Over Easy: Filling up on nostalgia for the gas stations of the good, old days

For the Valley News
Published: 10/22/2021 9:34:10 PM
Modified: 10/22/2021 9:34:20 PM

It’s a funny thing to get nostalgic about, but I’ve recently been getting wistful about the gas stations of yore.

I blame, or credit, the Lebanon Historical Society which, in the words of a younger person I know, is “killing it’’ on social media. Through the weeks and months it has been serving up a splendid variety of old photographs on its Facebook page. Local history has gone online. No cats or selfies, though.

My eyes are often drawn to the cool vehicles in the scenes. They go from horse and buggies to Model Ts to the bumpy, lumpy cars of the ’30s and ’40s, then to the space-age sedans of the ’50s with their rocket fins. The pictures show Main Street, West Lebanon, with stately elms, busy and elegant downtown Lebanon, and — surprise — a circus coming to town in 1894.

Along with cars came gas stations. Many local ones have been featured. Among them a Mobil gas station on Hough Square, downtown, in the 1960s. “He always fixed my bicycle tires for free,” one forever thankful reader posted.

Sometimes a digital news clip comes with the photo. In 1965 the Valley News did a breezy feature on Herb’s Sunoco in West Lebanon that promised “the motorist can find quality products at Herb’s, plus Sunoco gasoline which is blended ... in eight different ways.”

Oh, to return to a simpler time when the blending of petroleum products was something to ponder and admire. The Esso company roared that it would “put a tiger in your tank.” Now all we get is carbon guilt.

I am susceptible to gas station nostalgia because my father owned a couple of them in downtown Providence, R.I., in the 1950s and 1960s, first Mackie Esso and then Mackie Mobil. He came home faintly smelling of gasoline and Lava soap. As a child I heard the stirring tale of how he didn’t abandon ship at the Esso station during a hurricane until water was up to his waist. I don’t know if he was especially brave, but he could be obstinate.

I was very young and visited his second station only a couple of times, but I was smitten with a surplus Army Jeep (no seatbelts and little doors that jiggled like they could swing open at any time), and a soda machine. Imagine having ice-cold soda in glass bottles standing by whenever you wanted. This was one of the wonders of the modern age.

When I was 13 I worked (under the table) one summer pumping gas at another downtown station alongside my father, who had gone into other work but picked up some part-time hours. I was baffled by all the places they could hide gas caps in the 1950s and 1960s, on the right, on the left, behind license plates, or hidden in fins.

Some drivers would ask for directions. This was before the interstates, and city streets were laid out like a maze. One asked me how to get to Hartford, Conn. Since I had only vague notions about the vast expanse of America, I told him to go west, leave the city behind, then stop and ask for directions. I wonder if he ever made it, or if he continued to the Midwest, where he gave up and put down roots. You never know how you might have changed lives.

Young people of today — it makes me feel older to type that — missed the age when gas stations were small businesses that could be a source of pride for the owner. Proprietors all seemed to be named Herb or Walter or Gus. Those are names you don’t hear so much anymore, and I don’t know if we are better off for it.

Some of the stations were dirty, and rest rooms could be a house of horrors, but some owners fought a heroic battle against grime. With elbow grease and harsh cleaning supplies, they made a slightly brighter world.

All in all, the gas stations were the proud domain of the working man, now said to be an endangered species. I believe it — you hardly even see them anymore. Brakes were fixed, leaks plugged, flats repaired. Station attendants didn’t say (or need to say) “have a nice day,” or “have a great rest of your day.” They had already done their bit.

Good, bad or indifferent — some no doubt had hangovers or had turned sour on life — you had a momentary encounter with an actual person. Now we pump our own gas and the dim LCD screen sends its cold regards.

I guess I miss Herb, Walter and Gus.

Dan Mackie lives in West Lebanon. He can be reached at dan.mackie@yahoo.com.

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