By Jim Heffernan
If you are a certain age (and I am most certainly of that certain age) you can remember when things seemed a lot cheaper than they do today, even making mental adjustments for inflation over the past five or six decades.
I was reminded of this again the other day when I filled the gas tank on my car for just under $50. At my age (I was counted in the 1940 census), I can remember when a gallon of regular gasoline went for about 28 cents a gallon, a few cents more for premium.
It wasn’t unusual (unusual? I did it all the time) to pull into a service station and order a buck’s worth and get your oil checked by a guy in a uniform provided by the brand of gas he sold – Mobil, Standard, Pure – who also washed your windshield. You could drive for several days on that dollar’s worth of gas.
This is not intended to be another one of those nostalgia pieces that seem to be so popular on the Internet. “Remember when this…” “remember when that…” all implying that things were better then -- then usually being the 1950s, which, if you are of a certain age, you can recall quite vividly.
These thoughts (at a penny a piece) plied my mind as I filled my tank, watching the numbers spinning up through $35, $40, $45, and finally stopping at $49 and change. Almost 50 bucks for a tank of gas.
Fifty dollars is a benchmark amount for me. When I was about 10 years old, my parents gave me a brand new bicycle – my first and only. It was a beautiful red and white J.C. Higgins brand bicycle from Sears Roebuck. It was their most elaborate, and expensive, bike at the time – fenders of course, carrier, case, light, horn – and it cost about $50. It seemed like a lot of money to me, and it wasn’t small change for my parents either. But they got me the bike.
The only trouble was I secretly wanted a Schwinn. Schwinns were the gold standard of bikes in the minds of neighborhood kids, and some models cost about the same as my J.C. Higgins. But, I’m glad to say, I didn’t say anything to the folks; I gratefully accepted the bike they chose and rode it for the rest of my childhood. Read on to find out what happened to it.
But first, we were talking about that $50 benchmark. Ever since receiving my bike – it was 1949 – I’ve compared the cost of that bicycle to other purchases that come to about that amount, even to the present day. Like when I’m out to dinner and the evening’s check comes to $50 or more. “Cost more than my J.C. Higgins bicycle,” I mutter to myself, or maybe just process that thought. And you don’t get too many groceries in the cart for $50 either.
And now the $50 benchmark is breached filling the car with gas. The other day when that happened, of course I was reminded of what it cost my parents to buy me a shiny new bicycle with a light and horn.
We all adjust to the differences in the economy over the years (I paid $150 for my first used car, for example, only half a dozen years after I got the bike), but as the years go by I simply can’t keep myself from comparing the cost of certain things today with what my folks paid for my J.C. Higgins. I guess I always will.
Finally, I promised to reveal what happened to it. I stripped it down to bare bones when I was in my early teens, and it got left in the basement of my family’s homestead for years. Finally, when my own kids were young, and the homestead was still in the family, I dug out it and all of the parts I’d removed and brought it back to its original condition.
It’s hanging in a garage today, upside down on bicycle hooks, ready to be ridden. And it only cost $50.