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REMEMBER WHEN SERVICE STATIONS GAVE SERVICE?
By Frank Kaiser

What a quaint concept!

In this day of $3-a-gallon gas*, imagine getting actual service, too. Today, it's as bizarre a notion to anyone under 40 as a gentleman's tipping his hat to a lady.

About 40 years ago, both were part of everyday life in America.

Then in 1973, OPEC and Big Oil turned a screw creating long lines and high prices at gas pumps, prepayments to grim strangers behind bulletproof glass, and, most shocking of all, forcing ladies dressed in their finery to pump their own gas, wash their own windshields, check their oil and fill their tires with air, "free air" now costing two bits.

It was the end of a great era.

Older Suddenly Seniors will remember its beginning in the '20s when gas stations popped up all over postwar and newly prosperous America. Some stations even had indoor toilets.

In those days, filling a typical car's five-gallon tank took eight minutes. To keep customers' minds from the clock, attendants cleaned windshields (sometimes inside and out), checked oil and water, even cranked engines to get the old jalopies back on the road again.

The Depression saw stations built to resemble teepees, castles, dinosaurs, even pyramids — anything to attract scarce dollars. One of Gulf Oil's outlets was built in the shape of the Spirit of St. Louis, Charles Lindbergh's famous airplane.

Slowed by gas rationing during W.W.II (remember the A, B and C decals?), service stations mushroomed in the prosperous 1950s, marked by a huge expansion of motorcars and highways. Service stations sprouted from every corner, competing by giving away drinking glasses, trading stamps, maps, and car washes. And a tsunami of service.

"Regular or Ethyl?"

So fierce was competition that gas wars broke out, at least once pushing the price down to 12 cents a gallon in my suburban Chicago neighborhood.

    Suddenly Trivia: How many American service stations were there in 1969?

    a. 78,500 b. 156,000 c. 239,000 d. 468,900

Even car dealers put pumps out front to get some of the action.

About 1950, I worked a summer at Ladendorf Oldsmobile in Des Plaines, Illinois, about a block from the world's first McDonald‘s.

(Who knew? Ray Kroc’s first franchise opened April 15, 1955 — 50 years ago — and is now a museum. Today’s McDonald’s has 30,000 restaurants serving 50-million people day.)

My job was changing oil, lubing, and undercoating.

And pumping gas.

When the tire bell rang, I'd quickly throw on an ill-fitting jacket and cap, run out, pump the gas — usually a buck's worth, but occasionally, "Five dollars or fill, whichever comes first." I'd wash windows all around, check the oil, fill tires and the battery as needed, and, in my spare time, chat or flirt, whichever was appropriate.

Really hectic was when a gas customer drove in as I was undercoating — spraying tar all over the bottom of a vehicle and me, protecting us both from road stones and rust.

Mr. Ladendorf, afraid my tarred, blackened aura might frighten customers, insisted that I always wash my face and hands with gasoline before greeting the customer.

Small wonder I had trouble getting dates that summer.

My car at the time was a '41 Ford convertible with a '48 Mercury engine. Bright red. All-chrome interior. Chopped and channeled. Leaded. Duals. Headers. Necker knob.

And no top.

On those rare occasions when I scrubbed up clean enough to get a date, I'd borrow my dad's Oldsmobile Rocket 88 (0 to 60 in eight seconds!), promising to fill the tank and adhere to mileage restrictions.

Dad insisted, "Don't drive over 10 miles, now." Whether he thought I'd have less chance of an accident or what, I never knew. I do remember having a devil of a time reinstalling the speedometer cable, and once getting caught, feet in the air, fumbling under the dash with loose cable in hand.

From then on, my last stop on date nights was at a service station where, without so much as a frown, they reinstalled the speedometer cable, free, with my fill-up.

Try getting service like that in 2007!

    Suddenly Trivia answer: c. There were some 239,000 gas stations in the US at the peak in 1969. Today there are about 167,000.

© 2007 — Frank Kaiser


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And, from a Suddenly Senior reader of the St. Petersburg Times in reaction to the column...

GAS STATION BLUES

By Emma P Hoffman

I used to stop at a service station
The attendant came right out with a smile
Said, "Stay in the car, I'll do the work,
I know you've traveled many a mile."

He pumped the gas, checked all the fluids
Checked the tires for proper pressure,
Then washed all the windows and said,
"Goodbye, you're off in a goodly measure."

Now we pull in, jump out of our car
Pump gas, and maybe check under the hood,
Forget the tires, the windows will do
If the care even starts, that's all to the good.

The attendant's inside, staring and yawning
The phone is plastered to his ear,
He couldn't care less what we are doing,
He's on a call with his girlfriend dear.

"Progress," you say. "Isn't it great fun
To do your own thing, and not depend
On helpers to keep your car in shape
I like this system, it's fine my friend."

"Oh," I say, "I enjoyed olden days
They really weren't bad," I say with a sigh.
"But we must go with the system we have
Until a newer, better way comes by."


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OTHER ‘50S NOSTALGIA...

A Tip of the Hat To a Proud American Tradition

Wearing that first hat made me feel like an adult for the first time in my life. It told the world that I was now a man of substance, someone not to be trifled with.

Were the 'Good Old Days' Really So Good?

Were things safer, simpler, even sexier back then (based on the theory that less is more)? A humorous look at then and now.

Where Did All Our Front Porches Go?

Every evening you'd find my extended family all out there recalling their days, catching up on the news, greeting and often sharing the evening's desert of rhubarb pie with passing neighbors.

My Father's Brief Affair

It was Jezebel — beautiful, sensuous and forbidden, a wanton mistress that threatened the very stability and sanctity of marriage.

My father was a bigoted fool. I had no prejudices whatsoever. A look at why we hate who we hate. And how blind we are when it comes to our own intolerance.


*FIND THE CHEAPEST GAS IN YOUR AREA

With gas prices going through the roof, you might save a few bucks using THIS SITE.

Enter your zip code or click on your state and follow instructions for the cheapest gas prices around.
Read Pharmacist Tom Braun's Latest:



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Have a great weekend, everyone!

Frank Kaiser frank@suddenlysenior.com

http://www.suddenlysenior.com/

Suddenly Senior — the nationally syndicated column read by more 2.6 million over age 50 in 134 countries who've become senior way before their time.

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