The Oct. 13 Gazette headline and building plan announced that 79 King St. will be a $45 million commercial and residential development. As lifetime subscribers, our parents, Jim and Imogene, are in need of the laugh of their lives.
Why? Because they remembered the seedy Richfield gas station they rented there in 1934. Laughter was a daily occurrence despite the scarce times of the American 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: “All right.”
To make it in this new land, he chose the time-honoured way of fighting his way up in Golden Gloves. His boxing nickname became a marketing tool: Jim Callahan’s gas station. His reach for fame was in the boxing ring and the Gazette sports pages.
Jim was trained at the Hamp YMCA by former welterweight champion Myer Cohen and won the heavyweight title by default in 1933. In 1934, in front of 1,000 fans at the Eastern States compound in West Springfield, he defeated Northampton boxer Mike Shea in a so-called “grudge match.” Twenty years passed. “Callahan” still operated his filling station on King Street. Officer Michael Shea had brought his ticket-crazy persona to Northampton Police. 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 oldest of six, I went first. Unemployment left many followers in town. Work was scarce or less inclined to find it.
St. Michael’s Grammar and High Schools were only a few feet away. Mama kept the register and did the books. It became our second home.
Station fun revolved around pranksters sending innocent children in search of a “bucket of blue steam.” Our father, who may be in heaven, held one hand on a spark plug wire while asking a simpleton to give him a tool shop for a science demonstration! A 6-volt car battery wired to the station’s door handle made targets jump — while the guard roared.
Over in Amherst, an “It’s a wonderful life” miracle happened at Ren’s gas station. Last June, 81-year-old Ren Gladu (aka Jimmy Stewart) rebelled when his fuel dealer demanded he raise his gas prices to $5 a gallon. “I didn’t want to be part of their get-rich-quick plan.” To support his customers, Ren broke a contract and shut down his pumps. His son Jeff said, “His father fixed cars for free, gave away gas on numerous occasions, and sold affordable used cars.” When the story reached Ren’s loyal regulars, a GoFundMe drive was organized to save Ren’s from foreclosure. Over $65,000 was raised across the valley.
Ren’s son Jeff: “Now everything will be better.”
What a year for gas stations! Today’s self-service dispensers will never replace a place like Ren’s or Papa’s. The stories of helping out in difficult times echo through the decades. I resorted to verse and remembered the stories of my youth and my father’s dealings with Richfield, later Exxon, SOBs. The last stanza of my poem Bring Your Son to Work lives on:
Where the fields are rich and where
Minions sign up in search of a fairer
Tomorrow based on someone else
Gold, black gold from wells
Processed and pumped by the poor.
Later, like Jeff, I answered the gatebell of a customer who needed gas. TBA training, tires, batteries and accessories were the profit centers at each station. Go under the hood, check the oil, check for worn V-belts and/or fluid leaks. Remove quickly steaming radiator caps from your back pocket with a rag. Fancier metropolitan stations dressed their employees in white overalls. A blue shop coat served in Northampton.
A customer comes to mind. “Mr. Uptight” drove a 1930’s Pierce-Arrow with a vaulted locking gas cap on the left fender. As I ran out to serve him, a raised hand meant I shouldn’t touch his antique.
He slowly pulled out a key that unlocked the cap. Like a hawk watching, I carefully filled up its tank. Back then there were no fuel stops; a deep gurgle in the filler tube said you were close; God forbid spilling onto the paintwork.
My meticulous driver lovingly latched his silver gas cap. Nobody would steal their 25 cents a gallon! After that, he totaled up a spiral-shaped journal: gallons, dollars, odometer, and miles per gallon, which he shared.
The moral of this happy tale is that our country is far more beautiful than we read in the tabloids or the internet. Support people helping people; welcome good government that fills in the gaps.
Like Ren, our dad has done many favors. Amazingly, he won the 1953 Democratic primary for mayor by a hairy 21 votes — and rose to fame.
Miracles happen every day, namely the Midterms 2022.
Northampton columnist Jim Cahillane lives in Williamsburg. Kudos to Nancy deProsse, Bob DiCarlo, Lisa Musante and Jennifer Gladu-Howe. Your belief in America’s doer spirit serves us well in difficult times. Feedback: email@example.com.