Above photo of Kansas highway courtesy of Erik Trautman.
The following Monday morning, I got up a little earlier than usual in my apartment in Yorkville, Manhattan. I put on a pair of jeans and my Timberland boots as this here urban cowboy was going to work on the oil field for the week. Well ok, maybe not exactly. I was really going to be a tag-along on the oil patch. To be on the heels of the world-famous Jewish cowboy and oil rustler, Bobby Edwards!
I grabbed a cab and directed the driver to Bobby’s place on East 86th Street. As we pulled up to the awning on Bobby’s building, he was, of course, nowhere to be seen. We waited as the doorman called up. “Mr. Edwards will be right down.” I wondered if everyone’s workweek on the oil patch started this way.
After a few moments, Bobby arrived at the car, huffing and puffing with his suitcase. “LaGuardia Airport for TWA Airlines, please,” he barked to the driver in his raspy voice as he staggered into the cab. We were on our way to an 8AM flight to Kansas City International Airport. “Wait ‘til you see Kansas, kid,” he laughed and coughed. “Looks just like 86th Street.”
Once at the Central Terminal (which, at LaGuardia, is Terminal B, not C: go figure), I followed Bobby to the check-in counter at our gate. He slouched up against it and whipped out a money clip. On one side were several Gold and Platinum ‘Elite’ TWA Frequent Flyer cards. On the other side were several Benjis ($100 bills). Bobby winked at me as he addressed the check-in agent while clicking the clip on the desk. “Hi Linda, how are you this morning,” he said as if he had played doctor with Linda in kindergarten.
“Fine, Mr. Edwards. How are you?” she said pleasantly if nonchalantly as the printer spat out two boarding passes. After handing him our seat assignments, we soon took our coach places towards the rear of the empty aircraft.
They don’t fly no more…
Bobby was a real ‘Chatty Patty’ most of the way to KC. He went over our itinerary. First we would pick up his truck in the parking lot. We would drive south towards Chanute and make a stop midway in Osawatomie to pick up Roy, one of the local workers. Then we would continue to the ‘main oil operation center’ and tour the different leases, of which I was to photograph every hole in the ground. One of the pump jacks at the main site wasn’t running because the truck had run over the fuel line leading the tank, rupturing it. A replacement was on order. Yadda yadda yadda.
Only when we hit some mid-air choppy turbulence, did Bobby give my ears a rest.
The truck turned out to be a run-down, tired, old hag of a muddy pick-up. There were literally tumbleweeds in the foot wells. The beast started right up, though, and soon we crossed the Missouri River to Kansas City, Kansas (known locally as “Kay See Kan”), the diminutive twin of the larger “Kay See Mo” across the water. The suburbs dispersed quickly as we cruised south and we soon found ourselves in wide open country.
Entering Osawatomie, we found ourselves in a quiet town under grey March skies. The ground was bare and brown, not white. Roy lived in one of the small one-story houses clustered around the town center. His wife invited us inside and we sat uncomfortably in the small living room while Roy got his things. She was following Roy around telling him how she drowned the puppies earlier that morning (with a pillow case and brick). It seems that their bitch had had an unwanted litter over the weekend. Stunned, Bobby and I looked at each other without comment.
With Roy in the truck, we continued southbound, the land became more desolate, the houses smaller, poorer, and more in-between. Eventually, we pulled into that ‘main oil operations center,’ a frozen muddy lot in the middle of nowhere with three pump jacks in view, two of them squeaking as they eased up and down. A line from one snaked across the frozen tire ruts to spill into a large rusty 500 gallon oil tank. This was the center of Blake & Blair!
Bobby walked over to the tank and threw open a valve near the bottom of the tank. An odorous liquid rushed out under pressure, spilling on the ground. I was shocked!
“Relax, kid, it’s water,” Bobby said, noticing my face and smiling. He put his hand in the flow and lifted it up to my face. His hand was clear. It stank strongly of oil, though. Apparently, the wells were pulling a mixture of oil and water out of the ground, which separates naturally: oil on top and water below.
In fact, one well was pulling exclusively water, salt water that is, from the ground. Bobby described this as being from the “Mississippi formation.” The brine was being pushed back into the ground through an injection well to force up the oil. Today, we call this a form of “fracking” and is assumed to be responsible for increasing earthquake activity in next door Oklahoma.
By this time, Luke, the other worker, had arrived. The three of them dutifully took me around the entire installation, which took less than five minutes. “How often does Enron come to buy the oil?” I asked Bobby as he opened the lid on top of the tank so I could peer in. It was dark, of course, but seemed to be half full, with water underneath an indeterminate layer of oil. When full, it might yield a check of up to $8,000 30 days after pick-up.
A scene from the Enron Christmas party in 1999 with Jeff Skilling & Rebecca Mark. Watch your hand, Santa! Courtesy of Enron is Theatre.
“James, we call them whenever the tank gets to be two thirds full. I’ll be calling them next week or so,” Bobby replied.
Uneasily, I looked around at the three pump jacks, only two of which were straining against the elements (and one was pumping water); the tangled fuel lines running along the frozen ground (one of which was run over and broken); the beat-up truck (which soon caught on fire, see my next post, “THE HOLEY LAND, PART 2”); and some rusted parts lying here and there. Although I had no previous experience whatsoever in the oil business, I could tell this was a piker outfit. Nobody was getting filthy rich here.
Filthy, on the other hand? Now that was a distinct possibility.