`Charging' Cross the Country

THAT television show that makes amusement out of the small-claims court gets a fight every so often over the misuse of credit cards. Somebody runs up a bill on a friend's credit card, and then friendship ceases. But things don't always go that way, and a happy credit-card memory had to do with the time I financed Mel Smith's three-month visit to the Pacific Coast. It was a pleasure. Mel and his only wife lived neighbor and for some reason, perhaps for no reason, Mel had never possessed a charge card for gasoline. But I had them from several companies, and had two of each - for the sedan and for my pickup truck. I even had a third of one company for out-board fuel at the lake. Then came the year that Mel and Mrs. Mel decided on a tour. They would rent a camper-trailer and go across the country from Maine to Oregon, taking their time and letting each day be its own. Mel had a trailer hitch put on his Oldsmobile and said, ``I suppose I should get a gasoline credit card.''

I said that was a sound plan, as he could also charge tires and repairs. This was, I should say, before the big credit-card boom and before the days of Visa, Chargex, American Express, and similar such likes. It was also before Exxon, because Mel applied for an Esso card.

So the day approached when Mel and Ernestine would rise and shine with the orient sun and be off in the rosy dawn for the Golden West, which was to be a Saturday, and on the Friday evening we stopped by to wish them good speed and safe return. Mel said, ``We can't go tomorrow.'' The Esso charge card hadn't come, and the bank didn't open on Saturdays and Sundays. O Pshaw! A little thing like that can crab the works!

``No sweat,'' said I, with a cheerful grin. ``Here, take my Esso card and be off! Just sign my name.'' Mel's Esso card came the following Wednesday, as I noticed when I picked up his mail.

When they got back to Maine, Ernestine said the hardest thing for Mel to do was practicing the great deceit of signing my name. When the filling-station man brought the slip with my name on it, Mel would square away and write, ``Melbourne W. Smith.'' Ernestine took to prompting him, and she would say, ``Be sure and sign the slip, JOHN. Do you hear me, JOHN? JOHN, did you hear me?'' Then Mel would write ``Melbourne W. Smith.'' Mel was so conditioned to honesty that he instinctively refused to do forgery.

During the three months they were away I got bills from Esso each month, and paid them. The Smith's first fuel charge was in the Troy area in New York State, after the Molly Stark highway across Vermont. And so we toured with them, tracing their route and noticing how far their Olds would go on a tank of gasoline. We decided towing a trailer certainly cut down on mileage. One day they got a change of oil and a grease job. We decided they toured about the Bad Lands, as they got two gas-ups in South Dakota not 20 miles apart. At Salt Lake City they bought new tires for the little trailer, and they had a blow-out fixed on the Oldsmobile in Boise. I kept Mel's charges separate so he could pay me when he got home.

All this time I heard nothing whatever from Esso as to why I was paying for gasoline bought in the Rocky Mountains by somebody named Smith. And when the Smiths got home, they told me that not once on their tour of 10,000 miles did any filling-station attendant, or any bookkeeper, ask why Mel's writing didn't look like my signature on the card. Not once did anybody ask him how-come he kept writing Smith. You see, from early boyhood Mel was a lefty. All his life he wrote everything upside down and hind-side to. When he wrote, you couldn't help noticing the oddity of his penmanship. There was every reason for this to be observed every time he used my card.

True, by the time Mel and Ernestine came home they were owing me a considerable amount of money. And as things turned out there was no friendship lost and we didn't wind up in small-claims court. They came down that first evening to tell us they were back, and to settle up. They'd had a most wonderful trip. They were so grateful for the use of my Esso card. Then Mel made me out a check in full, and signed it with my name.

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