An excerpt from Only the Dying, Book II - The Sick Man, currently in progress.
WALTER BROGAN WAS FREEZING. He stood by himself a short distance from
the train tracks, looking out over the construction site. If he had a cigarette within
arm's reach, he probably would smoke it.
It was Tuesday, March 3, 1931. A late winter cold front had had the township of
Bentonville in its grip for the better part of a week. It was quickly getting tiresome.
The temperature on the thermometer he had nailed to the front porch of his home
on 2nd and Evergreen had been a teeth-chattering 15 degrees earlier that morning.
This bothered him for two reasons: one, he was going to have to stand around
"working" in it all day, although he was used to it from his previous job. Two, he
was worried that his wife would be too cold. He knew she wouldn’t turn up
Normally, Greta Brogan’s frugality was something he wouldn’t take issue with.
Especially now. Utility prices were murderous. The cost of heating his house alone
was drawing on their already-strained budget. But he hoped Greta would take into
account the reality of her situation. She was entering the ninth week of her second
So far it had all gone down much differently than their first experience. Brogan was learning that in these matters, what went before does not presage what to expect the next time. There’d been much less fanfare, both between Walter and Greta themselves and in terms of their announcement to their families. Greta had told Brogan over dinner one night around the middle of January that she had suspicions. The next week she visited the doctor. A few days later a phone call confirmed it.
She told Walter the same evening when he arrived home from work. Brogan couldn’t feign great surprise or explode with nervous enthusiasm the way he did the first time around. And it wasn’t exactly a private moment, either. Their son Luke was literally tugging at his trouser leg for attention when Greta told him. Brogan, exhausted from his day’s work, managed to give his wife an embrace and a smile. His mind was still decompressing from the stress of the day. He held her for a moment, before they moved into the kitchen where she had a beef stew and cornbread meal waiting.
But this was not to say that Walter Brogan wasn’t happy with the prospect of becoming a father again. On the contrary. One thing that he and Greta had seen eye to eye on from the beginning was having a family, if it was God’s will. Brogan had wanted a son, and they’d been blessed with one. But he didn’t want the boy to have no siblings.
Secretly, he hoped right from the moment he learned Greta was expecting a second time that Luke would get a brother. He’d always wanted one. At the same time, however, part of him was intrigued by the notion of having a daughter. He wondered what having a baby girl would mean to him.
Nonetheless, it was difficult to react the same way he had the first time. Although his wife seemed to expect him to. Their situation had been quite different when they’d learned about Luke.
Winter 1927 seemed a thousand miles away from the place they found themselves in March 1931. The mood of the people - their concerns, their hopes, their dreams - had shifted dramatically from where they were in the late twenties. Brogan had already been inclined to worry, even before the events that seemed to keep coming hand over fist since the 1930s had begun.
Additionally, his dead father populated his own thoughts and dreams - to whom he’d promised, after his death, that he would provide for those who came after him. But with every passing day in 1931, this responsibility seemed to grow more and more heavy upon his shoulders.
He’d been hired by The Criterion Oil Company of Indiana two weeks before Christmas. It was a remarkable turn of events, at least from the Brogans’ perspective. For seven weeks following his face-to-face “walk through” back in September with Tom Spenlow and Bill Doyle - the latter of whom was supervising construction of the bulk plant - Brogan had heard absolutely nothing about his prospects.
The closest he’d had to receiving feedback was Spenlow’s observation that it had been “very good” to hear his condensed pitch for hiring him. The two men had walked around a bit more that afternoon, dropped him back off at the Auto Stop, and disappeared. By the beginning of December, Brogan had more or less concluded that he hadn’t made the cut. Bitterly disappointing, but he did his best to move on.
But then came the letter from Ralph “Whitey” Pickering, the General Manager of Criterion Oil of Indiana’s North Gary Refinery. It was a brief. Brogan was invited to tour the facility and to have lunch with Pickering and “some of my associates” on Friday, December 17, 1930. It was lucky that he already knew the way there, having made his own visit to the plant, memorably, three years earlier.
That was when Brogan began to understand that, for better or worse, his life was about to change. He said this to Greta on the evening the letter came. She’d been standing in their kitchen at the time, wearing an apron, cutting up chicken livers. She smiled warmly and said she agreed. She knew he would go up there and show those oil men who the right man was. Brogan felt his confidence swell. That is, until Greta spoke again.
“Pretty soon though, honey, you’ll need to explain all this to my father.”
Brogan felt like someone had snuffed his best set shot on the basketball court. But Greta was right. He’d thought of this before, but not recently. And not since he’d opened up that official letter.
He asked: “What do you think is the best way to go about it?”
