Saved By the Bell

Published in the Daily Hampshire Gazette November 21, 2022

The Oct. 13 Gazette’s headline and schematic shouted out that a $45 million commercial and residential building is planned for 79 King St. As lifelong subscribers, our parents, Jim and Imogene, must be having the laugh of their post-lifetime.

Why? Because of remembering the shabby Richfield gas station they rented there in 1934. Laughter was a daily event despite the scarce times of America’s Depression. FDR was in the White House. Hope was in the air. A smiling greenhorn from Ireland; Jim was a man on a mission. His business motto: “A square deal every time.”

To make it in this new country, he chose the time-honored way of fighting his way upward in Golden Gloves. His boxing moniker became a marketing tool: Jim Callahan’s Service Station. His reach for fame was in the boxing ring and on Gazette sports pages.

Trained at the Hamp YMCA by former welterweight champion, Myer Cohen, Jim won the 1933 heavyweight title by default. In 1934, before 1,000 fans at the Eastern States grounds, West Springfield, he defeated boxer Mike Shea of Northampton in what was billed as a “grudge match.” Twenty years passed. “Callahan” still operated his King Street gas station. Officer Michael Shea had taken his ticket-mad persona to the Northampton police force. Where, in a TKO, Mayor “Big Jim” Cahillane was his new boss.

During those 20 years, I grew up in and around dad’s gas station. As the eldest of six, I went first. Unemployment left many hangers-on around the place. Work was scarce, or they were little inclined to find it.

St. Michael’s Grammar and High Schools were yards away. Mom ran the cash register and did the books. It became our home from home.

Station high jinks revolved around jokers who sent innocent kids in search of a “bucket of blue steam.” Our father, who may well be in heaven, held one hand on a spark-plug wire, while asking a simpleton to hand him a tool, making for a science demonstration! A 6-volt car battery wired to the station’s door handle saw targets jumping — as watchers roared.

Over in Amherst, an “It’s a wonderful life” marvel happened at Ren’s Service Station. Last June, 81 year-old Ren Gladu, (aka, Jimmy Stewart) revolted when his fuel distributor demanded he raise his gas prices to $5 a gallon. “I didn’t want to be part of their scheme to get rich.” In support of his customers, Ren broke a contract and shut down his pumps. His son Jeff said “his father had repaired cars for free, given away gas on numerous occasions, and sold affordable used cars.” When the story reached Ren’s loyal regulars, a GoFundMe effort was organized to save Ren’s from foreclosure. Over $65,000 was raised across the Valley.

Ren’s son, Jeff: “Things are going to be better now.”

What a year for gas stations! Today’s self-service pumps will never replace a place like Ren’s or dad’s. The stories of helping out during hard times echo across the decades. Resorting to verse, I recalled my youth and dad’s tales of dealing with Richfield, later Exxon, SOB’s. The final stanza of my poem, “Take Your Son To Work,” lives on:

Where the fields are rich and where

Minions enlist in search of a fairer

Tomorrow based on someone else’s

Gold, black gold drawn from wells

Processed and pumped by the poor.

Later, like Jeff, I answered driveway bells of a customer in for gas. TBA training, tires, batteries and accessories, were the profit centers at every station. Get under the hood, check the oil, twist for worn out fan belt and/or fluid leaks. Quickly remove steaming radiator caps by using a rag from your back pocket. Fancier big city stations attired their staff in white coveralls. A blue shop-coat served in Northampton.

One customer comes to mind. “Mr. Uptight” drove a 1930s Pierce-Arrow with a vault-like locking gas cap on its left rear fender. When I ran out to serve him, a raised hand signaled that I was not to touch his antique.

Slowly, he drew out a key unlocking the cap. Watched like a hawk, I carefully topped up his tank. No fueling shutoffs back then; a deep gurgle in the filler pipe said you were close; God forbid an overspill onto paint work.

My pedantic driver lovingly relocked his silver gas cap. No one was going to steal his 25-cents a gallon purchase! Afterward, he totted up a spiral daybook: Gallons, dollars, odometer and miles per gallon, which he shared.

The moral of this happy story is that our country is a lot nicer place than we read about in the tabloids or online. Support people helping people; welcome good government filling in the gaps.

Like Ren, our dad did a lot of favors. Amazingly, he won the 1953 Democratic primary for mayor by a hairy 21-votes — becoming famous.

Miracles happen every day, viz., the 2022 midterms.A Northampton native, columnist Jim Cahillane lives in Williamsburg. Kudos to Nancy deProsse, Bob DiCarlo, Lisa Musante and Jennifer Gladu-Howe. Your belief in America’s can-do spirit serves us well in hard times.

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