Sunday, June 15, 2014


This text is an excerpt from BERNICE AND JOHN: FINALLY MEETING YOUR PARENTS WHO DIED A LONG TIME AGO, available as an e-book on

So John comes home from the office, pours himself a stiff belt of Ballentine’s Scotch, eats dinner that Bernice has prepared, or, later, when she is increasingly ill, dinner that he prepares, then spreads his maps on the dining room table. Sometime he blows smoke rings. Always he studies drilling reports, makes marks on his maps, notes depths and formations, then draws what he believes to be the habitat of oil. What does the information look like that he uses to find this precious fossil sunlight? It looks like this:

Yoakum - Wasson, NE. (Clear Fork), New Well, Occidental Permian Ltd, Houston, TX, Well # 146, Wasson North Clearfork Unit, 5281 fsl 97 fel, Zone 7854' to 8238', 2-27-04, 365 bbls oil 1057 mcf gas 20 bbls wtr, pumping, 8.90 mi NE of Denver City.

The data are reported as oil field name, type of completion, operator’s name, operator’s office city, well number, lease name, legal description of tract, distance from nearest lease line, producing interval or zone, date tested, initial potential, production method, and distance and direction from the nearest town. This is the raw undigested knowledge of petroleum geology. It’s the rough equivalent of sighting a single bird of a single species, to an ornithologist, and like birds, it comes across his vision as hundreds of such items, some of value to his larger quest—food and shelter for his family, a meaningful life, his children playing the piano, his friends talking politics over a glass of whiskey and a deck of cards—others of value to his immediate needs: a clue to the habitat of oil. Once in a while there is closure; a name, lease, location, and report is familiar to him from months of research and negotiation that end with heavy equipment down in the blackjacks and poison ivy, the roar and clank of engine and tongs, red-brown mud gurgling from a pipe into the slush pit, and a mile of pipe stacked in a derrick.
At Tidewater, and later at Youngblood, John’s responsibility and vested interest end with the derrick out in the pasture. At some point, however, he comes to believe that what he is doing for others, he could just as easily be doing for himself. The American dream, the American audacity, the American gambler, comes home to 2605 Elmhurst in the form of a gentle man with confidence in his own mental capacities. He quits Youngblood and hangs out his shingle. John Janovy—Petroleum Geologist, reads his business card. Half a century later, with John Janovy—Petroleum Geologist cremated and his ashes spread on the wind for 30 of those years, I unfurl his maps and begin to study the tiny lettering, the symbols, the lines that he made while squinting through the smoke. What made one man believe that he could take information available to all and turn it into a discovery and thus into a livelihood, if not a raison d’etre? I don’t know. But I do know it can be done. Novelists, artists, musicians, film makers, politicians do it; why can’t petroleum geologists? Evidently they can. We were never destitute, never without food and clothing, never without books and newspapers, and never without piano lessons.
Digging through the remnants of this life, however, I’m struck by the sheer richness of his interests, nay, his obsessions. Boxes filled with notebooks, notebooks filled with pages, each page filled with stamps, lightly affixed, or sometimes in glassine envelopes, all organized, classified, categorized, and the vast majority residing in a perfect India ink frame, hand drawn, in fine lines, with German drafting instruments, at only God knows what time of night or day and at the expense of what other activities. Boxes filled with boxes filled with coins—Guatemalan coins, Colombian coins, Mexican coins, coins from nations now gone in political upheavals of the late 20th Century—and files filled with correspondence about coins. To his friend Warren Calvert, a man I remember for his feisty attitude and his strange Ohio accent, his constant sense of having a good time, there is a letter, or rather a copy, on flimsy copy paper, carefully dated, and filed. John and Warren are discussing the potential value of coins issued by a leper colony. There are no typos, no smudges, on this carbon copy. There are no typos, no erasure smudges, on any of the hundreds, perhaps thousands, of carbon copies of everything from letters to a Hong Kong supplier of stereo equipment to the United States Government Printing Office to accompany a check for $1.75 for a publication on ecology of the desert Southwest.
The tape recordings are next. Colombian music, piano music, big band dance music, sound effects, percussion ensembles, and among the boxes and boxes of reel to reel tape, his son playing the piano—as an adult long gone from home, on a friend’s Steinway grand—and his father and son playing the fiddle and banjo, respectively, and finally, a recording of the telephone conversation in which he tells Rachel he’s bought her a ring. I salvage the large TEAC tape deck, put it away on a bottom shelf back home, and stare at it periodically. The rest of the stereo equipment goes to our son, along with the hand built, by John’s hands, and beautifully finished, perfectly hinged, cabinet to contain it.
A hundred years from now, if the world is still a relatively stable and safe place for an American, and if our own son, grandchildren, great grandchildren, and their children, have lived long and healthy lives, this cabinet will be a treasured antique. The LP records it once held, however, go into a garage sale, and what doesn’t sell ends up at Goodwill. What he has designed, with his own brain, and made, with his own two hands, is art; what he has bought, a technology evolving at breakneck speed, gets trashed. If one man’s obsessions can tell us anything, it’s a warning to save the art and don’t let your sense of self worth get hitched to any evolving technology.
Some place in the world Mozart is playing. And Glenn Gould. Eventually, I declare, to nobody in particular, I will find that tape he made of my grandfather talking about the good old days and play it. I will take notes, then decipher those notes, writing somewhere on paper—maybe acid-free paper—with ink, not ballpoint that fades in the sun but permanent ink, India ink, like on his maps showing the habitat of oil. Then I will put those notes away somewhere. And somebody will find them, somewhere, some time, in the rubble of our existence, and marvel at what those notes say about coming to America in the late 19th Century, watching your wife die young, and rearing four kids, one of whom turns out to be a petroleum geologist with plenty to say about the world’s supply of oil, a geologist whose words ring true, indeed more and more true if not outright prophetic, decades after his death: “Foreign crude will kill this country.”

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