Tuesday, September 06, 2005

Oil crisis, revisited

December, 1973 -- My job during Christmas vacation from college was to get up before dawn in the frigid New England winter, bundle up as if for an Artic trek, and drive the family car to the gas station. There I would buy a cup of lousy coffee and a pile of newspapers and wait two or three hours in a gas line.

Fortunately, one of the family gas-guzzling Impalas had a license plate that ended in an even number while the other car's plate ended in an odd. Under the Massachusetts rationing system of odd and even days, that meant I could be gassing up one car while my mom was driving the other one on her dailly commute from our house on the Cape to Boston, where she worked and where her elderly parents lived. The next day we switched cars and did it all over again. My father instituted a strict system of recording all gas purchases and mileage in little notebooks kept in the glove compartments.

In those days, cars didn't have locking gas tanks, so after you filled up, your next task was to back the car into the driveway with the side with the gas tank as close to the house as possible. All porch and yard lights were left on through the night to thwart gas thieves who were cruising the neighborhoods with gas cans and siphoning equipment. This fortress mentality was even creepier given our living arrangements at the time.

My parents had sold our house in suburban Virginia the previous spring and were supposed to be retiring to a new development in East Sandwich, a historic town on the Cape. My father had designed a large house overlooking the bay, but the builder had gone bankrupt and the subcontractors had walked off the job. While new house stood half finished, my folks were living in our tiny, uninsulated summer cottage in Dennisport. It had two little bedrooms, a closet-size bathroom with a shower (no tub), and a combined kitchen/diningroom/livingroom. The sole heat source was one floor register in the livingroom. Each morning, I woke up with ice on the insides of the windows of my bedroom, scraped the window, and peered out to make sure we had fuel in the two propane tanks outside. The washing machine, intended only for summer use, was in a closet off the back porch, where it was in constant danger of freezing water lines. Summer cottages didn't have dryers, so the clothes went out to the backyard clothesline where they were usually frozen before they were dry.

We were the only off-season residents on our winding dirt road and many days ours were the only cars that went down the street. We picked up our mail at the town Post Office, hauled our trash to the dump, and were eyed suspicously by the year-round residents, many of whom had been living on the Cape since their surly ancesters had arrived on the Mayflower and set about inbreeding. If I hadn't wanted to leave home for good when I first went off to college, I sure did after that long winter in Dennisport!

Today, when I paid $31.65 for 10.4 gallons of gas at the 7-11, it brought back memories of the winter of 73-74. I made a mental note to go home and check the insulation, caulk the windows, and get out my UGGs. I think it's going to be another long, cold winter.

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