Open Menu
Open Menu

Jockeying the pumps

Published in

Here’s where Mike worked as a teenager. This photo was taken in the early 1960s, but the Humble station hadn’t changed. Mike was the youngest of a group of La Feria citizens who congregated most evenings in the station’s breezeway and shot… well, the breeze. Photos courtesy Michael Lamm.

One of my favorite jobs as a teenager was working at a filling station—Joe Machner’s Humble Service. Despite the name, humility wasn’t encouraged. Quite the opposite, in fact; Joe taught me to be fairly aggressive as a pump jockey. I’ll talk about aggressiveness in a moment, but to explain the name: Humble Oil was a subsidiary of Standard Oil of New Jersey and quite a popular gasoline brand in Texas.

Joe hired me when I was 14, and I worked for him off and on after school and summers until I went away to college. I also had a second job at Miller’s Garage, and I could pretty much set my own hours at both places.

Joe was a great boss. He stood about 5’6″ but seemed taller because he had so much energy. Joe hustled; never stood still. Everybody loved Joe. He had that indefinable magnetic quality—bright, good-looking, always up, cheerful, happy, smiling, a good listener and teller of stories and jokes. People wanted to be around Joe—talk to him. He’d been a Texas Leaguer in his youth, and quite a good first baseman. His team made it to the championships one year, and I think that earned him a lot of respect in La Feria, my hometown in the Lower Rio Grande Valley of South Texas.

Here’s what I mean about aggressiveness—the day I went to work for him, Joe took me aside and said, in essence, “I don’t care what you’re doing, whether you’re patching an inner tube or lubing a car…whenever you hear that bell in the breezeway, I want you to drop everything and run out to the customer. I want you to run, not walk, and I want you to have this big smile on your face. I want you to go over to the driver and say, ‘Hello, Mr. So-and-So, how are you today and what can I do for you?’ And whatever he asks you to do, you do it as fast and well as you can and then come back to him and say, ‘What else?'”

That was Joe’s philosophy, and I have to say it’s good advice for anyone in any business anytime.

The station opened at six in the morning and stayed open until 10 at night, so after supper the breezeway became sort of a social club. I was lucky enough to be a member. The club attracted a mix of La Feria citizens—farmers, business people, lawmen, and the semi-employed. When the pumps got slow in the evening, Joe’s became a great spot to just hang out and schmooze.

If you got lucky, you’d plunk yourself onto the front fenders of two cars traditionally parked grille to grille in the breezeway. Everyone else stood or sat on the curb facing the four fender sitters. The station breezeway was one of the coolest places in town, both in terms of temperature and cachet. I was usually the youngest of the group. The club normally consisted of La Feria’s three lawmen, Jake Cain, Pablo Lopez, and Pinky Dierks; Joe, my boss; Jorge, my co-pump jockey; a man named Butler, who ran La Feria’s only taxicab; Mr. Simandel, the town’s night watchman, and maybe one or two farmers or shop owners.

Joe Machner, Mike’s boss, who’d been a Texas Leaguer, kept the breezeway radio turned up loud, tuned to sports stations and country music.

Of La Feria’s three peace officers, Jake Cain was our city marshal, Pablo was town constable, and the third lawman, Pinky Dierks, was our local highway patrolman. Not that they had much crime to fight. La Feria was pretty tame in the late 1940s and early ’50s, so the lawmen’s duties were mostly to just be there and keep an eye on things. And all three were highly respected by La Feria’s citizenry.

Jake and Pablo were absolute opposites physically. Jake, who was then in his 60s, stood tall, thin, gaunt and, I think, patterned himself on Johnny Mack Brown, our favorite cowboy movie star. Pablo was 20 years younger, short and round. Both were immaculate dressers, and their “uniforms” consisted of heavily starched and beautifully ironed cowboy outfits. Their wives must have spent hours at the ironing board.

Jake’s typical getup would consist of gray twill trousers, gray-green cowboy shirt with green piping and brown inserts at the shoulders, hand-tooled belt and cowboy boots, a beige Stetson and, most fascinating to us teens, a big, shiny badge and a chrome-plated .38-caliber Colt revolver strapped to his hip. Jake Cain was the consummate cowboy lawman, and Pablo Lopez was, in our eyes, his sidekick.

Pablo wore similar outfits, again starched and ironed to a fare-thee-well, with creases as sharp and straight as a ruler. Both lawmen drove identical black 1951 Fords, each with a big red light on the roof and a chromed siren on the passenger’s front fender.

