"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:

 

I asked her to tell me, after all her experience in it, what she thought of the oil industry. It was 1956. Troubles in the Middle East threatened to make oil harder to get and more costly. Was it worth it? I asked her. The old woman looked at me through eyes that wanted to tell me something but didn't know how. Let me tell you a story, she finally said.

 

 

Part 1: Petrolia

Early Summer, 1865

 

 

My father, Barrett Lithachik, walked back into the northwestern Pennsylvania hill country in the summer of 1865, fresh from a four-year cure for idealism in the War Between the States. His plan was simple:  Bottle a supply of the greasy seep at Oil Creek. It had been a cure-all to people living around there since the time of the first Indians. He was going to sell it like snake-oil and work his way west. Opportunity out there was said to be as wide open as the endless plains and as high reaching as the majestic mountains.

 

He was tall and lean with a handsome, intelligent, axe-blade profile. His burning eyes could cut into opponents but they lit up anybody he chose to. He liked walking beside his horse-drawn covered wagon. He followed a winding trail into beautiful, primitive, hill country. It was too rugged for dense settlement, a fifty mile wide swath of valley cut by the Allegheny River, running south from northwestern New York state down to Pittsburgh, with steep grades, stony hillsides, streams wiggling over the rocky way through dense woods of pine and hemlock carpeted thickly with moss and fern.

 

Coming up over a rise, what he saw astonished him. Down the near slope, across the river and up the far side, the once dense forest was now a barrenness of dirt downgrade and wooden derricks, ramshackle one-room huts dotted among them. In the huts, engines billowed smoke, belts ran from the huts to the derricks where they pulled ceaselessly humping arms, driving drills down and cranking oil up from under the hillside. 

 

Barrett stood a while taking it in. He finally shook his head in dismay, thought again about the faraway west and strode ever more purposefully toward his hometown, Titusville, noticing, as he walked into oil country, the road becoming a slow, greasy slog.

 

The Opening of Part 2:

 

So oil was good to your family?

 

She laughed. That?s not the end of the story, she said. Let me tell you about a boy I knew.

 

 

Part 2: The Gentleman Upstairs

Spring, 1890

 

 

"Hellfire and damnation!" Johannes T. Stonagall yelled at his son as he stormed from the freight elevator into the enormous open room. "Who gave you the authority to order that Midwestern crude processed?"

 

Johannes T. Stonagall, Junior, or Jack, looked up from the worktable where he was scribbling in a notebook and smiled. His worktable was in the middle of the huge room, built for warehousing, high atop the old Brooklyn brewery. It was an unusual place to live in 1890 Brooklyn, but it was a living space conveniently temporary and perfectly accommodating to the wide range of Jack's post-law school activities, from chemistry experimentation to research and writing.

 

Wait! How do you know anything about Stonagall and his son?

 

You'll see. It's part of the story.

 

"That crude is worthless, Jack!" Stonagall raged. He charged at his son, passing the corner where Jack had his sleeping palette and the rough kitchen setup against the adjacent wall. Reaching the table by the room's large front window where Jack was working, he went on raging. "You've just cost us a fortune in refinery costs on top of the money we lost to the swindler who made that deal!"

 

Jack turned back to his notebook. "That crude is not worthless."

 

Stonagall stood over his son and fumed. "You know the oil business better than me!?!"

 

"Just the chemistry. Look." He pointed at the worktable, beyond his notebooks, where a row of Bunsen burners heated bubbling beakers and test tubes.

 

The Opening of Part 3:

 

It is so horrid and so sad, I said.

 

Yes.

 

How did you learn of all this? I asked.

 

The Rajah sent the company his belongings and a letter summarizing what they had learned when they found the bodies and then tracked down the killers. On the first page of his diary, the company found my name and address with instructions to send everything to me if anything happened to him.

 

So you must detest the oil industry and everything about it.

 

Is that what I said? Her articulate eyes asked me. Let me tell you about my son, she said.

 

 

Part 3: Generation Lost

July 1914

 

 

VROOM. Vroom-vroom-vroom. Two lines of sleek, open, two-seater racing cars slowly rolled toward a starting line, the finest, fastest automobiles of 1914. The grandstand crowd roared.

 

In the teeming grandstand, near the starting line, a vibrant young German beauty stepped forward to the railing, her blond hair blowing in the wind, her blue eyes brightly anticipating the race. Next to her, a young American with an axe-blade profile watching her with studious, brown eyes, followed her lead and stepped up beside her.

 

Behind and around them, the tens of thousands came to their feet as the two lines of cars rolled forward, each driver a goggled romantic hero, each mechanic beside the driver in the passenger seat an anonymous grease monkey and wrench magician.

 

A man stood at the starting line with a bright, checkered flag, between the two rows of approaching racers. He pointed the flag at the leading cars and waved the flag in tight circles, holding them in place. The cars revved their engines. VROOM. Vroom-vroom-vroom.

 

The grandstand crowd roared again. The young German beauty screamed joyously. Beside her, the young American felt her excitement and smiled.