sense that this was one of those conversational impasses that happen. My mom had always warned me of these and told me that in such a situation, you must never, ever, speak of the weather. “They’ll think you have nothing to say, if you do that.” My mother had warned me very seriously.

“Mister Van Doern is a most excellent officer, ma’am. The Navy is lucky to have him.” One can seldom go wrong commending a son to his mother.

Missus Van Doern started to smile, her eyes crinkled into laugh lines. She was really a beautiful lady. “I believe the Navy was quite lucky to obtain his services,” she opined. It was clear from her demeanor, that the United States Navy had been the merest of applicants for Mister Van Doern’s attention.

But here was the cavalry arriving. The gas station had brought Mister Van Doern back in their pickup truck and the driver didn’t let Mister Van Doern get near the gas can. He seized the can and went directly to the filler on the Caddie and emptied the can. Mister Van Doern apparently tipped the gas station guy as he was smiling and eagerly offering his services whenever they might be needed; Mister Van Doern then turned his attention to me.

“Better start her up, first, sir.” I suggested.

He smiled, “Just so.” He commented with some uncertainty.

The starter worked for a few seconds until gas was flowing again, the Caddie came to life and seemed to purr contentedly. Mister Van Doern set the brake and climbed out reaching for his wallet.

I stepped back slightly raising my hand, “Please, sir. I know you’re an officer an all, but still, we are shipmates. Shipmates just naturally help each other.”

He regarded me with a grin. “Exactly so, Webb. Just exactly so. Thank you. Shipmate.”

The Van Doerns motored off.

I resumed my saunter to the beach where the tang of salt air, the murmur of the gentle surf, the caress of the sunshine rendered me somnolent for several hours. It was a delight.

I returned to the locker club where I showered and changed into some casual out-and-about clothes. I set forth to one of my favorite restaurants. The menu was Italian, so there was that, but all of the staff were colored. The food, though slightly Americanized, was excellent and would have been just fine in Italy which led me to believe that Italy was, in fact, intent upon world dominion.

I always felt a curious sort of loyalty to this restaurant. I hadn’t known any colored people except my mother’s housekeeper. She had always treated me with love and genuine kindness. But she was the only colored person I had ever met. Until the Navy. And this particular restaurant was a colored restaurant; colored in the sense that everyone that worked there was colored, the clientele was mixed. The food was first rate Italian. I wanted to know more about the restaurant but was reluctant to ask. Were I to ask, after all, it would introduce the subject of racial division and I didn’t know quite how to do this, without displaying my complete ignorance. In fact, I didn’t even know if it was possible to have such a discussion. That old segregation thing had just lost some court battles and there’d been some demonstrations. LBJ seemed to be working on it, but he was no JFK. Still, I knew it was a touchy subject. I regularly rode the bus into Jacksonville and had noticed that the sign that ordered “Colored” to the rear of the bus had been painted over with something so transparent that the sign was still clear and the intention behind it equally clear. But now it was also threatening.

There was one club in town that had a live band, a dance floor, and a generally young and largely Navy crowd. Because the crowd was mostly Naval, they played a blend of music from Country to Rock and Roll. I was nursing a beer. I was bored and there did not seem to be anything even vaguely interesting here. I didn’t even see any of my shipmates to shoot the shit with. This wasn’t fun and was completely pointless.

I’d been aware, for several moments, of someone standing close to me, but had paid no real attention other than a quick glance to insure it was not someone I knew.

“You wanna blow job?” The shadowy someone asked.

“Thanks, no.” I replied. I set my beer down and casually exited the club. The hell with it. I was going back to the ship.

Now it should be noted that I like blow jobs. I like them a lot. I consider them to be one of the finer things of life. But like all the finer things there had to be, in my opinion, a certain grace and style about it. I wasn’t interested in intimacy with a shadowy someone whose invitation was so lacking in style and grace.

As I rode the bus back to the naval station I thought about sex. But I do rather a lot of that anyway. If my pal Jim had been aboard, we might have spent the weekend together and we’d have had lots of sex. But he was on leave. In Oklahoma of all places. He’d be hot to go when he got back from Broken Bow. I smirked at that thought. He was always hot to go. Tonight, would have to be a solo. Slow and quiet with lots of imagination.

In a ship’s berthing compartment, this is more difficult than it seems. Well, it wasn’t a matter of difficulty so much, all the principles and techniques were the same, they just had to be quieter. Everyone does it, of course, but you musn’t get caught; then you would be the target of ridicule. That ‘good old time’ American prudery was alive and well. Once, when I was at training school, one of the other students fell asleep after enjoying himself into a sock. He forgot to remove the sock and kicked his blanket off and there was the crusted sock on his quiet dick for all to see. He never heard the end of it. I never forget to remove the sock.

