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Excerpt

“The Wound”

Howard Fast

December 6, 2019 
The following is a story by Howard Fast included in The General Zapped an Angel. Fast was one of the most prolific American writers of the 20th century: a bestselling author of more than 80 works of fiction, nonfiction, poetry, and screenplays. In 1950, after refusing to provide the United States Congress with a list of possible Communist associates, he earned three months in prison. During his incarceration, Fast wrote one of his best-known novels, Spartacus, which was adapted into a movie by Stanley Kubrick.

Max Gaffey always insisted that the essence of the oil industry could be summed up in a simple statement: the right thing in the wrong place. My wife, Martha, always disliked him and said that he was a spoiler. I suppose he was, but how was he different from any of us in that sense? We were all spoilers, and if we were not the actual thing, we invested in it and thereby became rich. I myself had invested the small nest egg that a college professor puts away in a stock Max Gaffey gave me. It was called Thunder Inc., and the company’s function was to use atomic bombs to release natural gas and oil locked up in the vast untouched shale deposits that we have here in the United States.

Oil shale is not a very economical source of oil. The oil is locked up in the shale, and about 60 percent of the total cost of shale oil consists of the laborious methods of mining the shale, crushing it to release the oil, and then disposing of the spent shale.

Gaffey sold to Thunder Inc. an entirely new method, which involved the use of surplus atomic bombs for the release of shale oil. In very simplistic terms, a deep hole is bored in shale-oil deposits. Then an atomic bomb is lowered to the bottom  of this hole, after which the hole is plugged and the bomb is detonated. Theoretically, the heat and force of the atomic explosion crushes the shale and releases the oil to fill the underground cavern formed by the gigantic force of the bomb. The oil does not burn because the hole is sealed, and thereby, for a comparatively small cost, untold amounts of oil can be tapped and released—enough perhaps to last until that time when we experience a complete conversion to atomic energy—so vast are the shale deposits.

Such at least was the way Max Gaffey put the proposition to me, in a sort of mutual brain-picking operation. He had the utmost admiration for my knowledge of the earth’s crust, and I had an equally profound admiration for his ability to make two or five or ten dollars appear where only one had been before.

My wife disliked him and his notions, and most of all the proposal to feed atomic bombs into the earth’s crust.

“It’s wrong,” she said flatly. “I don’t know why or how, but this I do know, that everything connected with that wretched bomb is wrong.”

“Yet couldn’t you look at this as a sort of salvation?” I argued. “Here we are in these United States with enough atom bombs to destroy life on ten earths the size of ours—and every one of those bombs represents an investment of millions of dollars. I could not agree more when you hold that those bombs are the most hideous and frightful things the mind of man ever conceived.”

“Then how on earth can you speak of salvation?”

“Because so long as those bombs sit here, they represent a constant threat—day and night the threat that some feather- brained general or brainless politician will begin the process of throwing them at our neighbors. But here Gaffey has come up with a peaceful use for the bomb. Don’t you see what that means?”

“I’m afraid I don’t,” Martha said.

“It means that we can use the damn bombs for something other than suicide—because if this starts, it’s the end of mankind. But there are oil-shale and gas-shale deposits all over the earth, and if we can use the bomb to supply man with a century of fuel, not to mention the chemical by-products, we may just find a way to dispose of those filthy bombs.”

“Oh, you don’t believe that for a moment,” Martha snorted.

“I do. I certainly do.”

And I think I did. I went over the plans that Gaffey and his associates had worked out, and I could not find any flaw. If the hole were plugged properly, there would be no fallout. We knew that and we had the know-how to plug the hole, and we had proven it in at least 20 underground explosions. The earth tremor would be inconsequential; in spite of the heat, the oil would not ignite, and in spite of the cost of the atom bombs, the savings would be monumental. In fact, Gaffey hinted that some accommodation between the government  and  Thunder Inc. was in the process of being worked out, and if it went through as planned, the atom bombs might just cost Thunder Inc. nothing at all, the whole thing being in the way of an experiment for the social good.

“The Stone Age was a very unpleasant time, Martha. You don’t wish us back there.”

