Ernie was the first to see the hearse. He immediately grasped the possibilities of this unique vehicle and was quick to take Tuna, Eric and me to go see it. It was a 1952 Henney Packard. Henney was the name of the coachbuilder who was located in nearby Freeport, Illinois. The coach, of course, was mounted on a Packard chassis. This particular Henney Packard sported a beautiful red and white paint job. Well, beautiful may be stretching things a bit but it was certainly distinctive. You just don’t see a lot of red and white hearses on the road. Its days as a hearse were well behind it, but it was still good for hauling "stiffs" around - as we proved several times that year.
1952 Henney Packard Hearse
What attracted us to the hearse besides the paint job was the aftermarket seating that had been installed by a previous owner. Someone had bolted in a couple of couches in the back facing each other so it had "club" seating. The original hearse had a side-loading feature so a couple of doors on the passenger side gave easy access to the couches. Behind the rear couch there was plenty of storage area for beer, a couple of bags with fresh clothes, and more beer. Access to the rear area was gained by the back door through which the originally intended cargo could be loaded aboard.
Side loading feature of the 1952 Henney Packard
While inspecting this storage area, we made another discovery that sealed the deal. Under a trap door in the floor was a cooler with a drain to let water run out underneath the vehicle. We later found out that this compartment would hold two cases of beer and ten pounds of ice. We were sold and had to have it.
We got our new wheels for $500, which was only $125 each. It’s not much by today’s standards, but back then in 1967, it was a fair amount of money for us. Even so, we felt it was well worth it. Think of the prestige we would have as we cruised down the highway in our red and white 1952 Henney Packard hearse!
Ernie quickly claimed the title of "Wheelman" and did most, if not all, of the driving. In fact I do not recall anyone else ever driving it. I am sure I never drove it. That was OK with us because, as Ernie drove, Tuna, Eric and I sat in back on those old couches and drank beer. As a good dedicated wheelman, Ernie did not drink and drive, but he always made up for it once we reached our destination.
Our first road trip with our new wheels was to Road America and the June Sprints. Still a popular event today, back then it was a mini version of spring break in Florida. It was party time for us, and we even saw some racing. The June Sprints is one of the biggest amateur sports car racing events in the country and attracts hundreds of cars from all over the country. There are several races over Saturday and Sunday and often the races would have 60 to 70 cars on the track at the same time.
The race is called the June Sprints because….you guessed it. It is held in June. I can’t tell you how many times I have heard someone ask, "When are the June Sprints?" and inevitably the answer is "in June." The Sprints weekend was the first really big event of the summer and after being cooped up indoors all winter that meant it was party time for sure. In 1967, the sprints were held on June 17-18. Ernie had been up to the Sprints before but this would be the first time for the rest of us. From what Ernie had told us of his previous trips there, we were looking forward to it.
For our first road trip in the hearse the four of us decided to take Friday off and make a leisurely drive up to Road America, which is located just south of Elkhart Lake, Wisconsin, about an hour’s drive north of Milwaukee. We needed provisions for such a trip, but that was solved with a trip to Mr. Duke’s, a bar just across the street from the apartment that Ernie, Eric and I shared in Wood Dale, Illinois, a western suburb of Chicago.
Mr. Duke’s was owned and run by Duke himself. It was our home away from home, as it did not require anyone to drive. All we had to do was cross Irving Park Road and we were home. Fortunately by the time we made our return trip, traffic was usually light. Still, when you are crawling on your hands and knees, a four-lane highway seems awfully wide.
One of the great things about Duke was that he would let us drink on credit. He would just stick the tabs up between a couple of bottles behind the bar. This included dinner tabs as well; since they had decent steaks and excellent pizza, we ate there often. When it was time to pay the bill we would just tell Duke to "put it between the bottles." Come payday, we would settle up with him, which generally sucked up a good portion of our paychecks.
We worked a deal with Duke for liquid provisions for our road trip and bought a few cases of Budweiser from him at a nice discount. Actually, we bought 21 cases in all. That was all we had room for in the back of the hearse, including two cold cases in the floor cooler and some more in a cooler between the club seats. Not all the space in the hearse was filled with beer because we also needed some room for clothes, a grill, charcoal and a bag of potato chips. We did not take any other food with us since we planned to buy what we needed in Plymouth, the town a few miles south of the track.
