As the world inches toward an all-electric transportation future, it is nostalgic to recall the boomer days when gasoline reigned supreme to power the internal combustion engine. There was not much in the way of alternatives, of course, but for some boomers, gasoline — and therefore the gas-powered engine — holds a place near and dear to their hearts. For some, even the smell of gasoline is a trip to another era, and another place. For Mister Boomer, not so much.
Mister Boomer’s introduction to the ritual of buying gasoline began when he was eight years old. That was when his mother would give him two quarters, and told him to go to the Sinclair gas station on the corner to fill up the red gas can that resided in the basement. The can was a rectangular shape made of metal, painted with “gasoline” in yellow letters running diagonally across the larger sides. There was a handle on the top, and a flexible metal spout.
Mister Boomer dutifully grabbed the can and walked to the gas station. There, he unscrewed the metal spout, removed the hose from the gas pump, and filled the two-gallon can himself. It was not unusual to see an eight year old do that in the early 1960s. Can filled, he screwed the spout back on, grabbed it by the handle, and went inside the station to pay the man at the register. Dropping the two quarters on the counter, the man opened the register to give him a few pennies as change.
Once home, Mister Boomer knew what was next: cutting the grass. In the early days, Brother Boomer cut the front yard, and Mister Boomer cut the back. The boys traded off in tipping the gas can spout into the tank of the lawn mower to fill it. Tank cap on, and choke switch flipped on the handle of the lawn mower, it was often Brother Boomer who would put one foot on the base of the machine while tugging the rope that spun the rotor to start the engine. Mister Boomer was stationed at the choke control, ready to adjust it as soon as the engine started. Smoke billowed out of the exhaust and an awful smell (in Mister B’s estimation) emanated from the engine; indicators that it was ready to mow.
For years, the Boomer Brothers mowed the lawn with the same gas ritual. Once Brother Boomer got a part-time job, Mister B took on the entire mowing himself.
A neighbor had an electric lawn mower. It was a Sunbeam brand, that ran off a long extension cord. Mister B thought it was pretty cool, and it was certainly quieter and did not smell. However, Mister B wondered how the neighbor managed to mow his lawn without ever running over his extension cord.
Mister Boomer’s relationship with gasoline was always one of necessity. After years of dealing with gasoline as lawn mower fuel, at the age of seventeen he bought his first car. Then the necessity of gasoline changed with an added trip to fill a car gas tank, at least once a week. Mister Boomer grew up in an area where being fluent in car culture was as expected of young men as riding a horse may have been fifty years prior. Like sports fans reciting statistics, neighborhood boys could spew all sort of gasoline-based car trivia, like the location of the gas tank spout on numerous models (some were behind the back license plate; on a ’56 Chevy, you literally flipped the red bullet-shaped taillight down to fill up the tank). Gas had become an inherent part of boomer culture.
The Oil Embargo in the 1970s changed public opinion about gasoline — for a short while. Jokes told by boomers about stepping on the gas pedal and watching the fuel gauge drop were no longer funny as the price per gallon tripled overnight. Americans quickly grew tired of rationing that required them to only buy gas on days that coincided with the odd or even last digit on their license plate. For the first time, boomers were watching how much gasoline they were using. As history has shown us, once the embargo was lifted, it didn’t take long for people to return to larger gas-guzzling vehicles. For a while, there was an attempt — mostly from imports — to downsize America’s love affair with the gas behemoths of the 1960s and ’70s. Though brands like Toyota and Subaru became household names with smaller, more fuel-efficient models, today we see larger cars that actually get better gas mileage than the compact cars of a few decades ago.
As boomers age, we are seeing a shift in the culture of gasoline-powered engines. Boomers and the younger generations have embraced electric battery-powered lawn mowers to such a degree that gasoline-powered lawn mowers are becoming an endangered species. Hybrid car sales have jumped dramatically in the past few years, as awareness of the environmental and economic issues that gasoline has presented in the decades since the boomer years becomes apparent.
It remains to be seen whether boomers will live long enough to see a day when no engines are powered by gasoline. Yet, if boomers look at the lives of their grandparents, most of them could never envision living in a world without horse-powered vehicles — still, it happened in their lifetimes. Whether you love the smell of gas or hate it, like the rush of driving vehicles with gasoline-powered engines or not, our old world is rapidly changing. Your grandchildren’s children may not know what “gasoline” was in the next couple of decades, the same way today’s kids don’t know what a rotary phone or VHS tape was.
What memories does gasoline evoke for you, boomers?