"Blackie's Veltex Station"
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by Ron Cruger
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I heard that there were still a few Veltex Service Stations around. I heard there’s one
in The Dalles, Oregon, up at the end of old highway 30. Someone told me that the Veltex sign is still a landmark there, beckoning
to cars running low on fuel.
The Veltex station that’s stuck in my memory was at the nexus
of Hyde Park Boulevard and Hyde Park Place, where both streets meet La Brea Avenue, in Inglewood, California.
The round sign with the Fletcher Oil lettering curved on top of the arc and the word Company on the bottom had a large “V” in the
sign’s center, with the word “Veltex” lettered across the “V.”
The round blue and orange
sign didn’t turn or light up. It just sat there, on top of a twenty foot white metal pole.
Lettered in bold type on the front of the small pre-fab building that served as the station’s office was the name that all residents
of the area recognized, “Blackie’s Veltex Station.”
The building itself was of corrugated
metal. The front of the structure was mostly the large glass window which showcased a rarity for that year – a small Hoffman seven
inch television set. Poking up, behind the set itself was the only way to pick up a television signal back then, a rabbit ears antenna,
with each “ear” spread to its full twenty four inches. Sheets of thin aluminum were affixed to each “ear” so as to better pick up
the television signals sent from Los Angeles’ four television stations. The screen of the set was turned to the outside of the small
building to attract viewers (and paying customers) to “Blackie’s Veltex Station.”
white, blue and orange painted building was a desk with a glass top covering the grey surface and an old wooden swivel chair. A coke
machine stood in the corner. Embossed metal signs advertised Veltex oils and lube services. Last year’s calendar featuring a bathing
suit model was nailed next to the door leading to the back of “Blackie’s” property. Next to the Coke machine stood an old metal locker,
seven feet high, painted a dark, olive green.
It was 1948 and the war had been over for
only three years.
I was fourteen years old and only four years removed from the streets
of the Bronx. I was skinny and still carried the embarrassing Bronx accent that immediately cast me as a newcomer in this land. I
said things like “earl” instead of oil. “Buttah” instead of butter. “Bawl” instead of ball. I tried to imitate my newly found California
friends, but those Bronx versions kept pouring out of my mouth. I tried to say, ”What are you doing?” It comes out, “Watchadune?”
Hardly a day passed without me riding my bicycle through one of “Blackie’s” two small roadways.
Most days I would stop and say “hi” to “Blackie.” He was the one adult other than my mother and father who I felt comfortable talking
with. “Blackie” always had time for anyone who dropped by.
My dad and “Blackie” had become
good friends during the three years that we had lived in Inglewood. Dad had gotten a job repairing trucks in downtown Los Angeles
as soon as we arrived in California from the Bronx. He liked working on cars and trucks.
Dad would spend a few hours on Saturday and the same on Sunday sitting with “Blackie” on well-used metal chairs which they had leaning
at restful angles against the metal of the building.
They could sit for hours, “Blackie”
on the right, Dad on the left. The front legs of their chairs off the ground. The rear legs digging into the compacted dirt strips
on one side of the gasoline pump islands. They’d smoke cigarettes. Dad, his Camel’s, “Blackie,” his Lucky Strikes. They would watch
thirsty cars pull in to the driveway, run across the black rubber tubes that rang the bell inside the small building and alerted “Blackie”
that a car was to be serviced. Dad would help “Blackie.” He liked being around cars. Those were the days when getting gasoline meant
that the attendant would fill your tank, ask you to open the hood of your car so he could check your oil and water and look for any
trouble signs around your engine. Then, the attendant would dip his squeegee into the five gallon water bucket and wash your windshield,
all without you asking or further charge.
Dad helped “Blackie” because they had become
friends. In return “Blackie” let Dad use the station’s lube facilities, which consisted of a cement walled hole in the ground that
cars drove over and exposed their bottoms.
“Blackie” was taller and larger than my dad.
He was younger too. Dad was forty two years old. “Blackie” was around thirty. Dad served in the National Guard, but never had to participate
in the war. “Blackie” didn’t talk about it much, but word got around that he was a war hero. Dad told me that “Blackie” had killed
“ten or twenty German soldiers.” I always believed that. He was a tough looking man. His fingernails were always filled with the stuff
from car innards. He smelled of cigarettes and motor oil. He didn’t shave every day. He wore working man’s jeans and a T-shirt and
always the same boots. He looked rough and tough, but he was always kind and gentle with me and I think with my dad.
