The Great Christmas Hoagie Adventure

How far would you travel to get a delicious Philly steak sandwich or, even better, a hoagie? Back in 1963, I drove almost 3,000 miles in snow, rain, and freezing weather so I could eat a real Philly hoagie. To be honest, it was to see my family I hadn’t seen in a year or so. You see, in October of 1962, I joined the United States Air Force and spent Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year’s at Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio, Texas. I was eighteen years old, and it was the first time I had missed a holiday with my family.

After eight weeks at Lackland, I was put on a train and sent to Lowery Air Base in Denver, Colorado, for technical training. After about 25 weeks, I was shipped off to March Air Base in Riverside, California. Not one of these places had a Philly steak or hoagie. More important was the absence of my family. A letter or phone call is just not the same as being there.

So when Christmas 1963 neared, and a friend asked if I wanted to travel to the East Coast, I jumped at the chance. The problem was we both had only 15 days’ leave. Since our $86-a-month salary didn’t go very far, we couldn’t fly. But it turned out my friend had just bought an old French Citron car, and he promised that it was in good shape and would make it the 3,000 miles there and 3,000 back. We decided to drive nonstop, taking turns sleeping as the other guy drove. It would take three days to get home and another three days to return to March Air Base. That left us nine days at home.

We gassed up and left early on the 20th of December. If all went well, we would be there on the 23rd. We had a cooler filled with baloney, cheese, and bread. Our goal was to stop only for coffee and gas. There would be no eating at restaurants and no sightseeing. By the time we got to New Mexico, it had started to snow. For the next 2,000 miles, the snow traveled with us.

I was asleep, and then I found myself crumpled up on the floor of the passenger seat. In the panhandle of Texas, my friend had spun out on the ice, and we ended up with our rear end around a telephone pole. That old Citron was a hardy beast, and we were able to carry on a few minutes later.

It was a tedious trip, but finally on the morning of the 23rd of December, we found ourselves on the Schuylkill Expressway in Philadelphia. It was one of those rare times when there was little traffic not too far from where it turned into Roosevelt Boulevard. The snow and ice compacted and made for a very slippery drive. I had taken over driving somewhere in Virginia and wanted to be the one to get us to Philly.

It was a great feeling when we were just several miles away from my childhood home on Wishart Street in the Kensington section and seeing the family. I was excited. As I thought about how good a hot cup of my grandmother’s coffee would be, the car suddenly began to turn 360 degrees—not once but a few times—before we hit the guardrail head-on.

I was a bit stunned, but both of us were okay. The car, however, was not. We pushed the car to the side and decided to hitch a ride. You have to understand, we had been on the road for three days with no bath, were unshaven, and dressed in our Air Force winter fatigue jackets. The few cars that passed us would not stop, and I didn’t blame them. Finally, I told my friend we would have to walk. It was a long walk, but I knew my way around the city, and it wasn’t long before we turned onto Wishart Street.

What I forgot to tell you is that I had not told anyone in the family I was coming home. I wanted it to be a surprise. Maybe you’ve seen the commercial for coffee where the guy who’s in the Army comes home and no one knows. He sneaks into the house and makes some coffee. Of course, everyone wakes up, and he surprises them. Cue sappy music. It wasn’t like that at all. When we got to the house, the door was locked, and no one was awake. It was about 7 a.m., and here were two scruffy-looking men banging on a house door in Kensington. We were lucky we didn’t get shot or arrested. My mother finally answered, looking as if she had just been rudely awakened, which, in fact, she had been. It took a minute for her to grasp that I was her son. But when she did, she was certainly surprised, as was everyone. Screams, hugs, and kisses followed.

My grandfather gave us a Philly tow. You know, tie a rope from one car to the other and pull. We got the stricken vehicle home and determined that we could fix the car but needed a special part. I did tell you it was a French Citron, right? Try finding a part for that car in 1963. We told my friend that we would fix the car and took him to the bus station, where he went on to Connecticut. “Be back in 9 days, and we’ll have it fixed,” I said. By “we,” I meant my grandfather, and he did. How my grandfather found that part on Girard Avenue I will never know, but he did, and he fixed the Citron. My guess is he had never seen a Citron in his life.

I didn’t get my hoagie that day, but I made up for my missed opportunity over the next eight days. It was one of the best holidays I can remember. Not because of the hoagies, steak sandwiches, or soft pretzels, but because I was with family again. I didn’t know it then, but I wouldn’t be home for the holidays again until 1966.

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