On the way to Toledo by
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A car trip from my childhood home in Indianapolis to my grandparents’ home in Toledo, Ohio, would take three hours and fifteen minutes today, according to my GPS. That’s 10 minutes from our old house to I-69 North and then a turn east onto U.S. 24, before reaching Fort Wayne,  all the way to Toledo.

To play the “Gas Station Game,” you began by taking turns choosing different brands of gas, the way you might pick players on a pickup baseball or touch-football team. He would pick first—that was just the rule—and he would always pick Standard,

But the construction of I-69 didn’t start until 1967, the year I left for college. So that’s not the route we ever traveled to see Grandpa and Grandma, not at all. The trip we took in our pale green 1956 Ford station wagon and later in our “Baron Blue” `1962 Nash Rambler required nearly double that amount of time, counting one or two stops for food and gas, travelling on state highways that took us through towns and cities. Instead of avoiding Fort Wayne, we looked forward to stopping there, as it segmented the journey into two roughly equal parts. In fact, once Dad and the rest of us discovered it, we had a very specific lunchtime destination in Fort Wayne that we highly anticipated: Hall’s Stockyard Café.

The name is now “Don Hall’s Prime Rib” but it appears to the the same place that used to be called Hall’s Stockyard Cafe.

Hall’s had food we all enjoyed, but also, it gave my Dad a chance to practice one of his pastimes: pretending his kids (especially me) had questions about the menu or the service, so that he could ask these questions without compromising his own sense of savoir-faire. “What can I get for you?” a. waitress or waiter would ask, eyeballing our family of six, seated in one of those rounded booths. “Before we order,” Dad would begin, “My son Dale would like to know, what do you put in your deviled eggs?”  Another time: “My son Dale was wondering if someone could order a bowl of chili con carne without the beans,” or “My son Dale was wondering if, instead of the prepared salad dressings, you could just bring out some olive oil and vinegar.” Sure, Dad. When was the last time I ordered a salad?  (Never.) I would wait till the waitress was gone before displaying mild pique. A smile was the only response I remember ever getting from Dad.

Driving along roads that took us through cities and towns allowed us to spend some hours playing a game that would never be feasible on the Interstate, one that my brother Leon invented. To play the “Gas Station Game,” you began by taking turns choosing different brands of gas, the way you might pick players on a pickup baseball or touch-football team. He would pick first—that was just the rule—and he would always pick Standard, Then it was my turn, and I might pick Cities Service or Shell.  Then he would select Sunoco or perhaps Gulf. I might go for Sinclair. I was always happy if he left Texaco on the table, because I liked the big red star and I liked the sound of the name.  Once we each had picked a designated number of brands—usually four or five each–the competition and the scoring began. As Mom or Dad drove along, you looked out the window, watching for a gas station. If he saw and pointed out one of “his” gas stations, he got a point. If I saw one of “mine,” I got a point. The final score wasn’t tallied until you reached your destination.

Standard had far more gas stations than any other brand in the Indiana landscape in the 1950s—damned those Rockefellers!  For that reason, I don’t remember ever winning the game. Not only did Leon have the more prevalent stations, but he was more attentive to the topography.  After driving past farms and prairie land for many miles. I would be talking to my sister Elaine, or looking down, reading a book in the back seat, and forgetting there was a stiff competition going on. Suddenly, he would call out, “Sunoco! I have 9 points now.” I would look up and realize we had entered a town a couple minutes earlier, and already passed some commercial blocks full of stores and a few gas stations. But too late for me, we were just about to leave that town. As usual, I had probably left some points on the table.

I was surprised one time when Leon didn’t pick Standard first—so I did and thought I could finally rack up a win. Leon had picked something called “Esso” that was not very familiar to me  It didn’t take long for me to figure out something he already knew:  the vast majority of the Standard stations, almost overnight, had rebranded themselves with the name ESSO. (The “es” and “oh” were the initials of Standard Oil, as I would later learn.) As ever, he dominated the game.

One other feature of those road trips on state byways was the occasional encounter with a series of 7 or 8 red-and-white “Burma Shave” signs sticking up—but not very high—along some farmer’s field. Dad took particular delight in these, as he had first seen them in the 1930s, growing up in Ohio. You had to be quick if you saw one coming, in order to read each sign and grasp the whole series. Each one would come about 100 feet after the one before. If you didn’t see them all, you might miss the rhyme scheme, and the point.

Here are a few that I have found on the Web. I do not recollect if I ever saw these same ones on the road to visit Grandma and Grandpa:

Sign, Burma-Shave advertisement, “The one who // drives when // he’s been drinking // depends on you // to do his thinking”. 2005.0121.01.