Friday morning we drove the hearse across the street to load up and Duke was quite impressed with our new wheels. Once we loaded all the beer on board Ernie fired up the hearse’s engine while Tuna, Eric and I popped the top on our first beer of the day. We decided to take the back roads up to the track because that provided more opportunity to stop at a bar or two along the way for a beer. We had to conserve our provisions. After all, even 21 cases of beer will not last forever.
Whenever we would spot a likely bar we would tell Ernie to stop. A "likely" bar was basically the next one we saw. We would go in and have a beer or two while Ernie would drink a Coke. I have no idea how many stops we made but I do know that was the longest trip to Road America I have ever made.
Once on the way and while rounding a sweeping left hand turn, Ernie dropped the right side wheels off the pavement. He quickly jerked the hearse back onto the paved part of the road, but not until after hitting a couple of holes tossing us around and spilling our beers. No one said anything for a while, and then Tuna calmly asked, "I wonder if we will get killed this summer?" The possibility of our demise did not seem to bother him much. But then there was little, short of running out of beer that did bother Tuna.
Tuna was a big guy and made his living as a machinist. He had a great laugh and loved to drink beer and party. Somehow, he had managed to convince himself that he was the world’s best beer drinker. I was not buying that as I knew that both Ernie and I could hold our own with him and I personally out-drank him on several occasions. Besides, I knew the guy who was the world’s best beer drinker.
I grew up in central Wisconsin where the legal age for drinking beer was 18 (it was 21 in Illinois). Kids in Wisconsin were sneaking into beer bars at age 16 and 17 while kids in Illinois could not get away with that till they were at least 19 or 20. Even today, after the legal age in Wisconsin has been raised to 21, I will take a Wisconsin beer drinker over anyone. Beer drinking is just a way of life up there.
One week Tuna asked me if I would go with him to take his grandfather home to northern Minnesota. Once we had dropped his grandfather off we decided to drive back to my hometown of Iola, Wisconsin. It was already late in the evening when we started back but Tuna decided we needed to stop for a beer. Unfortunately, the few bars we passed in Minnesota were already closed, and by the time we got into Wisconsin even those bars were closed.
We got into Iola about four in the morning and I told Tuna to stop in front of a house on the main street and started to get out. Tuna said, "Where are you going?" I replied, "Into the house. This is where we are going to stay tonight." Tuna said, "Did you tell them we were coming?" I said, "No, but it will be OK." Tuna said, "You can not knock on the door of someone’s house at this time of the morning!" I told him, "I am not going to knock; we are just going to go in." Tuna was mortified, "You can’t do that!" "Sure I can", I said, "I know these people." And in fact I did.
I had known the residents of that home all my life. I grew up in a house on the same block, in fact the corners of the back yards nearly touched. The house was the boyhood home of my life long friend, Jerry. I think the two of us first met when we were three. His mother, Betty, was like a second mother to me and I probably ate nearly as many meals in that house as a kid as I did in my own. Jerry’s father, Harry, was the first one to ever take me fishing. I was not going into some stranger’s house - I was coming home.
While I walked into the house, Tuna remained outside, presumably so that when the police showed up he could profess his innocence. I went to Betty and Harry’s bedroom door and knocked while I softly called "Betty?" She woke up at once and asked, "Who’s there?" I said, "It’s Terry. I am here with a friend and we need a place to sleep."
She was up in a flash, put her robe on, came out into the living room and gave me a big hug. Then while she went to get bedding for the couches, I went back out to convince Tuna it was OK to come in.
At breakfast the next morning I told Betty and Harry about our not being able to find a bar open so Tuna could have a beer. Betty’s mother, who lived in the apartment upstairs, had joined us for breakfast. She said she thought she had a can of beer in her fridge upstairs and told me to go get it for Tuna. At first I though she had been mistaken, for there was no beer in sight. I rummaged around in the fridge a bit and sure enough, way in the back was a can of beer. This one was so old it was a steel can and had even begun to rust. To his credit, Tuna drank it anyway although I am sure that was not one of the tastier brews he had ever had.
