Saturday, April 30, 2011

Gas Jockey Memoir

Once upon a time there was a UFO joke. It seems a flying saucer landed near a gas station pump island. The alien hops out and addresses one of the pumps. "Take me to your leader." Nothing happened. A bit louder he says "Take me to your leader!" Still nothing, one more time he says "TAKE ME TO YOUR LEADER!!!" Nothing. He kicked the pump and said, "WELL, IF YOU'D TAKE YOUR FINGER OUT OF YOUR EAR YOU COULD HEAR ME!" And he left.
Presumably without his trading stamps.
Perhaps he'd have fared better if he'd landed on the signal hose.
   Remember trading stamps? Remember pumps like these? Remember driving across the driveway and hearing "ding, ding."
   Back in the early '60's I worked pumping gas from one of these at our station at Seward Junction. (Intersection Highway 29 and Highway 183, Williamson County, Texas.) Those were the days when you pulled up at the pumps at a station and someone else pumped your gas for you. Often, they would also check your oil and water, air your tires, and wash your windshield. The pumps worked a lot like some of the self-serve pumps today, without the digital display and the credit card slots, and without the pipe in bad music and announcements. Your musical accompaniment came from your gas jockey whistling while he worked, perhaps. 
   It was a little less automatic, as well. There is a crank on these on the far side of the pump that you wound up to clear the display numbers, the nozzle was placed in the tank, the lever below it was lifted, and the handle trigger was pressed. The gas didn't cut off automatically on full, you had to listen to the (leaded) fuel running into the tank and stop when it sounded full before it overfilled. It's hard to describe the sound change, it started as a low gurgle and reached a higher and higher pitch. 
   After a while I got pretty good at stopping the flow at the right point, of course I slowly topped off the tank, as well. (Assuming I was filling it, of course.)
   Oh yes, gas was around 27 cents a gallon then. 
Most paid cash for their fill up, or handed over their credit card to be run in the store on the manual impression machine. 
   It wasn't transmitted electronically. We saved up the receipts till the next gas shipment arrived and we used them like money to pay for the gas. The receipts worked their way up the chain of command until the company received them and billed the customer. It sounds slow, but it was probably only a few days.
   About once a day we'd open the fill pipe on one of the two underground tanks and drop a wooden dipstick down into it to see how low it was getting. The Humble, then Enco, then Exxon consignee delivered every week or so, but would come earlier if we were low, usually.
   We never were really set up to wash windows, but we did check tires and fluid levels if asked. 
The Gates Rubber Company, maker of auto hoses and fan belts, actually presented me with a Customer Service Award one time for offering to change a belt for one of their mystery motorists who stopped by. 
   I sort of cheated.
   Being a ravenous reader, I always read their newsletter when we got it. I knew they had that program going on. While pumping gas I spied several spare fan belts in the back seat. That gave me a clue I should ask to check under their hood. Normally we rarely did that unless asked.
   I confess.
   They gave me a nice printed plaque with a couple of silver dollars, half dollars, and a specially minted Silver Gates Rubber coin. I also got mentioned in the next newsletter. 
   Fame and fortune.
   It wasn't all glory, though. We weren't a very busy gas station. I did get a lot of reading done. I collected string from the Butter Krust Bread man. I made several balls of differently colored string, which I used for many years. I ate up much of the stock from our ice cream freezer, I doubt if a single ice cream sandwich ever reached a customer. 
   And Cokes, although back then it was Dr. Pepper.
   No wonder I was chubby.
   We sold the station in 1967. I was in my senior year of high school. There was a rival station across the intersection that undercut us on gas and sent their customers across to our side to get water and air. Exxon wouldn't give us any price break to compete. Mom and Dad decided to sell the store and move a short distance away and just have an auto repair shop. 
   It was a major shift. 
   I'd been pumping gas more or less since I was 11. Without pay, just for my room and board. It was a little less stress just helping out with the garage work. 
   I could concentrate more on other stuff.
   Girls, school, cars, girls, books, that.
   But I never forgot that station. Sitting on the driveway after dark. Watching the occasional car. Nighthawks and bats swooping around catching bugs by the streetlights in the intersection, armadillos hunting bugs on the dividers. 
   Nice times.

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