The word got around the neighborhood quickly. Balloons and banners were going up at the new local service station and, in 1955, that was all the advertising needed. The Grand Opening was Saturday and everyone who was anyone would show up. Copious amounts of food, drinks, rides and other free stuff would be at hand. The fathers, wearing wingtips and work boots, would mingle with the new manager, eating hot dogs and listening to his subtle pitch of reliable service and proximity. In those days, no one wanted to travel too far from home.
The mothers, dressed in petal-pushers and scarves to protect their hair from the wind, would talk among themselves. The adults would have their discussions and make decisions, but, for us kids, it was a young baby-boomers dream, fun in the sun on a Saturday afternoon at another gas station opening in post-WWII Santa Clara Valley.
This new station was a Mobilgas, so the flying red horse ride would be there. The deep red-winged stallion in full motion mimicked the large neon ones that hung above each station. Today, it was a perfect fit for both my frame and imagination.
What is the attraction to a seven-year-old boy of sitting on some tiny molded horse that moved two inches forward, then backward to simulate galloping? It certainly wasn’t my first rodeo but the red flying horse was different, an upgrade from the scratched up old mechanical mare outside of the grocery store. This was a flying red horse, permanently posed, head down, wings spread as if in flight. It would be totally cool to ride a real red flying horse, although I would have to replace my cuffed blue jeans and homemade shirt with a super hero costume. For now, I’ll use my mind’s eye and settle for riding this one, which comes with a free photo.
In addition to the rides and hot dogs, there was cotton candy and stacks of wooden crates holding glass Coca-Cola bottles. This opening even had a guest appearance from local country radio disc jockey, Cottonseed Clark, a who broadcast a few hours of his radio program from the event. Another souvenir photo, autographed. Mobilgas was pulling out all the stops for this one. In the 1950s, these events were common because gas and service stations played an integral role in our daily lives.
Filling the car up with gas was only one reason for our weekly trek at the service station. It began when we drove over the black hose that made a chime sound to alert the mechanic. In 1955, there were enough cars to keep each station busy, but the pace was such that the operator could perform maintenance work and still handle the pump demand. The fact that our parents were having children in record numbers would change that dynamic and contribute to the slow death of the full-service experience.
“Hi George,” my dad said, “fill it up with Ethel.”
Before he said a word, George Osaka would open the hood, then walk to the rear of the car and insert the gas hose. Because he had to hold the hose the entire time, he had a few moments for friendly conversation before he completed his checklist.
George said, “How’s she running?”
“So far, so good,” said my dad, “that whine is gone since you replaced the belt.”
“Guess that was it.”
George would always acknowledge me in the backseat.
“You staying busy, Butch?”
My father thought that we could afford premium Ethel gas even though, at twenty-three cents per gallon, it was two cents higher than regular. I would always roll down my back seat window during this process to experience the sweet smell of gasoline. There are many people in today’s world that are addicted to intoxicative inhalants and, there but for fortune go I. I loved the smell of fresh gasoline, possibly associating it with freedom. I dreamt of driving my own car one day and, if I could ever save fifteen hundred dollars, buy that new Ford convertible shown on the local car commercial and take it on a long road trip. There was not a faint glimpse of a thought that, years later, I would find the odor of gas toxic and obnoxious, connecting it to congestion and dirty air. In the 1950s, cars and gasoline were the wave of the future, just listen to Walt Disney talk of his Autopia.
Tank full, George would focus his attention under the hood, checking the oil and radiator water levels then shaking the hoses to assure none were loose. After checking the tire pressure, he would spray and clean all the car windows to complete the service, all for the price of the gas that, somehow flowed plentifully from a magical underground reservoir.
“Everything looks good. That will be four fourteen,” said George.
My dad handed him a five dollar bill and he returned with the change, green stamps and wishes for everyone to have a good week. Mr. Osaka was our go-to service station guy because my dad thought he was a good and trustworthy mechanic and had this belief that the Japanese were honest business people. I found this somewhat conflicting because he was slightly more than a decade removed from a foxhole in Tawara, but I witnessed him, on numerous occasions, do and say things that expressed his respect for the local Japanese community. He would say that government leaders, not people, start wars.
After the car was serviced and when there wasn’t a station opening that I could persuade my parents to go to, our Saturday morning routine took us to the local donut shop for a late breakfast of donuts, coffee and chocolate milk, which set us back another dollar fifty, including tip. Then, on some days, it was off to the local car wash.
My father normally washed our car himself, but once a month we went to the new modern carwash because they vacuumed the interior and cleaned the cigarette smoke residue that would form inside of the windshield. Carwashes represented new, state-of-the-art technology and it seemed like magic as I peered through soap-film-stained windows to watch our car go through. Occasionally, in lieu of a gas station opening, we would go to Bounceland USA so I could jump on the trampoline. For this enterprise, someone leased a vacant lot, dug twelve pits, covered the top with springs and rubber straps and charged fifty cents for kids to jump up and down for twenty minutes. Life in those days would allow such a venture. No liability waivers, no spotters, people did things at their own risk. These, and similar endeavors, would soon fall prey to the mating calls of lawyers in love.
I stayed on the lookout for new Mobilgas stations during the next few months, but the arrival of a new Hopalong Cassidy bike, named after the television serial cowboy, and a pogo stick vastly escalated my mobility and I moved on from the flying red horse.
In my mind, that old icon has become a metaphor for innocent, simpler times when we had one phone, attached to the wall, one small television displaying three channels in a large ugly cabinet, one car and one bathroom. I am also reminded that, in 1955, I had seven normal years left before it all fell apart. As my family crashed and burned, there were times when I wished I had a red flying horse to take me away from it all.