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Walking in Our Own Moccasins

Our drive-in culture has caught up with us

I cried because I had no shoes until I met a man who had no feet. So I said Got any shoes you’re not using?

–Comedian Steven Wright

The price of energy for cars these days ain’t funny.

Not when filling up my energy-efficient four-cylinder Saturn station wagon comes close to 40 bucks. The numbers on the pump whirl by so fast they’re a blur. Not infrequently, the bill is paid via credit card. It eases the pain until the bill comes, and an ordinary citizen doesn’t always carry enough cash to pay the bill.

But things could be worse. The Native Americans summed it up: I cried because I had no moccasins until I met a man who had no feet.

Today, if we want to fill up the tank and have the pocket money or a credit card, we can do so. Gasoline flowed and at a reasonable price even in the early 1970s, when the first peacetime energy crunch struck in this nation and we had to line up for fuel — and sometimes could buy it only on alternate days when we finally reached the pump. Dick Nixon saw to it that the price remained reasonable; no gouging the consumers.

Today, we vent our gripes though the fuel is available — at an astronomical price. If we chose to buy gas-hungry SUVs and pickup trucks, well that was our decision; nobody to blame but ourselves. Such decisions played a major role for the predicament we are all in today. Yet if we can afford it, the product of the refineries remains available.

While I was filling up the other day, I kept one ear on the Saturn’s radio, the other on the whirring of the pump. As if things aren’t bad enough already, I heard that within two years the price per barrel of petroleum could be $200 or more per barrel, which to my way of thinking could practically double the price at the pump.

35 Cents to Drive Thru

By the time the 12-gallon Saturn’s tank was filled, I also heard an authority in the energy business tell listeners that, depending on the vehicle, just opting for drive-thru service at a fast food joint already costs 20 to 35 cents in fuel, which in my time was the price of four to seven hotdogs or el-cheapo hamburgers. The accompanying Pepsi in the big bottle was a nickel.

In my time, to the best of my recall, there was no drive-thru service, not in the East at least. Such stay-in-the-car convenience was pretty much confined to service at the running board by scantily clad young ladies out California way.

The service wasn’t as a fast as it is today: No microphones to hasten an order, so the vehicle’s engine was turned off and fuel was saved for the World War II effort.

Back in New England, it was counter service only, which many of the teen-age set of today can’t comprehend. You drove to a diner, parked the car, then went inside and probably ate there after placing an order. But there was one big problem to be solved. Getting there in the first place — even if you were fortunate enough to have a car with tires.

We Haven’t Seen Nothing Yet

I was of that so-called Greatest Generation, those who survived somehow or other the Great Depression, then in their teen years the hardships and scarcities of the war effort — which boosted the economy, though you might say we were all dressed up, but no place to go. Oh, there were places to go. The problem for country folks like the Burtons was getting there. We could afford the gasoline, but getting it was something else.

It was only reasonable that the troops and the ships rated priority in the allotment of petroleum products. German U-boats were sinking tankers in the Atlantic, and every time one was torpedoed there was less fuel for the military. Gas rationing came. At first for the average family, it was three gallons a week. Most families had but one car or truck, mostly an old and fuel-inefficient jalopy, so you can imagine how miserly drivers were even if they lived in towns and cities where shank’s mare could take them to the store.

There was no consideration for country folks. Regardless of how far you lived from where the necessities of life were, it was three gallons. Period. As the going got tough on the battlefronts of the European theater, for a spell the ration was cut back to a gallon and a half, which was worth about one trip into the village a week.

Moreover, for those who didn’t have defense jobs that warranted extra gas stamps to get back and forth to work, there was an additional big bump in the road. Not only was a family obliged to be miserly with their gas rationing stamps, they had to have tires. How much tread, if any, was left on them? Rubber was badly needed by the vehicles of the troops.

Tires were strictly rationed; unless the driver had a defense job, getting replacements was virtually impossible. It wasn’t even legal to buy second-hand tires; when the rubber was gone, so was the transportation. Many a vehicle spent much of the war years jacked up and useless for want of tires. Car-pooling to work for non-defense jobs became no longer voluntary but necessary.

We lived a bit over two miles from the village; My father had no problem getting gas stamps because he was a supervisor in a bus company that catered to servicemen on liberty. But to be eligible for those stamps, he had to work exceptionally long days, often seven days a week. So for me it was hiking two miles to the village to catch a bus to high school several miles farther. For school activities there was no transportation. What girl would accept an invitation to walk five miles to a prom? Her corsage would be wilted by the time we got there.

We Have Met the Enemy

Today, I’m stingy with the carbon footprint I leave behind, generally drive only when prudent — or think I must. But there’s the satisfaction that — for the time being at least — fuel is available.

Methinks, those of today who do the griping should appreciate there are many Indians who don’t have moccasins. We still have a choice. We brought it all on ourselves by believing we deserved all the possible amenities life could offer. Now we realize, Pogo the cartoon possum was right. We have met the enemy and he is us. Enough said.

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