Pumpers of the Keystone Crude

A short story

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I pull my hand back from the rail almost as soon as I touch it, realizing that everything on the truck is covered in years of oil.  Real oil.  Crude oil.  The road is craggy, formed by gouging potholes of mud and rock.  I can’t imagine having to ride this terrible path through the sticks just to get to my job.  We’re about a half a mile into a deeply forested region in the remote, rural oil country of Pennsylvania, but it’s been a hell of a half of a mile, and there is a couple more to go before we reach our destination.  We’re only going about ten miles an hour, but we are still jousting and tumbling up and down every change in the knotted road.  My dad, and his longtime friend Merlin, who looks very much like the fabled wizard, ride next to me in the bed of the grimy old diesel truck.  Mike, the local pumper, is driving, and Jeff, who is a friend of Dad’s rides up front in the cab.  Mike pushes the gas pedal down extra far to power over a muddy mound and heavy white smoke plumes up from the exhaust to fill my nose.  It has a peculiar smell to it, far different from what a gasoline or diesel vehicle normally smells like.  See, up here in pumper country all the boys drive diesel trucks, and they don’t fill them up at the local station, oh no.  That characteristic smoke is a tell-tell sign, the raw stuff comes right out of the ground and goes straight into their tanks.

I look toward the winding road ahead and duck an oncoming set of branches, but Merlin’s hat does not.  His shiny pate is revealed as the baseball cap goes tumbling off onto the greasy chains, jacks, and other tools which cover the back of Mike’s truck.  I quickly snatch the hat just as it is about to fall off the back edge of the bed.  As soon as I hand it back to Merlin, it’s back on his head.

“Man, this truck is really greasy huh?”  I say as I look at the black, sooty-looking stains which now cover the hand I used to grab the rail.

“Well, what did you expect,” Says dad, never one to let a chance to be a smart-ass pass him by, though admittedly, mine was a dumb comment.  I can look in his eyes and tell that he is in hog heaven here.  He’s been collecting oil field engines for well over ten years now.  He has about 18 different one-cylinder engines, several of which are oil-field pieces, a couple that he even helped pull off of the old dry wells himself.  He has wanted to take me to see a real working oil well for quite a while, as he knows the opportunity to do so is nearly gone.  The era of the oil-field industry is long gone now, at least within the north east United States, which is where it all got started.  We are only a matter of miles from the Drake Oil Well, drilled in 1859; it was the first successful oil well in the world.  And the world is what it changed; we still live in a planet dominated by the need of oil as a resource.  But Mike is one of the last examples of a dying breed.  Pumpers are all but extinct in northern Pennsylvania, and that is why I find myself glad for the opportunity to be jostling down this dirty, backwoods road.

A high pitch whine overtakes my ears and I turn to find the location of this noise.  A small three-wheeler approaches from up the road, tumbling much faster than us over the tough ground, before stopping beside the driver side window.  It’s Mike’s son, no more than sixteen years old, who helps his father with the work.  He’s covered in that same black grime that covers the truck and sawdust as well, as he has been sawing a log up the trail.  As he and Mike exchange words that I can’t hear over the din of the truck I begin to wonder about the life of the boy who is just a few years younger than me.  I imagine him to be tough, seasoned from years of hard labor out here in the woods, doing the work of an oil man.  He has that hard-jawed look of a country boy, with short-buzz cut hair neatly topped with a much used red baseball cap, more worn and torn than Merlin’s.  I think about my long hair and how I must look like such a fair-handed wimp to someone like him.  I have worked years of hard manual labor alongside my dad.  Busting my knuckles and dragging myself into bed becomes a daily routine, but it doesn’t seem to be enough to make me nearly as tough as this kid.

Back home I have a cozy house where I live with my mom and step dad.  I have a computer and I have guitars, and thousands of dollars each year go to me attending College.  I wonder if this kid has any of that.  I know that Mike probably makes next to nothing with his profession, so it makes me doubt it.  I also know that Mike and his son live in a small culture that values their work as something beyond simply being a job, the way that some truck drivers have a romance with being on the road.  They live in a distinctly American culture that is fading away much the same as the farmer’s profession has where I am from in western North Carolina.  The pumper is a relic of time gone by. 

