Saturday, February 02, 2008

Petroliana, Part Two

In Part One, I related the pleasant memories of my grandparents filling up their Mercury Comet at the Atomic station north of Mayfield, New York, with me in the backseat killing brain cells, huffing the intoxicating fumes of leaded gas. For a decade and more thereafter, the long-chain benzene smell of gasoline would fairly infuse my being with happiness, building into full consciousness. The characteristic smell is tinged at this remove with varied resins of regret--for declined villages of my youth; for the freedoms of the travels I later embarked upon; and for the creeping realization of the oft-gruesome lengths to which I and my culture have gone to procure and command the substance itself.

It was gasoline ripped apart my village. My family. Me. To my undiscerning, innocent eyes, my world was still a serene harbor of middle-class, working-class enjoyments, rather than a small failing mill town basking in the temporary wake of a Great War which had won a prosperous respite. Despite my illegitimate situation, the insecurity of which has never left me, my family loved me, and I dearly loved them even if I felt apart from not having or knowing my dad. But I had a family, it was just there, pre-packaged, and I didn't have to go and figure out how to build another like some idiotic refugee.

It was deemed perfectly safe to walk to kindergarten, a lovely anachronism compared to a city where even in the safest neighborhoods children of any description hoofing it down a sidewalk are about as common as meteorites. In my village, near inhabitants were known of long acquaintance, and by force of sustained probity, civic duty, or commonality, virtually all were well-liked. I will not sketch paradise, not at all, there were those who were marked as those to be avoided, but the structures and scales of the village were decidedly more Victorian than modern, more early industrial than late. Although delight in internal combustion engines and their shiny steel envelopes was in full bloom, walking across town was still very common among adults.

And it wasn't all delight. No. Cars killed and maimed more people than died in wars, and I was not even allowed to ride with my great aunt Lil. Nor with my neighbor, mentor, and dear, dear friend Walt Allen who first taught me, starting when I was 4 years old, how to mow lawns and women. Going with them was forbidden, their driving techniques demonstrably learned on inappropriate things, she on stagecoaches delivering mail in the Adirondacks, he on bulldozers making airfields on the Aleutian Islands.

Driving had not fully defined my local environment, and nationally, Eisenhower's Interstate Road System (intended for rapid nuclear missile deployments) was not yet complete. My path to school would usually cross between three imposing, four or five-storied wooden buildings, leather mills sited along a stream, two of them nearing a hundred years old, one for rendering, one for tanning, and a newer one for cutting animal hides. The stream had strained to aid industry since Colonial times, and its noxious sludges and vapors ran the visible gamut of a chemical rainbow, and smelled like something which could probably dissolve you. Nonetheless it was still common for five-year olds to cross a train trestle over the Cayadutta creek in Gloversville, New York, hopping from tie to tie over the pickled waters below. That was the tiny scale of our commute, a naughty word most of us would learn only much later in adulthood.

My grandparents and their contemporaries, in fact most adults I knew, were part of 'the greatest generation,' the one celebrated for winning a war advertised as Good. They were heroes enough to me, for sure, but they would've shared a good laugh at both appellations. Then, they would have paused and looked up to solemnly thank their luck. Not only for making it through ok, but for the houses they bought, the families they grew, the businesses they started, and any educations they pursued were financed with easy-going GI Bill loans--worth more than $100,000 is today, available to every veteran.

My Uncle Franz, or Frank, affectionately known to his two older brothers as "the Professor," went to college and later became Controller of a national timber and paper company. The veterans and cronies felt lucky to be Americans, not Japanese, Russians, or Germans. They were well aware that if any single thing had made the fighting easier, it was America's ability to fill tankers with abundant petroleum products and send them off, on bargain-basement terms, to dodge torpedoes and fuel the foreign allies. To serve deep purposes. To them, it was simple. They won because the enemy had run out of fuel. Dick Guggenberger was a marine from Guadalcanal until Okinawa, everybody knew without him saying so that he'd killed more Nips than seismic activity, and he said, "Shooting them took way too long. We only won because we hit the refineries and sank the tankers, just like with the Krauts."

Five-year olds can remember things like they were yesterday. America was gushing oil in the 1940s.
Germany was decidedly not, and amongst other powers such as the United States, it was conniving for control over unimaginably vast Mid-east oil fields. When I once asked assembled vets why the Nazis lost after instigating such dreaded perturbations, my uncle Hank, or Heinrich, answered: "No gas."

By contrast, in early 1945 he had enough spare juice for his halftrack to once drive a considerable distance east to his aunt's house in Czechoslovakia, clear outside a war zone (I assume as part of Patton's "Creeping Offensive"), to personally deliver Red Cross packages to her. Here is Uncle Hank's full dissertation on his lengthy participation in the Battle of the Bulge, all the firefights, the unthinkable attacks into the Hurtgen Forest, winning his medals and capturing scores of German soldiers: "It was cold." Then he took a few gulps of Genessee in the firelight.
US control of the region's oil was secured by secret coup in 1953 Iran (see Iran's Short, Iterative History), then by British/French humiliations at the Suez Canal, by their indebtedness to America, and by secret unilateral treaty with Saudi Arabia in 1958 (see The Return Of Containment).

