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The oil companies should be worried about the public's reaction to the recent "surge" in gasoline prices.

True, the surge is to a price that, in real dollars, is less than it was in 1960. And, true, the companies have a plausible explanation in terms of high demand, low inventories, reduced refining capacity and market miscalculations.Nobody's going to believe that.

The oil companies are dealing with a public where a measurable percentage believe U.N. armored divisions are poised on the Canadian border to invade the United States or that the Queen of England is in league with the environmentalists to reverse the outcome of the Revolutionary War.

Few people feel confidently chummy about the oil companies anymore. The companies are faceless and distant now. That wasn't always the case. Once, every driver had a personal oil company.

If you do run across a human employee today, that person is bunkered in a fortified kiosk decorated with such welcoming signs as "No Cigarette Sales to Minors" and "No Cash on Premises after Ten."

Once, your oil company fixed your car for you. But now the service bays at the old gas station have been ripped out and replaced by mini-malls. You can't get an oil change but you can load up on prepackaged microwave hamburgers, Cheez--Its and imitation mango fruit drink.

Perhaps you can't blame the oil companies for being discreet.

Exxon's old slogan, "Put a tiger in your tank," would only get the company in hot water with the animal rights nuts. Given today's credulous mentality, that slogan would not be taken as metaphor but as a corporate injunction to wrestle a 10-foot, 800-pound carnivore on the endangered species list through a small hole on the fender of the car.

Similary, Texaco would have pause about reviving its jingle, "You can trust your car to the man who wears the star," for fear the militia groups would think it's part of a conspiracy by local sheriffs to confiscate their vehicles.

Many historians date this turn of events to the day Mobil replaced its longtime symbol Pegasus, a neat flying red horse, with Alistair Cooke, a silver-haired PBS emcee.

The oil companies, whoever they are, owe the public an explanation for these high prices, and a word to the wise: That old supply-and-demand wheeze won't cut it unless delivered by somebody wearing pressed oil company slacks and shirt, hat and leather bow tie.