"The farther backward you can look," Winston Churchill has been quoted, "the farther forward you are likely to see." In these stories and histories of oil, I am looking for a deeper understanding of this strange stuff that comes up out of the earth and has so much to do with our lives.

Herman K. Trabish

About the Author

Born Memphis, TN, 1949; High school, Sherman Oaks, CA, 1964-67; B.A. in English with high honors, University of California at Berkeley, 1972; Graduate literature study, University of Kent at Canterbury, U.K., 1973-74; Declined Ph.D. work in philosophy, Cambridge University, 1974; Graduate playwriting program, UCLA, 1974-76.

 

Doctor of Chiropractic, 1988-present. Currently in private practice.

 

Relevant current writing:

-articles for the Petroleum History Institute's annual journal OIL-INDUSTRY HISTORY:

2004, "A Short History of Synthetics"

2005, "Scandal: A Short History of the Teapot Dome Affair"

2006, "A Short History of Oil Industry Folklore"

The opening pages:

 

With a voice like a choir of angels and blue eyes that seemed to see you deep inside, the elegant elderly woman sang for her dinner party guests. After her performance, she called me over to the piano. I read your book about oil, she said.

 

It was 1973. American oil production would never again get bigger. The cost of gas had skyrocketed from 39 cents/gallon to $1.39/gallon. The Middle East was exploding. Again.

 

There is more to the story, she said. You don't understand.

 

Do you? Delighted at my question, she smiled and said, Let me tell you a story.

 

 

Part 1: Wildcatting

February 1919

 

 

The crowd cheered. The burly old Frenchman with the big white walrus mustache walked from the apartment to the car waiting for him at the curb beside Number 8 Rue Franklin. A bodyguard followed. From beyond the gendarmerie barriers and lines of watchful officers, reporters shouted questions about the peace negotiations. The citizenry and rabble noisily yelled challenges and praise. The burly old man stopped beside the limousine and, while his bodyguard stepped graciously back and his driver held the door of the long elegant Pierce Arrow open for him and waited, he grinned and gleefully exchanged barbs with the reporters and citizens.

 

Fifty yards beyond them, behind a public urinal at the corner of Rue Franklin and Boulevard Delessert, a small, unshaven man in dirty overalls watched and nervously fidgeted with the revolver in his overalls pocket.

 

Nearby, a tall man in a French military uniform and worn, open army overcoat, with broad shoulders, thick black hair and intelligent, searching eyes, stood with his hands in his pockets and watched.

 

"Le Tigre," remarked the lean young man with shaggy blond hair and wide blue eyes beside him.

 

"He is a tiger, Charley," the tall man smiled, and added, his English heavy with a French accent, "but you told me if I brought you here you would speak English with me."

 

"Le Tigre," replied the blond man in a distinctly American accent. "Not just The Tiger. Le Tigre. I'm a reporter, LeFash. Got to get the words right. You know that."

 

LeFash, the tall, broad shouldered man in the worn army overcoat, did not answer. They watched the burly Frenchman. His small, narrow eyes sparkled. His heavy white walrus mustache fluttered with vigorous verbal bristles and rejoinders at questions from the crowd. He greeted some personally, continued to trade remarks and jests with others, and shook strangers' hands, the consummate veteran politician.

 

"Moves like a big cat, jovial like a schoolboy," the blond American reporter remarked. He took a pad and pencil from his overcoat pocket and jotted notes.

 

"They love him," LeFash smiled. "The Father of the Victory."

 

"On his way to join Wilson and Lloyd George," Charley scribbled. He looked at LeFash. "The most powerful men in the world."

 

"Except," LeFash interrupted, "when the heads of industry meet." 

The Opening of Part 2:

 

So he found a way to make oil into a good thing?

 

For him, she said. Not for all of them.

 

 

Part 2: The Woman Everybody Loved

1938: Prelude

 

 

Victoria studied her gleaming green eyes in the candle-lit mirror and worked around them with her eyebrow and eyelash make-up. Finishing, she turned to the barefoot Arab girl in the loose black gown holding the mirror. "Now," she said, gesturing toward a scarf and veil.

 

The girl set down the mirror, picked up a strand of gauzy black cloth and gently placed the heavy black scarf over Victoria's elegant brunette coiffure, smoothing the garment down her back, around her shoulders and over the scooped bodice of her chic gown. She then took the silky black veil and attached it to the scarf and hung it over Victoria's nose and mouth. Waiting for the girl to finish the damage, Victoria thought back to the D.C. dinner party and the intelligent-eyed handsome young man who asked her to dance. She always enjoyed dancing with that kind.

