Times Past

Recollections of a close call with a match and gasoline

The Eto family with Kofuji and George Fukunaga on Kofujiâ™s wedding day, Aug. 11, 1928 at the San Luis Obispo Buddhist Temple on French Road, located where Madonna Road crosses Highway 101.
The Eto family with Kofuji and George Fukunaga on Kofujiâ™s wedding day, Aug. 11, 1928 at the San Luis Obispo Buddhist Temple on French Road, located where Madonna Road crosses Highway 101.

“Whoosh!” The introduction of the gasoline engine exposed automobile drivers and passengers to sudden death or disfigurement through fires. This was especially true on rural farms with their own fuel storage tanks.

If it hadn’t been for the quick thinking of their brother, Masaji, the four youngest Eto sisters might easily have encountered such a fate at the Los Osos family farm.

The eldest sister, Kofuji, had married George Fukunaga in 1928. The couple had moved to George’s farm near Cambria. Kofuji had persuaded her parents to send the next two eldest sisters, Toshiko and Alice, to Mills College in Oakland.

Grace Eto Shibata, the youngest sister, recalled the near tragedy for her own daughter Naomi Shibata Denny for her memoir, “Bend with the Wind.” With permission from the author, here is an extended excerpt telling the story:

“With Kofuji, Toshiko, and now Alice living away from home, Mary officially stepped into the role of oneesan (elder sister). When Mary started driving a car, her familiar words, ‘It is such a nice day, let’s go for a picnic,’ took on a whole new meaning.

“Father’s black Buick with Mary behind the wheel, Susy sitting shotgun, and Nancy and Grace in the back seat (the tops of their heads barely visible), became a familiar sight across the county. The sisters took every advantage of their newfound freedom and mobility. In time, they found that their adventures were limited only by their understanding of car maintenance and their ability to read a map.

“More than once Masaji had to drop what he was doing and come to his sisters’ rescue when the Buick either ran out of gas or had a flat tire. His admonitions to check fuel levels before taking the car out seemed to fall on deaf ears. One day, however, an incident occurred that made him wish that his sisters had ignored him — just the one time.

“It was twilight, and the sisters had an early morning start planned for the next day’s outing. Bearing in mind what oniisan, or ‘older brother,’ had said the last time they ran out of gas, the sisters decided to top off the tank in the Buick before darkness fell. The car was brought to the pump and, as the gas gauge was not working, the cap to the tank was removed and a stick was inserted to measure the level of gasoline.

“Daylight was fading fast, and no one could see where the gasoline had dampened the stick. Someone suggested lighting a match so that they could see what they were doing, and it was agreed that the light from a match would be helpful. A match was lit.

“Whoosh! A flame erupted out of the tank, the girls leaped back, the match was dropped, and the gasoline-soaked soil around the pump and car immediately caught fire. Nancy ran to the house, calling ‘Fire! Fire!’ and someone threw water on the ground fire, causing the flames to fan out in a wider circle. Masaji sprinted out of the house, capped the tank, and kicked dry earth over the burning ground, smothering the flames that were shooting out of the car and racing across the soil.

“It was over in seconds. The girls, stunned into silence by the rapid escalation of events, contritely followed Masaji to the house where Father lectured them in detail on the dangers of gasoline fumes and open flames, why water is not used on gasoline fires, and the importance of keeping one’s head in an emergency.

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Naomi Shibata Denny will be speaking and signing copies of “Bend with the Wind” at the San Luis Obispo History Center, 696 Monterey Street on Friday, Nov. 7 at 5:30 p.m. as part of Art after Dark. She will be at Coalesce Bookstore on Sunday, Nov. 9, from 1-3 p.m. at 845 Main St, Morro Bay. Naomi will speak on researching and writing the memoir at 2 pm.

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Readers are invited to join me for a free, non-scary, historical tour this Halloween, Friday, Oct. 31 at 4 p.m. in the Old Mission Cemetery at the new Bridge Street entrance near the intersection of Beebe and Bridge in back of the Pacific Coast Center.

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