Thursday, June 4, 2009

AMERICAN CRUDE - Chapter 6-e

The following is a draft of Chapter 6-e of my post-oil novel AMERICAN CRUDE. Comments have been disabled. If you wish to comment, please go to TheKunstlerCast at and join the discussion.


--Innocent Byproduct

I walked around the room carefully undraping plastic drop cloths. Someone took really good care of this place once, but that someone hadn’t been here in a while. I also noticed a portable compressor with an air gun which I immediately knew was meant for clearing dust off the oil tanks. That same someone also knew enough to supply that item, but no one had done that chore in ages. I contemplated offering Mystery Lady the additional service of cleaning off the tanks and valves. And yet I wondered if she even wanted me to ever come back again. Was that mention of the restrooms a hint of future work for me? Rich people were always on the lookout for good hired help. I decided I’d casually mention the dust later and then see if she might spontaneously offer me the job on her own.

I located a stainless steel, double-shelved work cart, the kind with a table-height work shelf above and wheel-height shelf below. I began loading it with everything I would need for this particular job, pausing at times while handling the equipment for no other reason than simply to marvel at the sheer excellence of the tools. Even the welding masks were of a superior grade. While the break room and all its contents represented leftovers from the 1980’s, this workroom had been kept state-of-the-art by someone who knew what they were doing. And yet who could that have been? Did she have another plumber before me who was suddenly unavailable? I merely sighed and pushed my loaded cart out the double doors and started on the journey toward my leaky tank.

As I rolled the cart along, I pondered the one obstacle to my job: the weight of the elephant bearing down upon my poor dying valve. Five years earlier, my only option would have been spending several hours draining the tank, thus relieving the pressure, then taking painstaking care to extract all trace remnants of oil (a decidedly flammable substance) from the valve, giving me the freedom to blow torch the old valve off and then replace it. But draining the tank wasn’t an option since all the other tanks were full and unable to receive any extra. Another alternative was to dump the entire contents of the leaking tank down into the pit. But that also could take many hours, stretching my job out to a day or two, and would mean all the more oil to clean up later. So the one really cool trick I had in my plumber’s playbook involved bypassing the pressure, which required some very specialized equipment. And Mystery Lady’s work room had just the toy I needed to do that.

I found in her plumber’s shop an expensive and relatively-new-to-the-industry tool -- it was so expensive and so new that I sadly didn’t own one. It was officially known by my fellow plumbers and me as an “ultra-high-pressure valve bypass,” but unofficially my plumber brethren and I christened it with the affectionate insider’s nickname “navel piercer” (and some even called it a “nipple piercer”). The only drawback of using that item was that it employed -- as its official industry name implied -- very high pressure and was thus capable of very violent accidents.

Improper handling could result in a recoil powerful enough to break my arm, or my jaw, or my skull. From what I’d read in the trade journals and from speaking with plumbers who actually bought one, the purchase of a navel piercer included an in-person instruction session from a factory sales rep who would verse the customer on all the safety requirements. According to the industry literature, getting caught in the path of a misfire from a navel piercer was more dangerous than when an auto mechanic gets popped in the face by a MacPherson strut. Injuries from navel piercers were rare, mostly due to their ownership being rare. But as a result of the sheer drama involved in the few accidents that did occur, the wrath of the navel-piercer quickly entered the ranks of the top ten most dreaded hazards of my profession, right up there with blowing oneself to kingdom come via a natural gas leak. So while I delighted at the promise of that tool reducing a two day job down to a two hour job, my only hesitation that evening was that I’d never even held one in my hands before, making me question whether I could wield it correctly.

-------------------End of Chapter 6-e--------------------