Memorial Day is almost here, and you know what that means — cookouts, holiday relaxation, a start to summer.
And, usually, rude shocks at the gas pumps.
As I write this post (a few weeks in advance), gasoline is hovering just a few cents shy of $4 per gallon here in eastern Pennsylvania. You can tell the stations are fighting not to cross that line. You can also tell they’ll have to cross it anyway, sooner than later, and that it probably won’t take much of a push to get there.
I’m seeing mixed news reports about Memorial Day price trends. Some sources predict we’ll pay an average of $4.25 per gallon on Memorial Day. Others predict that rising supplies of gasoline could actually force prices down. Either way, getting to cottages, cabins, shorefronts and state parks will take a nasty bite out of the working man’s wallet this summer.
All of which makes this week’s calendar entry — from the spring of 1974, before the Memorial Day run-up — all the more quaint.
Yup — 58 cents per gallon. (At that cost, my grandfather’s purchase of 8 1/2 gallons set him back roughly $4.90. That wouldn’t buy a gallon-and-a-half today.)
Just for a bit of context, Wikipedia says the average U.S. retail price of a gallon of gas rose from 38.5 cents in May 1973 to 55.1 cents in June 1974 — obviously the result of the 1973-74 energy crisis. I don’t have the economics chops to fully explain why my grandfather was paying so much more than the national average. I’ll assume part of it is state tax, given that Connecticut is traditionally an expensive place to live.
As with so many other things, I enjoy seeing my grandfather’s precision in writing down such tiny details as gasoline purchases. While it’s not on the calendar, I wouldn’t be surprised if he kept track of his odometer readings so he could calculate his MPG from tank to tank, too.
That said, I do my grandfather a bit of a disservice to dismiss this purchase as a “tiny detail.” It was a relatively small expense in the context of a household budget, sure. But for a man who was neither working nor receiving Social Security retirement benefits (he hadn’t signed up for them yet, you’ll recall), a price spike for a staple good like gasoline was not something to casually wave off.
The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics’ online inflation calculator says 58 cents in 1974 has the equivalent purchasing power of $2.63 today. Not sure that’s exactly an apples-to-oranges comparison for a gallon of gas, which has things like state tax tacked onto it. Still, the difference between the inflation calculator’s $2.63 and the real-life $4 seems pretty significant.
I can only wonder what my mom and dad, who remember buying 50-cent gas, think when they pay more than eight times that for a fill-up.
For myself, I have a single hazy memory of paying less than $1 for a gallon of gas. Only happened once, in the very late 1980s or very early 1990s. I remember thinking at the time that I should make a point of remembering it, ’cause it wasn’t gonna happen again. And it hasn’t.
Incidentally, I tried unsuccessfully to find out whether 62 degrees is still the weather record for March 4 in Stamford. (I don’t imagine it is.)
As he drove home that day, contemplating the uncertain future of gasoline, my grandfather might at least have rolled his windows down and enjoyed the warmth. The best things in life were free then. Some of them, like a faceful of warm wind, are still free now — once you’ve paid $50 to get back on the road, that is.
Next week: Free beer!