This might be Beth’s Bar and Grill, but it might not be Beth who serves us.
This morning our hostess, waitress, cook is a short, stubby, older looking than she is woman who wears house slippers and a blue apron. She screws up her face funny when she writes our order into her little spiral notebook, grasping the pencil tightly like a student with learning difficulties.
” Is that it? ” she says, looking at us as she reaches for our three menus as if she doesn’t want them to get away.
” That’s it, ” we say.
” We should have been higher, ” Weston says, ” the seismic was no good. ”
His dad nods. Max and I check our silverware for food the ex- con dishwasher didn’t take off.
This little Bar and Grill,in Benkleman, was in its heyday in the 1950’s when oil drilling in the Continental U.S. was strong and wheat and cattle brought good prices. The wallpaper, yellowed now, was new then and conversation was heady and animated. World War 2 was over and servicemen were back home with most of their limbs and some of their mental health intact.
” Disappointing, ” I add, the only coffee drinker in the group.
” If the oil isn’t there, it isn’t there, ” Neal reminds us.
When the food comes it is as plain as the building. There is no salsa or sprig of parsley to give the plate a fancy look. A man sitting at the table behind us is happy Beth is open on a Sunday morning with snow on the ground at seven in the morning. He has hot tea , reads his local newspaper, checks cattle futures and has his toast with a bit of orange marmalade. He appears to be a regular who is joined by a friend halfway through my eggs over easy.
There are three pool tables in the back of the restaurant and some evenings, under dropped lights, men will be here playing pool, watching football, and drinking beer, staying out of their wife’s house.
There is money in alcohol, not so much in food.
Dry holes, last time I looked, still cost me a fair bit of money.
Disappointed, but not dejected, we all leave Beth a good tip, even if we didn’t hit anything but dirt.
Going into the hole you add pipe, coming out of the hole you take away pipe..
It is snowing but the drillers don’t stop. When you are drilling a mile down you don’t leave the hole open long. The Earth doesn’t tolerate straws dipped into its reservoir and can close its teeth with a snap.
You drill, test, lay pipe and produce, or plug the hole.
Trying to hit a target you can’t see and can’t know the size of , covered by roller coaster layers of Earth 4000 plus feet down, is tough.
A fair number of wells are busts.
A few are bonanzas.
Every project looks good before you drill it or we wouldn’t be out here freezing our tails off.
My brother Neal, at my request, always tells me, before we drill a well, about John Steinbeck’s ” rabbit in ” Of Mice and men. ”
Before each calculated gamble, on Neal’s skill and experience, I rub my stomach, like a big Buddha,for good luck.
In this life, you can never have too much good luck.
On the derrick, a crew of three roughnecks stop drilling to make the pipe going into the Earth one length longer.
A length of pipe is retrieved from the squirrel cage at the top of the rig, lowered to the captured and clamped pipe at the roughnecks feet. The new length of pipe is screwed onto the top of the pipe coming out of the hole, by two drillers, using chains and muscle. The tool pusher then touches a gear, when all hands are clear, and the newly extended drilling pipe rotates, and down drilling resumes.
Drilling in the continental U.S. hasn’t changed much in a hundred years. The derricks now are built from steel instead of wood, the drill bits are sharper and last longer, there is electricity instead of whale oil lamps. Drilling is quicker and there are more tests to determine if a well will be profitable.There are improved methods of extracting oil from your discoveries. There are more environmental regulations. The men on the derrick are still rough and tumble pickup driving young men with crazy habits and a big bucket of problems. Most have too many girlfriends, too many kids, too many addictions, and too small a paycheck.
When the price of oil drops, drilling stops and small towns like Benkleman suffer. Much of the employment in this part of Nebraska is in the oil fields and state revenues are buoyed by taxes on each barrel of oil brought out of the ground. When the price of oil increases, good times roll.
Seeing a new pair of boots in the driller’s shack is comforting. The country still needs energy, unpopular as the idea is to some.
You can’t learn the oil business from books, you don’t find oil if you don ‘t drill, and Max and Weston doing what their dad does is natural.
The Geo-Hut is adjacent to the derrick, hooked up to electric with heaters blasting 24/7 to deal with deteriorating colder and colder weather.
Snow started yesterday and has laid a six inch blanket atop the Geo-Hut roof. Inside the trailer-office-bunkhouse, one bed is covered with clothes,gear, and Max’s guitar. A sleeping bag is on the other. In a separate room is a desk, a microscope, and a place to spread geological maps. A bag of groceries is on the floor by the front door. There is no stove or frig and an orange portable toilet is at the edge of the drill site,at the field’s edge, and it has paper.
Max has been here several days, arriving after the well was surveyed and spudded. There are long stretches in drilling where nothing happens, then short quick stretches of anxiety or exhilaration when the drill bit enters a pay zone.
This evening, late, the creators of this business plan peer at samples, measure how the interior of the Earth is conforming to their mental picture of it, wait for more samples, decide which zones need to be tested to see if they are to be profitable. This well is the end of a long process of coming up with a prospect, leasing land, selling the deal to investors, lining up a driller, making sure your t’s are crossed and your i’s are dotted, all legal and proper.
We don’t stay all night, have an upstairs hotel room in Benkleman heated with three little electric heaters plugged into the walls. Tomorrow morning, early, we’ll be back.
The oil business is predictably unpredictable, in a predictable way.
Snow blew in yesterday and is falling earthward softly.
Big sloppy soft flakes hit a diesel power plant that runs all the rig lights and equipment, touch hot metal and turn to water on contact. Snow covers the roof of the mud logger’s SUV and dark mid west prairie mud is tracked inside the Geo-hut.
Near Benkleman, Nebraska, it takes us a couple of wrong turns before the new Caterpillar bladed road is found and we see a lit up oil derrick in the middle of a farmers corn field in a section of Nebraska farmland.
Oil is under our feet. When you drill in this area you have drilling history, some clues, some ” seismic ” data. Oil men are trying to reach layers of sand that have oil, permeability,and structure with enough pressure to push the black gold to the surface.
In old tycoon Texas days gushers exploded into the light of day and hardened drillers smiled and wiped black streams off their faces with oil soaked sleeves. There are still good finds to be made but the easy stuff has already been pumped out of the Earth.
In the Geo Hut, the guys look at samples, pour over maps with highs and lows of nearby wells marked and contour lines for the entire area surrounding this well.
Without money, as incentive, nobody in their right mind would do this.
By late tomorrow we will know whether we have anything, or not.
Most oil is found in places people don’t live, can’t live, or don’t want to live.