Ph.D. of Pumpology an Academic Chronicles the Role of the Gas Station in American Culture

Article excerpt

ON HIS WAY back here from Atlanta, John Jakle was driving "the long way, as geographers often do." Just outside a little town in Indiana, his Ford LTD broke down, as cars often do.

Because the engine breakdown occurred about 25 years ago, Jakle had the car towed to a gasoline service station, a rapidly disappearing part of the "roadside vernacular," according to the University of Illinois professor, who has become an authority on this bit of utilitarian Americana.

It was inside a Sunoco station in Knightstown, Ind., that Jakle tanked up on the cultural significance of the full-service gas station.

He was given plenty of time to ponder it. His DOA LTD went into the service bay at 6 a.m. and wasn't pronounced roadworthy until 11 that night. Because this was an old-fashioned, no-frills service station with nary a mini-mart nor a McDonald's inside, Jakle wasn't initially enthusiastic about the prospect of waiting there for his car to be fixed.

But in the town of 2,000 people he didn't have many entertainment options. So the professor took a seat in the station and sat there for 17 hours until his car was done.

Now, you might expect that when Jakle finally drove away at 11 p.m. he would have been furious, or at least numb from boredom. But as it turned out, Jakle experienced a sort of Sunoco awakening that day; a complete overhaul, for him and his car.

"I just got taken up with the whole idea of being there, and so I ate candy bars and drank Cokes and it was really interesting and informative," he said. "It was marvelous."

At this point it should be noted that Jakle, 55, is not your run-of-the-map geographer. He is a "cultural historical geographer," which means that even while bumming around all day in a gas station devouring Snickers and Cokes and risking overexposure to 40-weight oil, he could conduct scholarly research that one day would lead to co-writing a book, "The Gas Station in America" (Johns Hopkins University Press).

As a scholar whose mission is to relate what is built to where it is and who goes into it, Jakle became intoxicated with gasoline alley.

"There was a cycle in the day when the bell on the gas pump was ringing actively at some times and didn't ring at all at others," he marveled.

"It was a day in the life of a gasoline station, watching the comings and goings, which included the town prostitute. When she drove in, the mechanics all tried to get a look, and there was a lot of joking and horsing around."

The passing parade at the pumps was one thing, the mechanics of it another, he noted. "It was really interesting because the owner called in former owners and mechanics for consultation (on Jakle's car), and people stopped by to see how things were going. The guy was really marvelous; he was dedicated to helping the stranger in town."

In his 17-hour tuneup, the professor came to regard gasoline stations not simply as roadside pit stops for car refueling and kidney relief but as "material culture" and "commercial icons" that are "emblematic and symbolic of things quintessentially American."

So when Keith A. Sculle, now head of research and education at the Illinois Historic Preservation Agency, walked into his office one day several years ago, the pump was primed.

Sculle, 53, had been roaming the Champaign-Urbana area in search of inspiring candidates for the National Register of Historic Places, but because Garcia's Pizza didn't qualify, he was having a hard time of it.

"We did come up with the usual sources - the homes of the rich and famous," but Sculle said he was also looking for buildings to which the common man could relate.

Knowing Jakle's penchant for scraping deep meaning from the commonplace, Sculle went to him for inspiration. A high-octane synergy developed between the historic preservationist and the cultural geographer. …