June 24, 1998

Running on Empty

I hate to stop for gas. It makes me late to wherever I am going. On a trip it skews my trip time and I may be after a record. Also, I get that gasoline smell on my hands for the rest of the day. And I always feel guilty for not washing the windshield. But the real problem is that by stopping for gas I am admitting defeat.

The game I am playing is called see how close you can get to empty without running out. I am fortunate that my gasoline gauge has a large red band for empty, so I can run on empty for a long time. This is living on the edge at its best. Not knowing exactly how long I can go creates the suspense. I think (but am not sure) that my tank holds 14 gallons. I recently reached a personal best by pumping 13.5 gallons. I do not say that proudly. This is not a record that would stand up well among more proficient practitioners of the art of running on empty.

My wife says that this is all a man’s game but I know that she is wrong. My mother was terrific at this game. That was back in the days when families had only one car providing added incentive to the game. If you could run on empty, you could force the other driver to fill the tank and you could then ride all week for free. Teenagers have always excelled at this part of the game.

My father gave my mother a weekly allowance to run the household. Anything left over was hers to keep. So why buy gas when Dad would be home on Saturday morning to use the car? I remember so well the day that Dad left the house and ran out of gas at the bottom of the hill. He could not even make it the half mile to the gas station. He returned home in a rage. He was probably mad because Mom had won the game, at his expense. As I recall, there were a lot of losers that day.

I was reminded of all of this on a recent flight to Florida. At mid-flight the pilot announced that we were stopping for gas. That’s right, stopping for gas. He made up some story about how we had been flying around to avoid storms and he threw some statistics at us, but I was unconvinced. I think that they forgot to get gas in Boston. Or maybe the attendant had a kink in the hose.

So on the way from Boston to Tampa, we stopped in Greensboro, North Carolina. We pulled up to a gate and the pilot got out and took out his wallet. I swear that I am not making this up. I did not see what he did next, but I bet he handed over his gas credit card.

The logical possibility here is that the pilot was trying to run on empty. He probably did not want to take the time to fill up because he was late for his weekly poker game. But somewhere down the coast he realized that the stakes were a little higher in the air. He was not driving alone.

I do not admire this pilot. He gave a bad name to empty riders and he can no longer be included in our club. He wimped out. We probably could have made it to Tampa if he tried. He did not even try. I bet that my mother would have made it. I know that she would have tried.

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