To which Greta responded, after pausing for half a beat, kitchen knife extended in front of her, parallel to the wood cutting block: “The sooner the better.”
Brogan sighed. “The Lord hates a coward.”
After their dinner, Brogan walked in the pale, chilled moonlight to his father-in-law’s house. He carried the letter with him. When the door opened, P.G. Heinricks, still dressed in his shirtsleeves and black tie, smoking a pipe, stared at his son-in-law from the doorframe.
“What the hell are you doing here?” the old man growled.
“Mr. Heinricks, there’s something I’d like to discuss. It’s important.”
Heinricks stared. Brogan held his ground, looking straight into Heinricks’ eyes from his somewhat elevated angle, just as he had done after he wed the man’s daughter several years earlier.
“Come in then," said the old man, and moved aside.
Doyle, his bulky form recognizable even enclosed in a long lambswool coat, approached Brogan over the frozen tundra of the construction site. He held out his hand. Brogan took it and pumped it once vigorously, hoping to mask his jumpy nerves.
They’d spoken the week before on the telephone when Doyle had called to invite him out to observe the early construction. That had been a brief and stiff exchange. Brogan was not sure how well he’d be able to get on with this Irishman now that they were fellow employees. It was a rare and unsettling experience for Brogan to feel an almost immediate dischord.
Brogan possessed a considerable degree of social acumen. He could charm a stiff drink off of Al Capone in the middle of a sting, Dick Benson had once put it. If he’d met up with Doyle at a football or basketball game things might have been different. But for some reason when they’d met the previous fall, he felt the Irishman had had his back up towards him
Today, March 3, however, it looked like things could smooth themselves over. For one thing, the late winter wind was so sharp and cold that it seemed to actively discourage any beating around the bush. One didn’t dawdle or posture or “feel out” anything in weather like this. If there had been reservations earlier on the part of either man, so be it. Here they both were now, with a job to be carried through unfolding in front of them.
Doyle obviously harbored reservations about Brogan. A blind man could see that. Brogan had to assume that Doyle - who clearly had intimate knowledge of fuel oil distribution or site construction, or both - had voiced his concerns to Tom Spenlow, Whitey Pickering, or somebody. But whatever these concerns were, they hadn’t prevented Criterion Oil of Indiana from hiring Walter Brogan just the same. Brogan admonished himself to keep this thought on top of mind.
Secondly, the two of them meeting in this field meant something else - mainly, that they both had jobs. Pretty good jobs, too. Brogan had been hired as Regional Distribution Agent for an annual salary of $1,850 per year. That was at least $300 more per year than what he’d been earning while employed by P.G. Heinricks. The fact that he’d even been able to complete for a new job, and get it, was astounding.
One only had to look around and read the papers. The entire economy was in a slide. Now some national banks were even starting to fail. The unemployment rate had surpassed the double-digit mark and was still climbing. At St. Joseph the Worker they’d already started a weekly meeting for those who had lost their jobs. It was a way to talk about things and pray the Rosary.
With all this as background, one couldn’t jeopardize the job they had. And certainly, with a wife, one child, and a second on the way, Walter Brogan was ready to make nice with whoever he had to to prove himself a strong hire.
In truth, however, Brogan also felt pressure. This feeling only seemed to increase the further they got into 1931. When he’d gotten the telephone call from Whitey Pickering himself that The Criterion Oil Company of Indiana had selected the Bentonville site for their bulk plant and that this decision led them to extend an offer to him to become their newest Regional Distribution Agent, it had been the final weeks of 1930. At the time there was a great celebration. Brogan had even run out the next day and bought a brand-new tricycle for his son. That had been a fine day.
But Christmas 1930 felt like a lifetime ago already. Reality had set in for Brogan. He was realizing how much he didn’t know about oil and petroleum. Certainly his visit to Gary in December had helped, but that day had been a whirlwind. Even though he was doing everything he could at the time to get hired, the entire process had had a kind of unreal quality. It was like a fantasy ride, where he had had the chance to wear someone else’s trousers for a day. But the next day, he still went to work at the Auto Stop, conducting business as usual in a situation he was comfortable in.
Now things were different. Every day new things were being built, or purchased, or created, specifically for him to do a job he had never done. Others were working hard, preparing things for him to make use of. Yesterday, for example, he had spent at an automobile factory on the eastern edge of Lafayette with another fellow from Criterion named Harris. Brogan never even learned this guy’s first name. The man didn’t seem to care either way. Harris was in his fifties, about Brogan’s height, with a shiny, bald head and thin wire spectacles. He looked like an accountant. But he didn’t deal in figures. His job was trucks.