Soon the boy is riding off and we continue down our jostling path.  I look over the edge of the truck as we pass some freshly sawed logs.  The bright innards are a stark contrast to the dark tones all around us, the yellow powder of sawdust and shavings are piled high from what must have been hours of work.  An archaic looking chainsaw sits on the ground, the majority of its red paint peeling up and away revealing the dull grey metal beneath.  It’s probably out of gas I think, as the scene passes along by us.

“Hey, listen.”  My dad says, craning his neck out toward the dense forest.

“For what?” 

“Here they come, just listen.” 

At first I am annoyed that he won’t tell me what I am supposed to be listening for.  I look out through the shadows upon shadows, straining my ears to hear something that I don’t know about. And then it hits me.  At first it is faint, a small echo, high and fast, gone quickly and back just as soon.  It is the ancient screech of a rod line.  The sound is just barely audible, as I can hear only the farthest reaching ones.  One becomes two and they are off-set, one screeching a call and another sending an equal response.  Two become three, then four, and then I am surrounded by them, a chorus of squeaks and squawks is filling my ears.  I realize how loud they are, as the perpetual noise is easily audible over the rumble of the diesel engine.  They sound prehistoric, like some haunting elegy to the past.  And it isn’t a terrible noise, in a way it is actually an enjoyable sound, inviting in its mystery.

I see them now; spindly steel rods that dash through the trees, up and over small gullies, through tangled masses of tree limbs, and occasionally through special pipes made to allow them to travel through the earth itself.  Some are far off and some travel just beside the road.  These rods run in all directions from the pump house, where they are powered by an engine.  One big engine can power up to fifteen or more lines which are then ran up to a mile or more away, where they are attached to a pumping apparatus that brings oil up out of the ground.  The rod lines are constantly tugged back and forth, traveling a couple of feet in each direction, which allows for the pumping device to be operated up and down.  The rods are not a singular piece, but are constructed from many sections that are bolted together, end to end.  Every so often there is a tripod constructed from steel bars that holds them up in the air, usually about six or seven feet off the ground, though this distance can be much more or much less than that.  The rods are held up by steel rings that are mounted to the tripods by whatever means necessary.  The rings are constructed from the same stuff that the rods are.

Once the effect of the sound no longer overwhelms me, I notice how absolutely rusty everything is.  The tripods and rods are pitted and rough, stained a deep red from years and years of work out in the elements.  The rods are not lubricated.  Rusty steel drags forever against rusty steel, and therefore: the screech.  Back when there was still a great amount of oil to be found in the hills of Pennsylvania, these rods would work non-stop, twenty four hour days, every day of the week.  On some of the lines I can see that they are much thinner where they rub on the rings.  It amazes me that equipment can work like that.  Surely the incessant friction must take a serious toll on the lines.

“These things must have to be replaced all the time, right?” I ask dad, knowing that the rusty, pitted surface on all of these lines seems to indicate that they aren’t.

“No.  I don’t know how it works for so long,” he says, knowing himself the impressive nature of the situation, “but most of these are probably the original lines.”

“Wow,” is all I can say.  These wells were first drilled over one hundred years ago.  For these lines to be original, that means that they have been in the rain and cold, rubbing back and forth, squeaking constantly for over a century.

I think about my job back home.  I work alongside dad as an appliance technician.  We work on refrigerators, washers, driers, ranges, and other home appliances.  And the majority of our job is part replacement.  Nothing on home appliances is made to be repaired, we always take old parts out and put new parts in.  These parts are quite often less than a year old, warranty work makes up a large percentage of what we do.  We so often find refrigerators, microwaves and washers, less than five years old, that aren’t even worth the cost of fixing.  They are simply junked and new appliances are bought.  We replace thousands of cheaply made, throwaway parts a year.  And it strikes a chord in me as we drive by this antique machinery, still going as strong as the day that it was put into operation.  We live in a world where oil is held up as some kind of demon which has given rise to pollution and global warming, but damn if the old oil industry isn’t much more efficient and less wasteful than almost anything that is manufactured today.  Junkyards are full of metal products that are less than a year old, but these old pieces of steel rod are no-where near ready to quit.

