The last one standing? Can it be that Howard Johnson’s will disappear completely?

A BBC feature on the last Howard Johnson’s restaurant still standing drew my attention. After all, my generation grew up with those restaurants (and hotels) and, most importantly, with their fantastic ice cream.

Which reminds me of a story….

Back in 1974, around the time of our first Christmas in the Panama Canal Zone (where I was the pastor of the Margarita Union Church) I discovered that I had a problem. For almost every year of our marriage to that point I bought Polly some Howard Johnson’s Peppermint Stick ice cream. In those days that brand was about the best you could buy.

When we went to Panama I realized that there were no HJ’s there and getting the ice cream would be difficult if not impossible.

So, I wrote to an HJ restaurant in New Orleans and asked if they could arrange to ship me some on the Panama Canal ship, the SS Cristobal sailing from New Orleans on the last sailing before Christmas. I assured them that I would send them a check for the ice cream and for their trouble.

Imagine my surprise when I received a letter from them saying that they had never been asked to send ice cream anywhere before, let alone to the CZ, but they were happy to tell me (and I was happy to hear) that not only would they send me two containers with three gallons each of the ice cream but they would not charge.

What excitement. On the day that the ship arrived, our son Brian and I went down to the docks at Cristobal to obtain our shipment.

Upon inquiring at the front office I was told that there was nothing on the manifest for me. However, they suggested that I go on board the ship to inquire with the purser about it. Brian and I went up the ramp on to the ship and talked to the purser. No, she knew nothing about it.

Just then a sailor sitting at a nearby table spoke up and asked if this had anything to do with ice cream for some preacher!

It turns out that the hotel had shipped the ice cream through the ship’s kitchen and that’s why it wasn’t on the manifest. It also meant that it was shipped to us for free.

Brian and I walked out to our car, in the heat and humidity, and prepared to take the ice cream home.

Our next challenge was at the gate to the docks. I had no papers to show that the ice cream was mine or that I was authorized to have it. Since it had been shipped for free I also had nothing to prove that I hadn’t stolen it.

So, we sat in the hot car with the melting ice cream. The guard looked at me, at my IP (Panama Canal Identification Privilege) card and asked, “Are you sure there isn’t anything in there except ice cream?” When we assured him that there was nothing else, he waved us through. Imagine getting away with that in this day and age of security!

We took it home, but the story didn’t end there.

Word got around, as it will in such a small community. You see, ice cream in Panama in those days was terrible. It was reconstituted from some sort of powder and the texture and flavor weren’t good.

So people learned that we had real ice cream. And, as soon as Christmas was over, they started dropping by. First a trickle of people we knew, and then folks we hardly knew or had never met.

Soon the conversation turned to the purpose of their trip. “I hear you have some ice cream from the United States.”

“Indeed we do. Would you like some?” Of course they would, so we got out some dishes and happily shared our good bounty with our guests.

I decided another year that I couldn’t pull that trick again, so we went without the ice cream for those remaining Christmases in Panama.

Oh, yes, one more thing. In about February our good friend, Greg Seeber, who was the pastor at the nearby Gatun Union Church, called one day and said, “I’m going to read you something. Don’t interrupt me, just listen.”

Then he proceeded to read an article from the New Orleans newspaper about how some pastor in the Canal Zone had ordered Howard Johnson’s Ice Cream for his wife for Christmas. A neat ending to the story and a good PR piece for Howard Johnson’s!

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