2002 Pulitzer nominee News, Spin

9-1-1, a National Call to Emergency, and We’re Low on Gas

Loose Leaves column, 1st published Sunday 16 September 2001 in The Morning News of Northwest Arkansas

By Ben S. Pollock
Copyright 2001 Donrey Media Group

TUESDAY — Here it is, 2 p.m. Gas-station shenanigans hold up everything.

Earlier today, I was wrapping up some family business in Fort Smith, and after lunch was driving along and saw that outside a couple of filling stations were two-block lines of vehicles for gasoline. What is this, 1979, the Tehran Embassy takeover and the threat of dollar gas?

It made sense with the morning’s continental terrorism. What’s it mean? War? Attacks eventually here in Middle America? Loss of our conveniences?

I phoned a newsroom colleague. He said reported rumors of shortages were found to be unfounded. That was not convincing people against precautions. He had topped off his own tank.

He warned that some stations hiked their prices, either to make a quick buck or to slow sales in case refineries fell short later, though they had plenty of crude on this awful Tuesday. We agreed that if I found a convenience store with a short line to go for it but otherwise not to sweat it.

If there is to be a shortage, what will waiting hours in line buy today: An extra week of cruising? When we’re out, we’ll be out.

What’s an hour and maybe a five-buck overcharge compared to that cloud over Manhattan? Mundane.

The first stations on the road to Springdale all have lines; some are $1.58 or $1.69 as before, but some post $2 a gallon or more. The Fayetteville area surely will be the same.

I exit at little Mountainburg for a station a couple of miles from Interstate 540, closer to old U.S. 71.

The C-store has up to four cars at each pump; none has to idle along the road. I spot a pump with no line, just one car about to be fueled.

What’s taking that car so long? I can’t believe I just did what I always avoid doing in groceries and banks. The shortest line always takes the longest. Now, I am pinned and cannot move. Look at the driver. A little older than me, she’s fussing and fidgeting. These are credit-card-accepting pumps. This new to her? The least she could do is shrug, acknowledge me. Must be a Yankee. Doesn’t she know which end and which side of the credit card to stick in? If she doesn’t figure that out soon, I’m going to, I’m going to, well, I’m going to honk my horn. She could ask the clerk for help. Her face is blank. National Public Radio now is giving details about the Pentagon hit and the crash near Shanksville, Pa. That woman looks about grimly and focuses on nothing. I look around. Everyone looks serious. Hey, this is one gorgeous day. Late summer’s first hint of a clear fall afternoon where air conditioning finally is superfluous. Two guys in a car on the right are talking. By the gestures, it looks like one is asking the other if he wants anything inside. They’re muscular, with contemporary shaved heads. He’s going in. Glad I’m not in that line. This day, get your gas and leave, buddy. He’s back, already, with bottles of Mountain Dew. My leader just started to pump fuel into a nondescript, not-too-old sedan. It must hold a hundred gallons, and she must have the pump set at “eyedropper.” Doesn’t she need to be somewhere, too? This is to be a day we’re all going to remember, “9-1-1 — the nation’s call to emergency.” Will our memories be of sitting just outside a gas station canopy waiting to funnel in overpriced petroleum that’s cheaper than anywhere else in the world?

She’s done!

It’s tough, but I manage to smile at her, be neighborly like the Southern boy I am. She just drives off, looking only toward the road.

Why am I so mad? I never get like this. Almost never.

Sheesh, gas now is 50 cents higher. Might as well buy some. I’ve waited this long.

The pump display orders me to insert my credit card again. The diagram next to the read-out shows the card should go in the other way, unlike all other pumps, surely. I should have looked. Now I’m mad at myself.

With receipt in hand — for just seven gallons — I return to the freeway. The anger dissipates. That happens quickly when anger’s unfocused, unorganized: Mad at my fellow customers. At the store. At how predictable this is. At how unpredictable the hijackings are. At how that’s left all of us feeling.

We could guess our formal and personal response to Iraq invading Kuwait. This just started, though. It is so different from everything.

Should we laser the anger, train and hone it into soldiering? That’s going to be needed.

What about the anger that propelled people smart and fearless enough to learn to fly commercial aircraft around obstacles, above the din of screaming passengers, squarely into buildings? What’s their problem?


Note: This was my final Loose Leaves column for The Morning News of Northwest Arkansas. I didn’t know that when I filed this. I was downsized with two others the following week for “economic restructuring.” I was the editorial page editor for a year, the previous almost two years I had been one of two metro editors.

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