North, to Alaska

Published 11:26 am Wednesday, August 28, 2013

by James D. Howell

Time passes quickly in the academic surroundings. My tour ends on a high note with acknowledgement of performance from my peers. Tennis and handball courts will become fond memories along with social duties. My orders for the next sea duty is Adak, Alaska.

The immediate response from my wife is, “I’m not going.” Doesn’t make much difference; we don’t know if housing is available. In fact, I don’t know exactly where Adak is; I resort to my local library for details. I learn it’s an island in the Aleutians, closer to Russia than to Anchorage. Go to Anchorage, turn left and about a thousand miles into the Aleutians sits the island of Adak. Along the way is a half dozen or so active volcanoes. It does promise to be something of a challenge.

I purchase a 1957 Ford Fairlane to take with me to the new duty station in the far north. It’s not new, nor a flashy vehicle, but I figure it will fare better than our newer Rambler. Besides, I can’t leave my wife with two kids and no transportation. The Navy will ship one vehicle from the port of Seattle; all I have to do is to get it to Seattle. I’m confident.

The day comes, and we sell the house and pack up for yet another move – she and the kids to New Orleans, myself on the road to Seattle. We leave behind good friends and fond memories. I accompany her to New Orleans and leave her in the care of her parents for now.

I plot the roads to the northwest — Highway 90 to Los Angeles and Highway 99 and other state highways through the San Fernando Valley to Oregon and Seattle. I set out with all the confidence of the uninitiated. After all, it’s only roads and distance. Just three thousand miles to Seattle, across a couple of deserts and a few mountain ranges. No sweat. I assemble a supply of road maps from gas stations and acquire a flax water bag to hang from the front bumper. That should provide cool water across the deserts; I’ll tackle those at night, when it’s cooler.

Things go smoothly until about ten miles outside of Fort Stockton, Texas. There is a clattering in the engine that won’t go away, and I limp into a hotel parking lot for the night. The next morning, I use what knowledge I have to pull the valve covers and discover that the engine has failed to lubricate two sets of valves. It’s a problem that has haunted owners of this particular model. Someone in the past actually installed some external pipes to prevent just such difficulty. I figure if I remove the faulty push rods, the engine will run enough to get me to Phoenix. I plan to visit with in-laws in Phoenix for a day and I can use the time to make repairs. It’s a gamble, but there are many gambles in my life.

The modified engine holds together enough to make it to Phoenix. I replace the push rods and the associated rocker arm assembly, retune the engine and set off for Los Angeles late the following day. I have to get across the desert at night. I’m not alone on this part of the journey, although traffic is light. I arrive in Riverside, Calif., in the very early morning hours and stop to gas up. The gas station attendant gives me the latest update on the fog that is currently covering the Los Angeles basin from Riverside to the coast. The Watts area (of Los Angeles) civil disturbance is heating up as well. He tells me that I can avoid problems by cutting over to the upper desert and joining my route north beyond the mountains. I quickly check my maps and think it will work; I’m flexible.

I backtrack a bit as directed and take the Cajon Pass road over the San Bernardino Mountains. The roads are thick with fog but traffic is almost nonexistent. Everyone who has a brain is not driving. My car holds together very well and the upper Mojave desert air is cool in the night. I have to pay close attention to not miss road signs. There aren’t many and the miles are long between them. Dawn finds me transitioning to the San Fernando Valley and sleep. I’ll drive during daytime for the rest of the way to Seattle.

I’ve never been west of Dallas, Texas, and this is totally new territory for me. Even though pressured by time constraints, I want to see the countryside. I’m wide eyed for new vistas.

JAMES D. “ARCHIE” HOWELL is a Southampton County native and 1955 graduate of Franklin High School. He can be reached at