Route 66 and the Art of Radiator Repair

‘ ” ” ” ” ” ” ‘‘ ‘‘ ” ” ” ‘uss-nereus-as17I received orders to the USS Nereus, AS-17, a submarine tender stationed at Ballast Point, the submarine pier, at Point Loma in San Diego. I had just completed a twenty-four week electronic technician training course at Great Lakes Naval Training Center. A native Californian and unaccustomed to winter, I was grateful to leave behind the western shore of Lake Michigan and the bitter cold of winter in the Mid West. The lure of the sea called me. Like young Ishmael, I was ready to “sail about a little and see the watery part of the world.”

‘ ” ” ” ” ” ” ‘‘ ‘‘ ” ” ” ‘buick-roadmaster-1956Al Bickel and Mike Rader also received orders to ships in San Diego. Rader had a 1956 Buick Roadmaster.  Together, we drove from North Chicago to California, sharing the driving and the cost of fuel.

The drive to San Diego was a forty-eight hour non-stop lightning tour of the “Main Street of America,” the “Mother Road,” U.S. Route 66. We drove southwest from Chicago, across the Mississippi River into St. Louis, Missouri, continuing to Springfield and Joplin, then across Oklahoma on the Will Rogers and Turner Turnpikes into the Texas Panhandle.

In Amarillo, the Roadmaster overheated. We were fortunate to find a radiator repair shop a block from the main route. The radiator had to be flushed and several leaks repaired. Because I was not old enough to drink, Bickel and Rader left me at the radiator shop while they went off to a nearby tavern to enjoy a few cold beers.

The radiator repairman was a soft-spoken, heavyset, friendly old man with white hair who wore bib overalls. He kept up a steady stream of conversation about life in the Panhandle from the weather to the best place to eat in Amarillo. The conversation was interspersed with a running commentary on the steps in the radiator repair process.

Seated on the upturned side of a wooden Coca Cola crate, I watched as the repairman lowered the radiator into an acid tank where it soaked as he scrubbed its outer surface with a wire brush. Removing the radiator from the acid bath, he carefully inserted a spring steel leaf into each radiator tube, gently reaming out rust colored silt. He inspected each tube for leaks that he repaired with solder. Having no idea about the construction of a radiator, watching the radiator repairman work was like watching a master craftsman give a demonstration in his studio. It was an education.

The radiator repaired, we left Amarillo and headed across New Mexico, into Arizona and across the Colorado River to California. When Bickel and Rader figured we would arrive in San Diego earlier than planned, they decided we needed to make a side trip into Baja California. We stopped in Calexico, rented a motel room where we took showers and changed clothes. From there, we drove across the border into Mexicali.

Bickel and Rader drank. I was the designated driver. After a couple of hours in Mexicali, we headed back toward the border. At a four-way intersection, I was stopped by a Mexicali policeman because I hesitated when I misunderstood his signal directing me through the intersection. Gripped with fear and certain of landing in a Mexican jail, my heart raced, my palms sweated, and my teeth chattered. Approaching the car and seeing me behind the wheel, I think the policeman sensed my fear. He motioned me on with a smile.

It’s time to part company with Bickel and Rader, I thought. “Let’s just go straight to San Diego,” I said. They agreed.

Two hours later we were in San Diego where Bickel and Rader left me at the Armed Forces YMCA on South Broadway. Inside the “Y,” I inquired about transportation to Point Loma. Soon, I was on a city bus headed toward the USS Nereus and a new life at sea.

0 thoughts on “Route 66 and the Art of Radiator Repair

  1. Joan Raymond


    As always I love reading your posts. Full of description and the smallest details that bring each person and experience to life.
    I’ve traveled a bit on Route 66 through parts of Arizona and New Mexico. The quiet two-lane highway was a refreshing change from the busy interstate.


    1. Dennis Post author


      My trip on Route 66 was in March 1963, long before the Interstate. Because it was a lightning tour, as I said, I didn’t see much.

      Thanks for your encouraging and enthusiastic comments.

  2. Davyd Morris

    Did you ever from the guys again? I did some traveling on Route 66 as a child. We lived in South San Francisco, but my dad was born in Denver and my mom near Springfield, Missouri, so we went west on US 40, returned on US 66 many times. Ten years ago we did a trip through Arizona, including a stay at the old railroad hotel in Winslow, AZ on 66. An awesome place with wild art pieces scattered throughout. And yes, there is a statue of Jackson Browne standing a corner in Winslow, Arizona (it’s such a fine sight to see…)

  3. Mark Fisher

    And so many places on Route 66 that didn’t end up on the Interstate are ghost towns. My relatives in Oklahoma still live right off 66. And that part is still pretty busy. But out in in California you’ve got places like Amboy, that almost aren’t places anymore.

  4. Annis

    Love this post about your route and your radiator repair education. Another dandy post with descriptions that put me there.

    The entire paragraph that starts: “Seated on the upturned side of a wooden Coca Cola crate, I watched as the repairman lowered the radiator into an acid tank where it soaked as he scrubbed its outer surface with a wire brush.” is so well written.

    Thank you.

  5. Anna Stewart

    I’ll echo the other comments…I really enjoyed reading this bit of your personal narrative. I also found it interesting that your traveling companions left you to go drink. It’s one of those things, a wonderful detail, that stands out to me as an indicator of the culture of the time or maybe just your own personality (maybe both?). My immediate thought was that, these days, those same men would have dragged the under-age companion into the bar regardless of the legalities. There was a sense of innocence to this, partly due to that, but partly in the fascination watching the radiator repair…it was refreshing? Is that the word? With just a hint of the adventure to come. Hope to see more.


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