Back around 1955, I had just gotten my drivers license and I thought I was the luckiest guy in the whole world, but I had no money.
I was living in the suburb of Westville
Connecticut and going
to Hillhouse high school in
at the time. New Haven
My cousin Allen, who was the son of my mom’s sister Adele, was about a year younger than I was, and we were both shared an interest in anything to do with automobiles, and because of this we often hung around together working on cars in my backyard.
One day Allen told me he had found a job at a local gas station and he said that they needed more part time help.
Since I had just gotten my drivers license and had just purchased a green 1940 Ford convertible, what could be better than a part time job in a gas station. My old Ford used
gas and a lot of oil.
The gas station was owned by Gulf Oil Company and located on the corner of
Whalley Ave and Emerson Street in Westville. It was just about
10 blocks from my home if I ever had to walk there.
The station was being managed by a fellow named Tony Navarro, who was a Korean War veteran.
Tony had been at the battle of the Chosin reservoir in
. He said he was returning
from a patrol, and he could only watch from a hill top as the North Korean
soldiers climbed into the Red Cross trucks and killed every one of his buddies. Korea
Naturally Tony was never quite the same after seeing that.
Tony said he needed me to help pump gas and do odd jobs. Those were the days when gas station attendants actually washed every ones car windows and checked your water and oil, and air in your tires.
Whalley Avenue gas
station had an office and two bays. In one bay it had an air operated lift so
we could lift up the cars and lubricate them, or change the oil.
Once we had a car in the air, we could also fix any exhaust problems, as well as check the oil level in the differential.
I thought the air operated lift was like a gift from heaven as I could put my own car up in the air and play with it every time Tony wasn’t around.
We had a nice office with a metal desk and wood chair and a back room where there was the air compressor and several cases of oil and Coca Cola.
Our two bay Gulf gas station was pretty typical of most small gas stations at the time.
Besides from the bay with the lift in it, we had a second bay for washing cars and doing minor repairs. That second bay had a small work bench in the back and an assortment of hand tools hanging on the wall
About 30 or 40 feet out in front of the office was a concrete
with two gas pumps. One pump was for High test Gulf gas and one for regular
Gulftane gas which sold for about .18 cents a gallon at the time.
The concrete island also had a free air pump that was used for filling tires. I also had an oil rack that held around 12 quarts of Gulf oil. The oil rack a special drain feature built into it, designed to save every drop of oil, after we sold a can.
. When we saved enough of the oil, it was put in one of those old glass oil bottles with a tall metal spout. That oil we saved was sold cheap, as it was all profit.
I think those old oil bottles are collector items now.
The station had a long hose that ran out to the island and when a car ran over it, it rang a bell so we knew a customer was out there.
When things were quiet and Tony was out, I could sit in the office with my feet up on the desk like I was the owner.
Some days there was little to do and my entertainment was watching all the neighborhood kids that would come in for air in their bicycle tires, some came on their bikes and some came with their repaired tire only. They came to get free air from our pump.
I would yell for them to be careful as the air pump had too much pressure, but no one ever listened to me and I would hear the loud bang, and watch the kids jump as their tire blew up in their hands, it happened every time.
Outside the station between the two bays, we had a Coca Cola machine. When I first came to the station, it started out as a metal box with the cokes in cold water, but Coca Cola kept coming up with new models for Tony to lease and as Tony was a soft touch, and wanted to be a modern man, we always had the latest model machine installed.
On the most modern one, you put 5 cents in, a big wheel rotated and a green bottle was released from a little door. I had the key to this modern technology, as my job was to fill the machine every day.
As you walked inside the station office we also had a modern cigarette machine.
A pack of cigarettes was .25 cents. You put in a quarter or two dimes and a nickel, then you pulled a knob under the brand you wanted.
Our cigarette machine was pretty smart as it could also give you change.
Sometimes people walking up
would come in and ask me to make change for them so they could buy cigarettes,
or sometimes they wanted to use the restrooms.
Tony would curse under his breath every time some one came walking in with out a car as he knew they probably wanted to use the restroom. He called those people S.H.I.A.W, customers. That meant shithouse, information, air and water. None of which he made any money off of.
Once a week Tony would point to the water hose and it was my job to hose and mop out the restrooms. They needed it, and the hose was the best way to clean them. You didn’t have to touch anything.
I had started smoking, so I thought having a cigarette machine right in the office was very convenient, but having .25 cents to buy the cigarettes wasn’t always that convenient.
I sat at Tony’s desk, thinking a lot on just that problem.
We didn’t have a cash register in those days and all the money was in a cash box in the top drawer of the desk. The money was always available to me, but I was too honest to even think of using any.
I opened the drawer and studied the little black tray that held all the change.
I picked up a dime and noticed that a copper penny was just a little bigger.
I had a pocket full of pennies so I borrowed a dime from the box and went out to the work bench in the shop.
I put the dime tightly against the penny and locked them firmly in the benches vice.
Then I took down our file that was hanging on the wall. I then proceeded to file the copper penny down until it was the size of the dime.
As soon as I had three copper pennies filed down, I put them into the cigarette machine, pulled the handle and out came a pack of Camels and 5 cents change.
I really found a way of making money.
I spent the rest of the afternoon filing down all my pennies.
It wasn’t easy filing all those pennies down, and I started sweating, but I knew that making money was never easy.
By evening I had about 6 packs of cigarettes on the desk.
The next day, the cigarette salesman came and opened up the machine. His job was to collect the money and re fill the machine with cigarettes.
I watched his face as he dumped out all my filed down pennies into his hand.
He looked at me and the 6 packs of cigarettes piled up on the desk.
Do you know anything about this? He said.
Absolutely not, I sheepishly replied.
I followed him out to the work bench where he examined all the copper filings that were still on the vice and on the floor. I knew the jig was up.