The other day, one of my students asks me where oil comes from. I am helping him with an article about climate change and the oil industry that he was supposed to summarize for the previous week’s assignment. English is his third language and the one he struggles with the most, so we are sitting at his desk after dismissal going through his article line by line.
I’m surprised that he asks me that, where oil comes from, and then I’m ashamed at my own surprise. He has no reason to know the answer.
I could tell him that where I grew up, the drumbeats of the oil rigs were as familiar as the sound of my own heartbeat, or that my first school had an oil derrick next to the swing set, caged in with a barbed wire-topped fence and locked with heavy chains.
I could tell him what I’ve heard: how, during the Boom, 10,000 men flooded our little community, setting up tent cities and living in their cars on the hope that they’d get work in the oil field; how that’s when crank really took off, when the oil money ran rich; about the rumor that prisons were giving their parolees bus tickets to Oklahoma to work the rigs.
I could tell him about my father working the rigs before I was born, three weeks on, two weeks off, sleeping in a shed-cum-bunkhouse they all called the Dog Pen because it was filthy, ten men working 15-hour shifts sleeping in bunks stacked three high like you see in jails. Or I could tell him the story about the time the man my father was hoisting a line with suddenly disappeared from my father’s peripheral, how some I-beam had slipped and suddenly the man wasn’t there but his right boot was, his foot still inside, my father staring dumbly with the cable still in his gloved hands. Even today I still think of that story when I see a single shoe on the street.
I could tell him about when the Boom went bust, and how those 10,000 men who’d bought cars, houses, and spent like men far richer than they were, were suddenly out a job, stuck in rural Oklahoma with debts, kids, wives, addictions to feed.
I could tell him what I’ve seen: the roads beaten to shit by heavy semi-trucks hauling pipe to and from rig sites; miles of pipe patchworked together to suck water from the creeks so they can use it to drill deeper and faster, even though the Ogallala Aquifer has been emptying for years now and the waste water from the rigs is toxic. I could tell him how, from the front porch of my mom’s old house, there would be a dozen little flames burning bright in the distance as the rigs burned off the natural gas they didn’t need. The closest one was a mile away, and it turned half the sky orange every night as it burned.
I could tell him how, just a couple weeks ago, the governor called for a Day of Prayer for the gas and oil industry.
I don’t tell him any of it. I don’t tell him about the landlord who had an oil company dig a trench in my mother’s front yard hoping to stick a rig there, a few feet from the kitchen window. I don’t tell him about the earthquakes or the dry creek beds.
Instead, I say, “It comes out of the ground, and then they refine it.”
“Refine?” he says. “Like to clean?”
“Ah, I know this. Like diamonds,” he says.
“Yes, like diamonds.”