Columns 2006

The cost of a gallon of gas

My parents were part of the generation that weathered the Depression, WW II and the Lawrence Welk Show. In the 1960s, they watched as the cost of living inched inexorably upward, eating into their American Dream and making them even more cautious with their money.

Every holiday we would drive from Atlantic City to Philadelphia to celebrate with family.  My father would go to the gas station and ask for a very specific amount of gas – maybe $2 worth, maybe $10 later on.  You never said, “Fill it up”.  My mother explained that if you said that, the gas station attendant would keep hitting the handle after it clicked to try and top you off and, for some reason, that was seen as a bad thing. 

I think my mother was convinced that if they filled it to the top, it would overflow and slosh out while driving and then you’d paid for something you didn’t really get to use.  It may not be logical, but till the day she died, she got gas that way.  And, because she lived in New Jersey till the day she died, she always had to be on the alert for this particular ploy.  You see, in New Jersey it is actually against the law to have a self-service station.  I figure the politicians there are rightfully concerned about giving some New Jerseyites access to explosive substances. 

My mother is gone now.  She is somewhere in heaven with my father who is still trying to explain the dog shampoo debacle that occurred when she was pregnant with my sister.  Without going into too many details, let’s just say she accidentally ingested dog shampoo that had been left in a bottle that usually contained the soda she drank and my father was quickly fingered as the responsible party. She was eight months pregnant at the time and swore she belched soap bubbles for the next month till she delivered.  On the plus side, my sister came out with a head full of nice, clean hair. But I digress.

Between 1962 and 1965, a highway was built between Atlantic City and Philly called the Atlantic City Expressway.  The problem, as my father saw it, was that they charged you to use the road.  His old route, the Black Horse Pike, was free.  It was also slow, had traffic lights and could make the trip with kids in the car seem interminable. But he would not take the expressway.

My mom would get disgusted – and perhaps just a bit stressed by the sounds coming out of the back seat.  I can still hear her telling my dad, “Go ahead, Phil. Save your money. But when you die, I’m going to use this expressway every chance I get and I’ll be using your money.”

As I was saying, my mother died a few years back. So she never had the joy of driving up to a gas station and putting $40 to $50 worth of gas into her little car to fill it up. I know for sure she would have never taken the expressway and paid tolls again after paying that much to fill her tank.

In 1960, the price of your average new home was $16,500.  A first class stamp cost 4 cents, a gallon of milk cost 49 cents, a dozen eggs cost 57 cents and a gallon of regular gas cost 31 cents.  I spend almost as much per year now for gas as my father did to buy our home back then.

I find myself thinking about this because I have to go to Seward for a wedding over the weekend.  As I drove by the gas station and looked at the price I would pay here in Anchorage for gas to get me there, and then figured out what it would probably cost me to refuel before the return trip, it occurred to me that just making it to the wedding was going to take all the money I had put aside for a wedding present. 

If I was on the East Coast, where public transportation is a reality and not a pretend service like it is here in Alaska, I’d be able to get on a bus or train and save myself the cost of the gas. But unless you’re a tourist, the only way to get from Anchorage to Seward is in your own car. 

Since I have no other transportation option, and since I am responsible for delivering the bride on time for the ceremony, I have really only one gift option. I’m going to wrap up my gas receipt, put a bow on it, and present it to the newlyweds as my wedding present. 

May they have a wonderful life together, and always be able to afford the price of a gallon of gas.