Have You Ever Run Out of Gas?

Troitsky (Kirovsky) Bridge

I have. Probably more often than you. I believe it’s in my genes. My dad told me he was notorious, as a young man, for returning home on fumes after an outing in his father’s car. On at least one occasion, according to these stories, when my grandfather went out in the morning to head for work, the tank was so empty he couldn’t start the engine.

Getting home on the last drop should probably be considered an art form.

Of the several times I’ve squeezed the last drop out of my tank, the most entertaining – in retrospect! – took place when I was working at the U.S. consulate-general in Leningrad, 1976-78.

It began innocently enough, as it always does. I noticed that the needle on my gas gauge was inching ever closer to EMPTY. “No problem,” I thought. “I’ll fill up on my way home this evening.” It didn’t quite work out that way. I’d had to work a little late that afternoon, and I didn’t want to keep my wife waiting for dinner. “No problem,” I thought again. “I’ll do it on my way back to the consulate in the morning.” But I was a little slow leaving home, so getting gas en route would have made me late to work.

And so it went. For two or three days. By now, the needle was perilously low. If I’d been piloting an airplane, I’d have been hearing the PULL UP … TERRAIN alarm.

And, actually, I was hearing an alarm. A different kind. In my head. Because the morning when I realized I’d finally run out of margin for error – and again had no time to stop for gas on the way to work – I knew I had a lunch meeting scheduled, and that I’d have to pick up my guest* at his place of work before heading to the restaurant where we had a reservation. So I planned on leaving the office a few minutes early so I could fill up before driving to my guest’s workplace.

Can you guess what happened then to this chronically time-challenged guy? Of course. I was late leaving the office. No time to gas up before meeting my lunch guest. So I did the only thing I could. After picking him up, I apologetically explained why we’d have to take a little detour on the way to the restaurant. He was very understanding.

I need to mention here that, unlike in the towns and cities most readers are probably familiar with, in Leningrad, during Soviet times, you couldn’t find a gas station on every third corner. Not exactly. In fact, the USSR’s second-largest city – with a population of about 4.5 million, even bigger than Los Angeles – had just one gas station anywhere near the heart of town. Fortunately, it was close to the route I took every day between home and office, and not too far from my guest’s place of work.

So, after he got in the car, I headed straight for the gas station. By this time, I was holding my breath, praying we’d make it. As many readers may be aware, Leningrad (today, St. Petersburg) sits astride the delta of the Neva River. Considered “the Venice of the North,” it has lots of bridges. One of them – the Kirovsky Bridge (today again known by its pre-Revolutionary name, Troitsky – or Trinity – Bridge, Троицкий мост) – separated us from the gas station, located only about 200 yards/meters past the far end of the span. At nearly 600 meters, over a third of a mile, the Kirovsky was Leningrad’s longest bridge. As can be seen from the photo, it slopes gently up toward mid-river, then down to the other bank.

As I started across, I hoped fervently I could make it at least to the middle of the span. Then I would depress the clutch, coast down to the far side and, if my luck held, roll into the gas station.

My luck did hold. We made it to the mid-point, coasted down and drove right into the gas station. Breathing a huge sigh of relief, I came to a halt at the pump for “regular” gas and got out to fill up the tank. As I started walking over to the pump, the attendant stuck her head out of the kiosk and told me they were out of regular gas that day. I’d have to move a few feet and fill up with high-test.

So I got back in the driver’s seat and hit the ignition.

Nothing happened. Like my dad, I’d coasted in on the very last droplet!

I got out and pushed the car – with my gracious guest’s assistance – to the next pump.

But I’d mastered the art form. It’s in my genes.


* My guest’s name is now lost to the mists of time, but I still remember who he was: the conductor of the band at the Bolshoy (Big) Leningrad State Circus. That’s right. In Leningrad, the circus didn’t come to town and perform under a tent. It was a permanent establishment with its own building and some extraordinary performers. The one I’ll never forget was a guy who smoothly juggled heavy steel balls – like the ones used in Olympic shot put competition, only larger. But back to the band conductor. I’d been introduced to him because, in addition to tunes to accompany the clowns and aerialists, he was interested in that quintessentially American musical genre, jazz. That made him an obvious person for the U.S. consulate’s Press and Cultural Affairs section – where I was the No. 2 guy – to get to know.

2 replies
  1. Tom Kelley
    Tom Kelley says:

    Yep, just like Maxwell House coffee: “Good to the last drop”. But don’t tell me you’ve never had to walk to the nearest gas station with (or without and had to buy one) a for-gas-approved container!

    • Howard Daniel
      Howard Daniel says:

      Actually, Tom, I’ve never had to do that. One time, however, I was lucky enough to be able to coast downhill to a filling station. Other times, I’ve called AAA. And then there were the times I locked myself out of the car — once with the motor running. I should make that the subject of another post.


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