After all, Thunder Inc. did not own any oil-shale deposits, nor was it in the oil business. It was simply a service organization with the proper know-how and for a fee—if the process worked—it would release the oil for others. What the fee would be was left unsaid, but Max Gaffey, in return for my consultation, suggested that I might buy a few shares, not only of Thunder Inc., but of General Shale Holdings.

I had altogether about 10,000 dollars in savings available and another 10,000 in American Telephone and government bonds. Martha had a bit of money of her own, but I left that alone, and without telling her, I sold my Telephone stock and my bonds. Thunder Inc. was selling at five dollars a share, and I bought two thousand shares. General Shale was selling for two dollars, and I bought four thousand shares. I saw nothing immoral—as business morality was calculated—in the procedures adopted by Thunder Inc. Its relationship to the government was no different than the relationships of various other companies, and my own process of investment was perfectly straightforward and honorable. I was not even the recipient  of secret information, for the atom-bomb-shale-oil proposal had been widely publicized if little believed.

Even before the first test explosion was undertaken, the stock of Thunder Inc. went from five to sixty-five dollars a share. My ten thousand dollars became one hundred and thirty thousand, and that doubled again a year later. The four thousand shares of General Shale went up to eighteen dollars a share; and from a moderately poor professor I became a moderately rich professor. When finally, almost two years after Max Gaffey first approached me, they exploded the first atom bomb in a shaft reamed in the oil-shale deposits, I had abandoned the simple anxieties of the poor and had developed an entirely new set tailored for the upper middle class. We became a two-car family, and a reluctant Martha joined me in shopping for a larger house. In the new house, Gaffey and his wife came to dinner, and Martha armed herself with two stiff martinis. Then she was quietly polite until Gaffey began to talk about the social good. He painted a bright picture of what shale oil could do and how rich we might well become.

“Oh, yes—yes,” Martha agreed. “Pollute the atmosphere, kill more people with more cars, increase the speed with which we can buzz around in circles and get precisely nowhere.”

“Oh, you’re a pessimist,” said Gaffey’s wife, who was young and pretty but no mental giant.

“Of course there are two sides to it,” Gaffey admitted. “It’s a question of controls. You can’t stop progress, but it seems to me that you can direct it.”

“The way we’ve been directing it—so that our rivers stink and our lakes are sewers of dead fish and our atmosphere is polluted and our birds are poisoned by DDT and our natural resources are spoiled. We are all spoilers, aren’t we?”

“Come now,” I protested, “this is the way it is, and all of us are indignant about it, Martha.”

“Are you, really?”

“I think so.”

“Men have always dug in the earth,” Gaffey said. “Otherwise we’d still be in the Stone Age.”

“And perhaps a good bit happier.”

“No, no, no,” I said. “The Stone Age was a very unpleasant time, Martha. You don’t wish us back there.”

“Do you remember,” Martha said slowly, “how there was a time when men used to speak about the earth our mother? It was Mother Earth, and they believed it. She was the source of life and being.”

“She still is.”

“You’ve sucked her dry,” Martha said curiously. “When  a woman is sucked dry, her children perish.”

It was an odd and poetical thing to say, and, as I thought, in bad taste. I punished Martha by leaving Mrs. Gaffey with her, with the excuse that Max and I had some business matters to discuss, which indeed we did. We went into the new study in the new house and we lit 50-cent cigars, and Max told me about the thing they had aptly named “Project Hades.”

Here was one less atom bomb to murder man and destroy the life of the earth, and that I could not argue with.

“The point is,” Max said, “that I can get you into this at the very beginning. At the bottom. There are 11 companies involved—very  solid  and  reputable  companies”—he  named them,  and  I  was  duly  impressed—“who  are  putting  up  the capital for what will be a subsidiary of Thunder Inc. For their money they get a 25-percent interest. There is also ten percent, in the form of stock warrants, put aside for consultation and advice, and you will understand why. I can fit you in for one and a half percent—roughly three quarters of a million—simply for a few weeks of your time, and we will pay all expenses, plus an opinion.”

“It sounds interesting.”

“It should sound more than that. If Project Hades works, your interest will increase tenfold within a matter of five years. It’s the shortest cut to being a millionaire that I know.”

“All right—I’m more than interested. Go on.”