It was my pleasure to be the Bringer of Cold Beer to these men and their friends, who in my mind's eye still sit around a stone chimney they had built on top of the long reddened pine needles on summer evenings, fire-flies phosphoring, mosquitoes trying to brave the smoke, men analyzing news of the world with ancient heat under an overarching canopy. They joked and and reminisced while I fed needles into the fire, listening waiting for the smoke to come and the sudden burst into flame. I got to hear them talk unguarded, so their thoughts, as honestly as they would share them with each other, were shared with me and absorbed. When I die, theirs is the council fire to which I will return.

Not an officer among them, but they all grasped the conflict's essential nature, and each voiced measures of horror, disgust, skeptical perspective...from what they said, I suspect they knew the Second World War was fought over access to energy. As was the First, somewhat less obviously. They would not have known, nor desired to know, the energy's exact extent and particulars which had been won. But they knew victory was huge, they had been used and got lucky in some ways, they knew defeat would have been more huge. Their lives had been bet, they won, and it all had to do with oil.

Modern war runs on combustion, and the extent of petroleum's importance in deciding the 'Good War' is difficult to overstate. One example: Franco, the fascist victor of the Spanish Civil War, stayed neutral in exchange for oil, making Allied victories less costly and perhaps saving my beer quaffers' lives. As they served in uniform, the US agreed to supply 80% of Spain's pre-1940 rate of consumption, so it may be surmised that from 1940-1945, nearly all petroleum used in that country came from the US (and, technically, Britain). When in 1942 Franco supplied "volunteers" to the Eastern Front, encouraged a vehemently pro-Axis press, and victualled German subs at Vigo, the spigot was shut off, and Franco was quickly forced to acquiesce. Again. He beseeched Germany for oil, but none came. Not a drop.

Had Spain not been neutralized, Gibraltar, the British Navy's bottle cap to the Mediterranean, would probably have been taken by the Germans, who itched to undertake Operation Felix. It never came off, the price, oil, too steep for Hitler. And not taking Gibraltar was the same as not taking Russia. Churchill's desperate war in North Africa to wall off the oil fields was nearly lost despite keeping that maritime keystone, and it must have been lost if a fascist dictator who owed his very rule to Hitler and Mussolini, his country a mere rope's length across the Straits of Gibraltar, had not been bribed away.

The year I remember best under the pines was probably 1968, when America's relative prosperity and oil productio happened to be near their peaks. Sometimes before fetching my grandfather's beer, a Genesee, I asked if it was ok to take a sip. He said yes, but just a little. I will bring you a six-pack when I come back, grandfather. Before he came home in 1945, the US was producing 1.7 billion barrels of oil per year, and as I popped the top in 1968, output had doubled to 3.4 billion barrels per year, all downhill from there. My grandparents would soon upgrade from their Comet to a big-ass Chevy Impala. It was
the hay-day of the muscle car, auto manufacturers were engaging in horsepower wars and, in all earnestness, trying to figure to consume more gasoline.

There was a good deal of uneasiness about Vietnam around the evening fireplace, even disagreement, both about the military conflict itself and the bubbling fallout, social discords fully or semi-connected. My mother, uncle, and aunt were each in their own way harbingers of dislocation, my mother by having me, my uncle by commuting to General Electric an hour distant, my aunt by running entirely away with a hippie who could've played the role of Jesus in a movie.

My beloved cousin David, who was so kind to me, was a new college-graduated engineer at Dow Chemical. He was Uncle Hank's son, and his Corvette went off the New York State Thruway with his fiancee' when he was driving his beautiful fiancee home late one night, two weeks away from their wedding. No skid marks. Both dead. My family never recovered. His mother my aunt Sophie walked to his headstone every day for the rest of her life and prayed over it in snow and rain, and my Uncle Rocky his brother asked, "Why couldn't God have taken me?" That was my first worst day, when I first contemplated nothingness, terrifying nothingness, I saw it and asked my mother, "What happens when we die?" I can still hear my grandmother's cries just as they occurred, perfectly preserved, when she answered the phone that morning in the still-dark-outside, her voice, always disposed to kindness, begging god and fate itself for another chance, another reality. Because sometimes it's best to deny this one.

Gasoline. Enough of it to burn the bodies of my heroes and my village and their children with. Still, nothing seemed directly, fundamentally amiss in greater Petroliana. How could it? "There's nothin' like the face, of a kid eating a Hershey bar," sang a jingle on TV, and my grandfather would then watch hippies on the nightly news and be moved to yell, "Get your hair cut!" I would peer out happily from underneath the coffee table and wait for a visitor to drop in by the expediently unlocked back door and say, "Hi, how ya doin'? Whatcha got cookin', Evvy?" I wanted to screw Mary Anne on Gilligan's Island first I saw her, and can't turn down such bread and circuses.

We dimly apprehended the intrusion of another dimension, an entirely additional plane on which we would have to compete, one trumping the familial interdependence and community fellowship we so took for granted. There's a lot of ways to kill a man, there's a lot of ways to die. Few of them are quick. Humans are pretty tough. But we had no idea our domain started to end in 1971, and when it happened, it wasn't on the nightly news, or if it was, it was beyond the ken of us and Walter Cronkite. We couldn't identify the source of the calamities to come, sufficiently numerous and significant to require a Part Three.


isabelita said...

I do appreciate your historical mystery tour here. Am awaiting Part Three with enthusiasm.

MarcLord said...

Hi isabelita,

Much appreciated! Not trying to drag it out, only so much space is practical in one post. Plus I'm a professional dad, not writer. ;-)