Construction Literary Magazine

January 2017 Writers Respond

Grandma Crude

Grandma Crude

Photograph via Flickr by joedbart

Before the editorials in the Wall Street Journal or the congressional hearings on the effect of Burt Hammer’s innovation on domestic oil production, there was the 2007 Anders County Fair. There was a little media coverage, but there was a lot going on then—the troop surge in Iraq, the last Harry Potter book coming out. The Fair had sold out for the first time in a generation, but it was an eerie scene: the Tilt-a-Whirl and Ferris Wheel sat idle—though their lights still blinked and beckoned—and the 4-H animals dozed in their pens, unjudged and ribbonless. Everyone was in the stands, watching the John Deere tractor in the middle of the fairgrounds. Local news vehicles lined Route 46, their transmitters raised like so many eager faces clamoring for a better view. When word first got out about what Burt Hammer planned to do, most dismissed it as hare-brained. A vocal minority called it blasphemous. But on that late-July afternoon it seemed curiosity had gotten the best of even the most pious. Damn near all of Anders County had turned out to see if Burt Hammer might actually pull it off.

Deputies from the sheriff’s office stood guard in front of the tractor, cradling shotguns. When Burt Hammer and I pulled up to the tractor in his Ford pickup, I could see the sweat soaking through their flak jackets into their uniforms, spreading along their lower backs in Rorschachs of varying size and menace. I helped Burt unload the pump and oil drum from the truck bed. When I stood the oil drum upright, a gasp rose up from the crowd, which now seems funny, even quaint. But you have to remember that back then the idea of firing up a tractor with gasoline refined from your dead grandmother was novel, if not somewhat bizarre.

I am certain that history will regard Burt Hammer’s invention as the work of a true genius. But what is less certain, perhaps impossible to know really, is what put the wild hair up his ass in the first place. If I were a betting man, I’d say it had something to do with Danny Heller. If that’s the case, then it’s necessary to go back to 2004—the year I moved out to Anders County, my wife and I started dating again, and Danny Heller went out for varsity basketball.

I’d come to the county looking for solitude. My doctoral advisor, Dr. van Olst, had recently sat me down for a come-to-Jesus about my dissertation. I’d been in the English Department for nearly a decade, he said. It was time to finish the damn thing. Was it true I’d barely touched it for the last two years? Yes, but I explained this was due to a crisis of faith for which I blamed yellowcake uranium, the CIA, and the Bush Administration. With a war-hungry Ahab at the helm and a citizenry in full surrender of its critical thinking faculties, what value could literary scholarship really have? In the lead-up to the war, I decided I couldn’t stand to keep writing about the literature of others. I’d write my own. But after two years I’d managed to emulate my heroes—Hemingway, Faulkner, Fitzgerald, even Kerouac!—only in the ways that mattered the least. I had fifty pages of turgid prose, a pickled liver, and a moribund marriage. So yes, it was time to finish the damn thing.

On a tip from a colleague, I drove out to Burt Hammer’s 400-acre farm to inquire about renting the spare cabin on his property. His farm was situated in a verdant vale in the Blue Ridge. The century-old cabin sat at the far end of the farm and looked out onto a large pond fed by a trickling mountain spring. This would be my Walden. And when the old man told me the rent was eight hours of farm work a week I looked into his youthful, ice-blue eyes for some sign he was pulling my leg. But he put out his hand, and I accepted the terms quickly. I was keen to get my hands dirty, I thought it would do me some good.

Shortly thereafter I met the Heller men. Melford Heller and his son, Danny, ran the hundred head of cattle on the farm and did most of the true farm work—rotating the herd through pastures, tagging calves, and the like. I was left with keeping the roads clear, painting the miles of fencing, and whatever else was too trivial for Melford to worry about. I didn’t really see Hammer all that much after our first meeting. He lived atop one of the mountains and rarely toured his fiefdom. It was Melford who told me that Burt Hammer was originally from a family of sheep farmers in Rockland County.

“Looks like he did well for himself,” I said.

“Sure did,” Melford nodded. “But not in farming. Mr. Hammer was an engineer, taught at some big school in Boston.”

A month into my rugged exile my wife, Leigh, called. My time away had cooled things off and we talked a long while, in the manner of old friends who’ve been meaning to catch up but can’t ever find the time. Now that we were living so far apart, we agreed it seemed a good opportunity to give matrimony another go. We went on alcohol-free dates, trading off the forty-minute drive between us: usually dinner and a movie when I made it into town or a hike and picnic in the mountains when she came out my way. And it seems knowing we could both go home afterward and not have to stick around, our dates frequently ended with the best sex of our lives.

