Full Circle
My short — but great — career pumping gas
By Maury Z. Levy

I loved the smell of gas stations in the morning. Gasoline had such a sweet smell, a smell that could only be topped by a Tastykake Butterscotch Krimpet.

Gas stations in the ’50s were a whole different universe. Gas was 22 cents a gallon. And the men who worked at gas stations were one step below an officer in the Army. They wore captain’s hats and neatly pressed shirts with matching pants. And a bow tie. They checked your oil wearing a bow tie. And they had the best manners.

“Good morning, sir. Nice day for a ride. Fill ’er up?”

In the black and white TV ads, gas stations weren’t called gas stations. They were service stations. They washed your windows, checked your oil, added water to your radiator and tested your tires. And the men who pumped were mechanics. You heard a knock, you heard a rattle, they could fix it.

To so many of us kids, the gas station was a second home. We’d go there for a snack – an ice-cold bottle of Coke and a pack of peanut butter crackers.

On a lazy afternoon, after 13 consecutive games of halfball, we decided to take a break.

“Hey, wanna play ding-ding? Sure. Let’s go to the gas station.”

The Atlantic station was a quick ride up Levick Street, right past the Penn Fruit parking lot. The ding-ding game was easy. Gas stations all had thin black hoses that criss crossed the entrances. When a DeSoto or a Packard pulled in, it would drive over the hoses. The weight of the car would make a dinging sound. That’s how the attendant, who was working in one of the service bays, knew he had a customer.

As kids who wouldn’t drive for another eight years or more, we tried to put heavy pressure on the back wheels of our bikes. Enough pressure to make the hoses ding. The kid with the most dings won.

“Who goes first?” Danny Duffy said.

“I’ll flip you for it,” I said.

I pulled out a nickel. “Ok, call it in the air.”

“Tails,” he said.

Sucker. Tails was for losers. You never call tails on a coin flip. It almost always comes up heads. Nine times out of ten. At least it seemed that way.

After a few dings, Hi-Test Harry came running out of the service bay with a scowl on his face. The creases in his shirt stood at attention.

“Hey, fellas, I thought I had a paying customer. You kids are gonna have to stop dinging. How will I know when a car comes in?”

Then I had a brilliant idea. “I’ll come and get you Harry, I promise.” And so I did. It was a great system. We got to play, he got to work.

Soon, a Hudson Hornet pulled in. I ran to get Harry. “Hey, I’m really caught up in this transmission,” he said. “Do you know how to put gas in a car?”

“Sure I do.”

No I didn’t. I was 8 years old. I was lucky I could tie my shoes.

I go out to the Hudson Hornet. It was a block long.

“Can I help you?”

“Yeah, kid, fill her up. Hi-Test.”

Hmm, now how do I get the pump on High-Test? And where did they hide the gas cap on this monstrosity?

“Hey, kid, check the oil too, will ya?”

Check the oil? I can’t reach the oil. I run back to Harry.

“Harry, how do I know if they need oil?”

“That’s simple, kid. If they ask to check the oil, they must need oil. And we make more money on our oil than we do on our gas. So, if the customer asks for it, you sell it.”

Oil it was. I managed to open the Hudson hood. But I couldn’t reach the dipstick. Call Harry? Nope, I was going to do this myself. So, I put both hands on the fender and gave myself one big push. And I fell in. Head first.

April 2019
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