Monday, November 12, 2007

The gas lever

These days, with gas hovering around three dollars a gallon, it may seem hard to believe that in 1968, when Lynda and I used to drive around together in her 1963 VW bug calling on potential purchasers of the life insurance she was then selling to support the family, gasoline cost only thirty cents a gallon. Yet, for Lynda, that wasn't necessarily a good deal.

No, for Mom, a good deal was to be had by taking advantage one of the many gas wars that were then underway, so I can recall driving across town to fill up the tank for a mere fifteen cents a gallon! Now, these were also the days when 'gas attendants' actually were available to pump the gas into one's tank, but the odd arrangement of the VW's gas tank under the hood meant that it was my job, at the very least, to jump out and find the latch under the hood that the attendant could never seem to find, and, on occasion, to actually pump the gas while the attendant-gasp-washed the windshield!

Although it wasn't the only reason I was invited to ride along with Lynda on her sales calls, one of my jobs also related to gasoline in the VW was to switch over to the reserve tank when the primary tank ran out.

Imagine this: In the VW bug that we owned, there was no gas gauge but there was a reserve tank. There was a lever to turn on the floorboard just to the right of the gas pedal, so when the driver (Lynda) suspected that we were about to run out of gas (sputtering, coughing and general power loss) she would instruct the co-pilot (me) to get down there and turn it. Often this was done 'on the fly' so to speak, and since we were not encumbered with the burden of seatbelts, it was an easy matter for me to crawl down behind the stickshift and turn the little brass handle to the right 90 degrees.

I recall this bit of trivia because of late I've been thinking of all the things that Lynda and I used to do together, and for some reason the memory of turning the gas lever is a particularly strong one for me. I can recall quite clearly the smell of the sissel floor mats and the oily gasoline smell that wafted up from the back seat. the seats were scratchy and the metal was hot and of course it was very noisy and hot all the time, even in winter.

We drove from Abilene to San Antonio in that car when we moved there in 1968, with me in the front seat and my brother in the back with all the clothes and bedsheets we had crammed in every bit of space. When she went to work for Bankers Life and Casualty Insurance Company, on Saturday mornings, she would gather up the lead cards sent in that week and we would set off to cold call some of the poorest people in the country, trying to sell them life insurance.

I am reminded of the movie 'Paper Moon' where a backcountry grifter travels around with his daughter, selling bibles to widows, because, even though I wasn't used as a prop to sell life insurance, I was certainly there to provide support to Lynda when she would return to the car after another rejection, shoulders sagging and eyes downcast.

I was also there when she'd get a sale, too, and those were very special moments indeed. While I understood the practical benefits of making the sale, it was, of course, a self interest that motivated me as well, since I could expect to get some kind of treat when we went to the grocery store later in the day.

Now, not only did Lynda sell the insurance, after making a sale, it would fall to her to go and collect the weekly premium. Often, that would be the only money we'd have for the week. Sometimes, the people either couldn't or wouldn't pay, and that meant nothing. And, at times, people couldn't pay in cash but wanted to honor their obligation so they would give her something like a dozen fresh eggs or a loaf of homemade bread. That, at least, was enough to keep us from going hungry, but it wasn't enough to keep her from crying, and I have to say I saw and heard a lot of tears in the darkened car on the way home.

If it seems like an odd way for a kid to spend his Saturdays, well, I was an odd kid. The conversations that we had while driving were always part of the motivation for riding with her. After all, I had her all to myself! One thing I have always enjoyed in my conversations with Lynda is the sense that whatever I had to say, she was always genuinely interested in hearing it. So, even though I cannot recall what we actually talked about, I do recall talking for hours with with someone who actually cared. Even if her advice was always the same("get up, make your bed and go to work"), the words were always directed to me, and always in my best interest.

That aspect of our relationship has not changed until now, here at the very end, and even now, I find myself ready to dive down to the floorboard and turn that lever just once more. If only she would tell me it is time.

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