After one of our dates in Anders, on a warm fall night with bellies full of pizza, Leigh and I drove over to the Dairy Queen for dessert. The parking lot was teeming with teens as usual, the DQ being the most popular nighttime hangout since it was, in fact, the only nighttime hangout. But we didn’t hear the usual listless murmurs or confront any slack-jawed stares. That night, the swarm of adolescents drawn to the Dairy Queen’s shining white light was downright exuberant. Girls wore ribbons in their hair, and a band of boys had their naked torsos painted. While Leigh went inside to get our desserts, I asked a girl in a cheerleading outfit what was cause for such celebration.

“The basketball game tonight!” She said, “We’re undefeated so far.”

And sure enough, when I took a second look, I saw the boys’ shallow-chested anagram clearly spelled G-O-H-E-L-L-E-R.

“Is that for Danny Heller?” I asked.

“Yeah, he’s our best player ever,” the girl said. “Want me to paint your face?”

I declined, but Leigh had returned and insisted on the spirited makeover if I wanted any dessert. Taking this as a double entendre, I agreed. When I sat down, she winked and handed me a Blizzard.

“Let’s go to the game,” she said. “Could be fun.”

While the cheerleader painted half my face green, I asked about the team. The girl told us the Mountaineers hadn’t been this good in forever.

“What’s up with Heller?” I asked.

“I don’t know,” she said. “He’s a senior, but he didn’t play last year.”

The girl couldn’t offer much more about Danny, but this didn’t surprise me. Danny was the quintessential quiet farm boy. Looking back, I can probably count the number of words he spoke to me on one hand. Whenever I ran into the Hellers, his father always did the talking. Danny kept his head down, focused on whatever task was before him, the muscles of his square jaw set tight.

That first game, Leigh and I found ourselves cheering until we were hoarse. It was impossible to remain subdued in the presence of such talent. Danny did not possess great height or even speed, but he had a sense of the game, as they say. It was an understanding that extended—or so Leigh and I joked—to the quantum level. The boy found gaps just, or even before, they opened. It didn’t matter how many guys were on him, the ball always found its way through, on a clear trajectory for the basket. But all the while, Danny’s face never betrayed any exertion or strain. When the other team choked the lane, he would dribble to the outside and sink the three-pointer with quiet but insistent skill. By halftime, you could see it on the faces of the opposing team. They understood defeat was inevitable, and the only thing they might hope to control was the point spread. As the game clock wound down, Leigh and I held hands again, like it was New Year’s Eve. And at the buzzer we screamed with everyone else. The Anders County Mountaineers won, 79-46, with Danny scoring 35. After that night, Leigh and I never missed a game. The following week I saw Burt Hammer at the game against Rockland. I assumed he came to cheer on his old school, but he sat at our end of the bleachers. Danny scored an even 40 points that night. Shortly after that, university coaches started showing up. Two weeks later, the first of the NBA scouts was spotted in the stands.

We came down with a fever that winter—Leigh, me, just about everyone. Every game sold out, people had to be turned away. At Doc Shepherd’s store, the IGA, or Dairy Queen, if the talk wasn’t about the weather, it was about the team, or Danny Heller and his prospects. I pecked dutifully at my dissertation, but when I wasn’t working on it, I had my nose in the local papers, following the performances of other teams in order to size up the Mountaineers’ district, then regional tournament chances. On the rare occasions we saw each other, even Burt Hammer brought them up.

“It’s good for folks ’round here,” he said, once as we passed each other in the driveway. “It’s nice they have something they can get behind.”

On a cloudy day in February I took the farm truck down to one of the lower pastures. A cedar had come down in a recent storm and fallen on the fence. As I made my way through an adjoining field, I was surprised to see Burt Hammer out there. I’d never seen him out in the fields, much less anywhere near the cattle. So I certainly didn’t expect to find him padding around in rubber boots, stooping to gather cow patties into a dozen or so buckets. He took no notice of me as I drove in. When I got out of the truck I waved and said hello. He came over and asked if I knew that cow farts were a significant source of methane emissions.

To this I said, “Yes, I believe I read that somewhere.”

He made no reply. I lowered the tailgate and checked the oil level in the chainsaw. And so we worked: I took the tree apart, and Burt Hammer went on gathering turds, using a trowel to scoop the runny ones. I would stop now and again to separate useful logs from branches and debris, sneaking glances at my crazy coot of a landlord. He was sprightly and confident in his movements, and looked the part of a much younger man. His constant crouching kept the blood in his already ruddy cheeks. After two hours’ work, I took a break to tighten the chain on the saw, and Burt came over to ask if I could help him lift the buckets into his truck. He trotted the shit-laden vessels over to the Ford one at a time. He’d set a heavy bucket down, hitch the waistband of his jeans back over his slight paunch, and proceed to the next as I hoisted it into the bed. After the third bucket, Burt Hammer finally explained he was trying to harvest methane from the cow patties as an energy source.

