Boomers still remember the gas lines

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.

Cars line up for blocks in 1973 and 1974 for a few gallons of gasoline.

Cars line up for blocks in 1973 and 1974 for a few gallons of gasoline.

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.”

Gasoline pumpsThat’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.

no_gasI 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.

Daniel Vallaro

Daniel Vallaro

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.

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5 Comments

  1. After I graduated from college in Houston.. I went to LSU.
    I kept my weekend job in Houston so I had to commute back and forth every week. Gas stations were closed at night due to the gas shortage in ’73, so every Sunday night on my commute back to Baton Rouge I had to fill up 2.. 2 gallon cans and put them in my back seat. (my ’72 Nova was a gas hog and one tank of gas wasn’t enough to get back to school ) When I got to Beaumont.. I then re-filled my car tank.
    Quite dangerous! But that’s the way it was.

  2. Thanks for reminding us in your lyrical essay about another time in our country’s history when we thought all was lost and our way of life was threatened. I was trying to toilet train my oldest daughter during that era. I recall being near the pump after waiting for what what seemed like all day when we had to turn back home. Dry pants won over a full tank.

  3. I became an assistant manager at a Gas station when a gallon was a $1.00. people threatened and yelled at me. It reminded me of this. When it got to be almost 5.00, no one seemed to care. Shows you the difference in the generations!

  4. When I was a kid, I would accompany my mother, a school teacher, to the grocery and then to get gasoline in the car. It was a Saturday routine. She always ordered $3.00 worth of gas … which cost 33 cents a gallon back then. Even at that, I believe the energy companies we making money.

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