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Column: We've come a long, long way from dollar deals

WORTHINGTON -- I believe I have mentioned before that in the long, long ago that my dad had the Phillips 66 gas station on the Big Corner, the corner of Oxford and Humiston, where Walgreens is today. I was remembering days at the station last week as word came that the price of a gallon of gasoline has lifted above $4. Gas is copying the temperature, which earlier this month climbed 70 degrees in 58 hours.

Do you remember when the price of gas was 20 cents per gallon -- five gallons for $1? Now and again, there would be silent dealings. A man would drive his car up to the gas pumps with his arm out the window and a dollar bill between his thumb and forefinger. Often, he had his white shirt sleeve rolled over his elbow. This was a fad of that time. I would take the dollar bill and pump five gallons of gas. The driver would be on his way, no words exchanged.

If the driver wanted -- many drivers did want this -- I would check his oil as part of the one-dollar deal. Of course I would have washed his windshield and his rear window. I would have checked the air pressure in his tires. Some even wanted their radiators checked, or their batteries. It was a full-service operation.

I have lived with an eye on gasoline prices since that time. A lot of years. When the price started to climb, my dad would take a lot of razzing. Well, sometimes I got razzed, too:

"You must have bought a car; you charge more money for gas." "You must be planning a vacation; you charge more money for gas."

In fact, my dad (oh, I believe every dealer in the region) received a margin that almost never changed. Two cents per gallon. It made no difference whether the price of gas was 20 cents or $2.00. Earnings were two cents per gallon, or three cents. Most people knew this. Station operators would receive a phone call in a morning. "The price of gas is up a nickel." The price on the pump was changed, and life went on.

Gas at $4 is a mean reality. It forces up the price of nearly everything that comes to town on a truck, whether it's new cars or crates of lettuce. It also means the repair man ringing the door bell must charge a bit more.

The American media are given to praising the inventors of our time, the movers and shakers. Bill Gates. Steve Jobs. The tech crowd. I believe our inventors have failed in the one thing we would value most: devising an automobile without an internal combustion engine. Or devising an engine that would run on squeezings from grass and leaves. It was 105 years ago that Henry Ford turned out his first Model T, with a gas-burning engine. In more than a century we -- the billions of us on this earth -- have not found a way to improve on this.

I am inclined to blame the national news media and the politicians, in part. They are digging constantly, they tell us. "We will get to the bottom of this -- we will find out what is going on." They never have learned what is going on with the price of gasoline, however. "The reason for the hike in the price of gas is two refineries in Chicago are closed for maintenance." we were told. This is a lame explanation. I mean -- this is no explanation at all. Reporters and politicians just can't account for the price of gas.

Not that I do better. I remember a day when a dump truck stopped at the station for gas. I was still very new on that day. The driver asked me to check his oil. I added a quart; the oil still was not gurgling up the way it does when you fill a gas tank. I added another quart. And another quart. "What are you up to?" the driver wondered. "The oil is way down," I said. "It still isn't full." I am embarrassed to this day when I tell that story. Another case of, "We live and learn."

Ray Crippen is a former editor of the Daily Globe. His column appears on Saturdays.