“Of course I would love to harvest it as they fart,” he said. “But I haven’t thought of a way that wouldn’t be uncomfortable for the cows.”

“Sounds like you’re enjoying a pretty active retirement,” I said.

“I like to keep busy.”

I lifted the fourth bucket into the truck. Beyond the fence in the next pasture, a handful of heifers regarded us with their moist bovine gaze. As I exhausted myself in this scatological endeavor, Hammer went on about other projects, his love affair with chemical engineering, and his long and fulfilling career at MIT. He told me how he’d designed his home on the mountain himself, how construction was set back six months because lab equipment he’d ordered from Japan had gotten waylaid in customs. I was so focused on breathing through my mouth at that point, I can’t for the life of me remember how the war came up. Hammer set another bucket down and insisted we couldn’t afford to keep “warring and killing over carbon.”

“I never thought of quite like that,” I said, huffing.

“And not just oil. All that business over diamonds too,” he said. “Cutting kids’ arms off, Christ. You know, when it comes down to the chemistry, diamonds’re just shiny pieces of coal.”

Seeing he was getting worked up, I said, “Coal is fossilized plants, right?” My elbows started aching.

“Yep, and oil is mostly animal matter,” he said. “Phytoplankton and such. Hell, after you and I are dead and buried we could be oil someday.”

Of course, I now see that moment was probably a red flag. But at the time my shoulders were screaming and I was just trying to get the last bucket of shit into the truck without dropping it.

On the first Saturday in March, 2005, Danny Heller led the Mountaineers to their first State Championship in county history. Leigh and I were there, just as we had been for the district and regional victories. He didn’t sit with us, but I know Burt Hammer was there, too. The next day there was a parade down Main Street. I remember the early spring sun was kind and unseasonably warm. It seemed most people couldn’t talk of anything else for a good while. But in April our attentions turned to college acceptance letters and taking guesses at where Danny would end up. Most of the older folks wanted Danny to go to college, role model that he was now. Leigh agreed.

“But you can go to college at any age,” I argued. “You can only be an NBA star while you’re young.”

Leigh said that was my typical short-sightedness talking. “Until he blows a knee out, and he comes back home with no education.”

Eventually we agreed to drop it.

No one knows for certain why Danny Heller enlisted. I’ve interviewed dozens of people, and they’ve given an equal number of hypotheses. Whenever I ran into Melford on the farm, I tiptoed around the subject, but never got a straight answer. Talk around the county returned to the weather and the season’s planting, or the problem of stinkbugs. Any mention of Danny was met with a slow shake of the head or even something close to a wince. It was only years later I found out that between 2001 and 2005, Anders County had sent 53 of its sons and daughters to war. Everyone seemed to have kid or cousin or sweetheart overseas. By the time we were screaming and crying at the State Championship, Anders County had buried 18 of its soldiers. 2 were listed MIA. I believe they still are.

After Danny left for basic training, Leigh and I started having problems again. I was still sober, to be sure. And I’m not so simple as to believe that our happiness was contingent upon Danny Heller being in our lives. But looking back, neither am I certain the timing was just unfortunate coincidence. It was getting more difficult to hold together what had already been broken once before. I defended my dissertation to high praise from the faculty, but didn’t bother looking for any jobs. Any attempt by Leigh to encourage me only made me agitated and irritable. In the spring I put a garden in, and used it as an excuse to stay on the farm. She called for a raincheck on the trip to the Outer Banks we’d planned during the district tournament. By autumn, we were seeing each other only once a month, though neither of us had to make the full drive because we usually just had coffee at some place in between.

One night just after New Year’s, Burt Hammer knocked on the cabin door for the first and only time.

“Thought you should know,” he said, handing me a folded copy of the Anders County Examiner. He looked as if he wanted to say more, but he gave a quick wave and got back in his truck before I could say anything. The paper said Danny Heller was dead. He’d been on routine patrol outside Fallujah when an IED ripped through his Humvee. Leigh called some time after that. I listened for a long time as she tried to get something out between heavy sobs.

“It’s okay,” I said. “Burt just told me.”