Gaffey took a map of Arizona out of his pocket, unfolded it, and pointed to a marked-off area. “Here,” he said, “is what should—according to all our geological knowledge—be one of the richest oil-bearing areas in the country. Do you agree?”

“Yes, I know the area,” I replied. “I’ve been over it. Its oil potential is purely theoretical. No one has ever brought in anything there—not even salt water. It’s dry and dead.”

“Why?”

I shrugged. “That’s the way it is. If we could locate oil through geological premise and theory, you and I would both be richer than Getty. The fact of the matter is, as you well know, that sometimes it’s there and sometimes it isn’t. More often it isn’t.”

“Why? We know our job. We drill in the right places.”

“What are you getting at, Max?”

“A speculation—particularly for this area. We have discussed this speculation for months. We have tested it as best we can. We have examined it from every possible angle. And now we are ready to blow about five million dollars to test our hypothesis—providing—”

“Providing what?”

“That your expert opinion agrees with ours. In other words, we’ve cast the die with you. You look at the situation and tell us to go ahead—we go ahead. You look at it and tell us it’s a crock of beans—well, we fold our tents like the Arabs and silently steal away.”

“Just on my say-so?”

“Just on your brains and know-how.”

“Max, aren’t you barking up the wrong tree? I’m a simple professor of geology at an unimportant western state university, and there are at least 20 men in the field who can teach me the right time—”

“Not in our opinion. Not on where the stuff is. We know who’s in the field and we know their track records. You keep your light under a bushel, but we know what we want. So don’t argue. It’s either a deal or it isn’t. Well?”

“How the devil can I answer you when I don’t even know what you’re talking about?”

“All right—I’ll spell it out, quick and simple. The oil was there once, right where it should be. Then a natural convulsion—a very deep fault. The earth cracked and the oil flowed down, deep down, and now giant pockets of it are buried there where no drill can reach them.”

“How deep?”

“Who knows? Fifteen, twenty miles.”

“That’s deep.”

“Maybe deeper. When you think of that kind of distance under the surface, you’re in a darker mystery than Mars or Venus—all of which you know.”

“All of which I know.” I had a bad, uneasy feeling, and some of it must have shown in my face.

“What’s wrong?”

“I don’t know. Why don’t you leave it alone, Max?”

“Why?”

“Come on, Max—we’re not talking about drilling for oil. Fifteen, twenty miles. There’s a rig down near the Pecos in Texas and they’ve just passed the 25-thousand-foot  level, and that’s about it. Oh, maybe another thousand, but you’re talking about oil that’s buried in one hundred thousand feet of crust. You can’t drill for it; you can only go in and—”

“And what?”

“Blast it out.”

“Of course—and how do you fault us for that? What’s wrong with it? We know—or least we have good reason to believe— that there’s a fissure that opened and closed. The oil should be under tremendous pressure. We put in an atom bomb—a bigger bomb than we ever used before—and we blast that fissure open again. Great God almighty, that should be the biggest gusher in all the history of gushers.”

“You’ve drilled the hole already, haven’t you, Max?”

“That’s right.”

“How deep?”

“Twenty-two thousand feet.”

“And you have the bomb?”

Max nodded. “We have the bomb. We’ve been working on this for five years, and seven months ago the boys in Washington cleared the bomb. It’s out there in Arizona waiting—”

“For what?”

“For you to look everything over and tell us to go ahead.”

“Why? We have enough oil—”

“Like hell we have! You know damn well why—and do you imagine we can drop it now after all the money and time that’s been invested in this?”

“You said you’d drop it if I said so.”

“As a geologist in our pay, and I know you well enough to know what that means in terms of your professional skill and pride.”

I stayed up half that night talking with Martha about it and trying to fit it into some kind of moral position. But the only thing I could come up with was the fact that here was one less atom bomb to murder man and destroy the life of the earth, and that I could not argue with. A day later I was at the drilling site in Arizona.

We saw the earth swell. The swell rose up like a bubble—a bubble about 200 yards in diameter.

The spot was well chosen. From every point of view this was an oil explorer’s dream, and I suppose that fact had been duly noted for the past half century, for there were the moldering remains of a hundred futile rigs, rotting patterns of wooden and metal sticks as far as one could see, abandoned shacks, trailers left with lost hopes, ancient trucks, rusting gears, piles of abandoned pipe—all testifying to the hope that springs eternal in the wildcatter’s breast.

