Now that we’re older, you and I are never going to have summers that feel like the ones we had when we were young. Those of you with kids can get a whiff of the way it was as you watch them go through their own summer experiences, but watching vicariously doesn’t feel the same as the real thing did. I have written a lot about bygone summers at this blog, as in this post, which originally appeared on July 14, 2009.
In the late spring of 1978, the Wisconsin Department of Transportation was getting ready to open the new bypass, which would take travelers around the north side of my hometown instead of making them crawl through the town itself. Right where Highways 11 and 69 intersected, Crandall Oil was opening a new self-service gas station. I forget exactly how it happened, but I got a job there, with the understanding that it would be for the summer only. I’d be going off to college in the fall.
Although I would be making only the minimum wage—$2.65 an hour back then—it would beat the hell out of driving a tractor on the farm. . . . I would be sitting in a little air-conditioned building with a glassed-in front, dealing with customers through a slot under the window, like a bank teller. Unlike the gas station I’d worked for the previous summer, this one had no cigarettes, potato chips, or candy bars to sell—just gasoline, motor oil, and windshield-wiper fluid. Apart from collecting money, all I had to do was hose off the driveway and swab the restrooms. Just as the station opened, however, the state announced that the opening of the new highway was going to be delayed a few months. So instead of being right there where everybody was passing by, the station was now tucked away on an exit nobody was going to use. Rather than having hundreds of customers per day, the station would be lucky to get a couple dozen.
There was no turning back, however. The station opened, and I went to work. As it turned out, I worked something like 68 days in a row that summer without a day off. I could do this because the shifts were short—generally 7 to noon, noon to 6, or 6 to 9 at night—and because with few customers, the job was ridiculously easy. Sometimes, particularly on Sundays, I’d have no customers at all.
In essence, I got paid to listen to the radio all summer. . . .
Which is nice work if you can get it. I spent those days with WFRL from Freeport, Illinois, and the jocks—Neil and Chris and Harv and Jeff and Jim—became as real to me as the flesh-and-blood people I saw every day. As we have noted here before, there was once a time when relatively small cities such as Freeport (population 20,000) had solid, locally programmed and staffed Top-40 stations, and WFRL was tremendous.
Nevertheless, my job and the radio were not the most important facts of that summer. Although we never spoke openly about it, my friends and I knew that come August, we would be going our separate ways, and life was never again going to be like it was right then. So many nights I’d lock up the gas station at 9:00 and go off to find them, even if I had to be back to work at 7:00 the next morning.
We often say that we wish we could have known in the past what we know now. But that summer was one instance in which we really did know then what we still know now: those nights were too precious to waste.