Sometimes, on weekends, I would sit on the ground, next to Dad and “Blackie” and I would listen to them discuss things. They talked
of the “Iron Curtain” that had recently gone up in Europe. They spoke of “Commies,” and the “Cold War,” and George C. Marshal and
his plan to save Europe. I listened to them talk, back and forth, of Gandhi being assassinated, of the groups fighting for civil rights,
of the newly formed state of Israel.
I listened and learned more than I did in the classroom.
They didn’t always agree, but they knew how to calmly differ with each other. I learned from their debates.
Their talks weren’t always of the difficulties of the world. They remarked about the first network news telecast on CBS by Douglas
Edwards, of the success of “Kukla, Fran and Ollie,” of the sensations of Milton Berle, “Candid Camera” and “Toast of the Town” with
The cars that pulled into “Blackie’s” were mostly built in the 1930’s. Fords,
Chevrolets, Packards, Pontiacs, Hudsons, Zephyrs and Nashes. Once in a while a fancy Buick Special would pull in.
During those quiet hours in the middle of the day, when the men were at work and the women at home, Dad, “Blackie” and I would play
catch with a hardball. I knew that my dad was a good baseball player and I could tell that “Blackie” had some talent for the game.
The three of us would go off to the side of the station area and play catch, throwing knuckle balls and curve balls to each other.
Each of us had our own favorite baseball glove.
I liked playing catch with the two men.
I felt grown up, but I enjoyed it even more when they permitted me to sit on the ground as they sat and smoked and leaned on their
metal chairs against the metal building. They spoke of carburetors, mufflers, spark plugs and voltage regulators. They also spoke
of women and wives and children.
“Blackie” spoke of his ex-wife who had left him when he
was in Germany, fighting the war. His voice rose in anger and disappointment when he related about her. He talked of his two children
that lived with her in New Jersey and about how he missed them so much that he thought his heart would tear in two.
I listened to “Blackie” tell my Dad of his mother dying only a year after his father left her and little “Blackie” and moved to Alaska.
“Blackie” never saw his father again. Never even received a letter or a post card from him. Not a phone call. “Could be dead, for
all I know,” he whispered.
I remember listening to “Blackie” talk about his mother and
what she meant to him. He was an only child and adored by his mother. I looked upwards at him as he spoke of her. A couple of times
he stopped in mid-sentence, unable to halt the memories.
Sometimes Dad and I would walk
home together after spending a few hours with “Blackie.”
Once, I said, “Dad, that ‘Blackie’
is sure a nice guy, isn’t he? You like him a lot, don’t you?”
“Yes, yes, I do, son. He’s
a good friend. He carries a lot of pains inside.”
I said, “Is it true that he was a war
hero? Did he kill a lot of Germans?”
“I think so, son. “Blackie” doesn’t like to talk too
much about those times, but I think he was a hero.”
I asked my Dad, “Maybe we could have
‘Blackie’ come to our house. Maybe for dinner or something.”
“That’s nice, son, but I don’t
think he would come. “Blackie” doesn’t want to get too close to people.”
I had no idea
of what my Dad meant.
“What do you mean, Dad?”
“It’s difficult for me to tell you this, son, but “Blackie” doesn’t have long to live. He has cancer and the doctors have given him
less than a year to live. He doesn’t want to get too close to people because he won’t be here too long. He doesn’t want to hurt anyone
– or himself. I think that my friend “Blackie” is not just a hero from the war, but in real life too.”
Seven months passed and Dad still spent much of his weekends with “Blackie” at the Veltex station.
I still peddled my bike down the dirt aisles by the gas pumps. During weekdays I would wave at “Blackie” as I went by. He would always
wave back and smile. On weekends I would sit and listen to Dad and “Blackie” talk about world affairs, love, wives, children and being
One day I rode my bike to “Blackie’s” Veltex Station and noticed a sign on the
It said “Closed.”
I knew what that
Besides the minister, a representative from the U.S. Army and the man from the funeral
parlor, Dad and I were the only ones at “Blackie’s” funeral.
“Blackie” really was a hero.
He’ll always be one to me.