Anyone worth their salt has at least one minor obsession.
For me, it’s the need to see everyone finish all the food on their plate. For Nora, it’s fastidiously cataloging the loss of old growth trees in our neighborhood. For my Dad, it’s finding the cheapest gasoline.
If you know my Dad, you know he’s not a penny-pincher. He is generous to a fault. He is a big believer in quality products and will happily pay more for them. And he is known for occasionally making sizable spontaneous purchases.
Which makes it hard to fathom how or why he is a Gas Nazi. Demonstrating zero brand loyalty, he will hunt down and capture the lowest-priced gasoline for his car, regardless of circumstances.
Drive 5 miles out of the way? No problem. Take an extra 10 minutes? Even when you are late to the airport? It’s worth it. Risk running out of gas? It’s the price you pay to find ‘reasonable gas.’
One episode in particular has gone down in family lore. Dad was driving the old Travelall, an SUV before SUVs existed. Mom was at his side in the passenger seat, polishing his eyeglasses and feeding him cans of Coke on demand. The 4 of us kids were sprawled seatbelt-less around the back, as was pretty typical in the 1970s.
The Travelall was unusual in that it had 2 gas tanks, with a plunger on the dash for switching between them. In other words, even more reason to find the absolutely-lowest rock-bottom gas.
We were driving the turnpike in New Jersey, which typically pleased Dad, because the state was known for its minuscule gasoline tax. (Although this was partially offset by his displeasure regarding the state-wide prohibition on self-serve pumping, which he figured had to add a couple cents per gallon of additional cost.)
Anyway, I was suddenly yanked out of my reverie when the Travelall went into a 4-wheel skid. I remember the sharp squealing of wheels and my chest and face plastered against the backside of Mom’s seat. Albert, my dog, started to bark.
Scrambling to right myself, I looked out expecting to see a tractor trailer jack-knifed across the road, or a huge sink hole up ahead. Nothing. We were sitting on the shoulder, with cars whizzing by as if nothing had happened.
Next, I looked to Mom and Dad. When you’re a kid, your parent’s reaction to an emergency often informs how you feel. Mom looked a little wide-eyed, but Dad looked as nonchalant as ever. He was casually wiping up the mess of soda that had spilled.
Without a word, he put the car in reverse, turned his head around, and started backing down the shoulder. Before long, the drone of a Travelall in reverse and Albert whimpering were overpowered by a siren approaching from the rear.
Dad let out a groan and stopped the car. The cop approached Dad’s window. “You weren’t planning to back all the way up to that exit, were you?”
“Because that would be STUPID!”
The usual deal with license and registration, a warning, then we were off again.
Turns out, Dad was backing up to the exit ramp. He’d gotten distracted and missed the pull off that would deliver us to the least expensive gas in all of New Jersey. As it was, we had to settle for the second least expensive gas in all of New Jersey.
For days and weeks (and months) afterwards, us kids would amuse ourselves by saying ‘that would be STUPID’ over and over again. At first it was to needle Dad, but then the simple act of repetition became funny in its own right.
Recently, I’ve wondered if these small obsessions rise to the level of idols in God’s eyes. We know from the Bible that if there is anything that we love more than God that we are violating the most important commandment to have no gods before Him.
Typically, these false gods we worship are big things like money or human relationships or even self-love.
But what about the small things? Does Dad’s love of inexpensive gas exceed his love for God? I think it only seems like it sometimes.
I asked Nora. After some thought: “I think they can be a symptom of a larger idolatry, but if they exist in isolation – like your Dad’s gas obsession – then I think that’s just good old-fashioned quirkiness.”
Well played by the woman who maintains a clipboard of dead and dying trees. Well played.