You know, at the outset it really didn’t seem like all that difficult a task to undertake. After all, all we were trying to do was find our way to a restaurant.
Well, okay, not just any restaurant. We were on the hunt for Tony Packo’s Cafe – renowned throughout the land as the favorite eatery of that legendary American veteran of the Korean War, Maxwell Q. Klinger.
Maybe I’d better start at the beginning...
I’ve been a fan of the television series M*A*S*H since I started watching the show with my parents during its original run back in the 1970s. More by accident than design I passed my love of the program to both of my sons; William, the youngest, has become the reigning expert on all things M*A*S*H thanks to the DVD boxed set, which has enabled him to see every episode more times in the three or four years since we bought it than I had in 30-plus years of watching the reruns on TV.
As in well known, one of the most popular characters on the show was Corporal (later Sergeant) Max Klinger of Toledo, Ohio – superbly portrayed by real-life Korean War veteran and Toledo native Jamie Farr. When not hatching his latest scheme to get out of the Army on a Section 8, Klinger could often be found fondly reminiscing about his old home town; in several episodes he mentioned Tony Packo’s Cafe, a very real restaurant founded in 1932 in a Hungarian neighborhood on the east side of Toledo.
Prior to its M*A*S*H connection, Packo’s was already well known for its “Hungarian Hot Dog” – actually a Kolbász sausage (which is about twice the diameter of an actual hot dog), slathered in a specially prepared chili sauce and served on a rye roll. Thanks to its mention on the popular TV show Packo’s has since become as much of a tourist attraction as a restaurant; its walls are lined both with M*A*S*H memorabilia and with hot dog buns signed by the many celebrities who have visited the establishment (including President Obama and four of his predecessors).
Flash forward to Summer, 2011: As has become something of a custom over the past half-decade, this year’s family vacation was scheduled around an event which I was attending as a member of the New Wold Newton Meteorics Society. The event in question this year was PulpFest 2011, the annual gathering of fans, writers, editors and booksellers who come together for three days in Columbus, Ohio, to celebrate those breathtaking tales of adventure, mystery and two-fisted derring-do – often with just a touch of comedy or romance – once published on a monthly basis and eagerly read by fans of all ages during a bygone age.
PulpFest is an event very similar to other pop culture activities such as Comic-Con in San Diego or the various conventions held by fans of Star Trek or the Beatles. This was my first year to attend the event, and I have to tell you that it was a gas getting the chance to join with other fans and writers to celebrate this particular type of pop fiction, which continues to draw in new generations of fans despite the protests of those critics who dismiss it as literary trash. During the three-day event I sold and signed copies of my own two books, Days Gone By: Legends And Tales of Sipokni West and Something In The Air (both of which are available at Amazon.com, if you'll pardon the brief self-plug), and helped promote the upcoming anthology The Worlds Of Philip José Farmer: Of Dust And Soul, in which I have a story. (That one’s available for pre-order now at meteorhousepress.com.) I also got the opportunity (always welcome, and to me the best reason for going) to hang out with friends old and new – wonderful folks like Win Scott Eckert and his lovely wife Lisa, Rick Lai, Art Sippo, Mike Croteau, Henry Franke, Greg Gick, Frank Schildiner, Jason Aiken and Sean Lee Levin (who provides a great overview of the event here: http://sheneverslept.com/newsandreviews/archives/6534) – and hobnobbed with the likes of "Doc Savage" scribe Will Murray, Munsey Award-winning publisher Anthony Tollin and writer-editor Ron Fortier, with whom Mike, Win and I had a marvelous discussion the first night regarding the total train wreck that was Seth Rogan's The Green Hornet. (Just thinking about that movie still makes my skin crawl...)
Anyway, from Columbus we were to head west to Bradley, Illinois, to spend a few days with my wife’s brother and his wife before heading home to Oklahoma. When I learned that the route from Columbus to Interstate 80 west would take us through Toledo, I got the idea that it would be neat to let William visit Klinger’s favorite eatery in person. And so, on an overly warm afternoon in early August, the Smallmobile and its four occupants pulled off Interstate 75 and headed into Toledo in search of Hot Dog Valhalla.
But as is so often the case (especially when I’m the one doing the driving), the road to Valhalla proved to be just a tad bumpy. The troubles began when older son Joshua – with the aid of his handy-dandy Apple laptop and the Internet – discovered that Packo’s operations had expanded since the days when Klinger sat in Korea dreaming of wiping chili sauce from his chin. Turns out there are a total of five Packo’s locations scattered throughout the greater Toledo area, and being strangers in town we didn’t know which was which or how to get to them.
After what seemed about a two-hour trip back and forth we finally managed to stumble upon a Packo’s Express, a small dining outlet set up in the front of a local grocery store. My wife spoke to the manager and explained our situation, and he very kindly wrote down directions to the original Packo’s located over on the corner of Front and Consaul streets. And we followed those directions to the letter. But they still didn’t get us where we wanted to go. Turns out that on the very first turn we were supposed to make, the manager wrote “left” instead of “right.” And so there we were headed in the wrong direction again.
Using a variation of the Cat in the Hat’s Calculatus Eliminatus, we managed to find our way to the highway Packo’s was supposed to be just off of. But we hadn’t driven more than a quarter mile on that highway when we passed a sign welcoming us to Michigan. After a few misadventures in the Wolverine State that we don’t have time or space to get into just now, we managed to get back on that same highway in the opposite direction and return to Ohio, where the very first sign we passed – you guessed it – pointed to the exit leading directly to the original Tony Packo’s.
Tired and hungry we finally arrived at our destination, only to be confronted by the realization of something I had somehow failed to take into account when I set out on this quest – William doesn’t like hot dogs.
Fortunately they had other items on the menu as well, and we all enjoyed what proved to be a most delicious dinner. The one mistake I made was in ordering something called the Packo’s MOAD - which is short for “Mother Of All Dogs,” and brother it certainly lived up to the name. This thing was HUGE – a dog so large I felt compelled to ask the waitress if I was supposed to eat it or put a saddle on the furshlugginer thing and ride it. I settled for eating half then and taking the rest with me in a “to go” box to finish later. (The leftovers tasted every bit as good when reheated later in a motel room microwave, and I’ve found in my travels that there simply are not many foods which can truthfully make that claim.)
Before leaving we bought a few Packo’s-related souvenirs from their gift shop and took the above photo of William in front of the place for the family album. Later William announced that he definitely wants to make a trip back to Toledo and eat at Packo’s again some time. Guess I finally have a reason to buy that GPS I've been putting off...
In : Travel
Tags: travel "pop culture" film & tv