I said I would call her the next day and she took a shallow breath and hung up. I went out into the bracing cold and split wood because I didn’t know what else to do. I swung the blade until my shoulders went numb and steam rose off my skin, until the handle broke, and I was left with a ringing in my arms. I hurled the splintered handle into the woods. In the the meager light of the porch I saw the opalescent eyes of two deer staring back.

The war’s cruel banality kept the details from us: Did Danny die instantly? Or did he bleed out there, on the banks of the ancient Euphrates? Over all the years I’ve tried to free myself of this, none of my inquiries to the Pentagon have been returned.

No formal event was announced, but a great many turned up on Main Street to watch the military hearse pass through town, bearing Danny’s flag-draped casket toward the Hellers’ place. I saw Burt Hammer there. He was on the other side of the street, in front of Dwayne Stanton’s auto-body shop. It was the first time he appeared old to me. There were deep creases beneath his eyes. He’d grown so pale he was nearly invisible against the gray light of that cloudy afternoon. I didn’t see him after that, not in the pastures, not even in the driveway. The only sign he was still around was a single light that came on in his house after sunset. That is until late August, when I noticed a new structure taking shape behind the hay barn. The boxy, cubist building grew in stages over the course of a month, until it was almost as big as the two-story barn itself. With pipes of various lengths protruding from it every which way, it resembled something built using a child’s hasty doodle as a blueprint. A few months later, pickup trucks filled with wood started arriving at the farm. I recognized a few of the drivers’ faces from the Dairy Queen parking lot. They kept coming until it looked as if Hammer had a dozen cords of wood stacked against the sunny side of the new building. I wanted to ask what he could possibly need with that much firewood, but I never mustered the gumption to drive up the hill and knock on his door.

It seems unnecessary to go into the details of Burt Hammer’s process here, considering how much attention it’s gotten in the media. Specifics can be found in the January 2008 issue of Chemical Engineering. I would direct a lay audience to the Wikipedia article, which is probably more or less accurate. The long and short of it is the man achieved the alchemy he’d posited the day we spent gathering cow patties: he found a way to transform human remains into the linked hydrocarbons of crude oil. His first successful run came from a former student’s grandmother who’d bequeathed her body to science. After refining what he called “Grandma crude,” the old gal came out to just over nine gallons of high octane gasoline. It was this same elderly benefactress in the oil drum we unloaded at the County Fair and pumped into the tank of Burt Hammer’s John Deere 6330.

The audience had watched in perfect silence as I rolled the empty drum back into the truck and drove a few yards away. Burt Hammer climbed up into the cab and turned to the audience. He thanked people for coming. Then he shouted, “I hope this shows you.” He turned the key and the machine sputtered and fell quiet. I looked over the crowd for a reaction, but they remained fixed on Hammer as he turned the key again. This time the engine turned over, and the tractor roared to life. Burt shoved it into gear and applied the gas. The rain cap danced at the top of the exhaust pipe as a thick, crimson plume of smoke billowed out. It sounds awful, but I half-expected the mothball scent of a nursing home. Instead it was a sour, rusty smell. There were gasps, and a handful of shrieks. There are reports that Cam Dixon—the Seventh-day Adventist pastor—fainted, but I didn’t see it. Burt Hammer drove the tractor in a wide circle. I waited, but the sanguine smoke never turned the darker color we were more accustomed to seeing belch from machines.

* * * * *

After the Fair, I had to get out of the county. I took a teaching job at a small college in Oregon. There were no more hard feelings between Leigh and me by then. She drove me to the airport and told me she’d send the papers along for me to sign. We shook hands.

By the end of the spring semester the first of what came to be called “corporeal refineries” opened. Some company had secured a tax credit from the Energy Department to retro-fit a derelict, old-fashioned refinery in west Texas. FOX News covered the event as a victory for American industry. CNN splashed graphics showing the number of jobs created. Anderson Cooper interviewed the locals.

I’m sure people must wonder why Burt Hammer never patented his process. It’s easier to understand if you knew the man. I don’t believe he ever entertained the notion of pursuing Grandma crude as a serious enterprise. I often think about the Fair and Burt Hammer’s genius as a kind of tragedy. In the annals of history, he is in good company—Gatling with his gun and Nobel with TNT—men, who naively believed their inventions could make war so horrendous people would at last turn away from it. In this way, I know Burt Hammer thought he could change people’s view of “carbon,” as he called it—as something visceral, and its production sacrificial. Perhaps he hoped when future generations talked of oil, the sight of red exhaust and the odor of iron and blood that stung the nostrils would give them pause. I doubt he could have foreseen the derricks erected on graveyards or the gas flares installed on the chimneys of crematoriums-turned-refineries. How could he have imagined that once the market adapted, there would be, in fact, demand for such a thing?