Every time I set myself down to get started on my science fiction, a forgotten story from my past bubbles up in memory, and I am forced to go back and update the outline for my memoirs …
FAUX FUEL OIL
It must have been after the fourth or fifth time I got suspended from high school that my Dad finally relented, and let me use one of his trucks to get my straight truck driver’s license. Instead of being sent out to the farm to work with my Uncle Leeward, – he sent me out to train with his fuel oil delivery man, Otis.
Otis was suspected of drinking on the job, and was known to take long breaks during the day to meet with his lady friends. He was none too happy about me cramping his style, but he took the task of teaching me the ropes seriously, and after the first day we got along fine.
“I guess we both on probation.”
After three days of driving around town delivering fuel oil, hearing some great stories, and learning a lot of old Southern expressions, – I went back to school.
Then one cold winter morning at about three am, my Dad woke me up and told me to get dressed for work. There was a blizzard hitting hard, and our phone was ringing off the hook with old people begging to have fuel oil delivered …
There was no real emergency.
Every one of those customers had enough fuel to last until spring. It’s not in the Diagnostic Statistical Manual, but there is a very real syndrome whereby the elderly will go into a state of panic whenever a big snow storm hits. Temporarily insane, they are convinced that they will be “snowed in” – cut off from the outside world with no heat, and you just can’t reason with them. You tell them, “according to our records your tank was filled last week” … it doesn’t matter. They are absolutely certain that if they don’t get their tanks topped off, they will be found frozen to death once the storm clears and emergency services finally come to dig a pathway to their door.
After they called my Dad, they would call the city, and then the county, – they would even call their United States Senator … “Get Chuck Grassley on the line Martha, before the storm knocks all the telephone poles down!”
That’s where I came in.
My Dad had an old International Harvester Fuel Oil Truck with a big gash in the tank on the driver’s side. With super cool art deco styling, that thing must have been thirty years old, and the only reason it was still around was because nobody wanted to buy it, – and because it ran like a top!
My job was to pull up to the senior citizens houses in such a way that their failing eyesight wouldn’t detect the big hole on the side of the truck; then take my measuring stick and rattle it around in their basement tank as loud as I could.
“Oh yeah, you’re a little low – no problem. I’ll have ‘er filled up in no time”.
I’d go back to the truck, and drag the hose up to the house, making a game out of it, – humming The Flight of The Valkyries, forging my way through snow drifts, fighting against the wind, with the snow stinging my face. Rescue One! Rescue One!
I was getting paid ten dollars an hour, having the time of my life, but I had been warned …
“They are going to try to pay you with cash money, so you just tell them that they have a positive balance in their accounts, and they will get a copy of the bill in the mail; and I swear, – if I find out you took any money from those people I’ll kick your ass.”
I was too excited to get started on my mission to tell him that things had changed, and the only one that would be getting their ass kicked would be him; but that would be a surprise, better left for another day …
That generation of Midwesterner had a genetic memory of bone crushing, deadly winters. Maybe they had grown up with stories of settlers running out of firewood, and being forced to burn heirloom furniture to survive. Whatever the reason, their fear was real. Half the old fogies I delivered make-believe fuel oil to were white, and about half were black; and it seemed to me that old age and fear of a terrible, imminent death erased any racial differences. They were all “blanket people” – the men all answered the door wearing layer upon layer of sweaters and coats, with their wives bundled up in knitted afghans sitting by the fire, and they all had the heat turned up to triple digits. I would have to peel my coveralls half off, and tie the arms around my waist just to get my fake job done with out passing out from heat stroke.
I remember one old black couple that had a house out past the city limits. They firmly believed that they were out of fuel and had no heat, but once I went through my little routine in the basement, the thermostat magically gave them a true reading, and they were suddenly safe to take off their army surplus parkas and relax.
“Oh Thank The Lord! Sir, would you like to sit down for some hot chocolate and cookies”?
I think it was the first time I’d ever been referred to as “Sir” without it being sarcasm.
“Yes Mame, that’s sounds nice.”
Her husband settled into his easy chair, and I noticed that he had a red Gibson E-335 and a little Fender amp within arm’s reach.
“I like your guitar, – just like B.B. King’s … do you play the blues”?
From out of the kitchen, “Oh no Sir, – that’s the devil’s music. We’re “church people” in this house.”
The old man smiled, picked up his guitar, and turned on his amp.
“Here now, I’ll play you little something I’ve been working on.”
Just don’t let nobody turn you around, turn you round, don’t you let nobody turn you round …
Sounded like the blues to me.
Damn, their go my batteries! I wanted to write a little meditation on Science Fiction Tropes, but that will have to wait for another day …