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Gassing with Cook

The gasoline shortage in the Phoenix area scares me.

Motorists from Greater Phoenix have figured out that rather than wait in line for hours at an urban gas sation, they can drive 40 or 50 miles to Wickenburg. Once here, they fill up their tanks with “our” gasoline, and hoard some in jeep cans.

The broken pipeline between Phoenix and Tucson is almost as old as the amazing stories I’m about to tell you, and there’s no telling when it will be carrying gasoline again.

Being out of gas wasn’t so critical when I was young. Until I got my first full-time job, there was always a fuel shortage, and we had ways of dealing with it.

But these new cars have screens in the filler pipe to prevent siphoning from someone else’s car. And given my state of decay, running out of gas on the desert could be life-threatening.

Siphoning was not our only recourse in the old days. We invented alternative fuels. The first car I ever owned would run on the fumes from rotten cantaloupes. It was a 1932 Chrysler Royal 8 sports coupe–long, low and mean. If I owned it today, it would be priceless, but where would I have kept it the last 51 years?

Gasoline cost about 25 cents a gallon in those days, but we often couldn’t afford even that. We’d go behind Safeway in Flagstaff after hours and root through the garbage bins for the discarded cantaloupes.

I’d put them in the rumble seat of the Chrysler and close the lid for a few days, until the “melonol” fumes built up a little pressure. We’d run a small rubber hose from the rumble seat to the gas tank filler, and away we’d go.

The Chrysler got about 30 miles to the bushel.

However, “alternative fuels” is a sensitive phrase in Arizona. In 2000, the Legislature granted huge tax breaks to people who bought vehicles that would run on such alternative fuels as natural gas.

Lawmakers underestimated how many people would take advantage of the law to buy large, expensive SUVs at what amounted to 30 percent off.

Arizona lost $700 million in tax revenues, and is still trying to recover. Fortunately, the state saved another $700 million by not recalling its governor.

After I wore out the ’32 Chrysler, my friend Mark and I came up with the scheme that finally solved our personal energy crisis. We based it on more efficient use of traditional fossil fuels.

In every gas station, and in ads in every car magazine, there were fuel additives and carburetion devices that promised to increase gasoline mileage–this gadget would increase it 25 percent, and that additive another 15 percent.

We added up the percentages until we came up with a savings of 145 percent. Mark worked in a garage, so he could get this stuff wholesale.

We installed the fuel-saving devices on my 1940 LaSalle coupe, and poured the additives into the gas tank, along with half a tank of gas.

We took off for the Grand Canyon, via Williams. We knew some girls who had summer jobs in the restaurants and gift shops at the South Rim.

By the time we got to Tusayan, the gas gauge on my LaSalle had risen to near the “Full” line. We siphoned some off into a jeep can so it wouldn’t run out onto the road.

When we got back to Flagstaff, we siphoned half a tank into Mark’s Lincoln Zephyr. We outfitted the Zephyr the same way, and within a few days, we were selling gasoline to our friends at remarkably low prices.

Mark and I were in the habit of ranging far and wide over northern Arizona, in search of culture and adventure. We had to curtail our travels, because stopping to siphon off accumulated gasoline was a pain in the neck.

A young man with a siphon hose in his hand was like a red flare to a policeman. Once, about 2 a.m., a highway patrolman stopped near Holbrook to see why we were stopped, and why we were siphoning gas OUT of the only car visible on old U.S. 66.

“You what?” he snapped when we tried to explain.

“Are you guys making fun of me?” .

Mark, always a persuasive talker, convinced the cop we were not mocking him. But he followed us almost all the way back to Flagstaff. We were afraid we’d have to stop to siphon off more gas before we got rid of him.

About the time gasoline started trickling out from under the filler cap, the cop had to turn around and chase a speeder east on Route 66.

It wasn’t long until the major oil companies heard about us. They realized that their market would shrink drastically if other people figured out our simple secret.

The majors bought our invention for a large sum of money, and made us sign papers saying we would not tell anyone about our deal for fifty years. Then they quietly buried our new technology.

That’s why Mark and I are independently wealthy today. But what good is money if there’s no gas at the gas station?

I doubt that I could rig my fuel-injected Buick to run on rotten cantaloupes, even if Miss Ellie was willing to put up with the smell.

Last 5 posts by Jim Cook

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