I shall never forget that first winter of gasoline rationing
Once upon a time I could ignore my alarm clock for another fifteen minutes and leave the house for work scandalously late. I could back out my eager car, gaily zoom down the steepest street, dodge the downtown traffic, and make a neat landing in my office one full minute ahead of the boss. My hat would be in the back seat of the car, also my umbrella, raincoat, and galoshes, in case of need.
But—December 1, 1942, changed all that. I shall never forget that first winter of gasoline rationing. I was working several miles from home, and my alarm clock began to sound like an army bugle. Morning after morning I jumped out of bed and dressed at high speed, swallowed my ration of coffee, and groped my way out of the front door. Exactly 7:10 (6:10 by the sun, in the old time). I always hesitated on the steps for half a second to get the feel of the weather. But no matter whether there was wind, or rain, or fog ( and a northern California winter revels in all three), it was still night—and cold. Gingerly I eased myself into the darkness, stifled mean thoughts of thugs and purse-snatchers, took a long breath, and plunged into what I called, to keep up my spirits, my “victory hike.”
I walked to work either in my trusty brown shoes with the sensible square heels which, I feared, made me look like the matron in a penal institution, or my dingy white flats left over from college days. Funny thing about those flats—I had worn them with care-free confidence on the campus, but on the city streets they made me feel self-conscious even though I did my best to keep them clean. I carried in my mittened hands not only my bag bulging with cosmetics, keys, coin purse, ration books, sandwich, olives, two walnuts, and a tangerine but the library book I was returning and, if I wasn’t using them at the moment, my umbrella, raincoat, and galoshes. On most mornings I leaned against the wind all the way down the hill. The weather was from the Pacific, to the west, and my bread and butter lay in the teeth of it. In winter, the wind had the flavor of wet icebergs, and the playfulness of a peevish polar bear. It ripped off buttons from raincoats and untied bandanna knots. It doused the rain above the bagging knees of rayon stockings. I thought of walkers in the East and Middle West in places buried under ice and snow, with the thermometers at zero. Then I thought of soldiers in Iceland, and sailors on the North Atlantic, and was ashamed of myself for shivering.
When first reduced to my A book, I almost caught myself wishing that I had two automobiles to leave in the garage for my country. After all, there was a streetcar only four blocks from my house, and a transfer point farther downtown to a bust hat went past my office. This was a combination that I naïvely believed could get me to work in forty minutes. The first week I was light-hearted as I picked my way carefully down the hill to the end of the car line. The regular riders eyed me suspiciously for a few mornings, then began to move over in their seats and share their papers. I could feel that I would soon be part of their warm camaraderie, and I liked it. Then things began to go wrong. Sometimes the car wasn’t in sight when we arrived; sometimes it didn’t come until after time for it to leave; sometimes it was ten minutes, fifteen minutes, twenty minutes, late. Sometimes it had broken down ten blocks back, and we learned of it by underground; sometimes it was sitting on the track when we arrived, and had sat there since midnight. Once it was off the rails entirely, crooked and out of joint, miserably waiting for the trouble truck. The conductor had gone, but had left a polite note: “Kindly take Spruce Street bus.” The Spruce Street bus was blocks away—we started trudging. That is, all except the commuters, who had to make a train for San Francisco. They sprinted. Some muttered under their breath; some just set their jaws; one man, who had a son in Africa, said he supposed they should be thankful the double-quick was on a city pavement instead of on the sands of a desert.
When and if the first leg of the journey downtown was completed, there was still the second leg to reckon with—the bus to be transferred to. I can remember the time when one could set one’s watch by the bus. The driver would be making a career of bus-driving and building up points towards promotion. His machine would be one he could be proud of—and there were rules about overloading. But now the drivers are martyrs to long hours, faulty, insufficient equipment, overcrowding, and the tempers of weary, jostled, late-for-work-or-dinner passengers. Gone are the days when the bus arrives at any given point at any given time. Buses are now things to wait and pray for.
