I miss full-service gas stations—where I could swing our old Chevy in, roll down the window, and greet a reliable mechanic. He would cheerfully fill my tank, wash the windshield, and even check and add motor oil if needed. When I tell my students about the way it “used to be,” they look at me like I have two heads.
Anywhere we traveled fifty years ago, there were dependable, staffed stations. If our engine started making a noise, or if we suspected a tire was going flat, we could coast off the highway where a mechanic was usually on duty. Back in the day, there were even mom-and-pop stations at rural intersections with a pump and small store for bread and other essentials. If folks ran out of gas after hours, they could knock loudly on the shop door, and eventually the drowsy owners (who lived above or behind) would answer.
While there were many full-service stations around the village, our family relied on Fred Hiemstra, who owned and operated the Shell Station on the corner of South Michigan and Prairie Streets. Fred also ran a towing service, and I remember how he hoisted himself into his tow-truck, which began rolling before he even closed the door. Always ready to help, he was like an uncle to many of us. He took care of our cars, hauled a few vehicles out of the snowbanks or the ditches, and usually did not share that information with our parents. We sure appreciated him.
When I was about ten, my brothers and I perched in our station wagon at the top of the lift in Fred’s shop while he changed the oil. We looked out the windows, gripping the door tightly, and surveyed his garage: tool chests, racks of tires, and the garage floor sat nearly ten feet below. By some miracle, we managed to stay in the car and not fall to the oily concrete. Perhaps my mother was in the car? Perhaps she was in the waiting room taking a break from the five of us? Or perhaps my dad casually chatted below as Fred released the plug and the dirty oil ran from the pan? I don’t remember.
Like many business owners and tradesmen in town, Fred was also a volunteer fire-fighter. When the alarm sounded, tools were set aside, sales calls ended abruptly, and hardware customers had to wait, as these dedicated folks dropped everything and attended house fires, car accidents, or other emergencies. Fred’s equipment, hanging in his shop, was a comforting reminder of the many people in our community who cared and could take care of us.
There is still a place for a full-service station—where we could pull in and smile at the mechanic. We wouldn’t risk spilling gas on clothes, windshields would be clean, and oil levels would always be within range. Of course we would pay more, but I would be a loyal, rewards-card-carrying customer, thankful for one more connection with another person in our hometown.
I suspect many of you would be, too.
It’s a Fine Life