Thunder Inc. was something else, a great installation in the middle of the deep valley, a drilling rig larger and more complex than any I had ever seen, a wall to contain the oil should they fail to cap it immediately, a machine shop, a small generating plant, at least a hundred vehicles of various sorts, and perhaps fifty mobile homes. The very extent and vastness of the action here deep in the badlands was breathtaking; and I let Max know what I thought of his statement that all this would be abandoned if I said that the idea was worthless.

“Maybe yes—maybe no. What do you say?”

“Give me time.”

“Absolutely, all the time you want.”

Never have I been treated with such respect. I prowled all over the place and I rode a jeep around and about and back and forth and up into the hills and down again; but no matter how long I prowled and sniffed and estimated, mine would be no more than an educated guess. I was also certain that they would not give up the project if I disapproved and said that it would be a washout. They believed in me as a sort of oil-dowser, especially if I told them to go ahead. What they were really seeking was an expert’s affirmation of their own faith. And that was apparent from the fact that they had already drilled an expensive 22-thousand-foot hole and had set up all this equipment. If I told them they were wrong, their faith might be shaken a little, but they would recover and find themselves another dowser.

I told this to Martha when I telephoned her. “Well, what do you honestly think?”

“It’s oil country. But I’m not the first one to come up with that brilliant observation. The point is—does their explanation account for the lack of oil?”

“Does it?”

“I don’t know. No one knows. And they’re dangling a million dollars right in front of my nose.”

“I can’t help you,” Martha said. “You’ve got to play this one yourself.”

Of course she couldn’t help me. No one could have helped me. It was too far down, too deeply hidden. We knew what the other side of the moon looked like and we knew something about Mars and other planets, but what have we ever known about ourselves and the place where we live?

The day after I spoke to Martha, I met with Max and his board of directors.

“I agree,” I told them. “The oil should be there. My opinion is that you should go ahead and try the blast.”

They questioned me after that for about an hour, but when you play the roll of a dowser, questions and answers become a sort of magical ritual. The plain fact of the matter is that no one had ever exploded a bomb of such power at such a depth, and until it was done, no one knew what would happen.

I watched the preparations for the explosion with great interest. The bomb, with its implosion casing, was specially made for this task—or remade would be a better way of putting it—very long, almost 20 feet, very slim. It was armed after it was in the rigging, and then the board of directors, engineers, technicians, newspapermen, Max, and myself retreated to the concrete shelter and control stations, which had been built almost a mile away from the shaft. Closed-circuit television linked us with the hole; and while no one expected the explosion to do any more than jar the earth heavily at the surface, the Atomic Energy Commission specified the precautions we took.

We remained in the shelter for five hours while the bomb made its long descent—until at last our instruments told us that it rested on the bottom of the drill hole. Then we had a simple countdown, and the chairman of the board pressed the red button. Red and white buttons are man’s glory. Press a white button and a bell rings or an electric light goes on; press a red button and the hellish force of a sun comes into being— this time five miles beneath the earth’s surface.

Perhaps it was this part and point in the earth’s surface; perhaps there was no other place where exactly the same thing would have happened; perhaps the fault that drained away the oil was a deeper fault than we had ever imagined. Actually we will never know; we only saw what we saw, watching it through the closed-circuit TV. We saw the earth swell. The swell rose up like a bubble—a bubble about 200 yards in diameter—and then the surface of the bubble dissipated in a column of dust or smoke that rose up perhaps 500 feet from the valley bottom, stayed a moment with the lowering sun behind it, like the very column of fire out of Sinai, and then lifted whole and broke suddenly in the wind. Even in the shelter we heard the screaming rumble of sound, and as the face of the enormous hole that the dust had left cleared, there bubbled up a column of oil perhaps a hundred feet in diameter. Or was it oil?

The moment we saw it, a tremendous cheer went up in the shelter, and then the cheer cut off in its own echo. Our closed-circuit system was color television, and this column of oil was bright red.

“Red oil,” someone whispered. Then it was quiet.

“When can we get out?” someone else demanded.

“Another ten minutes.”

