Lingering Memories

Visiting northwest Pennsylvania always makes me think of oil. I suppose the fact that I attended high school in Oil City has something to do with the fact. Many people suppose that the oil industry began in Texas, but Pennzoil and Quaker State have earlier roots back to the days when people flooded to Oil City and Titusville to get rich from the petroleum underground. I grew up in a refinery town that is becoming a ghost town, like Pithole City and Petroleum Centre before it. And when I returned home to New Jersey I wanted to find my Oil City book. Yes, there is a book. I first saw it in junior high school and I coveted it. Hardbound and large format, it was a book about my town. I had no idea where to get one, however. There were no bookstores in Oil City, or nearby Franklin. Any further afield than that and nobody cared.

I used to work as a janitor in my junior high school. It was my summer job for several years. One day our task was to haul out the garbage bins. I saw my opportunity. The library was discarding several copies of the book. They were in the trash. I dumpster-dived for the first (but not last) time in my life. I had the prized book. It had been locally printed. There is no publisher listed. It bears no ISBN. Nothing like a book to validate where you’re from. You see, I’ve always wanted to write a history of the area where I grew up. No major publisher would touch it—it can’t possibly sell enough books to cover its costs. It would be a labor of love.

Not that I’m a fan of Big Oil. Quite the opposite, in fact. I don’t appreciate their proprietary arrogance toward ownership of the planet. Of their pollution of the world to gain more money for themselves. I support alternate energy. But still. This is where I’m from. Not that anybody’s making much money off of oil there these days. The shallow wells ran dry long ago. The local oil companies were bought out by larger corporations but they kept the local names. Once in a while I pull out my old, salvaged Oil City book and scan the pages with wonder. Many of these towns wouldn’t be here if it weren’t for the prehistoric sludge that flowed under the rocks and stones. It’s easy to believe that the town would stay the same forever. Heading out of Oil City there is a church. A crude cross stands atop a truncated oil derrick. I stare at it and the irony is only half complete.

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Too Much Stuff

The informal name for economics, rightly, is “the dismal science.” When I recently learned about The Story of Stuff (storyofstuff.org), I found myself again shaking my head in dismay. I have no problem admitting that I’m a liberal pretty much through and through. I believe what I believe is right. Statistics show that the older we grow the more conservative we become, but in my case the opposite trend seems to be in effect. I grew up in a conservative backwater and I saw first-hand what it did to those who adhere to it most religiously. Rouseville, the town where I spent my teens, was an industrial armpit, dominated by a large Pennzoil refinery, now derelict. The town smelled bad despite the pristine woods that surrounded it, and pollution was everywhere evident. People didn’t move away because they couldn’t. Drugs were a rampant problem and I never felt safe going out at night, even though it was a town of less than a thousand souls.

Growing up I often wondered about this. When you live close to the edge, you hang on. The existence of the working class is precarious. Living in a cancer factory like that, you needed your job more than you needed food. If you were to survive, you had to work. Pennzoil was the only game in town. Local pride at being near the fountain head of the oil industry helped only a little. I turned to spirituality to cope. I’m now told that’s naive. I’m told that meaning is found in consuming. The most disheartening part of The Story of Stuff was learning that this was all intentional. Victor Lebow’s 1955 assessment of where our dismal science must go chills me:

“Our enormously productive economy demands that we make consumption our way of life, that we convert the buying and use of goods into rituals, that we seek our spiritual satisfactions, our ego satisfactions, in consumption. The measure of social status, of social acceptance, of prestige, is now to be found in our consumptive patterns. The very meaning and significance of our lives today expressed in consumptive terms.”

Our spiritual satisfaction in buying? And what is more, this advice has been heeded as gospel by the government. Is it any wonder that one percent tell the rest of us what to do? It is time for civilization to grow up. Our infantile need for more stuff has poisoned the very well from which we drink. It may cost you some sleep, but take a look at the Story of Stuff. What you lose in sleep you may gain in peace of mind. And soul.

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Sonoco

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What do God and great pools of gooey, flammable, decomposed ancient biomass have in common? Quite a lot apparently. A picture in this morning’s paper of a Caribbean Petroleum Corp. storage facility explosion took me back to my childhood. I was born in the same place as the oil industry, although I think it was in different hospitals. Northwestern Pennsylvania is where the industrial use of oil was discovered (ancients had learned that the stuff was extremely flammable and used it for cruel weapons, but never figured how to grease an axle with it). One day my brothers and I were playing outside and noticed flames jetting up from an adjacent hillside. We saw giant ashes, some nearly the size of dinner plates, floating down on a summer day and it seemed like a strange gray snow was falling. A funny smell was in the air. That night on the news we learned that a local oil refinery had exploded and when we went to the site to gawk, it was amazing to see colossal storage tanks melted like so many ten-ton candles. It is an image I’ll never forget.

Lord Balfour envisions chariots of fire

Lord Balfour envisions chariots of fire

My wife’s favorite historian is Barbara Tuchman. We’ve read most of her books. Bible and Sword, however, was especially eye-opening for me. This book describes, step-by-step, how the British Empire forged its alliance with Israel. Tuchman is a meticulous historian, noting minute details that add understanding to the overall picture. One of the key motivating factors that led Lord Arthur James Balfour in his support of a homeland for the Jewish Diaspora was his belief that a physical Israel was required before the Second Coming of Christ could take place. This is a sentiment that has been shared by some recent, very highly ranking American politicians.

Enter Col. Edwin Drake. Drake was the first person to have the idea of drilling for oil. Several local prospectors scampered through the hills of Pennsylvania looking for oil streams where petroleum could be skimmed off the water and refined into kerosene. As an alternative to whale oil, petroleum was much easier to collect and didn’t involve peg-legs spearing great white whales — oh wait, wrong story. As an alternative to whale oil, petroleum made a market impact and soon other uses were descried. There was an oil boom near Titusville, Pennsylvania when Drake hit oil, and soon the industry that give birth to Quaker State, Pennzoil, and Enron was up and running. As uses for petroleum multiplied demand shot through the roof. Drake died in poverty and the industry he helped found rolled ever forward.

Col. Edwin Drake envisioning a drink

Col. Edwin Drake envisioning a drink

After the Second World War, vast oil beds were discovered in the Middle East. Israel was declared a nation, and world-wide demand for petroleum was astronomical. Not all nations of the former Ottoman Empire welcomed the sudden interest in their natural resources or the presence of an allied nation in their midst. Although the roots go deeper and are much more complex, the scenario was set for a crisis that has lasted for my entire life and shows no signs of slowing down.

So what does God have to do with a complex mix of hydrocarbons and other organic compounds? The unbelievable wealth generated by petroleum products has been under-girded with a religious gullibility and deeply held faith that Jesus needs some help in returning. As long as we’re waiting, we might as well get filthy rich. Politicians with connections to Big Oil and the Big Guy have it all figured out. Take all that you can and wait for the God who has blessed you so richly to come home. I still remember that refinery explosion, and some childhood memories have become paradigms and parables that have as many applications as petroleum itself. When the oil beds run dry, what will grease the axles of Kingdom Come?

Mechanical worshiper bowing down to a subterranean god

Mechanical worshiper bowing down to a subterranean god