by Dave Brownell
The National Park Service placed “Thurman Station,” the former Standard Oil station at Thurman and Cleveland avenues in Shaw, in the National Register of Historic Places on July 23. Preservation Research Office prepared the building’s nomination for new owners who are converting the building into the home of The Social Affair, a catering business, small market and cooking class facility. Literally as soon as listing was official, crews were at work converting this long-vacant neighborhood into a active part of Shaw’s economic life. We received this article while awaiting listing.
When friends visiting from St. Louis brought this internet article to my attention, my thoughts quickly turned into a little reminiscing:
This relic of a Standard Oil station turns out to be the very place, fifty-two years ago, where I grew from being a Car Fan into a Car Guy. From my sixteenth birthday until I qualified for a commercial driver’s license at eighteen, this is the place where the boy became a man. And reading and reflecting on the renewal plans in 2013 is when the man becomes a boy once again.
This corner gas station is where my father (and much of the surrounding Shaw neighbors) would drive a car for a weekly “two Dollars, Regular” experience in buying gasoline. In the late fifties, bars and taverns outnumbered gas stations three to one, so there wasn’t a lot of competition nearby. John Wolf, a very young looking Korean War veteran, was the station’s proprietor. John noticed that Pop’s cars were almost always very clean. He asked how my father managed it and was told “the Kid does it, mostly without asking.” John mentioned that he could use such a talent around the station, especially on Friday afternoons and Saturdays, when there were too many customers who wanted their cars washed and serviced in time for the weekend. Pop told me to go down and make official what I had been doing for our neighbors for several years, saying that I might even dare to ask for a dollar an hour, a big jump from the seventy-five cents I got for washing and sweep out a neighbor’s car. A dozen or so of these folks had trusted me with their cars and keys, beginning about age fourteen, to keep their cars clean, so here was my chance to enter into the big time as a professional.
John Wolf hired me that summer afternoon and my education began the very next morning. He showed me how to quickly and efficiently wash a customer’s car, starting with a hose at the roof, working down, with the wheels done last with a separate sponge. Five minutes per car was his goal and maybe an hour for “Simonizing” if the sun was not too hot and direct. I clearly remember that first “professional” car wash was a new 1960 Chevy Impala 409 hardtop with a four-speed. The crew-cutted owner watched me carefully position his treasure without stalling it before cleaning its new white paint back to a factory shine. This guy, with his beautiful car, continued to became a weekly wash customer, so I must have done well while under intense observation from both client and boss.
Within the first few days John taught me how to “count up” change, deal with the new Addressograph credit card imprinter, handle the cash register, pump gas, check oil and tire pressure without prompting, and sell a new set of Anco wiper blades or Atlas tires to those who needed it. Teaching me how to measure the underground gas tanks with a long wooden pole and then reconciling fuel delivery amounts took a bit of patience. A week later I was putting cars on one of the two lifts, changing oil, sucking oil out of Chevy canister filters, and pumping grease into several dozen fittings on the average car. All of this had to be done with a smile and more than a bit of hustle. On slow days, I did things like painting the curbing with white paint and every Saturday night, before the station was finally closed for the weekend, the lube bays were scrubbed and mopped clean for a Monday opening. John entrusted me with the keys to his 1940 Ford coupe “parts car” and the International tow truck that seemed to hate me and anyone but John on its first attempt to start each day. Ever resourceful and frugal, John developed a system where we’d drain the last drops from the emptied fiber oil cans, eventually collecting a stew of fresh oil, enough to give us a “free” oil change for each of our personal and station vehicles every month!
A few weeks before my summer vacation job was to come to an end, John trusted me enough to be left in charge while he took a week’s vacation with his family. Little did I know that his former boss, who had trained him in much the same way at about the same age, had been asked to drive by or stop in, posing as an customer, just to see how I was doing. Apparently, I did just fine because my job was extended almost another year as after-school work.
If this station someday makes it onto a list or historical registry, it will represent, for me, a personal landmark for kind and patient mentoring. John Wolf was among the youngest children from a baker with a large (17?) family and shop less than a block away. By being among the youngest, he must have learned the value of instructing and encouraging someone younger and did it very effectively. These days, all of my five children have picked up a treasure of automotive tips learned at this station. Passing on some of the automotive and interpersonal skills I picked up that year is perhaps the best way a Car Guy knows how to say thank you.
Dave Brownell (firstname.lastname@example.org) is president of the Corvette Club of Atlanta, Georgia.