The dust was up and away in the opposite direction, and for ten minutes we stood and watched the bright red oil bubble out of the hole, forming a great pond within the retaining walls, and filling the space with amazing rapidity and lapping over the walls, for the flow must have been a 100,000 gallons a second or even more, and then outside of the walls and a thickness of it all across the valley floor, rising so quickly that from above, where we were, we saw that we would be cut off from the entire installation. At that point we didn’t wait, but took our chances with the radiation and raced down the desert hillside toward the hole and the mobile homes and the trucks—but not quickly enough. We came to a stop at the edge of a great lake of red oil.

“It’s not red oil,” someone said. “Goddamnit, it’s not oil!”

“The hell it’s not! It’s oil!”

We were moving back as it spread and rose and covered the trucks and houses, and then it reached a gap in the valley and poured through and down across the desert, into the darkness of the shadows that the big rocks threw—flashing red in the sunset and later black in the darkness.

Someone touched it and put a hand to his mouth. “It’s blood.”

Max was next to me. “He’s crazy,” Max said. Someone else said that it was blood.

I put a finger into the red fluid and raised it to my nose. It was warm, almost hot, and there was no mistaking the smell of hot, fresh blood. I tasted it with the tip of my tongue.

“What is it?” Max whispered.

The others gathered around now—silent, with the red sun setting across the red lake and the red reflected on our faces, our eyes glinting with the red.

“Jesus God, what is it?” Max demanded.

“It’s blood,” I replied.

“From where?”

Then we were all silent.

We spent the night on the top of the butte where the shelter had been built, and in the morning, all around us, as far as we could see, there was a hot, steaming sea of red blood, the smell so thick and heavy that we were all sick from it; and all of us vomited half a dozen times before the helicopters came for us and took us away.

The day after I returned home, Martha and I were sitting in the living room, she with a book and I with the paper, where I had read about their trying to cap the thing, except that even with diving suits they could not get down to where it was; and she looked up from her book and said:

“Do you remember the thing about the mother?”

“What thing?”

“A very old thing. I think I heard once that it was half as old as time, or maybe a Greek fable or something of the sort—but anyway, the mother has one son, who is the joy of her heart and all the rest that a son could be to a mother, and then the son falls in love with or under the spell of a beautiful and wicked woman—very wicked and very beautiful. And he desires to please her, oh, he does indeed, and he says to her, ‘Whatever you desire, I will bring it to you’—”

“Which is nothing to say to any woman, but ever,” I put in.

“I won’t quarrel with that,” Martha said mildly, “because when he does put it to her, she replies that what she desires most on this earth is the living heart of his mother, plucked from her breast. So what does this worthless and murderous idiot male do, but race home to his mother, and then out with a knife, ripping her breast to belly and tearing the living heart out of her body—”

“I don’t like your story.”

“—and with the heart in his hand, he blithely dashes back toward his ladylove. But on the way through the forest he catches his toe on a root, stumbles, and falls headlong, the mother’s heart knocked out of his hand. And as he pulls himself up and approaches the heart, it says to him, ‘Did you hurt yourself when you fell, my son?’”

“Lovely story. What does it prove?”

“Nothing, I suppose. Will they ever stop the bleeding? Will they ever close the wound?”

“I don’t think so.”

“Then will your mother bleed to death?”

“My mother?”

“Yes.”

“Oh.”

“My mother,” Martha said. “Will she bleed to death?”

“I suppose so.”

“That’s all you can say—I suppose so?”

“What else?”

“Suppose you had told them not to go ahead?”

“You asked me that 20 times, Martha. I told you. They would have gotten another dowser.”

“And another? And another?”

“Yes.”

“Why?” she cried out. “For God’s sake, why?”

“I don’t know.”

“But you lousy men know everything else.”

“Mostly we only know how to kill it. That’s not everything else. We never learned to make anything alive.”

“And now it’s too late,” Martha said.

“It’s too late, yes,” I agreed, and I went back to reading the paper. But Martha just sat there, the open book in her lap, looking at me; and then after a while she closed the book and went upstairs to bed.

__________________________________

From The General Zapped an Angel by Howard Fast. Reprinted with the permission of the publisher, Ecco, a division of Harper Collins. Copyright © 2019 by Howard Fast.




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