I finally had an opportunity to give up the street car and the bus. I then walked straight down a mile of steep hill and cold west wind to an appointed corner, where a magnanimous B sticker picked me up and deposited me at my office door. I often wondered what I had done to deserve such a splendid break. I wonder whether I shall ever again take an automobile for granted, or think of color and line as important. This model was a ’36, without much paint, and with gremlins in the gear shift. But all through one rainy winter season it got me to work on time, and without being stepped on.
Drivers are generous about picking up victory hikers. Many mornings I could have ridden the whole mile to my rendezvous; nearly every morning I could have ridden part of it. There was something excitingly unorthodox about accepting rides from unknown voices in the dark, and I did it many times. Some of the voices were comfortable and homey—they talked about rations, taxes, and dim-outs. Others were nervous, as if they hoped the wife wouldn’t hear of it. Some were clipped and brittle; you knew the lift was merely a duty. It would be used as currency in bargaining with the conscience when it made its next demand.
I got so, after a while, that generally I would much rather walk my mile than ride it. I began to realize how much I’d missed by whizzing past people and things in cars. And I had never known that stormy weather could be an intimate and personal thing—not merely something to be shut out. Morning, itself, took on entity. It was no longer just a time of day; it was substance, and something that I could be a part of.
I passed a house where a little girl with a flute teetered shakily on Rubinstein’s Melody in F. One morning the shade was up. I could see the youngster perched on the edge of a chair under a floor lamp. Her mother was being a determined metronome beside her. It took me back to my eleventh year, a violin, a grim, metronomic relative, and tears that ran silently onto my chin rest and made it slippery. I wondered if practising at 7:20 A.M. was as painful as practising at 4 P.M. when all the other kids were out playing one-old-cat.
I passed a house with a loud radio, and I could usually catch something about MacArthur, Montgomery, or Eisenhower. I always listened for any hint of the announcer, knowing that as long as he wasn’t signing off, I had plenty of time.
I passed a yard that smelled like unhousebroken cat. Some degenerate shrub, doubtless, given by a touchy aunt whom one must not offend.
I passed the house of a naval officer. The officer used to back out his car at exactly 7: 28; his two youngsters—a boy and a girl—came banging out of the front door to pile into the front seat beside him. His wife came out to the steps to wave them out of sight. One of the youngsters always forgot something and had to go scurrying back. The officer and his wife always laughed; the youngster who hadn’t forgotten, always ribbed the other good-naturedly. I used to look forward to that little family scene and felt cheated the first morning that I missed it. Two mornings, three mornings—then my heart stepped up again. As I turned the corner, the car was being backed out. But something was different. There was no laughter, no banging, no forgetting, no running back, no ribbing. The mother was at the wheel, two suddenly grown-up children beside her. Day after day the car continued to back out at 7:28; the youngsters reported to school at eight, I suppose. The mother probably rolled thousands of bandages and made U.S.O. scrapbooks and Daddy doubtless heard all about it in the V-mail letters they sent him.
I passed an elementary school. Three blocks before I reached the building, a little boy with a lunch box came out to the sidewalk to tail me. He evidently waited for me in the dark of his own safe door. He walked noiselessly, on sneakers, ten or twelve steps behind me, whispering furiously to himself. Was he being a big brave Indian, stalking a bear, or one of the Commando boys about to close in on an enemy? When we reached the school yard, he always streaked diagonally across the playground to the light the janitor had turned on in the hall. I slowed my steps to give him plenty of time to reach the building while I was still in sight. Perhaps his parents were in war work, and had to leave home early. I can imagine that the house was a fearsome place to be alone in at that hour of a pitch-black morning. Once I made the mistake of thinking he might like to walk beside me. But when I turned to wait for him, he disappeared into the bushes, and I had to worry about him for twenty-four hours before I heard him whispering behind me again.
At one spot I had to slow down a bit because a little window-mop of a dog would be waiting in the shadows to tumble out under my feet and have fun. The first time this happened, we both almost broke our necks in the encounter. But we soon learned finesse, and developed a sense of timing. After the initial roll under my feet, the little fellow played tag with himself from me to the corner. There was something refreshing about being part of his ecstatic foolishness. I flatter myself, too, that I was one of the high-lights in his busy day.