I had another friend who lived in that town that I had known even longer than Jerry. Ron and I met when we were two and my mother had the pictures to prove it. Ron had joined the Navy after high school and now was going to college with Uncle Sam picking up the bill. Ron was the best beer drinker I have ever seen. Nobody I have ever met was even worthy of carrying his church key (can opener). While in the Navy he was even crowned Mediterranean Fleet Champion, recognizing him as the best beer drinker in all the fleet.
I called Ron and told him I was in town with a buddy who thought he was a pretty good beer drinker and asked if he would like to go drinking with us. A little later Ron walked into Betty and Harry’s house with a beer in his hand and a six-pack holder with four beers left in it hanging from his belt. The one in his hand was the second one from the six-pack. He had finished the first one during his three-block walk over. Tuna was impressed and said, as Ron handed us each a beer, "I like this guy!"
While we were waiting for Ron to show up I told Tuna that if he could match Ron beer for beer then I would recognize him as a great beer drinker. Tuna did not think that would be a problem. I had told him about Ron being the Mediterranean Fleet Champion and Tuna said, "Well, I wasn’t in the fleet." I smiled and said, "We’ll see." We jumped in the car and headed for Stevens Point, the land of plenty when it comes to the number of establishments within which one can purchase a beer.
Our first stop was at a bar out in the country about two thirds of the way to Stevens Point. Wisconsin is full of country bars like this. I have traveled all over the U. S. and nowhere do you see as many bars in the middle of nowhere as you do in Wisconsin.
We walked in and took a seat at the bar and Ron ordered three schoops of beer. A schoop is round bottomed beer glass on a stem and holds about 16 ounces of beer. The bartender put the beers down in front of us and Ron gave him a dollar bill. The bartender walked away and then came back and gave Ron 70 cents change. Tuna saw this and said, "He only charged you for one beer." Ron, lighting a cigarette said, "No, a schoop of beer here only costs a dime."
Tuna was stunned. He turned to me and said, "Is that right, a beer only costs a dime?" I smiled and replied, "Welcome to Wisconsin, my friend." Tuna said, "Well by God, I will buy the next round and see if it works for me." I said, "Great, but you better shut up and start drinking." I pointed to Ron who had his cigarette lit and was setting down an empty schoop of beer. "You’re already one behind."
Tuna made a valiant attempt to keep up with Ron, but after a couple of hours and three or four bars I think he knew it was hopeless. I was smart enough to know better and drank at my own pace. Soon Tuna was unable to even keep up with me and by 7 pm, after about 8 hours of drinking, Tuna passed out.
Ron and I carried him out to the car and put him in the back seat. Then we went back into the bar for a couple more for the road. Before we left the bar we bought a case of "shorties" to take with us. A shorty is just a small bottle of beer containing only seven ounces instead of twelve. We drove back to Iola and carried Tuna into the house and put him to bed on the couch. Then we sat at the dining room table with Betty and Harry and finished off the case of shorties with them, laughing about people from Illinois who thought they could drink.
We finally arrived at Road America early in the evening after making a grocery stop in Plymouth and went to Farmer Miller’s to camp. Farmer Miller had a dairy farm just a mile or so north of the track. He would open up his pasture on the hill behind the barn for camping. He made a few extra bucks and we had a cheap place to camp that had a nice view from the top of the hill. However, since it was a pasture for dairy cows on non-race weekends, you had to watch where you stepped.
Setting up camp did not take long. We pulled the cooler out from between the couches, set up our charcoal grill and we were ready for a good time. Since we planned to sleep in the hearse, we did not bring a tent. We fired up the grill and I grilled some bratwurst for dinner. After dinner, we built a campfire and sat around drinking beer and shooting the bull. Naturally, any young ladies around were invited to join us, and as good hosts we would give them a tour of our new wheels and offer them a beer. Being mostly Wisconsin girls, they would gladly accept the beer and a good time was had by all.
We finally retired to the hearse for the night. Tuna and Eric, being big guys, got the couches and Ernie and I were relegated to the front seats, which did recline a bit. I got the passenger seat and Ernie, the wheelman, naturally got the drivers seat. It seemed like a good plan to me until I tried to get out of my seat the next morning. I was stiff and sore in places I did not know you could get stiff and sore. And that was on top of the hangover.
