On Feb. 19, a two-column headline at the top of the front page of The Washington Post said, "New Fuel Crisis Brings Call For Drastic Household Curbs." You remember that, don't you?
If you do, you're on spring chicken. The Feb. 19 on which that headline was published was Feb. 19, 1945.
The story under the headline said: "The Office of War Utilities announced last night that the Appalachian area, including the District of Columbia, Maryland and Virginia, is in the grip of another gas crisis and appealed to the public to burn less."
A few days before, on Jan. 30, Ohio governor Frank J. Lausche had said: "People must realize supplies of gas and coal are virtually exhausted. Hundreds of war plants, including some of the largest in the state and nation, have closed because of lack of gas."
Yes, the words and music were the same then as they are now. Among other things, Albert F. Bass of the Federal Energy Administration warned in February of 1945 that things might be even worse the next year. "Gas companies must refill their reservoirs," he pointed out. "We are going to have to curtail industrial loads heavily this summer just to build up storage."
A Philadelphia company had already warned the Federal Power Commission it might have to cut off gas to all, but homes and apartments in order to build up pressure.
Then, late in February of '45, Jimmy Byrnes issued a "request" that left the owners of nightclubs and saloons in a state of shellshock. To conserve fuel, he asked them to shut down at midnight - voluntarily. When many saloonkeepers balked at the request and demanded that it be rescinded, Byrnes and his underlings began hinting they'd use muscle if they had to.
With public opinion strongly against the nightclub operators, opposition to the Byrnes curfew collapsed in a few days. Washington's restaurateurs fell into line meekly, and even New York's $100 million nightclub industry announced that it would comply. Voluntarily, of course.
Recalling these events of 32 years ago is not intended to suggest that the situation is the same now as it was then. I do not know how much fuel the Byrnes nightclub curfew conserved, nor can I judge how genuine was the need for conservation at that moment, just as millions of us can't make a judgment about the need for cutbacks in 1977.
However, when we review some of the alarmist comments and predictions of 1945 we do get a little bit better perspective on our fuel problems.
In that year, some people in high places thought our supplies were exhausted and our reserves were dangerously depleted. Yet for the past 32 years we have been using coal and gas in steadily increasingly amounts - and still have such large reserves left that estimates of the exact reserve vary by billions and trillions.
The implication in all this appears to be that from time to time our readily available supplies of various fuels do become short for one reason or another, but we have not yet exhausted or come close to exhausting the earth's vast resources. There is need for conservation, especially in times of war and economic dislocation that cuse demand to outrun supply, but there is no occasion for panic.
That's the implication. How valid it is won't be known for many months, at best. But somehow I find it just a teeny bit reassuring to be reminded that 32 years ago there were people who thought the end of the world was at hand. The end wasn't at hand then, so perhaps we have reasonable basis for hoping it isn't at hand now.