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Jack Smith

Forget the cowboy; the real hero of the West was the gas station owner who actually serviced your car

May 20, 1987|Jack Smith

I have been premature, it seems, in reporting the disappearance of the milkman and the Fuller Brush man, so I will not say that the two-pump independent gas station where you got full service at no extra cost is gone.

But it is getting hard to find.

Kenneth Ogilvie of Arcadia writes to mourn the passing of Paul Reifer, who ran a family station at Fremont and Hellman, in Alhambra, for many years.

"If you pulled into Paul's little place he had the gasoline flowing, the windshield washed, the radiator and battery filled, air in all the tires and the hood latched down, all faster than one of our more modern attendants can ask, 'Shall I check under the hood?'

"Paul's hard work and helpful ways brought a lot of customers to his little station. He knew the people in the neighborhood and kept their cars going when money was short and transportation crucial and there was a lot more charity in it than he ever admitted. . . .

"The service station men of the West in the '30s and '40s were heroes unsung, somehow taken for granted, always available, casually thanked for saving our cars, our peace of mind and once in a while our families.

"In our literature we have mourned the passing of the cowboy and the steam locomotive engineer, but the men who made the automobile and thus Los Angeles practical haven't had much praise. . . ."

It is ironic that in this, the age of service, so much service has vanished from the scene. "Full service" at today's corporation gas station costs up to several dollars extra per tankful of gas, and even then you don't get full service. You will get your windshield washed and, as Ogilvie says, they will ask if you want them to check under your hood, but forget it if you're low on air. They direct you to a self-serve hose across the lot.

In "Back to the Future," the movie in which a teen-ager is transported back to Nov. 5, 1955, several details set the time: nickel coffee, Barbara Stanwyck and Ronald Reagan in "Cattle Queen of Montana" on the theater marquee (all seats 50 cents); Fess Parker singing "Davy Crockett" on the jukebox and a local family watching Jackie Gleason on their first TV.

But the most powerfully nostalgic touch is a scene at the gas station on the town square. A bulbous red Ford or Chevy pulls in and four men in uniform run out and swarm over the car--one washing the windshield, one opening the hood, one checking the tires and one pumping gas. Somehow it puts us back there in the 1950s better than any of the other props.

For 20 years my wife and I patronized a ma-and-pa gas station down our hill at Figueroa Street and Avenue 45. As I remember the gas was Associated; but it was an independent station run by Larry Knoll and his wife (I think her name was Katherine, but I always called her Mrs. Knoll).

When we pulled into the station the two of them would hurry out, Larry pumping the gas, checking under the hood and filling the tires while Mrs. Knoll got the windshield and the windows and wrote out the bill for us to sign.

Larry treated our car as if it were his own responsibility, always checking the wiring and the hoses. We always took our cars to the Knolls' for oil change and greasing.

We never bought gas anywhere else if we could avoid it. We never used a credit card. We always received a bill at the end of the month, which, as I remember, we always paid promptly.

It was in the 1970s, I think, that the Knolls sold out, probably because they were unable to stand the pressures during the gasoline shortages of that decade. The station became a tire outlet, and, for our service station needs, we have had no real home since.

A few years after he sold out, Knoll died. I believe his widow still lives in the neighborhood. If so, I want her to know that their years of friendly service were appreciated. Undoubtedly I will hear about other ma-and-pa service station survivors, but I'm sure their numbers are few.

I have already confessed prematurely consigning the milkman to history, and now I learn that, contrary to my doubts, we still have Fuller Brush men.

Writes Winston Miller of Marina del Rey: "The Fuller Brush man still sells us mops, whisk brooms and various other nice-looking but unneeded kitchen things every year.

"You'd better stop consigning whole industries to premature extinction before you break your own record for errors. And it's only May."

Michael Hunsinger of Ridgecrest writes, with impeccable grammar, "This is to let you know that, yes, the Fuller Brush man still exists. I know, because I am he."

As I might have guessed, there are also Fuller Brush ladies .

"Thank you for mentioning the Fuller Brush man," writes Lorraine Dubois of Brea. "Well, it is now the Fuller Brush Lady. Also, I am enjoying this new venture."

Fuller Brush lady Dubois encloses a catalogue. In case you're interested it lists such homely household items as a blind duster, a wall brush, a plain broom, a dust mop, a carpet sweeper, a shaving mug and brush set, men's hairbrushes and a non-slip belt hanger.

I would have thought the carpet sweeper would have been replaced by the electric vacuum cleaner.

I'm glad I didn't say so.

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