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Thanksgiving Forty Years Ago: There but for the Grace... | The Nation

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Rick Perlstein

Rick Perlstein

Where the past isn’t even past.

Thanksgiving Forty Years Ago: There but for the Grace...

Gas crisis

Leon Mill spray paints a sign outside his Phillips 66 station in Perkasie, Pennsylvania on June 1, 1973, announcing that the store had run out of fuel. (AP Photo) 

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.

Time called the energy crisis the “most serious economic threat to face the nation since the Depression.” Cities began reducing bus service. Schools in Massachusetts and Connecticut, states reliant on oil for heat, announced Christmas break for the entire months of December and January. At the New England School of Art, heated only to sixty-five degrees in the Boston chill, nude models were afforded the comfort of roasting in their own body heat in a clear plastic tent. In Rhode Island, a prize high school composition was customarily chosen to be signed by the governor as the official state Thanksgiving proclamation. The governor refused to sign this year’s winner, in which a 17-year-old wrote, “Thanksgiving seems to be pretended, a farce, little more than an outdated tradition no one has yet found time to discard.”

Time’s Thanksgiving cover had Archie Bunker in his trademark easy chair, stalactites of frost hanging from his cigar and winter cap—he couldn’t afford home heating oil. Plastic bags, made with petroleum, became prohibitively expensive; petrochemicals were also ingredients in many lifesaving drugs—so pharmaceutical executives projected a shortage. Twenty-five New Hampshire towns suspended police, fire protection, garbage pickups, road repair and school transportation.

The mayor of Rensselaer, Indiana, turned off the city’s 425 street lights, until a rash of burglaries forced him to turn them on again. In an interview he revealed his motives as less than Christian: “If everyone in the country would make this kind of effort, we could tell the Arabs to go to hell.” Unchristian motives were everywhere. A gas station owner stopped letting owners of big cars buy more than a dollar of gas at a time—“just enough to keep them off the road.” People started driving with a full can of gas in the trunk, which turned them into inadvertent firebombs. The Senate came within eight votes of passing a law rationing gasoline, and the White House ordered the Bureau of Engraving to prepare by printing over 10 billion ration coupons.

A coffee table book, They Could Not Trust the King, with text by William Shannon of the New York Times editorial board, went to press. It called Watergate “a complex and far-reaching political plan that could serve as dress rehearsal for an American fascist coup d’état.”

Then December, and the presidentially mandated closing of service stations from Saturday evening until Monday morning. A Hanford, California, gas station owner shot up six of the pumps of a rival who stayed open across the street. A Miami man yelled to a gas station attendant who wouldn’t sell to him on a Saturday night, “I am going to get some gas even if I have to kill somebody”—and then, waving a pistol, almost honored his pledge. Auto supply houses ran out of siphons, tools of the new street crime of choice—and locks for gas caps. More ambitious crooks started hijacking petroleum trucks. Brooklyn motorists filled up with “Gambinoil”—oil the Gambino stole from bulk plants in the area and sold to area dealers at 70 percent more than legitimate distributors.

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A cheap paperback came out, Predictions for 1974, starring a panoply of psychics with names like “Countess Amy, the Gypsy Seeress,” and “Aquarius, Campus Clairvoyant.” It featured, alongside news-to-come about traffic accidents (“A submarine and a UFO will collide off the Aleutian Islands”), the occult (“reincarnation will be espoused by more and more young people as a valid explanation for the dislocations in modern society”), celebrities (“Dean Martin may have a health problem and definitely should be careful of his nose”), and celebrities and the occult (“A youthful female actress of sudden fame will publicly announce that she used witchcraft to obtain her current level of success and happiness”), prediction after prediction about how of the world would collapse. That was what the future looked like now. Deaths from record bitter cold. Deaths from a “nerve gas leak” off the coast of Florida. A 1929-style stock market collapse. A declaration of bankruptcy by New York City—“the first tangible sign of the collapse of our entire civilization.” Single people banned from buying big cars. Locusts and floods, “like the plagues of Egypt,” worldwide droughts, rising sea levels “inundating all coastal areas throughout the world.” Rationing of every staple, urban blackouts, riots, martial law. “Disaster will hit one of New York’s skyscraper landmark buildings." "Man is an endangered species,” as one soothsayer put it. It was a map of the dreads of a nation.

Good times. Let us cherish what we have, and what we have transcended before. Love, and let yourself be loved. Fight injustice, that our children might be blessed. Happy Thanksgiving, dear readers; you help make my life immeasurably meaningful and rich.

For families on food stamps, traditional Thanksgiving meals are out of the question.

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