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Beacon Senior News

Deprivations are nothing new

Aug 04, 2020 11:33AM ● By Arthur Vidro

Today’s shortages are nothing compared to what we’ve been through

At the supermarkets, I overhear shoppers complain about not being able to buy enough paper towels, disinfectant spray or wipes, bathroom tissue, flour and meat.

The inability to purchase whatever we want, whenever we want it, is not new. My aunts grew up during World War II. They remember the shortages. Uncle Sam issued each family ration books containing coupons. Without giving the seller the appropriate coupon, you could not purchase that item.

Meat was rationed. So was sugar, cheese, shoes, butter, milk, jams, even firewood and stoves. And one that would affect me greatly—coffee. Yet, people found ways to get what they most wanted by trading coupons. No coupon? No transaction.

The shortages were mostly due to diverting those items to the military for its equipment and soldiers. New cars and bicycles were unavailable to civilians, at any price. Tires were made of rubber then, and were rationed. You were allowed five tires for each car.

Gasoline was rationed. Doctors were allowed a higher ration than, say, a newspaper editor, because doctors had to drive to make house calls.

Because of coronavirus, our shopping hours have changed a bit, too. Earlier this year, residents of Onondaga County, New York were encouraged to spread out their essential shopping trips based upon years of birth (odd and even years) in order to keep an overly large crowd from massing at a store and to keep certain supplies from being snatched up all at once.

But it’s not so far-fetched. Some of us old-timers remember a different odd vs. even approach in the 1970s when gasoline was in short supply—twice. Remember the carefully targeted Arab oil embargo from October 1973 to March 1974? Gasoline prices soared and shortages ensued. The line of vehicles would stretch far beyond the gas station itself. Often the station ran out of gas before your turn came.

To combat the lines (and frayed nerves), the nation experimented with a federally ordered odd-and-even scenario. If your license plate number ended with an odd digit (or if you had no numbers on your plate), you could buy gasoline on the odd dates of the month. The same went for even numbers and dates.

It was easy to enforce the 1973 rule. (It helped that folks then didn’t fill their own tanks.) Everyone ostensibly knew what date of the month it was. Everyone’s license plate could be seen.

The 1979 shortage had a different trigger point—revolution in Iran—but the effects were equally dire. Lines of cars to tank up seemed to stretch even farther beyond the gas stations than they did six years earlier. As for me, perhaps because I didn’t yet drive, I enjoyed listening to Jerry Reed sing, “Who Was the Man Who Put the Line in Gasoline?”

Prices soared then stalled at the never-before-seen 99.9 cents a gallon. It took quite a while for the price to reach $1 because in those glorious predigital days, the signs lacked a dollars column. Despite the price shock, most drivers were more peeved by the gas shortages.

Granted, some shortages are hitting today’s consumers. Today’s COVID-19 crisis is scary, and wreaking havoc as we try to find a long-term path to safety, without knowing if there is a safe path.

But today’s deprivations are mere pittances compared to what we’ve gone through in the past.