Focal Point: What Do I Owe You?

DAVE BERRY/ STAFF The Gulf badge on my work shirt matched the towering sign that drew people off the interstate to our service station.

“Opportunity is missed by most people because it is dressed in overalls and looks like work.”

Thomas A. Edison

I worked the midnight-to-8 shift. … Full service, pumping gas at Les & Paul’s Gulf station.

That time of day could be lonely out where Highway 281 intersected with the new stretch of Interstate 70 through Kansas. But I liked the night, when temperatures were noticeably milder and customers generally friendlier. And I saw a lot of great sunrises.

For an hour or two after midnight, it could be hectic, especially if that towering Gulf sign pulled a caravan off the highway. At those times, half a dozen cars or vans might fill the drive. You pumped gas, washed windshields, checked oil, aired up tires … all the while keeping an eye on the cash register and making sure no one helped themselves to the cigars in the El Roi-Tan box atop the cigarette machine.

Before leaving it to me, Dad would often hang out with me for a bit. He was the “Les” in Les & Paul’s Gulf. After recording the day’s sales, counting the money in the register and putting the bulk of it away in a bank bag hidden behind oil cans in the storeroom, we would pull two orange molded fiberglass chairs onto the empty drive, away from the brightest lights where the flying insects gathered.

For a little while on those nights, we sat — moon overhead, night hawks calling in the dark, dry breeze evaporating the sweat — enjoying the quiet, saying little, sharing much.

Then, with a “call me if you need me,” he would end what was often a 12-hour shift and head for home and bed.

By 2 a.m., when drunks were usually off the road, most cross-country travelers were snoring in area motor hotels and the occasional hitchhiker had flattened a spot for his bedroll in the wheat field across the road … things would slow way down.

We weren’t a truck stop, and we didn’t carry diesel, but we got a few of the big rigs … even if only to stretch and “coffee up” for the next lonesome span of highway. We were halfway between Kansas City and Denver, about where the white stripes in the center of the highway start to hypnotize and truckers fight to stay awake.

I served a lot of free coffee — and hosted a lot of sleep-overs for drivers who simply couldn’t keep going.

I didn’t see a lot of families that late at night. Most knew better than to tackle the flat western half of Kansas by moonlight, hoping a sufficient number of service stations would keep their lights on all night to provide gas and bathroom breaks.

On one particular night, I had swept the junebugs from the service bays, washed down the drive, reloaded the Pepsi machine and freshened the water in the chamois tub when the old sedan pulled unceremoniously up to one of the near pumps.

“Fill ’er up?” I asked. The driver nodded sleepily. “Regular,” he instructed as his wife rolled from the passenger side and aimed her young son toward the restroom. A little girl slept in the front seat beside her father, who moved carefully to avoid waking her.

The visit was routine. As the tank filled, I added a quart of oil, checked fluid levels in the battery, blew dust from the air filter, checked for cracks in the fan belt, gauged the tires and checked to see that all lights were unbroken and working. After scrubbing a layer of encrusted insects off the windshield, I topped off the tank and ran the man’s credit card through the imprinter.

Soon, with family refreshed and ready for the road, he twisted the ignition key.

Nothing. ... Again. … Nothing.

Several times more. Still nothing.

I must confess I’m not a mechanic. I was a pump jockey with a smattering of knowledge about the basics. Nothing deep. I popped the hood, putting my head underneath to check the usual suspects … battery, cables, wiring. It all looked good from on top. The battery carried plenty of charge; the cables were tight; the distributor cap was secure; the plug wires appeared to be intact. … I couldn’t find an easy fix.

Nothing I tried worked, so I reluctantly called my father. He had probably been in bed now for two or three hours, and I hated to wake him. But I was stumped. I needed a real mechanic.

In just a few minutes, he returned to where he had spent his day. After exchanging greetings with the man and his wife, he put his head under the hood with mine, and we examined everything a second time … searching for whatever was keeping the starter from engaging.


We put the car in neutral and pushed it away from the pump, into the garage, where we positioned it over the hoist and raised it into the air. The family was settled into our orange chairs … the little girl asleep in her mother’s arms, the boy nodding, trying to curl up on the hard plastic seat.

Disappearing under the car with a shop light, Dad explored the underside, checking the starter, looking for anything unusual. Nothing. He lowered the car back down and crawled on top the engine again.

Another car pulled up to the pumps, startling the family as it drove across the rubber hose that rang the bell over their heads. “Ding-ding, ding-ding.” The mother smiled as she urged her daughter back to sleep. I gassed that one up while Dad continued exploring under the hood. After probably 10 more minutes, he slammed the hood and asked the man to “give it a try.”

Without hesitation, it started on the first turn of the key.

It was a dangling wire, hard to spot, but important. He tightened it down, and that was that.

“What do I owe you?” the man asked.

“Nothing,” Dad told him. “It was just a loose wire.”

I was as surprised as the traveler, who objected, offering to pay for the aggravation of getting someone out of bed in the middle of the night.

He went for his wallet and Dad told him to put it away. He had already paid for gas and a quart of oil. That was enough for my father. He had been in that same situation … long way from home, back seat full of kids … and car trouble. “Maybe you can help someone else some day,” Dad told him.

That was the summer between my freshman and sophomore years in college … the summer my college career hung in the balance. My folks simply didn’t have enough money to pay my tuition. And I never knew it.

Dad never said a word, and my mother only told me a few years ago. But money was tight; the station wasn’t turning much of a profit; the wheat crop was disappointing; my older brother was near graduation; three more were in high school … and pulling me out of college seemed to be the only solution.

As it turned out, I got some extra day jobs that summer, landed a work-study stint at school and delivered bulk mail on weekends. That was enough to fill the void and I made it through, never aware money was such an issue. All five of us — my two brothers, two sisters and I, children of a wheat-farming mechanic and an elementary school teacher — all made it through, earning five college degrees. I think we should have been the ones asking, “What do we owe you?”

That night, somewhere between midnight and dawn, Dad could have asked any price and gotten it. He knew the man expected a major repair bill and was asking about local hotels and preparing to spend a day or two in Russell, Kansas, waiting on parts.

Instead, my father did what was right, shook hands and sent the astonished traveler on his way.

Gassed, serviced, engine purring, the old sedan pulled onto the dark highway and headed west toward a Colorado vacation. Dad yawned, returned his wrenches to the tool bench, wiped his hands on a red shop towel and climbed into his Ford Galaxy to head home to bed.

“Call me if you need me,” he said as he drove away.


Dave Berry is editor of the Tyler Morning Telegraph. His column appears every Wednesday on the front of the My Generation section.


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