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Pumpers of the Keystone Crude

A short story

| December 2009

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. 


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