A sudden jolt wakes me up and I grab hard onto the edge of the truck, holding my balance.  I fully realize now that I am not going to get away from this trip without a heavy coating of oil on me somewhere, if not everywhere.  More branches scratch over us, once again almost stealing Merlin’s cap before he snatches it back.  This brings laughter from me and dad, as Merlin often provides us with comic relief of one kind or another.  We reach a sharp turn in the road where Mike has to take the truck out into the woods a bit in order to turn around before continuing along the road.  There is no telling how many times he has traveled this road.  The whole process, which is so fascinating and new for Dad, Merlin, and I, is just another day at work for Mike.  A day at a job that he hopes will never let him down.

These old pumpers live an almost extinct life today, but even back in the prime of American oil production, the business was often a game of chance, one that had the ability to make those who pursued it rich, but also had the ability to leave those same people devastated and penniless.  Such is the story of Pithole, Pennsylvania.  Pithole was a town that was first settled in 1865, alongside what came to be called “Pithole Creek”.  A well alongside of the creek struck oil and Pithole was a “boomtown” literally overnight.  People flooded into the area by the thousands, all eager to get in on the action.  The region was so rich with oil that many wells would bubble up through the ground without even having to be pumped. 

During the height of production the town was a rough culture of tough men and even tougher times.  Natural gas, which came up with the oil, filled the air and Pithole was often covered in dense smog resulting from the dust and oil.  Mules and horses would lose fur and have patches of raw hide from where the caustic elements would eat into their skin.  The horizon was dotted with oil dikes in every direction.  Rod lines stitched the countryside.  All things come to an end though, and the wells in Pithole began drying up, and much faster than the people expected.  The population of Pithole rose to 15,000 and fell to 2,000 in less than two years.  Today the area is nothing more than a few rolling green hills and a small museum.  A true ghost town.

The truck is slowing down as we pull into a lightly cleared area with a wooden shack in the middle.  This is the pump house.  Mike turns the truck off and I feel relieved that the bumps and jolts are momentarily over.  There are bits of old rusted metal lying all around the area, hunks of pipe, old tools, and a few engine parts.  There are loud, throaty blasts emanating from the shack, which is where the engine that powers all the rod lines is.  I jump off the back of the truck, not taking my time to climb down, and therefore avoiding the oily edges.  I walk toward the front of the truck, taking in the Rube Goldbergian scene that is in front of me.  Coming out of the shack is a device that looks like a big, horizontal wheel with many holes around the edge of it, which is called the “power”.  The power is hooked up to the engine inside the shack, allowing it to spin.  It spins in an uneven fashion, since it rotates from an off-center position.  The holes along the edge have the rod lines attached to them, which then shoot out in all directions through the woods to the pumps.  The eccentric motion of the power’s pull allows for the back and forth action of the rod lines.  I have to step over several moving lines to get to the shack.

“What do you think about this Zack?”  Jeff says in his nasally northern voice.

“I think it’s great.  This is totally different from seeing the engines at the shows.”

He then points at the power and says “This is called a power.  It operates the rod lines . . .” he continues to explain things to me that my dad has already taught me about, but I don’t stop him as it is his chance to show off his knowledge, and he is a pretty decent sort of fellow.

“So how often do you still run these, Mike?”  Asks my dad.

Mike replies in a quiet, reserved voice that is contrary to his huge stature.   “Well, I can only run them one day a week now.”  Much like Pithole, these oil wells are effectively dried up, not capable of producing a daily pull of oil.

“How many wells are running off of this engine?”  I ask him.

”Right now there are only ten working lines, there used to be more.”

