My father was the hardest working man I’ve ever known. During the first part of my childhood, he worked in the coalmines of West Virginia but was badly injured in a coal mining accident when I was eight years old, which left him out of work for a year. By the end of his recovery, he was up to his eyeballs in debt but still had to support his wife and five young children. He took a gamble and left our home in Midway, West Virginia to become a Texaco service station owner in Newport News, Virginia. For a year he lived in the gas station, working fourteen-hour days, seven days a week, and spent his nights on a cot in the cinder block stock room among the cases of oil and transmission fluid. He used the stockroom sink to bathe himself at the end of each day.
In 1963, he decided he could make a go of it and in July moved our family from the cool breezes and poverty of Appalachia to the sweltering heat and economic opportunity of Newport News. I was nine years old when we moved into a three bedroom, un-air-conditioned, one-story brick home, two blocks from the Texaco station.
In West Virginia, the Slab Fork coal mines never entered the children’s daily routine. In Virginia, Brentwood Texaco replaced the home as the center of family life. The one-story, glass and metal-paneled structure sat on a one-acre lot at the corner of two busy streets. The waiting, or concession, area was probably fifteen by twenty feet, surfaced with a green and white vinyl floor. Large glass panels and a glass entry door made up two of the walls. A third wall was lined with a soda machine and shelves of candy, chips, headache remedies, and cigars. A bread shelf, cigarette machine, pay phone, and a door to the work bays lined the fourth wall. Chrome and red vinyl padded chairs lined the glass walls. A steel frame, three-drawer desk and a single chair sat in the middle of the room.
The station had two work bays separated by a cinder block wall. One bay had a single-post hydraulic lift to elevate cars for oil changes and repairs. The other bay had no lift, but was used for other repairs and car washes. Fifty feet from the building stood two “islands” of gas pumps, one parallel to Beech Drive and the other parallel to Willow Drive. We pumped regular gas from the red Fire Chief pump and high test from the silver Sky Chief pump.
All the floors were concrete and the rest of the property was surfaced with asphalt – a combination hard on sore feet. The odors of cigarette smoke, gas, oil, and grease fumes hung thick in the air as car traffic hummed by and military jets roared in the background.
A Sinclair station stood across the street. Another competitor operated an Esso station two blocks away. Three men competed for the neighborhood’s auto repair business. Demand exceeded supply by two gas stations. The competition ultimately fell by the wayside.
But not yet.
We got an early lesson about family business. My two sisters kept the books and counted the money at the end of each day. My older brother Bob pumped gas, washed cars, and changed tires. An exceptional student and basketball player, he had to drop the sport to work at the gas station after school. I was old enough to push a broom, so I swept the floors and learned how to clean the rest rooms. My younger brother Ralph enjoyed a two-year grace period before joining the labor force. One year after our move, I graduated to pumping gas and manning the cash register.
While my father expected all of us to contribute our sweat to the family business, my parents stressed the importance of education and expected us to make good grades and stay out of trouble.
When I started making friends in my all-white neighborhood, I learned that they spoke differently from my childhood friends in West Virginia. Most significantly, they made frequent use of the “n” word. My father had always forbidden use of that word in our household. I never knew much about racial tension in West Virginia, as there were very few blacks in my county and those few blacks lived six miles away in Beckley. Newport News had very different demographics, with blacks making up forty percent of the population. Some of my newfound friends said blacks should not be allowed to sit in the same restaurants as whites. I just listened and honestly found it bizarre that anyone would think that way. I did wonder if perhaps I was not as smart as they were.
One evening when I was ten years old, my father summoned me to the gas station to pump gas and manage the cash register while he repaired cars and changed tires. Repair business was particularly good that evening. Several men sat in the concession area while my father worked on their cars and trucks. A black landscaper, Willie, left his pick up truck for Dad to fix a flat tire and to make an engine repair. Willie did not sit in the concession area. Instead, he left to get some dinner. Another three customers brought in their cars for service just as Willie left.
Dad completed the repairs of the vehicles customers had left at the station before Willie arrived. He then drove Willie’s truck into one of the bays and began work. He had popped the hood and begun work when a white customer came out to the bay and asked him why he had started working on that “n$%&*@’s” truck before working on the white customers’ cars.
My father, nicknamed by some of the customers as “Big Bad John” because of his prior occupation as a coal miner and his bull-of-a-man physique, put down his wrench and grabbed a service rag to wipe his hands. In later years, I wondered what was going through my father’s head—he was up to his eyeballs in debt, only had an eighth-grade education, and struggled to support a large family in a neighborhood business where he relied primarily on the patronage of white customers.
“I’m sorry you feel that way,” he calmly replied. “If you can’t wait, you are welcome to take your business somewhere else. I’ll understand.”
The white customer was stunned. He did not know what to say. He muttered some words under his breath and returned to the concession area. He would wait. Willie was next in line. And whatever the man might have said to the other waiting customers did not persuade them to leave.
Dad dove back under the hood to complete the engine repair. He then removed the flat tire and took it outside the building to “Big Red,” his 1950’s fire-engine-red tire-changing machine. As this bull of a man did his work, I thought about what my father’s response might mean to the family business. So, I asked, “Dad, why are you working on Willie’s truck instead of that white man’s?”
My father did not mince words. “Willie’s money is the same color as everybody else’s,” he said. “He needs his truck so he can work tomorrow.”
Enough said. My father was no living room liberal. To him, everyone who worked hard deserved to be treated with the same respect. He had little use for people who did not work hard. In more protracted discussions over the years, he reiterated the same belief about people of different faiths. Black or white, Catholic or Jew, rich or poor, it just did not matter. Profit or loss never entered the equation. Everyone had to wait his turn. No one sent another person to the back of the line because of the color of his skin, the house in which he chose to worship, or the size of his bank account.
We can sit here in the comfort of this time and place and say, “Of course Mr. Gray treated a black customer just like everyone else.” But it was a different era. It was a different place. You could cut the racial tension with a knife. Fifty years later, I still wonder if the white customer who failed to send Willie to the back of the line learned as much from that moment as I did.
Copyrighted by J. Edward Gray