Pinky Dierks drove a black 1952 Ford, the newer body style, but his had Texas stars on both front doors. Pinky was a large man, well over six feet. He had red hair, freckles, a florid complexion and the physiognomy of a quarterback.

He wore the standard-issue Texas highway patrol uniform, which again looked a lot like a cowboy outfit. Pinky’s territory wasn’t limited to La Feria or even the surrounding area. During the day he patrolled the Valley from McAllen to Brownsville, a distance of about 60 miles. But since he lived in La Feria and spent quite a bit of time in town, we considered him another of “our” peace officers.

I’d like to tell you a quick story about Pinky. Soon after I got my first car, a 1931 Hudson sedan, I strapped a holster and my .22 pistol to the steering column and drove around town that way. Guns and cars gave pimply, insecure kids like me great feelings of power, and I guess I wanted to maximize those stirrings by combining the two. The gun was no secret, and one day Pinky followed me home in his patrol car. I saw him in my rearview mirror, and when I parked in our driveway, he stopped, too. Pinky came over to my window, but he didn’t say anything at first. He looked at my pistol on the steering column, looked at me, shook his head and said quietly, “Mike, I wouldn’t do that.”

That was all he said. It was all he needed to say. He didn’t talk to my parents, didn’t haul me off to jail, didn’t really even pass judgment. I immediately removed the gun, of course, and that was the end of it. Today, if a cop found a kid with a gun in his car, there’d be all sorts of hell to pay, probably including bookings, jail time, a criminal record, and who knows what else. But Pinky, because he knew me, knew my family, knew his own position in town… all he had to say was, “Mike, I wouldn’t do that,” and that was it.

Humble gave away a lot of these free maps.

Our evening breezeway discussions were always led by the three lawmen, and mostly they regaled us with their days’ adventures: domestic tiffs, speeders, drunks, stray animals, car accidents, and so forth. Innocent as it was, we all thought this was local news and gossip at its juiciest.

Of the hundreds of tales told in the breezeway, I remember only one. This story came from the lips of Jake Cain, and the reason I remember it is because it haunted Jake for years.

Seems he got called over to the north part of town one evening by the owner of a bar. The barkeep asked Jake to come pick up a woman named Angelina, who was very drunk. Angelina, as all of us fender sitters knew, was the town hooker; in fact, she was La Feria’s only hooker and much talked about in that regard, always with a snicker but also with a touch of wistfulness.

Jake drove over to the bar, picked up Angelina and deposited her in the back seat of his Ford, whereupon she immediately fell asleep. Jake knew where she lived, so he drove her home. When they got to Angelina’s house, Jake stopped and opened the rear door. Angelina woke up, looked at Jake, smiled sweetly and cooed that one fateful word, “Daddy!”

Jake told us the story, and everyone in the breezeway laughed, but then Pinky said, “Hey, Daddy, what happened after that?” So we had another good laugh. And from that night on, we all called Jake Cain “daddy.” It always caused a titter. Poor Jake must have hated that word, but he never got angry, never called anyone on it, and after a while we started calling him just Jake again.

Another time… I remember coming to work one day after school and seeing Joe sitting across the street in the station pickup. That seemed odd, because Joe never took it easy. But there he was in our Studebaker pickup, which we called the Ass Haul, and it looked to me like he was crying. I couldn’t hear him—too far away—but I could see his face, and it appeared to me that he was sobbing. His shoulders were moving up and down, and he had this grimaced look on his face. I felt concerned, but I consciously tried not to watch him. I thought he’d be embarrassed if he saw me staring. Joe was definitely not the sobbing type. Besides, we had customers coming and going, so I kept my head down and tended to business, pumping gas, checking oil, wiping windshields, and checking tires. It was full service in those days.

But every time I’d look across the street, there was Joe, sobbing. I asked Jorge, my co-pump jockey, if he knew what was happening with Joe, but he said no. I figured it must be something awful. Whatever it was, I’d best leave Joe alone.

It got to be suppertime, and Joe usually went home for dinner, so I finally screwed up my courage and crossed the street. As I approached the pickup, I could see that Joe wasn’t crying at all. He was chuckling. He had a big stack of comic books beside him on the seat. So he’d been laughing all this time, reading those comic books. I mentioned suppertime. He thanked me, said he’d forgotten the hour, started the Ass Haul pickup and went home.

At that time, the going wage for kids working in filling stations was 35ȼ an hour. I managed to earn enough to buy and maintain my hot rod, so I was happy. Fortunately or unfortunately, girls weren’t yet a factor. Would I want to be a pump jockey for the rest of my life? Hardly, but I still consider those few years working for Joe precious. They were great fun, and I surely did learn a lot.