 

 

 

 

 

Profile photo of Dale Borman Fink Dale Borman Fink
Dale Borman Fink retired in 2020 from Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts in North Adams, MA, where he taught courses related to research methods, early childhood education, special education, and children’s literature. Prior to that he was involved in childcare, after-school care, and support for the families of children with disabilities. Among his books are Making a Place for Kids with Disabilities (2000) Control the Climate, Not the Children: Discipline in School Age Care (1995), and a children’s book, Mr. Silver and Mrs. Gold (1980). In 2018, he edited a volume of his father's recollections, called SHOPKEEPER'S SON.

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Characterizations: funny, well written

Comments

  1. Khati Hendry says:

    I remember those old Burma Shave signs too–though not any of the rhymes. And can recall of course all the gas station names you mentioned. We never played that game, but did do “alphabet” a lot–looking for the letters sequentially on passing signs or license plates, trying to be the first to get to Z. The Q’s and J’s were always the hardest. I still do that on long drives, after all these years, but to myself.

  2. Marian says:

    Great story, Dale, and as many of us recount, full of memories of games and places we stopped. Love the Gas Station Game. Interesting that you had a pale green station wagon, as we did, too, and someone in another story mentioned green, all from station wagons in the late 1950s. I learned to drive a manual transmission (not very well) on a 1962 Nash Rambler, so your reference made me smile.

  3. Suzy says:

    Wonderful story, Dale. I love that your father asked questions of the waitress by pretending it was you who wanted to know. The Gas Station Game was great too, although your brother’s sophistication about brands of gas gave him an unfair advantage. When you first mentioned Standard, I thought to myself “wasn’t that Esso?” because I’ve never heard it called Standard, although I knew Esso was short for Standard Oil. I’m sure we played similar games in the car, but I can’t remember what they were. Mostly we sang songs, we had a whole repertoire of car songs.

  4. Betsy Pfau says:

    I love every part of this story, Dale. With only a much older brother, our trips from Detroit to Toledo to visit our grandparents weren’t as long or full of games, so it is fun to live vicariously through you. I was told by our mother that my brother was a savant at recognizing all the different kinds of cars at a very young age (guess that comes from growing up in a family in the auto industry). But we probably just listened to classical music on the drive, or I slept against my mother in the front seat. I, too, remember all those different gas stations (great stock photos) but not the Burma Shave signs. When driving around town with girl friends, we would call out when we saw VW Beetles. I think they were still exotic in Detroit. That was about as exciting as it got for us.

    I relished (pun intended) your description of your father engaging the waitress, discussing the ingredients of various menu items (and your comments about each). The items seem to come from a 1950s style of food (of course they do) and his questions strike me as amusing today. An enjoyable road trip story, all in all.

  5. Wonderful memories of your childhood family car trips, Dale and the big brother who took
    advantage of you playing the gas station game!

    And indeed stopping at roadside dinners is always great fun on long trips. And BTW my grandma had a Nash Rambler!

  6. Laurie Levy says:

    I love (and share) some of these memories of childhood car trips taking “the scenic route” through small towns. My father always favored these drives, even when the highways were constructed to make things faster. Your description of the gas station game was spot on. My brothers and I played similar I-spy type games to pass the time. The details in your story were wonderful.

  7. Dale, you brought back one of the essential elements of childhood road trips: we weren’t in control. As such, I recall all those games, the landscape flying by, the quirky behavior of the ‘grownups.’ That example of your father asking menu questions via his kids. The Gas Station Game was a new one for me, quite entertaining. We collected out-of-state license plate origins.

    I also loved the transition from Hall’s Stockyard Café to a Prime Rib Restaurant. The refinement of the bourgeois I suppose. The ESSO station resembled every station we ever stopped at before the Interstate when our byways would take us through towns. What a change the Interstate did bring!

  8. Dale,
    I like your story a lot. It seems to have been an enjoyable ride to Grandma and Grandpa’s house, across a Fifties landscape which I dimly recall, but not with so much affection because in my family car I was always bored, someone was always nauseous, and it was uphill both ways as they say. I wonder why your father played the menu game with you? Was there a prize to be won in the gas station game?

  9. John Shutkin says:

    Terrific story in many ways, Dale. I espcecially liked your clever father. I believe that is now called “projection.” Brilliant guy.

    Happily, my older and wiser brother explained to me the “Esso” derivation before I ever figure it out. And I think it is still used in Canada. (So much for Exxon.) And I also remember the Burma Shave ads, though I think we had to drive as far away as New Jersey to actually see them.

  10. Susan Bennet says:

    Lovely story, Dale, very evocative for us all. I had heard of the Burma Shave signs, but they didn’t exist in our corner of the woods. Thanks for the online exhibit! I hope your big brother eventually let you win once or twice.

  11. Dave Ventre says:

    I enjoyed this one, Dale. Reminds me of family road trip from my own childhood. I think we just missed the Burma-Shave sign era.

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