2011.11.23 A sound from the past

Written by David Green.


Remember pulling into a gas station and hearing the bell as your tires crossed over the hose that stretched across the drive? Drive across the pneumatic hose and a loud ding-ding was heard inside the station.

If you remember that sound, then you also recall why it was made. The bell notified the gas station worker that a customer just arrived.

Now sit down, kids, and let me explain this. Back in the old days – it really doesn’t seem all that long ago – a driver never pumped his or her own gasoline. You probably weren’t allowed to pump your own. Most people didn’t even know how to pump their own. It took a skilled high school kid to get the job done.

And why wouldn’t the attendant know you arrived at the station? If it was a local high school kid, he was probably messing around inside somewhere or maybe hooking up the electric wire out in back of the station before inviting a friend to urinate on it. That’s just some story I remember hearing about from Morenci’s old Pure station on Main Street. A shocking tale, I was told.

The bell might also notify the station owner because he was busy with an oil change or fixing a flat tire. That was back when gas stations were service stations. Every one of them had a hoist for auto repair. So many places to have your car repaired. 

I’m not sure how old you have to be to remember a full-serve gas station. It went from being the norm everywhere to fewer and fewer of them in the 1980s. Morenci was probably an exception. I think it was normal here a lot later in history than in most towns.

Long after most everywhere in the country had converted to self-serve gasoline pumping, Morenci still offered full service at Rendel’s. Drive in and Joan Rendel would still walk out to your car and ask if you wanted a fill-up. She would start the pump going and then wash your windshield.

As full service became rarer and rarer, I felt more and more uncomfortable having Joan do the work for me. Sometimes I would beat her to it and get the pump going before she could do it. Even if she were right there to serve, I generally got out of the car to talk to her so I could share in the misery of standing outside on a cold winter day.

I’ve read that self-serve stations began appearing in the late 1940s and their introduction wasn’t all that smooth. A 1950 document from the American Society of Planning Officials list the potential problems:

• fire hazards from smoking drivers;

• inability of a typical driver to spot needed car repairs;

• many drivers, “especially if elderly or a woman,” will be unwilling to wash the windshield and thus create a vision problem;

• traffic congestion and accidents will occur;

• fewer employees will lead to a decrease in cleanliness at the station.

And underneath all of that, there would be a major loss of jobs.

I think I might have learned the hard way that self-serve stations still don’t exist in Oregon. When we visited that state a few years ago and rented a car, I got out and grabbed the pump handle only to be chewed out by a voice over a loud-speaker.

Oregon’s law lists the problems already stated and adds a few others that apparently weren’t thought about in 1950:

• children would be left unattended while driver goes inside to pay;

• greater likelihood of drive-off gasoline thefts;

• the health hazard of exposure to toxic fumes, particularly to pregnant women.

There’s also a segment of the law that applies to Oregon’s weather to help explain why they need full service while every other state (other than New Jersey) does just fine with self-serve. The rainy weather causes more slick spots on the pavement and this will lead to higher liability insurance rates.

They’ve covered it all. They really don’t want self-service and neither do the people of Oregon. A referendum on the law has failed more than once.

Out-of-state drivers get embarrassed when they try to pump gasoline in the Beaver State. For many Oregon residents, it’s just the opposite. They drive across the border into Washington, pull into a gas station, and just sit there waiting for an attendant to show up.

Hmmm, I don’t recall hearing a bell when I drove in.

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