Congress passed a law mandating a national speed limit of 35 miles per hour, and the whole country slowed down to a crawl.  To be sure, some people broke the law, but many more obeyed it—or came close to obeying it.  Every so often when we felt like supporting the war effort—and had nothing better to do—several of the neighborhood boys would grab pencil and paper and march down to the corner of Orange Avenue and Bahia Vista.  There we would wait until a speeding car came around the corner and would yell out “35 miles per hour!”  Sometimes we would write down their license numbers.  We never did anything with the lists we compiled; and, as far as I know, no one enforced the speed limit.  Drivers were on the honor system in a time when America still believed in honor.

My father—who was a dentist—had a “B” sticker on his windshield, which meant he could buy slightly more gasoline than people with “A” stickers, because he drove to his office at night to care for patients in need of emergency treatment.  This happened more frequently than you would think.  He would pull a tooth and give the patient precise instructions in case the socket started to bleed.  “Reach in there.  Pull out the clot.  Then bite down on a piece of gauze.  The bleeding will stop.”

At 3 the following morning, the phone would ring.  No one was ever alarmed.  We knew who was calling and what would happen.  My Father would stagger into the hall and answer the phone.


Prolonged silence.

“Did you do what I told you to do?”


“All you have to do is reach down in there and pull the clot out.  Then bite on that gauze I gave you.”


“All I can do is just what I told you to do.”

Silence followed by a long sigh.

“All right.  I’ll come down there.  I’ll meet you at the office in thirty minutes.”

Sound of hang-up.

“God damn it!”

So he did use the car in his practice.  Sometimes.  Occasionally.  But in exchange for those few extra gallons, he was forbidden to drive it anywhere else for any reason.

“A” stickers were for “pleasure driving,” which included trips to the cleaners, the grocery store, the pharmacy, the doctor’s office, the hospital.  If you drove to the funeral home to pay last respects to your dead mother, that was “pleasure driving.”

Like other patriotic Americans, we followed the rules, but occasionally we bent them a little.  One night my parents and I went to a movie at the Florida Theater; and since my mother’s car was low on gas, we drove downtown in my father’s.  When the movie was over, we came back to the car and were about to get in when a man in a wide-brimmed hat stepped out of the shadows.  I still remember what he looked like after some 65 years—hulking, long-nosed, thin-lipped—wearing, of all things, a black raincoat under a cloudless sky with a temperature of at least 80 degrees.  This afternoon I could pick him out of a lineup.

“Is this your car?”

My father nodded.

“Did you just come out of the movie?”

“Yes,” my father said, “we did.”

“In which case I’ll have to take your name and address.”

My father nodded and gave him the information, after which he disappeared into the shadows like Lamont Cranston.

Today, folks would regard such an encounter as nothing worse than a traffic ticket.  Someone more assertive than my father would say, “O.K., Buddy.  Before we go any further, show me some ID.”  Even my father—who would be 106 if he were still alive—would shrug his shoulders and laugh.

Not then.  It wasn’t merely a matter of a fine or loss of his “B” sticker.  The real threat was public exposure, followed by social ostracism.  The community would have turned its back on anyone who undercut the war effort in the slightest way.  Or so we all believed.

As I look back on this incident, I realize that this officious stranger who wrote down my father’s name and address probably wasn’t an OPA agent at all.  He was doing the same thing we were doing on the corner of Orange Avenue and Bahia Vista when we took down license-tag numbers: Little Goody Two-Shoes volunteering for duty, taking down information on subversives, doing his bit for the war effort.  He may have sent the names and license numbers to the local Office of Price Administration.  If so, he did it anonymously; and the head of that office—a local man—probably tossed them in the waste basket.

To be sure, as a people we made enormous sacrifices and submitted to innumerable indignities in order to save our country.  But we also became a nation of snoops and tattletales.  Women who were lifelong friends would secretly inspect each other’s cupboards to ferret out surplus—extra bags of sugar, too much coffee.  Hoarder!  Men would look with suspicion at a fellow worker who had new rubber tires on his car.  Black market!  A high-school kid would be called into the principal’s office because he talked about his brother’s whereabouts overseas.  Loose lips can sink ships.  For every virtue we practiced during those hard years, there was a corresponding vice.