Fill It Up!

A Church in Formation

I am frequently reminded that times do change. Refueling the car presents an opportunity for one such reminder. Back in the 1960s when a few other Abel House members and I were learning to drive, the service station experience was quite different from service station experiences today.

Now, most of us notice first a Low Fuel warning indicator on the car’s display. If we ignore it, we hear a warning chime or other digital sound, repeated frequently. By the third or fourth repeat, we are more than ready to find a service station to fuel the car and silence the noise.

At the service station pump, we have jobs to do: Find the charge card, get out of the car and set up the financial transaction using the card, remove the cap from the fuel intake and insert the pump nozzle, dispense the fuel into the car and return the nozzle to the pump, replace the fuel cap and return to the car. Or we might take a few minutes to grab the squeegee and clean the windshield. That’s it.

But refueling was quite different in the olden days. For one thing, in the South Carolina Low Country, we did not call them “service stations”; we called them “filling stations.” Filling stations filled more than gas tanks. And the attendant at the station did the filling.

With no warning lights or chimes, some of us learned to be conscientious about watching the gasoline gauge, but others knew the car was low on fuel when the engine first coughed. Whichever fuel-check method we used, if the weather were cold when we finally drove up to the pump, we rolled the driver’s-side window down to watch the station attendant walk out to the car. If it were warm, we sat in the un-air-conditioned heat and waited with left elbow hanging out that window as he (always a “he”) came.

In Texaco, Esso, and Gulf advertisements of the time, he walked out of the station office dressed in neat slacks, usually khakis; a buttoned-up, long-sleeved, sharply pressed shirt; a tie—even sometimes a bowtie; brown dress shoes; and a crisp, brimmed cap, sometimes with the station’s symbol pinned above the brim.

In real life, the attendant, yanking a dirty rag from the hip pocket of greasy work pants or bibbed overalls and wiping his hands off as he walked out of the service bay, tossed his cigarette to the side and either ambled or hurried, depending on the job he was leaving, toward the car window. If he knew the driver or any family member, pleasantries were exchanged. But most often, he simply tilted his head and took the order: “Fill it up with ethyl.” “Ethyl” was also known as “high test” and both were names for leaded gasoline.

But he did not just refuel the car. He set the pump lever to fill automatically, and then, grease rag in one hand, he popped the hood with the other and leaned under to reach in and come up with the oil stick. He squinted closely at it, wiped it clean with the rag, jiggled it back into the oil reservoir, pulled it out again, squinted more closely at it, and then, saying “It’s a quart low,” walked to the driver’s side window to show the stick to the driver who, knowing what was coming, was thinking, “Oh, no. Not again.” After he had replaced the oil-level stick and jammed the aluminum-colored spout into the oil can and turned it up to gurgle into the oil filler tube, the attendant checked the transmission fluid level for an “automatic” automobile, and, finally, the radiator.

The radiator-check ritual varied as little from visit to visit as did the oil-check ritual. Placing the grease rag over the radiator cap, he carefully twisted the cap off, avoiding any steam released when it opened. He peered into the radiator, walked over to the red, slender water hose next to the gas pump, grabbed it at the greasy spot near the nozzle to haul it over to the radiator, and then filled the radiator to the top.

Next, the attendant performed the tires ritual. Contrary to what may be assumed, he did not kick the tires. Rather, he took a greasy gauge out of a pocket and used it to measure tire pressure in each tire. Low pressure in any tire meant another trip to the service island, this time for the other red slender hose, the one that dispensed air into the leaking tire.

By then, the gasoline pump had probably stopped, so he removed the nozzle and replaced it and the fuel cap, but his job was not over. He then stuffed the grease rag back into his back pants pocket and, using paper towels, washed and polished the windshield. Quickly adding up the tab in his head (with gas at about 30¢ a gallon and water and air free), he stated the price, collected the cash, and made the change—sometimes from a belt coin changer that dispensed pennies, nickels, dimes, and quarters when he thumbed down the little plungers on top and sometimes from his pants pocket.

As we drove away, that attendant knew the car from his inspection and from all the other inspections he had made of it in the past. To just filling the car with gasoline, he had added labor and time that resulted in a sense of relief and grace for the driver and passengers.

Remembering the old days and the old ways of a service station visit made me think of the Abel House meeting on September 02. As usual, we gathered in late afternoon light at Robert and Lindsay’s house, carrying our covered dishes and looking forward to an evening of friendly conversation, good food, Bible study, and prayer. And, sure enough, the evening started out as usual with grace around the table and a delicious meal.

But as we gathered in our group, each in his or her accustomed place, the program changed a bit from the customary. That’s one thing I like about Abel House and other regular events at Northland: When events call for us to deviate from the programmed path, we deviate.

Robert started with our Abel House prayer board displayed on the television. He led our way through each of the prayer categories: Prayers Offered for Us, by Us; Prayers Offered for Others, by Us; Prayers for the Long Haul; Praises Offered to God; and Prayers Answered. Then, he led us through the “cards” in each category presented: prayer requests for ourselves, prayer requests for others, prayers partly answered or answered, and praise to God.

As we reviewed the cards, we heard the story behind each. Oftentimes, the person who had posted the card was there in the room and able to explain the situation or report changes, including answers received. The topics we covered leaned toward the problems we face because so often when we think of prayer, we think of what we want God to fix in our lives; we think of God as the attendant there to refill us. In that vein, we became aware of those dying and people around them who need comfort, of illnesses and other health considerations both physical and mental, of concerns with family dynamics faced by all of us who know the pleasures and woes of being in a family. But we also discovered that a possible cancer diagnosis was thankfully not, that a family member seems to have found the right doctor and a path to better mental health, that a housing crisis is slowly being solved, and that help had been offered to relieve a transportation emergency.

Rather than expecting only God to hear them, we listened to the stories behind the cards, and we offered our own personal experiences in affirmation, understanding, joy, grief, or support.

We reached for, cupped, and held in our hands and hearts the concern, pain, joy, or situation. The process was slow, personal, warm, helpful, kind, sympathetic, and loving. We were there as a family, sharing ourselves, our problems, our failures, our hopes, our successes, our humanity that admitted needing others to walk with us.

We followed the inventory of prayer concerns with the addition of new concerns and prayer. We had made each other aware, and then we placed everything once again in God’s hands because we can do nothing without Him before turning to our Bible study in Jeremiah.

We all left that evening having seen the warning signs, kicked the tires, checked conditions, and come out knowing ourselves and our Abel House family better than we did when we arrived. Through the checkup of our relationships with people and with God, we had found the world to be a safer place and one far less aggravating—just as did the driver who pulled into the service station of old. We had been refilled and refreshed by the Holy Spirit and the attendant Christian servants who had surrounded us in love and prayer.

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