‘Progress’ sometimes sets us back

For a brief moment, I felt like Marty McFly just having been DeLoreaned Back to the Future. A beaming attendant asked if I wanted to “fill ’er up?” This was quickly followed by seven words I thought I would never hear again, to wit: “Check your oil and windshield washer fluid?” And, as quickly as I could utter an agog “high test and yes, please,” precious fossil fuel was being pumped into my little Ford Focus and lickety-split (one is allowed to use tired old clichés when confronting apparitions from the past), my windows were spotless. Wow! Service and with a smile.

And then this apparition from the past did something even more extraordinary, something that really is worth taking the drive all the way to the corner of Island Park Drive and Wellington Street West in Ottawa to observe before, like all endangered species, it disappears forever from our Earth.

Having started my fill-up (and, for an apparition from the past, he certainly figured out my fuel-capless Focus quickly enough), he spotted another customer just pulling up beside another pump and ran — he actually ran — to repeat the same beaming-smile pantomime all over again.

When was the last time you saw anyone in customer service in any field, let alone automotive, run on his job? With a smile on his face? I can tell you when I last saw it: my last viewing of the aforementioned Back to the Future, where director Robert Zemeckis specifically used the iconography of full-service Texaco attendants to illustrate poor Marty’s desperate disorientation. Yet, here was Terrence McDonnell — windshield cleaner in one hand, fuel nozzle in the other — darting from car to car making sure all Island Park Esso Service’s customers were getting the same beamed-back-to-1955 experience. Only the lack of a duck-billed cap and a natty uniform shattered the illusion.

It meant the entire sojourn back to my hectic, very modern life in Toronto was spent in wistful reminiscence. First, it was remembering the 1966 Plymouth Fury III I drove for a year in college. A lime-green hand-me-down from neighbours and God knows who else, it was motoring at its simplest. An ignition key, two pedals and one stalk-mounted gear selector was the entire complement of controls. Distractions were few compared with the mobile supercomputers we now drive. I suppose I could have fiddled with the radio tuning knob incessantly, but even for an ADDed inveterate channel changer like me, that would have gotten old pretty quickly.

I also remember working on the darn thing with my dad. Back then we were going through our I’m-the-king-of-this-house-no-you’re-not-I’m-the-new-buck-in-town routine that is part and parcel of the teenage male maturing process. Just about the only communication we could manage was “pass the 5/8th socket.” Thank God, starter motors were easily repairable back in those days or we probably would not have exchanged a civil word for my entire 18th year.

And it wasn’t just starter motors. Before “efficiency” and “downsizing” forced engine bays to be shrunk, you could actually change spark plugs without dropping the motor or replace a blown exhaust manifold gasket without a degree from MIT. Replacing an oil filter didn’t require the manual dexterity of a brain surgeon. Yes, cars are better, faster, more comfortable and entertaining these days, but let’s not forget that we have sacrificed something for all these new creature comforts.

I also don’t remember incessant over-policing of our roads being a problem back before God (actually Robert Bosch) invented fuel injection. Speeding was more frowned upon than officially castigated. Yes, we enjoy safer roads today, but methinks that’s more to do with air bags and crumple zones than any of the constabulary’s laser gun ministrations. And, for a jolting reminder of how much things have changed since Island Park Esso’s attentions were common, my son was assaulted the other day and we’ve been told the detective’s caseload is such that there is precious little time to investigate such a — I guess “minor” — crime. Yet, paradoxically, on the way home from the cop shop, we passed no less than four speed traps, most of which were manned by more than one constable. Complain all you want about old-time policing methods, at least they had their priorities right.

I also miss drive-in make-out sessions, bench front seats, three-on-the-tree and trunks you could swim in. And I feel sorry for anyone who’s never experienced the utter hubris of a Chrysler Imperial (two kilometres long and weighing something like 3,000 kilograms, it still only had two doors and no rear-seat leg room to speak of), the utter insouciance of a Hertz GT 350H Mustang rent-a-racer and the absolute indestructibility of a mid-’60s Ford Galaxie that tackled our off-road races to hidden kegger parties with a robustness unmatched by even SUVs today.

We continuously congratulate ourselves on how much things have improved. But, cocooned in the cozy confines of my warm Ford Focus while young Terry ministered to my every automotive need somehow made the pitiful few cents a litre I save pumping my own gas seem positively barbaric.

Station attendants Terrance McDonnell, left, and Ian Hunter care for a customer at the full service Island Park Esso in Ottawa, Ont.
Photograph by: Dave Chan, for National Post