Mike opens the door to the little shack and we all follow him inside.  The first thing I notice is the intense heat, smothering and stinking of hot metal and oil.  The volume of the engine necessitates yelling for communication, even with the exhaust being ported outside the shack.  The engine is a Reid, one of the most common oil field engines.  It too is around 100 years old, still operating after all these years.  It looks similar to the ones that I have seen at the shows, and the ones that are at dad’s house.  The body is constructed out of cast iron, thick, heavy, cast iron.  A cylinder, probably eight inches in diameter, pumps rapidly up and down a greasy shaft.  Rods and springs move and turn all over the whole machine, and the two big, spoked flywheels, one on each side, turn about 200 rpm.  For a wheel with a six foot diameter, that is pretty fast.  A wide belt wraps around the edge of the spinning flywheel, which travels outside the shack to turn the power.  This engine which weighs around 4,000 lbs is only fifteen horsepower.

Many oil field engines were equipped with what is known as a “barker.”  This is a short section of pipe that is attached to the end of the exhaust, with a gap of a few inches in between.  This short piece is mounted on a bracket that allows it to move to different angels compared to the direction of the exhaust.  These different angels have the effect of tuning the sound of the engine’s fire to where each one has a unique sound.  In a town such as Pithole, where there could be hundreds of the engines in the surrounding hills, each pumper could be far off in town, and he would be able to tell if his engine was still working.  These men knew their machines.

Though they remain reliable over a hundred years later, maintenance is still necessary, which makes up the majority of Mike’ job.  They had to be oiled regularly, repaired occasionally, sometimes the belt needed to be replaced, and other things required the pumper to always be at hand ready to keep the pumps working.  Luckily, most of the engines were capable of running off of natural gas for fuel, which came up free with the oil.  Sometimes the pump houses were located miles and miles from the nearest town, so the pumpers would often live in the shacks with the engines, noise and heat and all.  Of course, in the winter time the heat was wonderful, because northern Pennsylvania winters are cold.  It was often a solitary life, being out in the deep woods with your only company being a constantly working engine.  The work of a pumper was a hard, unforgiving life, and to some degree it still is, for those who remain.

I wonder how long these ten working wells are going to operate.  I wonder how much longer this oil will be a worthwhile cause.  I wonder if Mike’s son is planning on continuing this line of work, as there is no other industry in this area of Pennsylvania.  I think about being back home, and how I often feel so limited in my choice of career, and how everything often seems so forced upon me.  But it also seems that career choice is much more forced and limited for Mike’s son, who has a father that is one of the last of his kind.

Jeff, Merlin, Dad and Mike leave the shack, but I stay momentarily, trying to place my mind in the 1800’s.  I imagine the lifestyle of a pumper.  I am walking through the woods on a cold winter day.  Snow flakes drift down and light upon my clothes, momentarily forming white spots on my otherwise black-stained clothes.  In the distance I can see smoke rising from my engine house, and I know I am almost home.  In a way I could certainly identify with the simplified existence.  I’ve never been one to socialize much, finding much more interesting things in the abstract.  It would be a feeling both liberating and terrifying to be so far from any sort of human contact.  It’s odd in a way, the duality of a pumper’s life.  They are deeply connected with nature, isolated so far out in the wilderness, harvesting oil, a natural element of the earth.  Yet at the same time they are completely involved with technology, requiring both a mechanical hand and mind in order to operate and maintain the machinery.  They are a point of connection between the present and the past.  Mike’s job makes him a man who lives in both of these worlds.

I walk outside and find that Mike has decided to haul off some of the rusty tools and pipe pieces, and it putting them in the back of his truck.  I walk back across the rod lines, taking one last look at the power.  Dad and I begin to help him, and now I realize that my hands are going to be oily and rust covered, but that’s okay.  Eventually it is time to go, and I climb back up on the truck, letting my hand grab the grease covered rail, because it just doesn’t matter anymore.  I think about the long bumpy ride ahead, and realize that the destination, however distant, is probably worth it.