Maybe it’s because they knew I would someday come to support hydrogen and electric cars. Maybe it was because they knew I would become a proponent of energy diversity, of using solar, wind, wave and other alternative energy forms alongside the traditional industrial revolution fossil fuels. Maybe it was because I wore bell bottoms. Whatever the reason, the oil industry tried to assassinate me when I was five years old. And they almost succeeded. They just hadn’t counted on an important evolutionary advantage on my part.
When I was a wee lad, we had some land in southwestern New York near the Pennsylvania border that served as an important refuge while a house was being built further north. I have wonderful memories of that land, nestled in the mountainous Allegany region. In fact, our little property was on the side of a mountain, with a single, dirt road as access. Only one other family lived on the mountain. It was a glorious place to live for a kid, playing among the trees and ruins.
Ruins, because almost a century earlier in the 1880s there had been a brief but intense oil boom in these mountains. Our dirt road was actually the ghost of the rail line that snaked over the mountain, and went from oil derrick to derrick. The buildings and the derricks were all long gone by the time of my childhood, but their fossils, their concrete foundations belonged to the kingdom of my imagination. I heard years later that some family we’d sold the land to built a summer home on one of those foundations. Good for them.
On an irrelevant aside, one of my favorite memories from this place, which was miles from any serious town, was laying on the hood of my father’s 1962 Chevy pick up — I would later learn to drive in that truck — and watching a night sky crammed with so many stars.
OK, so to the assassination attempt. It was amazingly brazen. One bright, sunny day, indeed in broad daylight, five year old me was wandering the perimeter of our “yard” (meaning the land we bothered to clear between our 1950s Oasis trailer and the road) when they suddenly struck. This was terra cognita, a place I and my siblings had wandered millions of times before. My mother was nearby, I remember, futzing about with dishes or something. Suddenly, when I took another step, Mother Earth was no longer beneath my feet.
I mentioned an evolutionary advantage. I was taught in psychology class in high school that humans have are born with five basic instincts, one of them being to crack in half when we feel our balance faltering, and land on our fat butts. Well, for reasons not clear, the programming in my DNA got messed up and I automatically go sideways when I lose my balance. Always have. Still do.
And so, as I took a step forward only to find nothing beneath my feet, I flopped sideways. That saved my life — really. As I took stock of my situation, I realized I’d accidentally stepped into a woodchuck hole. My mother immediately came running, and finding no bones broken, assigned my father with the task of plugging the hole.
It was an admittedly large woodchuck hole, but they were common in those parts. My father was already clearing some trees so he decided to stand one up in the hole to plug it for us young’uns. After cutting off the branches he plopped it in — and it disappeared. Worse, we all stood and listened in horror as the sound echoed of the tree plummeting downward and downward, bouncing off the hole’s sides, until we just couldn’t hear it any more. We never heard it hit bottom. In went another tree, and the same result. Then down went a large rock, with the same result. This was some woodchuck.
Later research in town revealed that it was not a woodchuck hole but a derrick hole that went down 2 miles. And my small waist line would have fit in that hole; had I not flopped sideways, I would be no more.
My father anchored a grill over the hole, and reconnoitered for more — though again, we’d lived there for a year or more already by that point. In fact, we were using another hole further up the hill from our trailer (which also turned out to be a derrick hole) as our “powder room.” I had nightmares for years after that incident, nightmares in which I did not flop sideways. I still feel chills just writing about that day.
So to the oil industry, I say, nice try guys, but you failed.