Red River Scrapbook: "Fill 'er up, and how 'bout a map"
By Edward Southerland
May 2, 2019
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“Fill ’er up!” There is magic in that phrase. A few dollars in your pocket and tank full of gas, and for most Americans the possibilities are pretty much unlimited. It was possible, too, when gasoline was 30 cents a gallon and there was actually someone at the station to man the pumps and see to your every need.

As soon as you came to a stop, an attendant, often dressed in a snappy uniform with a cap, would step up to ask your pleasure. “Fill ’er up! Ethyl, please,” was the reply. While the bell on the pump tolled the gallons, the attendant washed and wiped your windshield, opened the hood and checked the oil, the battery and the belts.

“Could you check that right front tire? It seems to be pulling a little.” Out came the tire gauge and all the rubber, not just the right front tire, was dutifully inspected and brought up to the proper pressure.

When he came back from the office with your receipt or your change, the attendant would be loaded down with whatever special premium the oil company was giving away that week. Glasses, dishes, salt and pepper shakers in the images of U. S. Presidents and their First Ladies, all were grist for the customer loyalty mill.

Poke around your glove box and you would find a gas-mileage slide rule, a circular gizmo that showed the distance from your town to Upper Montclair, New Jersey, a whiskbroom and an EZ Deluxe ice scraper, all courtesy of the corner service station. I still have a nifty insulated plastic tumbler with a sailboat on the side that I got from a Mobil promotion in the early 1970s.

Sinclair put dinosaurs on the map with coloring books, place mats and plastic models, long before Barney showed up on the scene. They also had pirate treasure maps and many other goodies that made going to get gas like a trip to the five and dime. And what kid didn't want a Texaco Fire Chief hat.

Football season was the peak of the freebie bonanza. Humble Oil sponsored the Southwest Conference football games, all of them. There were no school-selected announcers to cover the flaws and promise better things next week. If chief announcer Kern Tips said it, it was so.

Humble stations around Texas supported the effort with schedules, pendants, and a variety of collectibles associated with Mustangs and Longhorns and Horned Frogs. Multiple trips were required to get all the possible combinations, but persistence assured a complete set.

The greatest benefits derived from gasoline stations, during the era of real competition for the customer’s business, were maps. Every station worth its salt had a complete collection of state and regional maps and they handed them out without blinking an eye. Eight years old or 80, if you wanted a map, you got a map.

The local service station—note the modifier, “service”—was a fount of knowledge. “Excuse me, sir. Could you tell me how to get to the Bemis Chicken Hotel and Iron Foundry?”

“Why sure, go down three red lights, (Why red lights? What if the light is green or amber when you go by?) and take a hard left. Go out three miles, past the iron bridge—they’re painting it orange; it use to be silver—and take an easy right and look for a giant white chicken wearing Congress gaiters and stovepipe hat, oh, about 12, 12-and-a-half feet tall; he’ll be holding a shiny ingot under his wing. (shouting to mechanic) WHAT’S THE NAME OF THAT ROAD THE CHICKEN HOTEL’S ON, HARLEY?

Harley shouts back something completely unintelligible. “That’s it, Duckbutter Road. Looks like you’re about a quart low,” he says as he holds out the dip stick for your inspection. “Want me to top’er off?”

This guy knew every square inch of the county, and if he couldn’t tell you how to get there, then you didn’t need to go there. Harley or Mutt or Moe or Charlie, the mechanic, was wonderment. He could fix anything.

Dressed in a pair of overalls that stood upright, unaided, in the corner when he took them off each evening, he still had grease under his fingernails from the very first Conestoga wagon wheel he ever lubed. He could look you right in the eye and recite the size and the number of bearings needed to rebuild a 1926 Rickenbacker transmission, and what’s more, he had the parts in a broken down cardboard box in the back room.

His array of tools consisted of a screwdriver with a chipped blade, a corroded crescent wrench, about a hundred dirty shop towels, and a ball peen hammer. The hammer was the most often utilized tool of the lot.

The bane of all stations was the restrooms. No matter how hard the national companies touted their restrooms, no matter how hard the local dealers tried to meet their expectations, they usually failed, and restrooms were never much above passable. It was a case of the unwilling, seeking the unattainable.

Filling stations were places to hang out. The on lookers usually out numbered the employees. A seat on an upturned Coca Cola crate, an icy cold drink from the
machine and peanut butter log out of the glass Lance snack barrel that sat next to the cash register, and you had the makings of a men’s club the equal to any found in New York or Chicago.

During the summer, there was a tinny little radio in the first service bay tuned to the baseball Game of the Day, and most any question of history, economics, sports, or politics could be gleaned from the arrayed wisdom that sat around under the tree at the corner of the station.