Outside Towner, North Dakota: Summer, 1958
It was the middle of nowhere. We hauled the oil rig along the narrow roads for an hour before we got to the farm, a modest house and barn with tall cornfields in all directions. The farmer and his family were surprised to see us. Bob the driller told me that Phillips Petroleum owned all the oil leases around here. They'd sent agents all over the Midwest during hard times and got the mineral rights to thousands of farms for little or nothing. These farmers had probably been glad enough for the money then, when they'd been desperate, but you could see the uncertainty in their faces now as we dragged the big truck with the derrick on it through their cornfield.
Once the tower was up, the big diesels were rumbling, and all the arc lights were turned on, it was like a carnival, only it never shut down. Trucks came and went, each one adding to the destruction of the cornfield. At first the farmer's family came down to wave to us and watch as we pulled, lifted, and wrenched the thousands of feet of pipe out of the ground, section by section, and changed the drill-bit on the end, and then put it all back in the ground, section by section. They were hoping, I knew, that we'd strike a gusher and make them rich. All the while, the machinery was pounding and the lights were glaring and I'm sure the farmer's family didn't get much sleep.
We worked the rig in three shifts because it went twenty-four hours a day. There were no days off. Time passed slowly because most of the time the bit was just down there grinding away in the bottom of the hole and there wasn't much to do. After several long weeks, a guy from the oil company came out, talked to the driller, and then left. After he was gone the driller hit the main switch and killed everything. The big diesel made a low moaning sound as it wound to a stop, like the last growls of a dying lion.
It took us the rest of that day and part of the next to break the rig down and load it on the trucks. We left a big clearing scraped out of the cornfield and a huge mud pit, like pictures I'd seen of WWI battlefields. I got up on the derrick, which was now on its side on the biggest truck, and with a long forked stick I lifted the electric wires over the rig as we passed under them, walking carefully, with the wire held above me, from the front to the back of the truck. The last thing I saw before we turned at the end of their lane was the farmer's family standing at the edge of the mud pit and looking down. They didn't wave this time.
Charles D. Tarlton writes poetry and short prose on the Connecticut shore where he lives with his wife, Ann Knickerbocker, an abstract painter and Nikki, their black, female, standard poodle.