Whittling Away: Mr. Patten’s gas station


By Dick Brooks

For Capital Region Independent Media

Headshot of a man named Dick Brooks.

I stopped by the gas station the other day and I got to remembering when gas stations were called service stations. Not much service to be found nowadays except for the kind you do for yourself.

As folks of my grudgingly advancing age are prone to do, I had a flashback to the days when the car I drove cost less than a tank full of gas now does.

I was a strikingly handsome 16-year-old in the prime of early manhood when my father, looking at me with pride in his eyes, uttered those few words that changed my young life forever — “Get a job, kid.” 

Jobs in rural northern New York in the ‘50s were few and far between. Usually they involved things like helping during haying season, which meant long days in the hot sun and chaff in your underwear, or working in the barn, which involved either feeding animals or cleaning up the residue after they had eaten. 

Having had about all the animal husbandry I wanted to be involved in, I decided to try for the big time. I asked Mr. Patten of Patten’s Shell Station if he needed any help and to my amazement, he answered in the affirmative. 

I was now the proud holder of a real job with a title and everything — I was a service station attendant.

Talk about service! Mr. Patten believed in “Circle Service.” A car pulled in and you walked briskly to the driver’s window and greeted the driver with the hopeful phrase, “Fill it up, Sir?” If they said, “Yes,” they were probably out-of-towners, none of the locals ever filled it up. 

For some reason I cannot figure out even to this day, everyone ordered their gas by the gallon: “I’ll take 5 gallons’ worth” was a common response. 

I would leap to the back end of the car in a spirited manner and try to find the gas cap. Not as easy as it sounds. In the ‘50s, the car companies used to hide the gas caps in all sorts of silly places. Sometimes they were under the license plates or in the location under a little door on the side on the rear fender like most cars today. Those were pretty easy to find. 

General Motors, however, tried to keep things interesting, hiding the gas caps in all sorts of places like under the tail lights. I quickly learned to recognize a ‘56 Chevy and how to drop the right rear taillight with the flourish of an experienced service station attendant.

Putting the requested amount of gasoline into the tank was just the start of Circle Service. The windshield was washed, followed by the side windows and the rear one. Next, the car owner was asked if they would like their oil and water checked. That done, the next question was if they would like the air pressure in their tires checked. 

All of these tasks completed, the SSA (Service Station Attendant — me) returned to the driver’s window and in a polite, business-like manner, announced the amount due. 

“Five gallons of gas, Sir. That’ll be a dollar fifty, please, and will there be anything else?”

Frequently they would ask for a quart of milk or a loaf of bread, which you would bring them from the store when you returned with their change and Green Stamps. If by some chance they had actually had the car filled, you brought them the glass or mug or whatever happened to be the premium that week. 

Duties completed, I would return to my SSA station sitting atop the Pepsi cooler to await my next customer, satisfied that I was a useful member of society and of service to my fellow man.  I was good! I even got a quarter tip once.

I’m glad that I had that experience in my youth. It comes in handy nowadays when I pull into the gas station, pump my own gas, wash my own windshield, check my own oil and water — forget checking the tires, not many air hoses to be found — and drag a large bag of money into the store where a surly teen with a ring in his nose, wearing pants large enough to house his whole family, grunts something at me, stuffs the cash into the drawer and goes back to yelling into his cellphone. 

I’m kinda glad Mr. Patten never lived to see this.

Thought for the week — “Start every day off with a smile and get it over with.” — W.C. Fields

Until next week, may you and yours be happy and well.

Reach columnist Dick Brooks at whittle12124@yahoo.com.

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