What ever happened to free steak knives with every fill-up?

I thought about that the other day as I shelled out 72 crisp American dollars (that’s 4 euros, for our readers across the pond) to stick a couple ounces of regular gasoline in the truck.

Leaning against the side of the vehicle, sun beaming down and the smell of gas in the air, I stared at the pump while pondering the age-old question "…how come gas stations aren’t giving away stuff anymore?"

There was a time, years ago, when you couldn’t get a drink at my parent’s house without using a free drinking glass acquired from the local Shell station. We had highball glasses, rocks glasses, wine glasses and glasses we used anytime we wanted a nice, cold Tang or maybe had a hankering to mix up a packet of Funnyface drink powder. In the event you’re wondering, my personal favorite was Goofy Grape.

As I recall, sometime toward the end of the '60s, the government realized Funnyface drink powder contained something dangerous to lab rats. As a result, me and my friends were weaned off of Goofy Grape, Choo-Choo Cherry and Freckle Faced Strawberry to avoid whatever fate the lab rats suffered.

I know it’s all relative, but if I come back as a lab rat in another life, I hope I’m forced to eat powdered drink mixes instead of having a cigarette shoved in my little rat piehole or made to wear experimental lipstick. There are worse fates than an overdose of Goofy Grape.

What's my point?

Well, first of all, I wish we still lived in a time when you could drive into a gas station and be rewarded with a set of highball glasses. I haven’t done any significant empirical research, but I’m pretty sure there wasn’t an increase in drunk drivers as a result of those giveaways.

As a kid, sitting in the front seat of our big Chevy station wagon, I never once heard my Dad say "… son, hold this new set of highball glasses while I pour myself a drink from the cocktail shaker I keep in the glove compartment."

Nowadays? You think ExxonMobil seriously wants the legal headache that would come from handing out glasses? And steak knives? You can imagine what the Department of Homeland Security would say if Shell decided now was the time to ease the pain at the pumps by once again handing out sets of steak knives.

In today’s overregulated, coddled, testosterone-free society, it’s almost impossible to remember a time when no one blinked at the idea of a retailer giving away sharp-edged instruments to any mook capable of filling a car up with gas.

My second point?

Well, it occurred to me while filling up the car that if we don’t have the nerve to hand out free knives anymore, how do we expect to have the nerve do what’s necessary to sort out our energy problems? I know, the logic of my argument leaves you speechless. This, ladies and gentlemen, is why I’ve never been asked to run for office.

Here’s what I’m thinking. By now, everybody has an inkling that gas prices are rocketing at the pumps because of something called supply and demand. We all have a basic understanding that the global economy is demanding more oil, particularly places such as China and India.

Oil, of course, is a finite resource, meaning that it’s like the natural supply of clever, intelligent columns and op-ed pieces. Once the well is dry, it’s gone and all you hear is a loud sucking sound.

Add to this the issue of refining capacity. While the actual science is somewhat more complicated, oil goes through a series of pipes, gizmos and tanks during the refining process, eventually coming out the other end as gasoline.

You could have all the oil in the world, which we don’t, but without sufficient refining capacity, you’re hosed. Here’s an interesting fact that may or may not be true (PWB readers should always engage in fact-checking): There hasn’t been a new refinery built in the U.S. since the 1970s.

Aside from foreign supply/demand issues and a strained, at-capacity refining infrastructure, we have for years been struggling with the domestic issue of what to do with the oil reserves sitting in the Alaskan region known as ANWR.

Folks who like the idea of reducing our reliance on foreign oil argue that we should be drilling and exploiting our own national resources. On the other side are environmentalists and their supporters who argue that drilling in ANWR would damage a national treasure, harm the environment and do nothing to reduce our long-term dependence on oil. And it would tick off the moose. Mooses?

What have we got so far? Foreign supply/demand problems, insufficient refining capacity and an inability to utilize oil sitting in our own yard. OK, so far so good. Compounding the problem is our lack of serious effort over the last few decades to identify and develop meaningful alternative energy sources.

It’s not that we’ve been too stupid to understand that oil is a limited resource, it’s just that, what the hell, when you’re paying a buck a gallon and getting free knives to boot, who cares about alternative energy sources?

Now that four bucks a gallon is a reality, we’ve all suddenly had a come-to-Jesus meeting.

Have you noticed how many folks jumped on the ethanol bandwagon? There’s a clever idea… clearly no one did the math ahead of time to figure out how much energy we blow through to produce a gallon of corn-based fuel. Not to mention the impact on food prices and supply. What a load of crap.

OK, one more review… global supply-and-demand issues, lack of refining capacity at home, huge untapped Alaskan oil reserves trapped in limbo and a nation incapable over the past few decades of seriously pursuing alternative energy.

On top of all this, as a nation we tend to want solutions immediately. It’s tied to our collective attention deficit disorder. The problem is that a meaningful, comprehensive energy program that takes into account the issues raised above will not produce immediate results. So what happens? People throw out possible ideas and politicians, environmentalists, rich oil tycoons (who secretly control the world) and others with a vested interest shoot them down, crying that those ideas will take too long to have an impact on the current situation.

Well, no crap, Sherlock. Actual solutions will require an investment in time. Here’s an example. Whenever someone indicates they are in favor of drilling in ANWR, someone on the other side shouts that it would take at least a decade for that oil to come on line.

Well, here’s some news… any serious alternative energy program will also take many years to come on line and have a meaningful impact. That’s the funny thing about big infrastructure projects… you gotta do the work before you get the freakin’ results and benefits.

As a result of my aggravation, I now present to you the official PWB Energy Proposal, which I would like the president to announce to the nation. I’d put some flags up on the stage, throw some cabinet members up there and wear a power tie:

"My fellow Americans… Our long-term goal is to reduce our dependence on oil, foreign or domestic, and transition to alternative energy sources that are renewable, environmentally sound and economically viable for our population. In the spirit of the space program of the 1960s, the U.S. government is turning the full power of the scientific community, in concert with the private sector, to the research and development of alternative fuel sources.

"We will achieve our goal within a decade. During this transition period we realize the reality of our current reliance on oil and will devote resources to maintaining a consistent and economically viable supply, including devoting resources to domestic oil exploration in a responsible manner and appropriate investment in our refining capacity.

"We are all experiencing the difficulty of rising fuel costs. Unfortunately, there are no quick fixes. The government will do its part by driving this energy campaign forward, by ensuring that the best minds, resources and capabilities are dedicated to achieving our goal.

"Oh, and we’ve authorized DHS to approve the disbursement of a free set of steak knives to every licensed driver who can provide a photo identification. God Bless America."

That should do it.

Till next week, stay safe.

Respond to the Writer.

Mike Baker served for more than 15 years as a covert field operations officer for the Central Intelligence Agency, specializing in counterterrorism, counternarcotics and counterinsurgency operations around the globe. Since leaving government service, he has been a principal in building and running several companies in the private intelligence, security and risk management sector, including most recently Prescience LLC, a global intelligence and strategy firm. He appears frequently in the media as an expert on such issues. Baker is also a partner in Classified Trash, a film and television production company. Baker serves as a script consultant, writer and technical adviser within the entertainment industry, lending his expertise to such programs as the BBC's popular spy series "Spooks" as well as major motion pictures and two new BBC drama series finishing production in the U.K.