My patient and strong soul mate, albeit she who must be obeyed, was giving me The Look. Firm and steady as the Sphinx. Nothing life-threatening, you understand, yet oratorically composed which meant she was quite ready to pounce on her husband’s perceived insanity.
“What are you thinking?” she asked. That’s never a good start. “You have a $6,000 cashier’s check which you will be sending to this Earl, a man you have never met who says he will purchase and restore a World War II jeep he found in Oklahoma but which you have never seen.”
Two jeeps, actually. One is a 1946 Willys CJ2, the other is a 1942 Ford GPW Earl found decaying in a barn. We plan to cannibalize them because the peace time CJ’s engine was stronger than the wartime GPW’s four banger.
Even if she understood all this guy talk, let alone the significance of any barn find, we clearly were not amused.
“And you are doing all this on EBay?”
Time for the picadors. I reminded her that our lives are littered with EBay purchases. Two Ford Crown Victorias, both former cop cars with intimidating spotlights. There has been a Celebrity 22 runabout launch, a pair of shearling jackets for convertible travels in our elderly SL550 and a much younger Jaguar XK, a Chopard Mille Miglia chrono from an actual contestant, a crusher cap once worn by a United States Air Corps fighter pilot, etc. and very much etcetera. And with only one dud–-a rusted-out gooseneck desk lamp from Montana that the seller, reluctantly, agreed to take back.
That explanation produced the all-clear. No matador needed.
“Whatever makes you happy,” she said.
So the cashier’s check was entrusted to fate, and Earl Hoffman of Dallas-Fort Worth suburbia began his labor of our loves.
Fast reverse. Way back when we were all young, handsome and fearless, I was a junior officer in the Royal Air Force, stationed at Jever in Northern Germany where it is always winter. Our squadron flew De Havilland Vampires and the transportation flight (motor pool) was rich with Land Rover Series IIs. Plus one orphan, a well-abused WWII GPW jeep, the result of a Sergeant Bilko exchange with F86 pilots in the American sector for a case of single malt Scotch.
That Jeep became my permanent loaner. For charging around base and flight lines, for orderly officer patrols, for cruising into town in search of Jever Pilsener and Jever frauleins. It was also my connection to a passion for the United States, its people, fabled cities and diner coffee in thick china mugs. Yes, I really did want to be an Americano.
Willy and I were separated too soon, pulled apart by my posting back to the UK. The sense of loss lasted many years. But then, as a newly minted and thoroughly naturalized American citizen, an old lust re-surfaced.
Enter EBay, an electronic meeting with jeep guru Earl Hoffman, the Oklahoma jeep strike, and the start of a beautiful friendship. Also the beginning of a three-month, ground-up restoration.
Earl gave my check to some churl who just wanted to free his backyard of rusting cadavers. I agreed to give Earl money for his labors and whatever remanufactured and OEM parts he needed. He would create one jeep for me, and keep any leftovers for his restoration business.
Earl flat-bedded the historic carcasses back to Texas and we decided that the Ford GPW would be the surviving twin. The Willys was to donate its engine and power train and several suspension parts to the cause. Fidelity of marque was to be only a partial purpose. I wanted another Willy, a beautiful mongrel; strong, reliable, and a mostly authentic tribute to those who served.
E-mails directed the project. Olive drab, original formula paint. Of course. Willy must have an axe and shovel, pioneer tools, rear Jerry can, combat wheels, leather shifter boots, and a rifle rack. Yup. Canvas map pouches on the seat backs, rear grab handles, and no side fuel filler and cap. Check.
Ninety days to the dot, Earl and his well-travelled flatbed arrived at my door. The jeep, my GPW, pristine and proud, glistening and reborn and with that unmistakable exhaust note, growled off the truck and into my life. Earl declared us man and jeep.
However, the fun of full restoration was far from over. Willy was stenciled with my old squadron and 2nd Tactical Air Force markings, complete with a squadron commander’s pennant (a shameless self-promotion) and an RAF roundel painted in precise positions.
A global hunt was launched through a sub-culture of several thousand jeep owners and their websites. An authentic first aid kit, still with compression bandages and ampoules, came from Belgium and close enough to Bastogne to be exciting. An original oil can from a Hotchkiss jeep arrived from France. A ‘40s tool kit and canvas pouch from Germany. I just knew (or hoped) that one day, I would receive a purchase with a bullet hole.
For ten years Willy and I were regulars at military vehicle shows and transportation days at my grandson’s school. We also tooled around town, basking in stares, grateful smiles and a million reminiscences from seniors who remembered when. Our favorite was always the annual Veteran’s Day parade and one regular passenger, a carefully uniformed doppelganger —complete with riding crop and ivory-handled .45 revolver—for Gen. George Patton.
“Where are you going, general?” a spectator would always shout.
“I’m going to Berlin where I will personally shoot that paper-hanging son of a bitch Hitler,” our faux general would yell back.
As years passed, many batteries died between fewer jeep outings. Other toys began sabotaging the family cash flow. I decided to put Willy up for adoption.
I watched, and a little misty-eyed, as he was trucked to a second life with a World War II re-enactor in Nebraska. The new owner texted me a picture. Willy looked quite happy and handsome – even in 101st Airborne livery.
Oh, I sold Willy for a little more than I paid for him. In less than an hour. On EBay.