I hope you enjoy this long Chronicle that I wrote 4 years ago and updated today.
Pump Jockey Chronicles
I’m now 64 years old and look back with fondness and wonderment at my “beginnings” in the Gas Station game.
The Happy Days made famous on TV really did happen…1959 and the summer before my senior year at Notre Dame High School in Sherman Oaks, California. Most of my friends were surfing and having a great summer since most of them were from wealthy families…very wealthy families, unlike my own. There were the Von der Ahe’s (Von’s Markets) Ralphs (Ralphs Markets), Kern’s (Kern’s Jelly’s) Lupton’s (editor of the local newspaper) and many many more. If I wanted to drive I had to work. I had a new girlfriend, yes, another one. Her mom talked to the owner of the large Shell station at the busy corner of Hollywood Blvd. and LaBrea and I soon had a summer job. This was located just two short blocks from the Chinese and Egyptian theatres. I started out pumping gas but quickly learned to Lube & Oil and became an expert. I think I had as much fun as my friends at the beach. I learned a valuable trade that could be used all through my life, or at least for the next few years. All my Service Station jobs were for Shell and proved to be my main source of income and kept me in gas and dating money for the next couple of years. I had a ’50 Merc, a lead sled, but I though it was pretty cool. Of course I had to put glass paks on it and 3 carburetors but it was still a Lead Sled. Slow but great for dating…big back seat.
Hollywood, as you can imagine, was just like you see in the movies. We had both movie stars and prostitutes come into the station. The “working girls” loved to tease and flirt with a rookie like me and of course I loved it. Lana Turner was a regular customer and, as I remember, very nice. One Sunday morning I came to work and found the street behind the station closed and a minimum of 20 police cars everywhere. The night before, Lana’s daughter, Cheryl Crane, had shot and killed Johnny Stompinato. It was always assumed that Lana had done the deed but Cheryl took the heat since she was a minor. The famous Sunset Strip was only two blocks away so we had many teens and their dates stop by for “a buck’s worth of gas”, 5 gallons at that time. Cruising was in and the police didn’t bother anyone. Brown’s famous ice cream parlor was a block away. My future wife had lived only blocks away but that’s another story for later on.
Back to the station. It was shiny and new. The best and newest of everything. We of course had Full Service no matter how much you spent. That included gas, check the oil, wash the windows, all of them, and check the tires. We also loved to look into the windows for what we hoped was a look at some nice legs or what filled a great angora sweater.
Too quickly summer ended and it was back to school but…another Shell station beckoned. This one in Van Nuys. The owner sent me to Shell School where I became a certified customer attendant. This was too far from home so I changed to another Shell station. This one in North Hollywood two block from my house. I went to school, ran track and then to the station at night and weekends. This station was in a small neighborhood, one that would not support a station today. A trick we loved to do was to yell to someone that their front license plate was falling off while they sat at the signal. We would run out, duck down as to tighten the plate, creep around behind the car and run back to the station where we would watch the driver sit through more than one signal waiting for us to lift up and give him the ok. Most times they would look over at the station and laugh but not everyone. This is the station where my Lube & Oil skills turned into tune up’s and brake jobs. Tire changing was always a chore as we had only hand tools at this time. Today’s fancy changing and balancing machines were as foreign as a computer would have been back then.
I had a ’55 Chevy at this time. I decided one day that it needed a big cam and solid lifters. I spent the better part of one day, along with some friends, doing something I had never done before. After all was done we fired it up and everything was great. Off I went for a test drive only to realize, as the hood flew up, broke the windshield and flew over the car, that I had forgotten that the hood latch was attached to the grill surround which was still sitting at the station. Another great memory was the people who would bring their late model 50’s Chryslers and Studebaker’s in for lube and oil on Sundays. These were fast V-8’s at this time but had terrible brakes. We would finish the jobs and take the cars for a “test drive”. The brakes would go away almost right away but we never crashed and never got caught. I won’t mention the hole that was drilled from the lube room looking into the lady’s room.
