It’s a rough for too many families this Thanksgiving. With an unemployment rate of 7.3 percent, with nearly a million of discouraged no-longer-job-seekers, ashamed and invisible, not even showing up in that total; with an unemployment rate for black teenagers of 36 percent and, as The Nation’s George Zornick points out, the season of feasting a season of fasting for too many families on food stamps—cheer can be hard to find.
Keep our suffering neighbors in your thoughts as you celebrate. And for a possibly cheering contrast, consider a time when things were even worse: 1973, which I’ve researched for my upcoming book on the 1970s, when it was oh-so-much harder to head over the river and through the woods to Grandmother’s house because the Arab oil embargo quadrupled the price of a barrel of crude.
October was rung in with biblical prophecies from an assistant secretary of the interior. “With anything less than the best of luck,” Stephen Wakefield announced, “we shall probably face shortages of heating oil, propane, and diesel fuel this winter.… I am talking about men without jobs, homes without heat, children without schools.” In Los Angeles the Department of Water and Power predicted a 35 percent energy shortage by April. It came the day after the President’s Cost of Living Council set a new ceiling on the price of domestic crude; the major oil companies responded by raising the prices they charged their affiliate service stations by about a penny a gallon. In San Francisco 3,000 service stations shut down for three days in protest—street corners became ghost towns in the beautiful City by the Bay. And all this was before the Arab oil embargo.
That began October 17, after America decided to airlift weapons to Israel in its war with Egypt and Syria. A Watergate-scarred president went on TV and announced “a very stark fact: we are heading into the most acute energy shortage since World War II.” Americans, he said, would have to cut back: “less heat, less electricity, less gasoline”—almost stop being Americans at all. He called for shorter school and factory hours. And the cancellation of 10 percent of jet flights. The federal government would provide an example by setting thermostats to sixty-eight degrees or less, he said (“and that means in this room, too, as well as in every other room in the White House”); government vehicles would be limited to fifty miles an hour. He told governors to pass laws mandating fifty miles per hour for everyone, Congress to pass an emergency statute returning to year-round daylight savings time and to relax environmental regulations. Start carpooling, he recommended: “How many times have you gone along the highway,” he quizzed, “with only one individual in that car?”
Thousands, of course—for wasn’t zooming alone across endless vistas of highways supposed to be the most American pastime of all? Not any more, apparently. What he was describing, he allowed, sounded “like a way of life we left behind with Glenn Miller and the war of the forties.”
Honoring a non-binding presidential request, gas stations began closing down from 9 pm Saturday through midnight on Sundays. So people began “topping off”—filling their tanks every time they passed a gas station, leading to hours-long lines in which idling cars… just wasted more gas. Everyone wanted to get to a pump before the last drop was gone and one of the ubiquitous sorry, no gas signs was hoisted up. Then, they would have to return the next day—when prices were usually two-cents-a-gallon higher. Tempers flared, no architect having thought to design a corner gas station for the eventuality of dozens of angry motorists cutting fellow motorists off on street corners like it was the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.