Next morning, I had a very satisfactory breakfast. Admiral Zumwalt had just been promoted into the Pentagon and was concerned with recruitment and retention. He had decided that good food might be an important consideration. We were now eating much better. We always used to ask each other, “Did’ja get the ‘duty’ oyster in yer oyster stew?” We didn’t ask that anymore as there were now, thanks to the Admiral, lots of oysters in our oyster stew.

I was loafing by the hurricane break, enjoying a cigarette, when Mister Van Doern materialized.

“Oh, good,” he said. “Here you are. I was wondering, Webb old man, if we could go over to the gedunk and have a cup of coffee. I have a problem.”

So I’m thinking, ‘Uh oh!’ In the normal way of all things military, problems have this way of trickling down inexorably. An officer’s problem can very quickly become a petty officer’s problem. But this wasn’t going to be an ordinary problem. Officers don’t usually take petty officers off to the coffee shop at the Station Exchange to discuss problems, or much else for that matter. Plus, while I’d heard some of the officers call each other “old man” I’d never heard a white hat so addressed. “Yessir,” I said – curbing my alarm.

Mister Van Doern is a gentleman. That’s just a natural fact. No act of Congress had anything to do with it. So we exchanged pleasantries over our coffees and Danish at some considerable length. I didn’t want to show any sign of the alarm I felt, while Mister Van Doern was discussing the reported sighting of a water moccasin on the golf course the other day.

“So,” it appeared that Mister Van Doern was ready. “I have a problem and I’m hoping you may be able to help me with it.”

“Sir,” I nodded helpfully.

“You met my mother the other day in the Cadillac. You impressed her and she hopes you might be able to help us.”

“Sir,” now I’m curious.

“Yes. She has an important event she wishes to attend next month and her driver retired a few months ago and she’s not found a suitable replacement. She hopes you’ll look at her limousine and see if you can fix it.”

“Oh. What happened to it. It was running just fine the other day.”

“Oh I don’t mean the Caddie, it’s just fine, thanks. No, it’s the other limo, the Packard; that’s the problem. Fritz could drive it; but I cannot, and now he’s gone. In any event, I have to escort my mother; it’s a white tie event, so I wouldn’t have been able to drive anyway.

“It’s very important to her. She had this car trucked down from New York just for this event. You can see what a problem this is.”

Yes. I suppose it would be a problem. I mean think about it. How would you like it if you had to decide which limousine to use whenever you wanted to go out. Then, imagine what it would be like if the limousine you had decided on suddenly wasn’t available. Of course, I was merely speculating as this was not a problem that I’d ever encountered before. Encountered? Hell, I’d never even imagined such a situation before; that’s what comes from growing-up in a family that never had even one limousine.

“How can I help?” I wondered without a hint of cheek.

“Oh splendid. I know you have liberty this weekend; could you come out to the Ranch and take a look at the car.”

Mister Van Doern told me I should probably bring some working clothes and my ditty bag as I should plan on spending the night. He said he’d throw in a few extra liberty days down the line when I needed them. Soon we were rolling along to “the Ranch” in Mister Van Doern’s very nice Buick Roadmaster.

The “Ranch” was no kind of ranch at all. It was rather what I thought a Spanish villa should look like. Tile roofs, a court yard with palm trees and bougainvillea, a fountain; it was big, but there was no sign of anything even remotely connected with what I thought of as a ranch. We drove around to the back and there was a building that looked like it had once been a stable; but it was in the same style as the house, tile roofs, decorative hinges and all.

“A ranch?” I wondered.

“Well no. My grandfather bought it as a winter residence, but then when he passed away, we stopped wintering here and only visited every once in a while. We could have hired the presidential suite in a fashionable hotel for way less than it costs to run it. But there weren’t any fashionable hotels here then. Well, here we are. Let’s get you settled and have some lunch.” Mister Van Doern smiled winningly.

Lunch was very nice and I was shown to a very pleasant and spacious bedroom. Clearly a guest room and not some sort of servant’s quarters.

Then we went out to face the beast and a magnificent one she was.

Mister Van Doern swept his arm in the direction of a work bench that looked like it might hold every tool known to mankind going clear back to the olive oil press. “You should have just about anything you might need there; let me know if you need something more; check her over and let me know what’s wrong. I’ll be in the house.”

I spent the next few minutes ogling this magnificent Packard. The paintwork gleamed. The upholstery seemed untouched and there were no signs of wear on carpet or headliner. There was a set of keys on the drivers seat, but this old girl would not have an ignition key. These would be for the doors, any storage lockers, and probably the bar. This lady was far too grand for anything so boring as a trunk.

I then proceeded to inspect everything. She had air in the tires, her battery was full and was charged. There was water and anti-freeze in the radiator. She had an old-time gas gauge that showed half a tank. Her odometer indicated 3138 miles. My god, I thought, built in 1924 and she’s practically new.

