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Distinguishing between 'service station' and 'fuel store' is easy

I struggle sometimes to locate the latch that pops the hood on my pickup, but there was a time when I was a bit of a mechanic.

That time was decades ago, and mechanical things were more, well, mechanical. If something went wrong, you'd pop the hood, listen to the motor (or if the vehicle wouldn't start, you'd listen to the way the engine tried to turn over) and diagnose the most likely problems. Most of the time, after a little practice and a lot of watching your dad work his way around engines and vehicles, you'd be correct, or in the neighborhood.

If you couldn't make a diagnosis, you could take the vehicle to a mechanic at one of the service stations. I still call the fueling stores these days service stations, but they're not quite the old ones.

A service station in the early days of travel in vehicles powered by internal-combustion engines was a place that sold gas from a pump and cans of oil, fan belts and other odds-and-ends that a traveler might need in the event of car trouble. A service station had a couple of employees who came out and pumped the gas, checked the oil and the tire pressure, washed the windshield and used a little whisk broom to brush the debris from the floor mats of your car. Often as not, when the gas quit running and the hose was replaced on the pump, the employee would take a greasy rag from the back pocket of greasy overalls and use it to protect his hands as he loosened the cap on the radiator and checked the water level.

A service station didn't sell much in the way of food, certainly not broasted chicken or ready-made cheeseburgers (not that I haven't enjoyed a few of those things at the Get-And-Goes along the highways today), not T-shirts and not cappuccino or coffee mugs with Mount Rushmore or a colorful pheasant on the side. A service station would sometimes have a box of Baby Ruth or Butterfinger candy bars, maybe some bags of Planter's peanuts, in the glass case under the cash register.

I've been in service stations today that have racks and racks of snacks, wall-to-wall coolers with sandwiches and soft drinks and half a dozen kinds of coffee in pumper thermoses. If the service station of the old days had a coffee pot, it belonged to the station owner. If he was changing a fan belt for you or adjusting the carburetor on your vehicle, he might offer you a cup, no charge. If it was late in the day, the coffee had been aging since early morning, and it took a powerful desire for some caffeine to pour that sludge into a stained but recently washed mug and drink it down.

If you really wanted something to drink, there was a bulky, red-and-white Coca-Cola machine over in the corner. You put your coins in the slot, listened for the clink as the gizmo activated, opened the top and slid the bottle of your choice down the row to the end, where you could lift it from the cooler and uncap it with the opener fastened to the side of the machine. Like as not, you had to ask one or two local kids to please jump down from the top of the machine before you opened it. Local teens liked to perch on the pop machine and yak with the owner while he worked on cars or fixed flat tires.

I loved it when a vehicle developed just enough of a problem for me to take it to the station (but not so much of a problem it wouldn't run). My dad took it as a personal defeat if he had to ask for help with a mechanical problem. I saw it as a trip to town, a bottle of pop and some down time with one or two kids from school who hung around the station.

For me, the visit to the service station beat the daylights out of learning very much about the inner workings of a vehicle.