Stiff as I was from sleeping in the front seat, it looked as though Tuna had not fared much better on one of the couches. He looked like death warmed over, although I think this was more a function of consuming copious amounts of beer the night before than sleeping on the couch. In fact, none of us felt very good that morning. The cure for our condition was, of course, a nice cold beer. Nothing is better for a hangover than a little hair of the dog, or so we told ourselves. To make matters worse it was raining, but since there was not much we could do about the weather, we just put on some rain gear.
Once we assured ourselves that none of us was likely to die just because our hair hurt, we went to the track to watch the races, try to stay dry, and – no surprise – drink beer. Ernie had been to the June Sprints before and had a favorite viewing spot that I soon learned was called Canada Corner. We settled in there with a cooler full of beer to watch the action on the track. Unfortunately, there was very little of that with the rain delaying things. Cars did come out to practice and qualify but the first race scheduled for 2:45 did not start until 4:30. This did not matter to us as we had plenty of beer, a nearby concession stand and besides, we were really there just to party anyway, rain or no rain.
I did have one very pleasant surprise when I ran into Jerry, my old boyhood friend from Iola, and his girl friend Lynne. They were also sitting in Canada Corner. It turns out that Jerry had been coming to the Sprints for a few years with some college buddies of his. They were not camping but were staying in some friend’s cabin on Little Elkhart Lake. When I took them to see the hearse, Jerry was very impressed, particularly with the well cooler in the floor.
Once the racing started, it was pretty entertaining. This was the first time I ever saw a Jaguar XK 120, which won the D and E production classes. There was a 100-mile race for the big iron cars that was won by a very impressive 427 Cobra driven by Ed Lowther. The last race of the day was for Formula Vee (FV). By this time it was so dark that we could hardly see the cars on the track. If the FV’s had headlights, they would have used them. As it was, Pete Revere managed to find his way through the gloom to the finish line first in his Bobsy.
After the day’s racing was over, we went back to the pasture on the hill for more partying. Believe it or not, before going to the track on Sunday we had to go into town to buy more beer. Now, to be fair, we did not drink all 21 cases by ourselves. We were a generous lot and gave a lot of beer away. Having some girls around our campfire naturally attracted more guys and the beer was handed out freely. The hearse itself attracted people who would come over to check it out. Once we showed them the cooler in the floor, it was only natural to offer them a beer from it.
The weather was much better on Sunday with cool temperatures but no rain. We were back on Canada Corner and I got my first look at a Mini-Cooper. These were running in the C or D sedan class depending on the size of their engines. I was amazed at how fast these little boxy English cars were and they soon became a favorite of mine. The Minis were a front wheel drive car and as they went through the corner the rear wheel on the inside of the corner would lift completely off the track and sometimes even stop turning. I had never seen anything like this and was impressed. They dominated their two classes that day.
Somewhat to my surprise I found I was enjoying the racing as much if not more than the partying we had done the night before. This was my first trip to Road America and I was pretty impressed with the place and the racing. I was especially impressed with the big sports racers like the McKee’s and McLaren’s. I learned that these were the same type of cars that contested the United States Road Racing Championship and a new series called the Can Am.
Those were professional series run by pro teams and drivers. The June Sprints was primarily for amateur club racers. Even so, there was one pro team entered in the Sprints that year. It was the team headed by Carl Haas. He had replaced his regular driver, Maston Gregory, with Chuck Parsons and was using the Sprints as a test session to get Parsons familiar with the car and the team. Nonetheless, an amateur driver named Jerry Hanson was on the pole in his new McLaren Elva MK III.
Hanson quickly jumped off into the lead but had his clutch pack up on lap nine. Parsons inherited the lead only to follow Hanson into retirement with a broken gearbox on lap 12. One after another, all the front-running cars dropped by the wayside. Toward the end of the race, Skip Hudson in his new McKee MK VII had a two-lap lead over Fred Pippen driving what was called a Tero Special. This was nothing more than a re-bodied Cooper Ford that had been running at RA for years. Hudson came to a stop - victim of another gearbox failure. We all watched and waited for Pippen to make up the two laps and take the lead. After about five minutes he accomplished this and went on to take an unexpected victory.
Ernie switched from beer to Coke around noon on Sunday because, as the wheelman, he had to drive us home. After the last race we headed south and made good time because we did not stop at every bar along the way. On the ride home I sat in the back of the hearse and reflected on the weekend. I decided that I had to see some more racing.
Copyright © 2006 by Terry Aasen