Friday, July 14, 2006

How Long Ago It Was: Gas Was Cheap!

It was the summer of 1972. Republicans were screaming for "Four more years!" of Richard Nixon. The Democrats were marching gingerly in ragged formation toward what they thought was the Revolution.

A bunch of people were arrested at the Democratic Party offices in the Watergate Hotel in Washington, D.C., a loose end in a fabric of lies. That loose end, when pulled on hard enough by judges and the media (pulled on most strongly, it seems clear, by Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein of the Washington Post), eventually resulted in the resignation of President Nixon two years later; in the creation of numerous laws and policies designed to enhance the ethics of politics and governance; and in a surge of enrollment at schools of journalism all around the country, as young people all over the United States decided it would be fun to become investigative reporters.

And U.S. soldiers were still fighting and dying in Vietnam.

I was 18 that summer and although I was aware of all of that going on, I can’t say I was horribly involved or worried about any of it. I do recall thinking on June 18, when I saw an item in the newspaper about the arrests at the Watergate, that the trail of dollars and other evidence would likely lead back to persons close to the Oval Office, if not to the president himself, but that may have been youthful revulsion for Richard Nixon driving that conclusion rather than any great insight into politics, finance and crime. (On the other hand, I was right!)

Not even the Vietnam War worried me, at least not personally. Sometime that summer, the president announced that no new draftees would be sent to Vietnam. I imagine that a lot of my contemporaries across the country shook their heads in relief at that news. It really wasn't a big deal, because it was becoming more and more clear that my cohort – the men born in 1953 – were going to be the first cohort that went untouched by the draft since, well, before World War II. For the first time in more than 30 years, young men born in a specific year would not be drafted.

Of course, the news about no new draftees being sent to ’Nam resonated more loudly, I am certain, with those born in 1952, as many of them – not as many as had been true for those born in years earlier, but enough – were still receiving their “Greetings” letters from the military.
I don’t recall how likely it was for men born in 1952 to be drafted, much less how many of them were sent to Vietnam before the new policy was announced that summer. Those facts didn’t matter to me as anything more than curiosities.

I am reasonably certain that no one born in my birth year of 1953 was ever drafted, although we did get lottery numbers based on our dates of birth. Mine was 354, which meant that the chances of my being called to get a buzz cut and be screamed at for six weeks by a drill sergeant were almost nil. That was good.

So what did concern me in the summer of 1972? What was I thinking about? What do I recall?

Well, I was worried about dusting Venetian blinds. I worked as a part-time janitor that summer at an elementary school on the campus of St. Cloud State College (now University) in Minnesota. It wasn’t hard work, for the most part, but removing what was likely a year’s accumulation of dust from Venetian blinds was a pain-in-the-ass job that took more than a week, it seems to me. I didn’t mind dusting shelves, dry mopping and mopping floors, washing blackboards and all of that, but dusting those damned blinds was the worst thing I did all summer.

I remember the music, as I always do from almost any portion of my life. That was the summer of Gilbert O’Sullivan’s “Alone Again, Naturally,” a pop confection that was omnipresent for several months. A listener to AM Top 40 – which I was – would also have heard “You Don’t Mess Around With Jim,” the first hit for Jim Croce, and tunes from Neil Diamond, the Staple Singers, the Chi-Lites, Roberta Flack, Billy Preston and Bill Withers.

And then there was the Looking Glass and its song “Brandy,” about the barmaid in the harbor town. Another pop confection, yes, but one that seems to have aged far better in my mind than many of those records that surrounded it on the radio. And at the odd times that I hear it these days – thirty-four years later – I am not wielding the mop or broom, I am not dusting the blinds. I am not wondering if the current object of my affection has a reciprocal interest.

No, I am driving my 1961 Ford Falcon north from St. Cloud, Minnesota, on an August day, my best friends with me as we head for a weekend in Winnipeg, Manitoba.

Why does all this come to mind today? Did I hear “Brandy” this morning or yesterday? Well, no, but given that the Looking Glass tune is one of the thousands in my juke box, I can hear it any time I want to. (In fact, just because I can do it, I just cued it up: “There’s a port in a western bay . . .”)

No, the summer of 1972 and the music on the road to Winnipeg came to mind because of something I found in my file cabinet yesterday. It’s a record of the times that Rick and Gary and I purchased gasoline on our trek, noting the miles driven, the mileage my old Falcon got, and – most astoundingly – the cost of the gas for our four-day, 860-mile trip.

(The jukebox just switched from “Brandy” to “The Girl From Ipanema” by Stan Getz & Astrud Gilberto, which is a lovely song, but dated ten years earlier than our trip to Winnipeg. And while I dithered about what to say about that, the music moved on to Bob Dylan’s performance of “Blowin’ In The Wind” at the 1971 Concert for Bangla Desh. As always, music so commands my attention that I find it takes away the concentration I need to write. So I turned the jukebox off as Bob was asking “How many roads . . .”)

So how much did it cost us to drive from St. Cloud to Winnipeg and back in 1972? Well, we bought 44.3 gallons of gas during our four-day excursion . . . and we paid $17.20. In other words, about 39 cents a gallon.

And that, more than anything else about that summer, tells me how long ago it really was. Yes, the school where I dusted the blinds has been closed, the building remodeled about twenty years ago to house programs in electrical engineering and such-like. Yes, Jim Croce’s been dead for more than thirty years. Yes, my 1961 Falcon has been rusting, abandoned, in the junkyard of a friend’s parents since 1977 (and in fact that friend himself has passed on). And no, I do not remember with whom I was besotted that summer of “Brandy.”

All of those things underline in bold ink the fact that it has been thirty-four years since Rick, Gary and I drove north to adventure and beer and hangovers. (The drinking age in Canada was 18 as opposed to Minnesota’s 21 – we drank Molson’s Canadian and Old Vienna.)

But the boldest ink, it seems to me, comes from that handwritten document I found in my files: Gasoline at 39 cents a gallon!

And no, I don’t remember how much we paid for the beer.

1 comment:

Mitch Lopate said...

Awwww, I remember gas at 29 cents at Hess being high-priced back then.
And I also remember the English teacher in high school playing Peter, Paul and Mary's "The Great Mandala" for us (on an LP, of course) as we debated 'Nam. And the guy who set a bunch of track and field records came back from the battlefield...with shrapnel in his leg...never to jump and run the same way again.
I had a draft card too...#348, and praying that Nixon didn't double-cross us and keep the fighting going.