Well, let’s see what the problem might be. I opened the garage door. I put clean rags on the driver’s seat and the floor. Flipped the ignition switch on. Invoked the angels. Hit the starter and she rumbled right to life. Rumbled is just the right word, too; she has a great straight eight engine that is, well, muscular. I like straight eights. They’re not fast off the mark, but they’ll go flat out all day and then some. A great engine in my opinion. V-12’s and V-16’s are elegant and all that, but you don’t really need them. V-8’s are just flash.

I backed her out into what had once been the stable yard and went over my ‘Be Aware’ check list: no power steering – check; no synchro-mesh transmission – check; no turn signals – check; mechanical brakes – check. Here we go. She went into first gear without complaint and I proceeded down the driveway, shifting smoothly into second for the run down to the highway. There was no one behind me, but I signaled for a right turn anyway, and off we went. I opened her up a little this time, so I double clutched into second, but then shifted smoothly into third. What a delight. There was certainly nothing wrong with this lady. We could have easily gone well over the posted speed limit; but I didn’t.

Mister Van Doern was almost bouncing in place when I returned. “Did it go okay; how did you manage to do that? I could not make it even shift gears.”

Okay … now, Mister Van Doern is a good guy, and a good officer, and all like that. I really like him. But he and I live in different worlds. There is no way that I’m going to give all the magic away.

“Of course you couldn’t. Were you ever trained as a chauffeur?” I had a polishing cloth in hand and was dusting her fenders as I spoke. “Do you know what a feeler gauge is, sir? A timing light?” I was now washing the headlights with Windex and an old piece of newspaper. “One of your problems is you don’t know how to talk to her. She’s a lady, sir, not an ‘it’. You treat her like a favorite horse, sir, never like an ‘it’. She’s older than us, sir, she deserves some respect.”

There. That should provide him with some food for thought. Plus, I needed to check the Chauffeur’s Guide as there seemed to be some controls I didn’t understand either. “I can teach you how to drive her if you want.”

Mister Van Doern looked bemused. “Thanks, Webb. Say, is it all right if I call you Charles. You know, when we’re away from the ship.”

Packard

“Sure, sir.”

“You should clean up; dinner will be served in an hour.” He departed briskly.

Not knowing when we might be driving her again, I wheeled the floor jack around and put her up on jack stands to take the pressure off the tires.

+++++

The cream of asparagus soup was delightful. As the dishes were disappearing, Missus Van Doern smiled at me. “So, Charles, you will be leaving the Navy soon I am told.”

“Well, yes ma’am. But I’ve had a great time in the Navy, so I’m not counting the days, or anything like that.”

“And have you given any thought to what you might do when you leave the Navy?”

“Mister Van Doern thinks I should go to college. I’ll be fully eligible for the GI Bill so that would pay a lot of the cost. I’m thinkin’ that’s what I’ll do.”

“Excellent. I would like to offer you a position, too. I will be returning to New York soon. My cars will be coming with me; I would like you to take charge of my cars. You will have a handsome stipend that will include room and board, and we can arrange scheduling around your classes. There are educational opportunities in abundance in the neighborhood of the Palisades. Please consider it carefully.” Her smile was warm and sincere.

The seared halibut steak had arrived. I attended to it with relish. I had some serious thinking to do.

Three weeks later, I chauffeured Missus Van Doern and her son to the ball she wished to attend. I was in a classic chauffeur’s uniform complete with hat and boots. The Packard and I bullied the flimsy Chryslers and Caddies of other guests with —élan. The front bumper of the Packard was designed to crush the opposition and they gave way before our stately belligerence.

A month before I would be released from active duty, Chief Bowman gave me my Good Conduct Medal. It was in a small manila envelope with my last name penciled on it. It didn’t even come in a nice box. ‘Fuck ’em.’ I thought. Missus Van Doern wants a driver. I’m going to New York.

I believe that “Old Woman with a Hat” by Theo van Does as well as the magnificent Packard are within the public domain. They were unattributed where I found them.

All the usual disclaimers apply. Saving only Admiral Zumwalt, LBJ, and JFK who appear as described; all of these characters are the product of my fervid imagination and any resemblance to any real person is completely accidental as well, probably, as remote.

If you’re curious about the olive oil press comment, remember that the oldest surviving machine of man’s devising is an olive oil press. A machine has one or more moving parts and so is distinct from a hand tool.

‘Gedunk’ is naval slang implying a break of routine and can be anything from a candy bar, to a coffee shop.

The members of the Van Doern family appear with the kind permission of Douglas

Douglas and Jerry assisted with the editing and they have my thanks.

And of course, Mike and John, make it all seem possible on Awesome Dude and we are all indebted to them for all the work they do.