“I told my therapist I was having nightmares about nuclear explosions. He said don’t worry it’s not the end of the world.”
— Jay London
Air pressure once taught me a valuable lesson. It was Kansas in the summer, hot, windy, working at my father’s new 24-hour, full-service Gulf station. The orange and blue Gulf sign, towering over the intersection of Highway 281 and Interstate 70, pulled travelers off the highway in waves.
Usually, I worked alone midnight to eight, but that busy Saturday I assisted on the day shift.
“Fill ‘er up?” was the greeting, and full service was the order of the day. We stayed busy, with rare moments when the drive was empty.
If you remember full service, you know it involved a lot of work.
First, you started the gas pump. Then you popped the hood and checked the levels on oil and other fluids. You examined the belts for cracks, blew the dust out of the air filter and added distilled water to the battery. If the radiator was boiling, you carefully pulled off the cap and added water.
Closing the hood, you checked the headlights and gauged the pressure in all four tires. Then you scrubbed the bugs off the windshield and polished the windows all the way around.
If you had four or five cars on the drive, it could keep you hopping. There was no extra charge for full service. Nobody pumped their own gas. At 27.9 cents a gallon, profit was maybe two cents a gallon, and nobody tipped in those days.
My dad was always looking for ways to improve and simplify those tasks. And he loved gadgets. His newest gizmo … an air-powered chamois squeezer.
Remember the chamois? That thin, smooth leather cloth used to dry and polish car windshields. Kansas bugs, it seemed to me at the time, had the chemical consistency of tar and Elmer’s glue. Scrubbing them off was a chore. Once you scoured off the grasshoppers with a rough sponge, you finished off the job by polishing the window with a dry chamois.
After each windshield, you slopped the chamois around in a tub of water and wrung it out by hand. After several dozen cars and repeated wringing and rinsing in filthy water, your hands were a mess.
So Dad’s machine, which squeezed the chamois almost dry between uses, solved a big problem for the lowly grease monkey. Just plunge it into the rinse water a few times, drop it into that heavy molded plastic canister and hit the red button.
A hard rubber membrane inside the canister began to inflate, squeezing the chamois and pushing water out the bottom of the canister back into the tub. Once fully inflated, the red button popped out, releasing the air.
Reach in and grab a well-squeezed chamois.
It worked like a charm, over and over.
The chamois squeezer saved a lot of time. I loved it, until that hot summer afternoon when I hit the red button …. and it just kept inflating.
Phssssssssttttttttttt… It kept pouring air into the membrane.
Sssssssss …. ssssssss. The red button simply didn’t pop back out.
Leaning over the canister, pulling at the red button, I could hear the compressor cranking in back of the garage, building up pressure and pushing more air into the chamois squeezer.
When it exploded, it went off with a force that blew me across the drive, knocking me onto my back. Shards of the plastic canister and chunks of rubber membrane flew in all directions, ricocheting off the gas tanks and skittering across the concrete. A few large pieces flew into the highway right-of-way.
Dad ran from the station, lips moving… but I couldn’t hear a thing. My ears were ringing as he helped me to my feet. Unbelievably, nothing was broken. None of the jagged shards had hit me.
Together, we swept the red plastic and black rubber from the drive. Dad unplugged the carcass of the chamois squeezer from the air hose and deposited it in the trash barrel out back. We went back to wringing them out by hand.
That was about the time Dad stopped smoking. I guess we both learned safety lessons that day.
Photo Quiz Answer: This is the heat shield of the Gemini 6A space capsule, on display at the Oklahoma History Center in Oklahoma City. It flew in 1965, piloted by Tom Stafford and Wally Schirra.
Dave Berry is editor of the Tyler Morning Telegraph. His column appears every Sunday. Thanks for reading.