You wouldn’t think a service station would be the world’s best place to discover odd bits of history, but once in a while it works out that way. Sure, there are still a few of the old stations along the famous Route 66 that have become museums now, but we’re all aware of those. The station I’m talking about is one that my dad, in the course of his work, tore down here in southern California a long time ago.
I was in junior high school, then, and History was just another one of those subjects that took up part of the school day. I liked school; I even liked history, but I wasn’t particularly intrigued by all those happenings from times when I wasn’t even around. All of that changed one day when Dad came home with a bit of history that came a little closer to our own lives.
He’d been charged with demolishing an old gas station so that a shiny new one could be built on the spot. There’d be a mechanic’s bay, places right there by the pumps for air hoses and squeegees and a display window for the premiums you could get with a tankful of gas, which came at 25¢ a gallon.
Most people driving today don’t even realize that fifty years ago gas stations really were service stations. You drove into the station, and a guy came out to your driver’s window with a rag in his hand and a smile on his face.
“Fill ‘er up?”
Fill-up or not, you got along with your gas a whole set of services: windshield washed, tires checked for air, batteries checked for water, oil dipstick pulled and wiped and pulled again to be sure you (the valued customer) would have no problems on the road. Once your transaction was completed, you were offered a premium: a dishtowel, a drinking glass. You got a smile and a thank you. There’s a bit of history right there. (sigh)
But on the day that my dad started to bring down the old station, he found that the walls of the decrepit building were filled with insulation, in the form of newspapers of the day. Yellowed but intact, the papers were from the 1940s, and he brought them home to us, carefully stacked so they wouldn’t fall apart.
We saw news of the war—World War II—and particularly, news of planes, because we lived in Long Beach, California, where Douglas Aircraft was the city’s biggest employer and a major supplier of airplanes for the military. Mixed in among the regular papers were several supplements dedicated to Douglas and the different planes being manufactured there. In the news pages, we found references to ration books and calls to gather and donate old tin cans and rubber tires, even used cooking grease, all for the benefit of the war effort. In every spot where a column ran short, the space was filled with pleas to Buy War Bonds.
I’d never been much aware of the war, being born right around the time of the attack on Pearl Harbor. Before I started kindergarten, Dad was home from the service, and by the time he found the newspapers, the war had been over for a number of years. The United States was enjoying post-war prosperity. The pieces of history my dad brought home for us that day were still very vivid for Mom and Dad, but to us it was ancient. Fascinating, but far removed from our lives.
We saved those papers for years, taking them to school occasionally to share (and gain extra credit) in history and social studies classes. We planned to pass them on to our children and grandchildren in hopes that they would also find that history happened to people they knew. Somehow, though, the cedar chest that held the treasures got lost in moving, and in time the people who lived through those times were lost, too.
When today’s service stations are demolished to allow room for new ones, there won’t be any newspaper insulation to kindle memories or to initiate conversations about the good (or not-so-good) old days. It’s kind of a shame, really.
I’ll see you again, after the commercial.