If you lived in Anchorage, Alaska during the late 1960’s through early 1970’s more than likely you remember War Wagon. Actually there were 3 War Wagon’s in Alaska during that period.
War Wagon #1 was known throughout the United States and world. It appeared in a 1967 western movie by the same name starring John Wayne and Kirk Douglas. I saw this film at the Fireweed Theatre with my brother and some friends. In the movie, War Wagon was armor-plated and pulled by 6 powerful horses.
The wagon itself looked like a first-design Army tank. It was used to haul bullion bars from a local gold mine to the bank. A Gatling gun was mounted inside to dissuade potential robbers. John Wayne played the role of Taw Jackson. Taw was a good guy. Kirk Douglas appeared as “Lomax”, a bad hombre at the start before reversing his role. Taw Jackson and Lomax intended to ambush War Wagon. The gold on board came from Jackson’s land and he was determined to get it. Ed Ames performed the catchy theme song, which every so often, when no one’s around, I attempt to sing.
War Wagon #2 most likely derived its name from the film. I’m only assuming it did because I never asked anyone. It was a 1973 Chevrolet Vega racecar built by Tony Prockish and Steve Deptula. I watched this Chevy run the ¼ mile at Polar Raceway in Palmer several times. The Prockish & Deptula War Wagon was powered by a modified 454 Chevrolet Big Block engine. I’d estimate there were 650 ponies under the hood, perhaps more. The late Tony Prockish was an instructor of mine at Anchorage Community College. Steve Deptula started a successful auto parts store in Anchorage called High Performance Auto Supply.
War Wagon #3 is the one I’d like to talk about. I was associated with it for an exciting yet brief 3-year period of time. The car didn’t have a Gatling gun or 650 horses, but did possess unique charisma unmatched by any. It also holds several eclectic stories containing absolutely zero historical significance. There was no other War Wagon in Alaska like it and never will be!
My War Wagon was a 1954 Chevrolet station wagon. I shouldn’t say mine because it was jointly owned by me, Jeff Thimsen, and Ken Lucia. We purchased the classic machine in 1974 from a couple of wayward hippies. They’d driven to Alaska with plans on living in the vehicle while traveling around the state. We pooled our money and bought it for $225.00 after their adventure ended.
Seems they decided to fly home to California rather than once again drive the Al-Can Highway. Alaska at that time was filled to the gills with young Californians during summer months. Many of them worked the fish canneries while a good majority came to escape work, and peddle their waresif you know what I mean.
This young couple had spent most of their time and money in Homer and Seward while visiting the 49th state. I’m not sure what they were up to each day, but the vehicle did possess a strange aroma. It’s been 45 years and I still remember the smell. Without going into scientific detail let’s say it was much like incense and Irish Spring soap blended together.
The owners were nice and personable people. He was a bit on the strange side where looks were concerned. There was something about those glassy eyes and slow speech. One thing I remember most was the gal being pretty. Although I didn’t do so at the time I wanted to ask, “What do you see in him?”
Jeff, Ken, and I bought the station wagon for weekend cruising and camping. In the beginning the car was minus a suitable name. After owning it for several days Jeff came up with War Wagon. It looked as though it’d been through WWIII. I liked Jeff’s association to a battle. Knowing Steve Deptula and Tony Prockish well enough, I knew they’d find our using their car name amusing and not insulting. Ken went along with War Wagon because it sounded cool.
A can of black Krylon paint was all Jeff needed to customize. The War Wagon lettering was not sprayed to perfection having sags and runs. Being ‘free canned’ as Ken called it gave the vehicle extra character. I added 454 on the hood for a personal touch. My birthdate is April 1954. After signage was complete we couldn’t take the Chevy anywhere without getting thumbs up, or suspicious stares from local police.
War Wagon often times did not start so a set of jumper cables was included in the purchase. If an incline or hill was available to park it on that eliminated having to jump the battery. We’d merely let her roll with ignition on then let out the clutch in second gear. It’d pop to life every time.
One night we cruised to Bob’s Big Boy for burgers. The restaurant was located on Northern Lights and C Street. Parking around back on a flat spot, Jeff, Ken, and I came out finding the battery dead. Generally there was always someone around we could bum a jump. That evening there wasn’t. In a desperate attempt to get her back on the road, Jeff scoped out a Ford or Mercury sitting directly in front of us. Finding the car’s hood had an outside latch he popped it.
Just as my sidekick was removing cables from the donor car, and with War Wagon’s engine now running, a man, his wife, plus 2 kids walked up. They were the vehicle owners. While simultaneously shutting both hoods Jeff didn’t know what to say other than, “Thank you!”
