Written by Jim Heffernan for the Duluth New Tribune/6-25-22
Here are some random thoughts while filling the gas tank on my vehicle the other day:
Hmmm, almost five dollars a gallon. This fill-up ought to come to close to 50 bucks. Wow, that’s what my first brand new bicycle cost when I was a kid.
Boy, getting gas in your car sure has changed since I began driving oh-those-many years ago, I ruminated. For one thing, you didn’t have to fill it up yourself. You got gas at places called “service stations,” and they meant it — the “service” part.
You’d pull up to the pumps and out of the building would dash a guy wearing the appropriate uniform — bow tie and military-style cap often included — of the company the station was associated with: Standard, Pure, Mobil, Shell, Phillips 66. You didn’t have to get out of the vehicle.
“Fill ‘er up,” they hoped you’d say. I’d often say “gimme a buck’s worth of regular.” A dollar’s worth! That’d get you four-plus gallons at 25 or 27 cents a gallon, and four gallons could keep you going for several days if the car got maybe 15 miles per gallon.
Because you were a customer, the service station guy would activate the gas pump, put the hose in your car’s gas port and when it was filled he’d routinely wash your windshield for you. You didn’t need to ask.
Upon completing the gas filling and the windshield washing he’d come to the driver’s window and ask if you’d like the oil checked. If you did, he’d open the hood, pull the dipstick, wipe it off and re-insert it into the engine to get a reading on the amount of oil in your crankcase. Dipstick in hand, he’d walk over to your window again and show you. If you were a quart down, he’d go inside the station, grab a can of 30 viscosity (in summer) oil, return and pour it into the port on the engine and close the hood.
And if you thought one of your tires might be low on air, he’d check that too, upon request, and replenish air if needed.
Service completed you’d hand him payment through the window; he’d sometimes salute as he thanked you and off you’d go on your merry way. You probably didn’t thank him. Such service was taken for granted.
Back in the present, still waiting for my tank to fill and continuing random thoughts, it occurred to me that you’d have to be a certain age to know this ancient service station history. My middle-age kids never experienced it, so I suppose a couple of generations have passed since those halcyon days of service at filling stations.
But I figured it might be interesting, if not important, to share this aspect of our history that isn’t likely to get mentioned in the history books.
Of course we took it for granted at the time, probably figuring that’s the way it would be forever, just like everything else from one’s youth would last forever, while, of course, nothing does.
Here’s more: The service aspect of filling stations would sometimes be abused by drivers. An older friend during my youth who operated a gas station was driven to distraction by drivers who would pull up to the pump and wait for him to come out. When he did, the driver wouldn’t ask for gas, but rather ask for directions to a nearby highway that seemed to befuddle visitors to Duluth. It drove him nuts, but he’d tell them and off they’d go.
I do think taking unwarranted advantage of service station attendants hit its nadir one time by another close friend who should have known better.
We were riding in his car on a windy, rainy night during our college years and he discovered he was out of cigarettes. (The ability to coolly smoke cigarettes was practically a college entrance requirement in those days.) He could have bummed from me but he didn’t like my brand. Spotting a gas station as we drove along, he pulled in and up to the pumps.
Out into the driving rain, fog, wind and everything else bad on such a night came the service station attendant. My friend rolled down his window and said, “I’ll have a package of Marlboros.”
The astonished attendant just glared at him in surprise and disgust before uttering a whole bunch of words unprintable in a family newspaper. Something like “You X#@%&#%” as he turned on his heel and quickly sloshed back into the station.
My friend had to bum a butt from me after all, in spite of the fact that mine didn’t have filters like Marlboros. Oh, those pesky loose ends.
Meanwhile, back in the present, my tank was finally full. Only $47.95. I think that’s about what my first dressy dark-blue three-button suit cost.
POSTSCRIPT — I still have the $50 bicycle. The suit no longer fits.
Jim Heffernan is a former Duluth News Tribune news and opinion writer and continues as a columnist. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and maintains a blog at www.jimheffernan.org.