By Rebecca Rikleen, a member of Get Your WordsWorth
It was a Friday in 1979, 11 pm before we drove off to camp for nine weeks with less than a half tank of gasoline. The gas in the tank, with my old gas guzzler, would not get us from New York City to my summer job in Monticello.
“We need you here to prepare,” said the director. “You have a lot to do.” He was thinking I had to clean out the arts and crafts shop, order materials, prepare activities. I was thinking I do have to prepare program, but once there I also would have to organize my living quarters, place our dog on a farm, and settle in my 9 year old son.
“The rest of the staff have been here several days already,” he phoned me. I knew, but I had a full time job as director of the day care center, and had to make sure everything was in order.
I reviewed details with my day care substitute. “Here are the children’s health records, parent applications, staff records, in case there’s a surprise visit from the Board of Health.” I took a special privilege to be gone two months while the center operated. “Here are the bank records and petty cash. Remember to keep the food and meals records up to date. . .” and so on, willing all my knowledge to make the center operation smooth. I worried about the center. I also worried about cleaning the apartment which friends would use. I worried about packing for a whole summer, about driving, about gasoline, about reporting for my summer job. Too much.
I worked in the center Friday until every small child was picked up. Then I dashed home to grab my lovely nine year old son, all our camp gear, clothing, bed linens, towels, baseball mitt, flashlights, dog, and stuff all into the car.
“Yes, I know,” I told the Camp director. “I’ll be there no later than Friday. I’ll be ready on time.” My job there paid for my nine year old to be in the camp program.
It took from 6pm after work to 11 pm to sort, move things to the door, clean the floors, vacuum the rugs, hide remaining litter, take four bags of garbage to the basement, drag sewing machine, materials, countless bags, pulling the ones too heavy to lift, to the elevator. Then all of them into the elevator, then all off the elevator, then all of them to the door, then all to the street, then all pushed into the car. Friends from Europe were going to live in our apartment, so it had to be clean and neat. I left them a welcoming note.
My boy was sleepy. His feet hurt. He broke a glass. He spilled his toys. I ranged between frustration, anger, and dogged resignation. How I missed my husband. In his younger, virile days. he carried and stowed, relished the exertion. Even old and sick he did it, just slower.
My boy was nodding over his lap full of belongings in the front seat, his feet resting on a duffle bag; the dog wedged himself between our bundles in the back seat. We had to leave while it was still Friday. We had to make the deadline for gasoline. If we waited until Saturday morning, the sensible way, instead of driving in the dark, weary and anxious after a tense day, no one would give us the five gallons we must have to get to Monticello. My license plate ended in an even number. In 1979 I could get gas on Friday. I could not get it on Saturday. Saturday was only for cars with odd numbers. The newly formed OPEC had cut oil production, had raised the prices, and our country found itself short of gasoline. Hot heads were shooting anyone who sneaked into the long lines at the gas stations.
Now I had only one hour to find a gas station or be stranded, sixty minutes ticking away. I drove into Fort Lee and around the streets. All stations were closed. On the Palisades the garages were closed. One station was open on the Thruway. I got on the end of a long line, moving forward in jerks, inching closer, bumper to bumper to the pump, till I was three cars away from gasoline. Then I noticed the attendants were walking aimlessly, and an assortment of people were standing about. No movement. I left my boy scrunched, asleep on his tiny portion of the front seat, and stepped out to investigate. Fifteen people were yelling, or begging, or insulting, or using soothing, self serving logic. All converged on the young man in charge of the station.
“I have two babies in the car–look for yourself,” one woman screamed, “and no diapers and no milk!” she gesticulated, shifting from foot to foot, waving her arms, thrusting her face forward at the unmoved young man. He walked to another spot. The crowd followed.
“I was on line before midnight,” one said.
The young man answered, “Get away from that pump. Don’t touch it. I’ll turn them all off!”
“You should have put a sign at the end of the line. Odd-only after midnight! I was on line before midnight.”
“You know no even numbers after midnight. Saturday starts at midnight. Saturday is odd number plates. It’s the law.”
“I need to get to work. Just give us gas and let us go.”
“Drive on. It’s after midnight, odd numbers only.”
”We waited a long time. The service was slow.”
I stood at the edge, watching, weary. Too much to cope with life and with world shortage of gasoline, with rationing, with alternate days for gas. The newspapers told of guns, of fights if someone tried to jump the line. The lines were long. The summer was hot. Tempers were unused to waiting, to restrictions. This was a free country, wasn’t it, where we could get a car and go anyplace we wanted, and get gas to get there. What would I do with the dog watching warilly from the car; he needed a walk. What would I do with my boy shifting to find a more comfortable position? He needed space and a drink and food. What about my promise to be at camp on Friday? I was unreliable on all counts.
“Drive on. It’s after midnight, odd numbers only.”
“You filled up the Volkswagen and they had an even number–just because the girls were pretty.”
“My helper made a mistake, he didn’t know.”
A chorus arose, “We need the gas. We need it. We can’t go.”
“You’re pressuring me. Half these people are off for a fun weekend, and even have a half tank.”
Voices rose louder; anxious angry words tangled together; the crowd became threatening. “That’s not me. I’m not having fun. I’m due at my job, and I have no gas.” “My babies need diapers.” “I won’t move.” “What’s the matter with you. Just give us gas so we can go.”
The young man phoned the state trooper. All pumps were now blocked and everyone close to the pumps refused to move. Some were trapped, immobile. Cars behind me dissolved onto the black road and disappeared. Odd numbered cars were waved around the crowd and backed into pumps for their $5 limit, until the young man, harried beyond his self-righteous assurance, afraid, turned off all pumps.
The stubborn argument escalated uglier, louder till 1:30 am, when the trooper arrived. All faces turned to the young man in the uniform of the law. He listened a few moments, told people to get into their cars, promised them gas. The angry voices ran off abruptly like water after a thunder storm. No questions, no examining of license plate numbers. No one’s eyes met any other. Mechanically, within a few minutes my tank got five gallons; I paid for them in a silent transaction and resumed the drive.
Now I battled fatigue, rain, fog, the hypnotic focusing on the dim divider line. I slapped my face, massaged my eyes, sang, talked loudly to stay awake till camp. The dog looked up. My boy stirred, opened his eyes unseeing, and closed them.
Finally, finally, I drove quietly into camp, slumped over the wheel to sleep and wait till daybreak. So started our summer at three in the morning, in the time of being a single mother, in a time of visiting guests, two jobs and no gasoline. So started our eight weeks of “paradise for children, in the beautiful Catskill Mountains, with fresh air, fun, athletics, friendships, marvelous memories to last their life times,” unaware there had ever been a gasoline crisis.
Rebecca ran an early childhood full-day program, used her spare time to create assemblages out of discarded children’s toy pieces, wrote, and finally worked hard at painting when she retired.
She is a young painter and fledgling writer. She says, “Even though I am an old woman, and unfortunately, there is no short cut to honing skills. In my head I was always a painter and a writer. The eye and hands are trying to catch up.”