 

*****

 

"My boss said I'd be the one to get to you," he said as he whirled her through a full turn in waltz time.

 

She smiled. He was so good-looking, so sure of himself. His gleaming brown eyes were so innocent yet mischievous, his skin looked so creamy, his lips so soft, his muscles under her hands so toned as he held her in dance frame. "Who is your boss?"

 

"That unnamed State Department official you always read about."

 

"And what - whee!" she exclaimed as he whirled her through another turn.

 

"Can you do for your country?" he finished her question.

 

She smiled up at him. "The hell with the country, sweetie, what can I do for you?"

 

He fell into a steady straightforward rhythmic rolling around the dance floor and talked.

 

"You're going abroad with your husband."

 

"No secrets in this town," she shrugged without missing a beat of the waltz time.

 

"Put in a good word for America."

 

"With the sheik of the burning sands? What's the worry?"

 

"Someday soon he's going to be very oil rich."

 

"The oil men haven't found anything in Arabia but sand."

 

"That's why we need you to put in a good word."

 

 

The Opening of Part 3:

 

She wept silently, the pain of memory written across her face.

 

It had to be done, I shrugged, making my best effort toward solace. It's always about oil, isn't it?

 

She looked at me through tear-streaked eyes. Is it? Let me tell you a story about power.

 

 

 

Part 3: Where Oil Is Power

August 15-16, 1953

 

 

"Can't anybody here play this game?" ...Casey Stengel

 

"Are you ready?" Irdeshar asked Monty Livingstone. They stood facing one another over a small table in a bungalow behind the walls of the British embassy compound in Tehran.

 

Monty Livingstone looked back at the lean handsome young man wearing open-collared military fatigues and boots, his thick black hair swept back. The nose and chin jutted angrily but the brown eyes were open and calm. He waited for Livingstone's answer.

 

Here, at the brink of pandemonium, Monty Livingstone - now a sturdy, broad-shouldered, thick-chested full-grown man - could not answer. The question was impossible: Was he ready? The only answer now was the unspoken question in his thoughtful blue eyes: Did it matter?

 

A soldier burst through the front door, sweating profusely and breathing hard. Both Livingstone and Irdeshar turned. The soldier immediately crossed the small room to them and began reporting in Farsi, a language Monty now knew, with desperation and urgency. "General Riahi was not at his house so Colonel Nassiri led us on to Prime Minister Mossadeq's residence to serve the firmans."

 

"No!" Irdeshar sat down hard, his lean shoulders slumping forward. He banged his fist against the table. "The fool!" He looked up at the soldier. "He was met with stronger forces and arrested at Mossadeq's residence?"

 

The soldier stared back, still breathing hard and sweating but now wide-eyed at Irdeshar's insight. "Yes."

 

"Of course," Irdeshar said grimly.

 

Monty sat back down, laid heavily muscled forearms and fisted hands on the table, leaned his broad shoulders forward, his round face intent, his blue, intelligent eyes now burning. He spoke quietly to Irdeshar in English. "They must have had inside information."

 

"Yes," Irdeshar agreed. He looked up at the soldier. "Does Roosevelt know?"

 

"He sent me to you."

 

"With orders?"

 

"He has sent out other runners, calling in his people," reported the soldier. "I am to await your instructions."

 

Irdeshar looked back at Monty, the question of readiness still unanswered.

 

"What should I do?" the soldier asked urgently.

 

Irdeshar thought, then abruptly stood. "Come with me."

 

Monty Livingstone looked up and, anticipating where Irdeshar was going, spoke again in English. "It's not safe. They will arrest you. Or shoot you."

 

"I've got to know what's going on in the street."

 

"Fine," Livingstone groaned, standing. "Let's go see." Irdeshar looked across the table at him. Livingstone smiled tightly. "Are we stupid or crazy?"

 

"Probably both," Irdeshar smiled, his tone grim. "But if we make this happen, history will call us heroes." He turned to the soldier and switched to Farsi. "Lead us back to the Prime Minister?s house exactly the way you came. I want to know what has changed."

 

"I can tell you the route," the soldier said tentatively. It was clear he was afraid to go back out.

 

Irdeshar reached to the Luger 9mm holstered on his belt, pulled it, checked the automatic slide mechanism and said, without looking at the soldier, "You will lead us."

 

"Yes, sir."

 

Irdeshar replaced the weapon in its holster and looked up at Livingstone. "Are you ready?" Without waiting, he turned and walked toward the bungalow door. The soldier followed.

 

Monty Livingstone followed them into the dangerously revolutionary Iranian August night. That question again. Why, he wondered, did they always ask if you were ready as they led you into something you couldn't possibly know you were ready for until it was too late?

 

 

*last