by Terry Hargrove
When the first George Bush was president, I was a Dan Quayle fan. Not of his policies mind you, but of his speeches. The former vice president turned saying just the wrong thing into high art, such as when he tried to remember the motto of the United Negro College Fund: A mind is a terrible thing to waste. For Vice-President Quayle, this somehow jumbled in his mind and came out of his mouth as “What a waste it is, to lose one’s mind.”
I miss Dan Quayle because, in some quantum way, I’m just like him. When my greatest desire is to be profound, the weirdest things jump right out of my mouth, and I wonder how Vice President Quayle kept his composure, knowing that wherever he went, hundreds of cameras and reporters were waiting to pounce on his verbal gaffes. One of the hardest truths about people is that they never forget the truly ridiculous. Neither does my wife.
Not long after we started dating, we had a long conversation about work. I was trying to be deep to impress her.
“Nancy,” I said, raising my clenched hands for emphasis, “a wise old king once said to his tiny son: ‘All work is noble. And whoever wants to win fame, must not shun toil. Even a prince should be able to earn a living by the labor of his own hands.’ That’s how I’ve tried to live. That’s why, after a long day of educating young people, I cut the grass at our school. You wouldn’t believe the many jobs I’ve had.”
“I like that saying,” she said. “Did you make it up?”
“Why, yes. Yes I did,” I lied. Actually, that quote came from a short story that I taught my middle school students back in the early 80s. I can’t remember the title or the author, but I didn’t say it first. I did live it, though. I’ve had so many jobs over the years, they all meld into a long and industrious career of being yelled at by bosses for the past five decades. So, to further impress my date, I ran off a list of the many occupations I had endured.
“I’ve been a reporter, delivered pizzas, been a car salesman (one day), an electronics technician, a clerk, a factory worker, assembly line guy, lumber stacker, substitute teacher, regular teacher, and lawn care professional,” I said. “I even worked at a truck stop for a few months.”
“A truck stop,” she said. “Really?”
“Yep,” I said. Strange that that should be the job that impressed her.
“What did you do at the truck stop?” she asked. “Did you change the tires?”
“No, no,” I laughed. “I was a gas monkey. You know, the guys who go out and fill up the tanks and check the oil. It was hard work, especially just after the may fly hatch occurred on the Tennessee River. I had to clean off the windshields and the bugs were an inch thick. And, and, why are you laughing?”
“A gas monkey?” she gasped. “Did you say you were a gas monkey?”
“Did I say monkey?” I asked. “No, no. A gas jockey. That’s what I was.”
“You were a gas monkey,” she laughed. I swear to God, I don’t know where the word monkey came from. It just shot right out, and I couldn’t get it back.
“I, um, I was also a deli worker once,” I said, trying to get Nancy back into a normal conversation. It was hard work. She had tears flowing down her cheeks. “The store owner said he could make more money if he put in a deli, but I also had to watch the gas pumps.”
“Gas monkey,” Nancy whimpered. Her head was bobbing up and down as she tried to control herself.
“I, uh, I had to make sandwiches,” I countered. “Like from bologna and stuff. Did you know that bologna starts as a liquid, then they put a gel into it, and it hardens. It looks like a gigantic strawberry milkshake.”
“Excuse me, sir,” asked a stranger at the next table. “I think your lady friend is choking to death.”
“No,” I said. “She’s just laughing. She’ll be all right in a moment.”
Nancy waved her napkin at her face, and nodded that she was indeed okay.
“Can I get you some water?” I asked.
“No, thank you,” she whispered. “Gas monkey.”
“And I found out that there are worse things than bologna,” I said. I was losing my audience. Other tables had noticed and were beginning to laugh as well. Some sort of mirth virus was working its way through the west wing of the restaurant. Only I was immune. The carrier always is. “There’s this stuff called cereal bologna. It’s like bologna but without all the meat.”
“And souse,” I said. “Souse is this stuff made up of the pork parts that don’t go anywhere else. The tail, the head. I once cut into a souse loaf and saw an eye staring back at me.”
“I have to be excused,” she said, and she walked very fast to the restroom. I was left alone at the table, wondering how this date had gone so very, very wrong. When she returned, I tried to tell her about barbequed souse and liver cheese, but she couldn’t control her laughter.
“I’m sorry,” she apologized. “But I haven’t laughed so hard in years.”
“You know, I meant gas jockey,” I said. “I really don’t know where gas monkey came from. I wasn’t a gas monkey, I was a gas jockey.”
“Gas monkey,” and I had lost her again.
The story had a happy ending. Nancy and I dated for several months before I asked for her hand. She said she could never break the heart of a gas monkey. We married on December 21, 1995.
All marriages end, and ours will be no different. But I have to outlive her. If I don’t, I have it on good authority that my tombstone will read: Terry Hargrove, Beloved Husband, Father, and Gas Monkey. Having it carved in granite for hundreds of years, a mystery that people not yet born won’t understand, is enough to keep me awake at night. I’ll be an unending source of mirth for centuries, and that possibility is driving me nuts. I shouldn’t waste so much time worrying about it, but I do.
Maybe it wasn’t a bad quote. Maybe Mr. Quayle was right, all along.