They’d visited a special dealer at the Ford factory - Criterion would only buy American - and had spent the entire afternoon discussing plans for a brand-new distribution truck. It was to be a 1 1/2 ton, 50-horsepower tanker. It had no fewer than four separate, custom-manufactured fuel tanks on the back platform that would hold gasoline, Ethyl gasoline, #1 diesel fuel, and fuel oil for machinery and farm equipment. And it was being built specifically for him. This had truly hit home when they even sat down with a paint specialist to discuss the markings to be hand-painted on the driver’s and passenger’s doors. They’d come up with:
Criterion Oil Company of Indiana
WALTER J. BROGAN
Regional Distribution Agent
Now here he was, shivering in this field while other men laid the foundation for three new buildings - also to be placed under his control. It was all a bit overwhelming. Brogan was doing everything he could to conceal the increasing nerves he felt.
The wind picked up again, strafing the brittle grass around the site. Brogan jammed his hands further into his pockets. The sun broke through the clouds and washed the entire field in a bright, crisp light. But it was the heatless kind of shine that happens late in the winter.
Brogan watched as Bill Doyle spoke to two men of the small group - there were ten overall - who were working and digging the foundations for the buildings. He wished he’d been as prepared for the weather as Doyle had. His lambswool-lined parka looked plenty warm, whereas Brogan’s Criterion jacket, a fortunate carry-over from his last job, was not quite up to the full job. At least he had thought to put on his black watch cap. He thought wearing the serviceman’s cap from the Auto-Stop would look ridiculous on a construction site. Of course, the black watch cap also looked silly, tightly wrapping his head so that it looked like the eight ball on a billiards table. But at least it was warm.
The problem Brogan had now was, he didn’t have much to do. He felt a little frustrated that he’d been called out here by Doyle in the first place. He could not have done anything but accept the invitation. After all, it must have been decreed from somewhere on high. It’s not like Bill Doyle had thought to himself, “Maybe I’ve misjudged this fella. Why don’t I ask him out to the construction site, let him wander around, and get to know him.” No, Doyle had been ordered. Now here he was - but what was expected of him? He wasn’t a builder, and he wasn’t yet an oil man either.
“Awright, Brogan,” said Doyle, breaking free from the two other men and waving him over. “Let me show you what you’re lookin’ at here.”
“Right,” said Brogan, moving to join Doyle. They stood before a long rectangle scraped out of the stony earth. To Doyle’s right were two other holes. The middle one was smaller, and looked circular. Or more like a pentagon, actually. To the other side of that was a second rectangle, even larger than the first one.
Four men stood in this last hole hacking at the earth with picks and shovels. Two other men were pouring concrete along one edge of the hole. A hulking tractor contraption, something Brogan had never seen before, stood ticking off to one side. He guessed it might have been in use earlier.
“Okay, look here,” Doyle was saying, holding a large white sheet of paper with both hands, struggling to keep it steady in the intermittent wind. It was a set of blueprints. “Shit! Do me a favor …”
Brogan grabbed hold of the left side of the blueprint and helped to hold on to it while Doyle held fast with his right hand and gestured with his left. He wore brown leather gloves that Brogan also envied.
“Okay. Let’s try this again. I’m gonna assume you’ve never seen one of these bulk plants.”
“Other than the Gary main facility, I have never seen another storage area.”
“All right then. So listen up.” He spoke as though he were talking to an eight-year-old, pointing to the first rectangle dug out in front of them.
“Right here is the pump house. This is where the bulk of your fuel will be stored. We’ll install four pumps in here for the various products you’ll be dealing in. Now you’ve seen what the pumps look like?”
“Yep, sure have,” said Brogan. He’d been able to observe fuel pumps in action when he visited the refinery.
Doyle nodded. “Good enough. The pump house is going to be built special so that the hoses can exit from the top of the building and the nozzles can be lowered down to top-fill your trucks tanks. We’ll go over all that with you when the building is operational.”
“How do the tanks inside the pump house get filled? Do we bring an even larger fuel truck in here and run it up to the other side of the building?” asked Brogan. But then he regretted the question after he heard the answer.
“Nope. That’s why we needed the site close to the rail line. The fuel will come in by rail. You have to siphon it off from freight cars into your pump house. It’s a big part of your job. Lots of safety concerns. You gotta stay on top of ‘em.”
“Right,” said Brogan. He felt the need to move past the topic. Truthfully, he had no idea how one would even begin to siphon petroleum from a rail car into a pump house across a grass field. He assumed there’d be some kind of training. But there was an aspect to Doyle’s demeanor while discussing the layout that really made him wonder.
Brogan asked what the smaller, pentagon-shaped foundation they’d dug was for.
“Your office. You need a place to keep your records, plan out your distribution itinerary each month, maintain your books, and so on. If I were you I’d get yourself a secretary. Maybe a little filly - you know, just to help you out.” He chuckled, and cast a sidelong look.