There were mornings when the fog was so dense that even the street lights were blotted out. Sounds were muffled. Early walkers glided past each other like silent fish in the sea. My raincoat and galoshes were white, and I felt like a finny ghost on an unearthly errand. To keep myself company on such mornings, I, like the little dog, played games. I guessed the number of steps from this corner to that, or inhaled and exhaled on every seventh step. Sometimes I counted eleven for each 5 1/2 steps for a block or so. I found that it’s not easy to do this without breaking the rhythm. You want so badly to rest a beat after the eleventh. Morning after morning I practised this exercise. I got to be pretty good at it, but if anyone can do it without accenting the one on the first set, the two on the second, the one on the third, the two on the fourth, and so on, I’d like to meet him and take lessons. I walked to the Twenty-Third Psalm, too, and the Battle Hymn of the Republic, and I memorized snatches of Whitman. I found that Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address fitted in perfectly between Euclid Avenue and Regal Road.
Sometimes big feet came clop, clop, clop, down the hill behind me, and I knew that a high-school boy wanted to catch the bus. I always moved well over to the right side to give him plenty of room to pass. Goodness knows what would happen on that steep hill if there were a collision. Sometimes I heard lighter runnings behind me and waited, safely over on my own side, but nothing came of it. Once I was positive a light footstep was even with my own, turned to look, but found no one. Then a clop, clop, clop, started again, and I was glad. But the clop, clop, turned out to be me. It was my heart pounding because the feather-light footsteps never materialized.
As I waited for my ride at the designated corner, figures passed me in the dimness. The man with the limp who got picked up two blocks to the left; the woman from the Spanish house who always looked into her purse, before closing the door, to be sure her keys were there; the lanky Dalmatian with business in three neighboring rose gardens; the two middle-aged men who always compared watches under the street light as they turned my corner; the three high-school boys who met at the intersection; the young girl who passed them without speaking, but who was soon followed by the three of them. The ubiquitous commuters, dog-trotting—always a minute later than they wanted to be, forever fearful of missing that San Francisco train.
One morning as I waited, a car of the same shape and size as the one I expected slid slowly around from the left and on past me. Panicky at being forgotten, I ran into the street, hoo-hooing with all my might. Brakes screeched, the car backed up, a puzzled head with a cigar stuck out. I saw my mistake and ran back to the sidewalk. For weeks, every time that particular car passed me, there was a teasing little chuckle of the horn. I could imagine a grin behind the cigar in the darkness.
Some mornings at 7:10 were so beautiful that they didn’t seem real. The moon was out, and the stars seemed close—one could almost see behind them into the depth of the sky. On such mornings, every light in San Francisco seemed especially set to be lovely. The fog melted into nothingness and Cal Todd Shipyard in Richmond glittered like a giant birthday cake. Lower Berkeley twinkled. There was something starry even about the air. I was sure that a moonlit earliness of this kind would have special significance in older countries, like Ireland. I was sure that, for those who could see, there must have been little people about. I knew that the gardens I passed were planning all sorts of surprises under cover of winter and darkness. I knew that when spring and daylight came, there would be an iris here, a crocus there, and all along the edges of things, new green.
Just as we know with a certainty that spring and daylight always come, we know that the time will come when not only the crowds on the streets, but every radio in the country, will be shouting victory and peace. On that morning, I and millions of home-front workers like me, will realize to the full how unimportant our so-called “sacrifices” have been. Going without a car will seem a minor thing in the scale of that great news. So will going without our usual amount of meat, sugar, butter, ruffles, shoes, heat, nylons, candy, beauty sleep, perfume, movies, and ice cream, even though we have gone without them cheerfully. The best we can hope for, when our men in the armed services come back to us, is that our puny battles with weather and other inconveniences will count a little to our credit.
Originally published in the Autumn 1945 edition of The Yale Review, vol. 34.2.