With him calmly sliding in the front passenger seat, I slowly backed up and drove away as if nothing out of the ordinary had happened. Ken might’ve been in the back softly whistling but I can’t say for sure. To this day I still wonder if there’s a law in Alaska for theft of a jump.
War Wagon was a cop magnet. We were constantly pulled over. The officers generally wanted to see driver’s licenses, current registration, including proof of insurance. I’m sure they were checking for other things as well. We always came away squeaky clean.
One afternoon an Alaska State Trooper stopped me at a rest stop near Girdwood. I was asked about insurance. “Yes sir”, I politely replied, “State Farm.” Pushing things a bit too far, Ken from the back seat bellowed out, “Full coverage!” The trooper glancing at War Wagon’s smashed passenger door started to chuckle. He gave us a warning about mud obscuring the rear license plate before leaving.
On another occasion our friend Kevin Park decided to tag along after he’d gotten out of school. Kevin attended East Anchorage High like we had. He was 2 years younger than us and at that point a senior. His parents were doctors. The family lived in a somewhat upscale neighborhood on Wesleyan Drive. Picking him up in front of their house raised a few eyebrows.
Kevin enjoyed the attention our car got as much as we did. No matter who pulled up alongside they’d always look to see what was inside? On that afternoon Kevin exchanged glares with some old guy on Northern Lights Boulevard. For reasons unknown the man gave him the finger. Having a near empty soda can in hand and being a hockey player, Kevin instinctively tossed it out the window into the fellow’s lap. Sticky liquid went everywhere.
Deciding to hightail it we took off with the man in hot pursuit. Our Chevy would only go so fast. I believe the chase never exceeded 45 mph. Jeff nervously kept looking in the rearview mirror not knowing what to expect. The irate gentleman eventually called off his pursuit, turning around somewhere near Northern Lights & Muldoon Road. It was a good thing because we were nearly out of fuel.
That was Kevin’s last ride in War Wagon. He went off to medical school soon afterwards, eventually becoming an emergency room physician at Providence Hospital. Sadly, Dr. Kevin Park was killed in an aircraft accident in 1994.
On several instances I was forced to use the car for transportation. Working at Proctor’s Grocery in Eagle River as a stocker, management instructed me to park my machine around back out of sight. They feared it might drive customers away.
My girlfriend at the time was on a 30-day trip to visit relatives in Kansas. Joleen Freeman didn’t know about my vehicle investment. When she flew home and waited for me outside a baggage claim area I pulled up in War Wagon. She rode home cowered down so no one would see her. A bit upset at me, Joleen cooled down when I mentioned it was her younger sister June putting me up to such. We were married a few years later and celebrated our 40th this past September.
Merely being seen with the car was more than enough to be stereotyped a stoner. After arriving in the town of Hope one afternoon to go hiking, Jeff and I were eating sandwiches with doors wide open. Some guy sporting long hair came walking up asking, “Hey man, do you have any weed?” I was primed for an answer. “No man, we have no need!” The fellow lingered for what seemed like several minutes trying to comprehend whether that meant yes or no. He eventually got the message before quietly leaving.
The demise of War Wagon was somewhat blunt and unexpected. During an attempt to slow down, Jeff downshifted at too high a speed for the umpteenth time. The clutch plate disintegrated. We initially towed it to Ken’s house but his folks said, “No!”
Jeff knew his parents wouldn’t be happy so we never approached them.
The carcass sat in a field across from my place for several months. Finding an impound notice stuck on the windshield I informed Jeff and Ken we needed to move it. Stripping what few salvageable parts there were, we towed it by rope to Alaska Towing & Wrecking late one night leaving it outside their gate. Both license plates including serial number tag had been removed for obvious reason. The only identifiable part of the car pointing our direction was War Wagon painted on each side.
I like to believe someone came along rescuing War Wagon, eventually restoring it to prime operating condition. Perhaps a country western band then purchased it, traveling the U.S. with musical instruments safely stored in back. Jeff on the other hand thinks it was crushed and the metal shipped to Japan. Reincarnated, it came back to America in the form of a Subaru Brat. Jeff’s analogy is probably right.
Neil Young wrote a song about one of his former vehicles titled, “Long May You Run”. Neil sang it at the 2010 Vancouver Olympics. Each time I hear the tune I think back to War Wagon and all the good times we had. Lyrics from Neil Young’s song perfectly sum things up,
“We’ve been through
Some things together
With trunks of memories
Still to come
We found things to do
In Stormy weather
Long may you run!”