By KEN BECK
Some may argue with me, but you won’t change my mind. The last real filling station in Lebanon was Neal’s American, aka Neal’s Amoco, run by Frank and Georgia Neal from 1962 until 1986.
The gas station stood on the north side of West Main about 50 yards west of Oak Hill Drive, today the location of Smith Furniture.
For about eight weeks during the summer of 1976, I worked at this full-service filling station for $2.25 an hour and earned a quick bachelor’s degree in human nature. Fullservice meant we pumped your gas (“Fill ’er up with regular or high octane, sir?”), cleaned your windshield, checked your oil and the air pressure in your tires.
This was all done with a smile, and, if you needed air in your tire or water in the radiator, well, the air and water was free, but we did charge for the gasoline.
The variety of characters who worked there or who whizzed in and out of the station over that summer left an indelible impression. Most notably was Frank Neal Jr. himself, a strong and stubborn man who thrived on conversation (he still does). My clearest image of Frank is of him standing beside a car, leaning with his left arm across the rolled-down window and his head bent down to within eye level of the motorist with whom he was engaged in serious talk.
As a high school student in the 1930s, Frank worked for Bill Rose at Rose’s service station off the Lebanon square. Now, he leased this, his own gas station from Jim Horn Hankins, Jimmy Jewell and H.M. Byars. Mechanic Ray Duncan, who had worked previously here for Joe Graves, came with the filling station. With premature gray hair, Ray somehow maintained a four-day-old beard, giving him the allure of a poor man’s Humphrey Bogart. He could do just about anything to get a broken-down car up and running again. I just watched mutely with my hangdog Gomer Pyle expression and would think “he’s amazing, got a green thumb with engines.”
Frank’s wife, Georgia, served as business manager and kept an eagle eye on the bills and the books, but she also drove back and forth to Nashville to pick up tires and basically did everything but work on the cars and pump gas.
A Coke machine stood under the awning out front, while inside Neal’s American were wooden floors that must have been tromped a million times by the soles of shoes that had clumped through oil and grease. There were Lance and Tom’s snack cabinets where a hungry kid could buy peanuts or cheese crackers. A Ford gumball machine took a penny to spit out a colorful, round piece of sweetness.
There were two service bays, one where Ray worked his magic staring up at sickly cars poised six feet above the ground on a lift. The other bay seemed to be stuffed with new and used tires and other artifacts that seemed to sprout from nowhere. I longed to explore the station’s basement but could never budge open the stubborn door. Ray had revealed to me that it was always full of water, as there was a wet-water spring that kept the place well lubricated.
The station also had a cigarette machine inside, well-used by the Heights cadets who would march down from the hill to purchase their packs and smoke off campus.
My chores around the station included sweeping up the interior and outside of the station, filling gas tanks (that can be tricky if you can’t find the gas cap), cleaning windshields, putting air in tires, checking dipsticks, washing cars and running errands.
Next door, between the station and Oak Hill, brothers Bobby and Phillip Bryant operated a used car lot. The two were like family to the Neals as they popped over frequently to put two gallons of gas into a vehicle they were hoping to sell. Then they went into the office and filled out the bill themselves.
In an old stone house across Main Street lived Grand Ole Opry squaredance star Ralph Sloan. He occasionally dropped by to chat. I washed, vacuumed and waxed his car one day for hours and was dumbstruck to find his bill would total an astronomical $30.
There were numerous town eccentrics that brought their business to the filling station. Especially memorable was an old maid who drove a blue pickup truck. After ordering a fill up, she would scoot over to the passenger side of the cab and insist that either I or Terry Neal, Frank’s bachelor son who worked off and on at the station, pull her vehicle onto Main Street asthe rushing traffic spooked her. (“What traffic?” I wondered.). We would drive about 50 yards down Main Street, put the engine in neutral, engage the parking brake and hop out the door. She then would scooch back behind the wheel and putter on down the road.
Many of the top businessmen in town patronized Neal’s American. It did have an ace mechanic, but it also pumped the most expensive gasoline in town. Frank was proud of his white gasoline, which he guaranteed. He claimed it was clearer than water. He would demonstrate by fetching a clear Orange Crush soda bottle and putting his gas into the bottle so customers could take a look for themselves. To any customer that bought 100% octane fuel, Frank promised to do their fi rst 50,000-mile tune-up free.
And while I loved my few weeks of helping around this authentic filling station, I was never able to take Frank up on his offer. I just couldn’t afford this champagne for my gas-guzzling, four-barrel carburetor ’66 Olds Cutlass.
Today, I still cruise down Main Street in my mind and dream one more time of saying, “Fill ’er up? Yes, sir,” as I step back beside that Amoco gas pump of Lebanon’s last real filling station.
Ken Beck can be contacted at KBTAG@aol.com.