This month is an interesting anniversary that baby boomers will remember: Nixon was still President, the Oakland A’s had just beaten the New York Mets in the World Series, and we — or for many of us, our parents — had to line up to fill the family car with gas. It was the Arab oil embargo. Georgia college professor Daniel Vollaro remembers it well, in his essay called “Gas Line.”
A pipeline burst in Alabama in September, interrupting gas flow into the Atlanta Metro area where I live and work as a college professor. A few gas stations had to close and there were sporadic price hikes reported. Soon after it happened, some of my students asked me what I thought about the gas shortage.
I’m not proud of my answer but I sort of rolled my eyes and said, “Trust me, you’ve never seen a gas shortage in your lifetime.”
That’s because most of my students were not even born when the last real gas shortages occurred in America, the first one in 1973-74 during the OPEC embargo and the second in 1979.
What I remember about the ‘73 shortage was waking to the sound of car horns one morning in November. I could hear them from inside my bedroom with the windows closed, a loud, ugly chorus of short beeps and long, angry, drawn-out howls.
I was out of the house before anyone saw me — teeth brushed, a Strawberry Pop Tart grabbed from the pantry, in the garage hopping up on the banana seat of my black Huffy Spider bike and then, gliding out the open garage door and into the street, pedaling hard down through the neighborhood, headed downhill.
I skidded to a sharp stop at the bottom of the hill and there, spread out before me, were two lines of cars spilling out from the BP and Exxon stations onto South Main Street, commingling in a snarl of dust-streaked metal and glass. The air was choked with gasoline fumes, and the heat rising from this stalled parade bent the air. Sunlight glinted off shiny spots of chrome and windshield glass. At first glance, the two lines appeared motionless, but every so often, they would jerk forward, like chains being dragged slowly through a steel ring.
The horns were rancorous and caterwauling. They mingled with the stench of exhaust fumes in the asthmatic air.
Some of the drivers had climbed out of their cars, and they were standing on the sidewalk, arms crossed or leaning against car doors smoking cigarettes. Others had formed conspiratorial circles of three or four on the sidewalk.
They were blaming OPEC.
“We should bomb the shit out of them and let God sort it out.”
I stood still, one foot planted on the sidewalk, the other hiked up on the bike pedal, the Huffy between my legs. All around me, I could hear the horns and the cursing and the babble of adult voices and the low greasy chortle of engines and the hissing of an overheating radiator. The town’s arteries had seized on the fury of parents and teachers and plumbers and coaches and regular guys in their thirties and forties, all of them stuck on a gas line, stuck at the very margins of our way of life.