When I was fast approaching 17 and had a driver’s license, I began working at Cook Brothers Getty on Route 1 in Walpole, across from the Howard Johnson's Restaurant, long before concrete barriers separated the north and southbound lanes. I pumped gas, checked oil, washed windshields, all without being asked. When I wasn’t manning the pumps, I was doing grease, oil, and filters, changing and repairing tires, and renting U-Haul trucks and trailers. Occasionally I went out on one of the Wreckers to help with a tow.
There was always a familiar cast of characters working there, some part-time, and a large majority of the customers were locals who came in regularly, creating a family atmosphere. I remember Getty Gas (high-test only) was about forty-five cents a gallon (1972) and I always had a thick roll of cash in my left front pants pocket. Credit cards were seldom used.
To the left of the two-bay garage where Ronnie, Frankie, and "Smitty" did the repairs, was a small 12 ft x 12 ft office. Very simple; an old wooden desk, a rotary dial desk-top telephone, a noisy electric adding machine, and a grease-smeared stack of invoices. The blended smell of gas, grease, oil, and anti-freeze was thick. The glassed door to enter the office was on the right, closest to the garage, and in warm weather, it was kept open with an oil-stained wooden wedge. There were full panes of thick glass to the left of the door that completed the front and continued eight feet down the side of the concrete block building, providing an unobstructed view of the pumps.
Lester, Ronnie's 75-year-old father, was thin, pale, and duly nicknamed "The Ghost". He sat on a folding aluminum lawn chair in the office, reading the daily rag while puffing non-filtered cigarettes, one after another, the entire day. He wasn’t shy about complaining and he always found something. Laying on the front window shelf, which was about two feet off the floor and three feet deep, on top of a pile of quilted U-Haul shipping pads, the good ones, was Axle.
Axle was the "garage dog". He was 13 years old, laid around much of the day napping, and was a fixture in the office alongside The Ghost. Axle didn’t move much, but when he did you could see him struggling. His front shoulders slumped, his hindquarters were crooked and out of alignment, his chest was sunken, and although he appeared to be some kind of Boxer mix, medium brown in color, he wasn't very intimidating. I always petted him. The only other one to pay attention to Axle was Smitty, who began working at Cook Brothers full-time after graduating high school four years ago. Wide-eyed young girls topped-off their tanks frequently just to talk to him. He was blonde, blue-eyed, loaded with sinewy muscle; a handsome guy who was good-natured and sincere. The oval-shaped, embroidered patch above the pocket on the right side of his striped Getty shirt said "Smitty".
Cook Brothers Getty was the most popular filling station at the intersection of Route 1 and Route 27, and there were three. An eighth of a mile down on Route 1, on the opposite side of the highway, heading south towards Foxboro, was a recently reopened Texaco station. The kid that pumped gas there had a young German Shepherd that was full-grown and aggressive. One hot day around noon, after his soda machine was empty, he closed up the Texaco and walked to the Getty with his unleashed dog to get a bottle of pop from our always well-stocked soda machine. (After 4:00 PM we were instructed by the boss to load it with his favorite beverage, Falstaff beer.)
The moment the kid from the Texaco and his dog arrived, Axle jumped off the window shelf with a loud, deep bark, one I'd never heard before. Suddenly his front shoulders were upright, his hindquarters in perfect alignment, and his chest looked powerful, protruding in front of a very aggressive stance. The Shepherd went quickly into an aggressive stance of its own.
The kid yelled to us to grab Axle as he made his way through the open door towards the Shepherd, attempting to prevent his dog from hurting the elder K-9. But just as I was jumping in to pull Axle back, Ronnie said “Let ‘em go-”.
The fight didn’t last long. Apparently, there was a lot about Axle I didn't know. He had that Shepherd yelping for help in under 10 seconds. That's when Ronnie immediately stepped in, making sure the Shepherd didn't get hurt. The kid took a bottle of Fanta Grape back to the Texaco, compliments of Cook Brothers Getty, and we never saw him or his dog again.
In that moment, I realized Axle’s presence at the garage for the last 13 years wasn't without purpose. Axle was a full-fledged guard dog who protected the station. It was all he knew.
Minutes after the confrontation was over, Axle’s front shoulders dropped, his hindquarters looked crooked and out of alignment, and his chest sunk. He hobbled back inside the office, carefully climbed onto the front window shelf, laid on the pile of quilted U-Haul shipping pads, and took a long, well-deserved afternoon nap next to The Ghost, who seated on his folding aluminum lawn chair, continued reading the daily rag and puffing non-filtered cigarettes…