Well it’s off to Pierce College still working at the station at night and weekends. First day of school, in walks this beautiful blond. I was immediately taken and told my best friend sitting next to me “I’m going to marry that girl”. Needless to say, I did, and 45 years later we are still happily married and she’s still my sweetheart. Only later did I find that she lived only blocks from my first job. Think of all the time I wasted dating other girls.
I only made it through 1-1/2 semesters of college when I joined the Army Reserve. Off to 6 months active duty at Fort Ord, California near Monterey. I finished boot camp and special training but still had 3 months until I was released to my reserve unit. My job was in the Mess Hall serving the officers at the Monterey Language School. Right outside the gates was, you guessed right, a Shell station. I of course got a job evenings and weekends to make some extra money. This interfered with my trips home to see my favorite girl but it did work out. I got out of active duty in September 1961 and Mary Sue and I were married October 1st. I started an insurance training job and we immediately got pregnant. How are we going to afford to live??
I had 5 ½ years of Army Reserve training remaining. When I attended my first meeting the Major in charge realized that the Army Cook training they had sent me to was a BIG mistake since I had all of my Shell training on the outside. I was put in charge of the Motor Pool where I rose from a private retiring almost 6 years later as a Sergeant E-6. I worked 8 hours at the insurance job with a 45 minute drive each way; yes we did have traffic back then in Los Angeles. I got home, ate a quick dinner, and off to my next job, at the Shell station, this one in Van Nuys. I would work until 11:00, head home, sleep until 3:30 and we would both get up, get into the car, Mary Sue in the backseat, folding newspapers while we delivered the Los Angeles Times.
Since we now find it hard to stay up past 9:00, it’s hard to believe we used to regularly stay up past 11:00 every night.
One evening while I was at my second job a man came in and asked for a can of gas. Back then we gladly filled the can and made only a $1.00 charge until the can came back. This at least paid for the gas. The man returned a while later giving me back the can and said thank you and that he had not been able to start his car and off he went. Finally 11:00 came and I turned off the lights and the pumps, brought in the oil racks and paper towel racks, closed and locked the big doors and made ready to lock up. As I bent over to put the money in the floor safe I felt a gun in my side. It was the man who had borrowed the gas can. He told me he wouldn’t hurt me and waked me to the rest room where he told me to stay for 15 minutes. I heard the telephone ringing because I was normally home by 11:10 living only two blocks away. My wife was worried. I got my nerve up and left the restroom, answered the phone, told her what had happened and called the police. Of course we didn’t have 911 in those days so I had to dial a number with shaking hands. The man was caught about a month later and I had to go to two police line up’s where myself and others identified the “gas can bandit”. I have no idea what ever happened to him but I do remember that my boss collected much more on his insurance than what was lost. I guess it’s ok to say that now after 40 years I think the statue of limitations is over.
Every Wednesday night a man came in and filled his car as well as that of another car driven by a very attractive lady. It was always interesting because he lived only a few blocks away and his wife came in every week and she was NOT the same Wednesday night lady.
In 1962 my father in law and brother in law were going to financially back me in the purchase of my own station. I look back now and thank God I didn’t follow though with the purchase. We moved to Carpinteria, CA (near Santa Barbara) in 1965 where I became a partner in a very successful insurance agency where I remain today.
My time working for Shell and the people I met during that time have helped mold my life. I learned much more than how to change oil, repair tires and brakes and do tune up’s. I learned to interact with people and always be polite. Of course those early days led to my eventual love for collecting Gas Station Memorabilia leading to what I have now. I have a gas island with a country store building, 6 pumps, many outdoor signs ad two garages filled with an assortment of almost 200 picture signs. The unfortunate thing is my two sons didn’t “catch the bug” but who wants to compete with your sons for the NEXT GREAT FIND.