Service Station

January 23, 2011 | Leave a Comment

Have you ever had something so good, so you, so real, in your life that you wished you could will it back into being? That you needed to will it back into being? Ahhh, if only…. May you evolve to a point where, in whatever way, you become able to do so. Life does this to all of us at some certain moment. Meanwhile, enjoy the ride. Time will pass….

Lord, it was hot. The sun burned an endless yellow-golden hole in the hazy blue August sky. Standing under the lift, in one of the two repair bays in the well kept, but aging wood frame service station, I was changing the oil on a cherry red ’63 Impala. The hot summer breeze drifted in and out of the bays, carrying with it the sweet scent of honeysuckle and violets from the vacant field next door. It hissed through the brush and gently delivered its hypnotic summertime perfumes to me where I stood in the shade, doing what I loved best.

A blue and white ’57 Ford Ranchero pulled up to the pumps, ding-dinging the bells on the inside of the front bay wall, as it rolled over their hoses on the lot. I pulled the rag from my back pocket and wiped my hands. It smelled of all the wonderful greasy car smells I loved. Tucking the rag back into my pocket, I stepped out into the blazing sun and walked toward the Ranchero.

Parked where the blacktop met the edge of the field, was my green 1953 Pontiac. Licensed now, I remembered when, just a short while ago, that ’53 Pontiac taught me to drive in the next-door field, at a time before I could afford to license and insure the car. Around and around we had driven in endless circles through the violets and honeysuckle, and, after some weeks, I had emerged a driver. In my mind, I could hear the unique sound of the Pontiac’s starter cranking over that flathead straight eight, and the rumble and gentle rocking as the engine coughed, then started.

“Two bucks of regular,” the driver said. It was Jim. Jim Lot. Several years older than I, and once an initiated part of the hang-around-the-service-station-fraternity, he had now graduated from his gas station days into a two year college and was corporate-world bound, never again to return to the grease and the wonderful smells. (“You’re too smart to hang around this kind of place forever, man,” he used to tell me, and I would wonder silently at those moments how anyone could be “too smart” to continue doing what they loved, even if it wasn’t very romantic or worldly.)

“Hey Jim, car looks cool. That dog of an engine still runs?” Jim and I liked to needle each other about our cars.

“Yeah, man, too bad about yours. But, then, I guess Pontiacs are only supposed to run every other day.”

I chuckled as I pumped his two dollars’ worth. The pump nozzle was wonderfully cool from the gas flowing through it. Sweat dripped from my chin. The breeze hissed through the brush in the field.

“Thanks man,” Jim said, as he handed me two dollars. “Be cool. Stay cool.”

“Count on it,” I answered.

The Ranchero’s back tires spun wildly on the blacktop sealant, and the back end slid sharply to the right, as Jim steered onto the main road. For years, this was how Jim had left the lot: back tires shrieking and smoking, Ranchero sliding. But Jim was the one who was always in control. You could always be certain he would keep the Ranchero in check and be safely on his way. Except for one day when, with back tires smoking and the Ranchero sliding, Jim just plain fell down across the front seat. I guess the seat of his pants lost their traction for a split, split second, and down he went, out of sight, lengthwise across the front seat. One second, there had been noise and smoke, and the next second there was just a driverless Ranchero, engine at quiet idle, drifting down the main drag. The whole thing happened in the blink of an eye. Then Jim had popped back upright, grabbed the steering wheel, and gone on his way, as if nothing at all was wrong. I had been the only one who had seen the infallible Jim stumble this way. We never mentioned it to each other or anyone else. But, in a certain way, it taught me something, then, about perceived infallibility.

The smell of the Ranchero’s spinning tires mixed with the smells of the violets and the honeysuckle and grease. “Beautiful,” I thought. “Beautiful.”

It had been like this with a lot of my friends back then. It seemed that, one by one, they drifted away from the service stations and toward school. Or Nam. Some went willingly, feeling it to be a natural, even positive thing, no heads turned back to see what was passing. Others left with serious regret, uncertain of just how wholesome or correct the progression was, missing it all before they were off the lot and on their way to do what they thought they were supposed to do. Not wanting to go, and not knowing how to stop from going. Off the lot and away from the smells and sounds and the sense of something that was very real.

At one point, somewhere around 1966, I was truly the only one left of all of us that remained active at what I loved. Everything about that life was still the same for me as it had ever been—-the love of the smells and sensations, the comradery, the absolute reality and satisfaction of fixing a broken machine, the wonderful sense of time and place that was solely and completely ours—-all of it. But, it was starting to get a little lonely, and the next generation pulling up to the pumps didn’t quite seem to get what it was that had been. Nevertheless, even though it seemed I had been charged with the monumental task of saving and passing all this on by myself, I would’ve probably stayed forever. I loved it that much. But, somebody had a war going on, and they wanted me to attend.

I remember walking off the station lot for the very last time. I did turn my head back to see what was passing. It was a bad deal to be leaving this, and, as it happened, it all changed while I was away. When I returned, it was gone. Gone forever. The service station had vanished from the face of the earth. And nobody seemed to care. Except me.

Through the years, I have frequently thought about what it was like back then. The combination of the place, the smells, the music, and the people and the experience, all blended together to create a certain, special time. After over thirty years, I came to the realization that I was never happier doing anything for a living than when I had worked at the service station.

Occasionally, while walking through my heavily wooded side lot on a hot summer afternoon, a breeze will rustle through the brush and carry to me fragrances I recognize with certainty as honeysuckle and violet.

Sometimes I catch myself involuntarily reaching for that rag in my back pocket….



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