Brogan just laughed. He was surprised that Doyle had cracked the joke. But it gave him the feeling that the ground was thawing out a little between them.
“Why’s it shaped like a pentagon?”
“Don’t ask me. I didn’t design it. Maybe Joe the architect went to college and wants to make a name for himself. If you’re really curious about it---”
“Forget it. So what’s---”
“HEY! PARKER!” Doyle hollered suddenly, yanking the prints away. He was looking towards the other end of the site where two workers were standing next to the hole, smoking. Brogan noticed they were dark-skinned. They probably didn’t even speak English, he thought.
The head of a third man, white, with a black watch cap on that looked exactly the same as Brogan’s, popped up from the hole.
“Tell your amigos it ain’t break time! We can ship ‘em right back to Juarez if that’s the way they want it! I ain’t sayin’ it again!”
He cupped one hand around his mouth and hollered for good measure, “NO FUMAR EN EL TRABAJO!!”
The man in the hole climbed out and began growling to the two workers. Mexican, apparently. Doyle shuffled the blueprints noisily while the wind jostled it, making the task of straightening it back out again nearly impossible. Brogan stepped up again and helped flatten the map.
“Thanks,” said Doyle. He shook his head. “Damn stiffs. They’re lazy as hell! Come up here chiseling for work, but as soon as they land a job, that’s some kind of cue to stop workin’. You’d think men like that’d try to keep the jobs they got in these times. But who knows what the hell they’re thinkin’.”
Brogan glanced over the other man’s shoulder towards where the two foreigners had been smoking. Now all three were back in the hole.
“Anyway, this last one’s the warehouse. This is real important. That’s why it’s the largest foundation. You need room to store all the Criterion products you’re going to be selling and delivering. Engine primer. Motor oil. Lubricants. Even small parts - filters, nozzles, base clamps. That kind of stuff. It’s not a huge warehouse, but you need space to wheel a handcart around in it, and so forth.
“So there you go, Brogan. That’s the bulk plant. You’re gonna have to keep it all in line.” Doyle folded up the blueprint, eyes down.
Brogan shivered. He was really cold and doing his best not to show it.
He decided to take a chance. Just how influential was Doyle anyway? He clapped his hands together a few times, then remarked:
“I keep getting a feeling like you don’t believe I can do that, Doyle.”
“Keep it all in line. If that’s true, why don’t you just have out with it.”
Doyle tucked the blueprint under his arm and gripped one wrist with the other hand. He turned to look at Brogan head-on. Brogan saw red patches on his cheeks that looked shiny, as though someone had slicked them with butter. Doyle was so fair-skinned he’d sustained wind burns just by being out here. But he seemed at ease.
“Listen, Brogan. Let’s talk straight. If I seem suspicious of you, there’s no hard feelings. Okay? Lots of men think I’m a hard-ass when I first meet ‘em. But what you gotta understand is, even though I’m young---”
“How young are you, then?” Brogan interrupted.
“Twenty-seven. But that’s not my point. You can say what you want about my age. It’ll be nothin’ I haven’t heard since I was about sixteen. What you don’t know is how well I know this business. I grew up in the Gary refinery. When I say in it, that’s just what I mean. My old man worked for Criterion for twenty-eight years. He died a couple of years back in an explosion. For the last twenty years of his life had had Whitey Pickering’s job.
“I’ve been around this stuff all my life. I’ve seen men like you come and go. Lots of folks don’t understand how much work all of this is. You gotta be on your toes all the time just to make sure you don’t blow yourself up each day. Believe me, I ought to know.”
“Well, listen Doyle, I apologize if----”
“Let me finish,” the younger man cut him off. But now he seemed different, more sincere. All of a sudden Brogan thought he understood why he’d been asked out to the site again.
“There’s something else a lot of men don’t see right away. The ones that last here are the ones that figure it out. When you come to work for Criterion of Indiana, you’re not in some backyard outfit. You aren’t working for your wife’s father anymore, where you might keep your job because of who you are and all that shit. This is serious business. Oil companies power America. They keep the machines running that are the means to feed our kids. It’s a new commitment for men like you. You have to have tenacity, discipline. And you have to have loyalty.
“That, and nothing else, is why I may seem a little unsure at first about the men I meet who do what you’re going to do. You don’t just represent Walt Brogan or P.G. Heinricks now. You represent Criterion. You ought to think about that. Make sure that’s what you really want to be.”
For the rest of that day, and for weeks afterward, as the buildings of the Bentonville bulk plant facility seemed to spring up from the holes in the dead grass like oblong plants, Brogan played and replayed Bill Doyle’s words in his mind. He ruminated over exactly what it was that he had done.