What Turned You Around?

by John Ballantine

“The shah of Iran is our friend. He sells oil at a price that we can pay so we can refine the products that grease your chassis, put gas in your tank, and provide chemical feedstocks that make our lives more comfortable. Here at Ashland Oil we do business with those that honor commitments and promote competition. John D. Rockefeller’s offspring—Texaco, Mobil, Exxon, Chevron, and Standard Oil of Ohio—want to play by the rules of their capitalist game, not the market. The major oil companies want to starve us of our life blood. They sell to each other and not us independent oil companies.”

My first press release in 1974. The perils of capitalism.

Had I crossed to the other side? My conscientious objector essay had been rejected twice, but I flunked my physical three times in 1971–72 by screaming loud, pushing my blood pressure to 160 over 100, so no Vietnam for me. By the summer of 1973, I had turned my back on my ex-addict friends wandering the dark streets of Harlem; social work was a long, hard slog. I no longer wore the protestor T-shirt with red fist raised. “Hell, no, we won’t go,” yet I still dreamed of changing the world.

“If you cannot fight them join them. Follow the money, sit with the powerful.”

This bizarre logic plunged me into the capitalist world of the OPEC embargo following the United States’ support of the Israelis in the 1973 Yom Kippur war. How do the oil companies stir their political cocktails?

*

In 1973, at the height of the oil embargo, I graduated college and began work as a public relations intern for Ashland Oil at the confluence of the Ohio River and Big Sandy, where towboats pushed barges past oil refineries, coal trains, and the Armco Steel furnace. In Eastern Appalachia squeezed between Ohio, West Virginia, and Kentucky, I lived in the industrial heartland where towns were making do—bending, boiling, and digging stuff for the rest of us. Dirty hands and hard-earned lives lined the streets.

The 1973–74 embargo was a perfect time for the big powerful players with oil to say no; sorry, no oil for you little guys to refine and sell into my market. No oil, no product, and eventually a slow squeezing of the small independent refiners dry, until the layoffs and bankruptcy lawyers showed up. I can make more money and you can’t.

So, Ashland Oil and my newfound colleagues searched out intermediaries who knew suppliers in the faraway corners of Persia. Men whom we shouldn’t trust, men who could guarantee a reliable supplier for a price. Slightly above the market, but scrappy refiners like Ashland could make money selling its products to other companies starving for refined products. I knew the arguments of the embargo—US tilting to Israel while taking the Arab oil—as I double-checked the press release. I shifted a sentence or two to explain the necessary whys of buying oil from the shah of Iran.

Of course, this was illegal. Contracting with Iran, breaking the embargo (and not telling) was against the law. But the shah was our friend; we helped put him there in 1953, he dined with David Rockefeller, and then he let his minions hatch a deal with our intermediaries. The world of oil was too complicated for someone like me; I who read philosophy and slumped in dark theaters watching black-and-white foreign films. Still my boss trusted the editorial eye of a Harvard English major—educated protestor like me must be good for something. My boss knew the hard life of the Kentucky hills where clans fought for the only good union job. He knew the score.

What did each of us know about the shah? We looked up the history of Iran in the encyclopedia, debated the power of monopolists like John D. Rockefeller, OPEC, and the CIA overthrow of Mossadegh in 1953 as he nationalized British oil interests. The US, with Kermit Roosevelt, a key CIA operative, and help from the Brits, put the shah back in power. My boss told me that little refineries around the world could barely make it with no oil of our own.

Of course, Ashland was caught paying bribes to the shah’s friends. His henchmen said they could save us. Ship Ashland Inc. the oil and not to worry, no one would catch us. But some whisperer from the majors ratted to the Department of Justice. So here I was editing my first press release trying to explain the unfairness of the world in straight, declarative sentences.

Nobody makes it out without a fight.

My muckraking persona inhaled deeply. Maybe I did not learn all I should from the books lining my shelves. The robber barons, the big guys, maybe they trampled too many good people out here. Not all companies were “the man,” the masters of the universe.

Who was good, who was evil? Not these guys, these men who accepted me, worked long hours, told off-color jokes at lunch. Not these men who grudgingly accepted black professionals in the office and voted for Nixon. Not these oil traders, like my uncle Billy, who would never be invited to a major Seven Sisters oil company party.

No, these men had one refinery on the Ohio River that had been expanded and tinkered with over the years so they could make the best petroleum products for hungry Midwesterners in the tri-state area. The men I worked with were smart, scrappy, and determined not to be beat by the fat cats. And thanks to the shah and the men I listened to at lunch, the jobs at the refinery and steel company held. The lights stayed on all night; the cracked hands kept working, and the furnaces burned bright. We got oil from Iran and we have work.

Each morning the sun cut through the river fog as shift whistles signaled another day.

But saving jobs did not cut it for the Department of Justice. Not for the lawyers tipped off by some oil company rat. They said in a long brief and newspaper headlines, “You bribed people, the shah’s minions, for oil. You, Ashland Oil, did business with bad Arabs.” Bad move. Too bad if the big oil companies did not sell oil to you. Tough luck. Some win and some lose.

No oil, no money. No paychecks. Yes, we cut deals to survive.

I saw ships moving across the world maps on the trading floor. Uncle Billy’s eyes shifted papers, signaling a yes as he picked up three phones and made multiple trades to get the oil from Iran, through the Suez Canal, across the Atlantic Ocean into the pipeline owned by some other company not wanting to do Ashland Oil any favors. Uncle Billy and his traders got the oil from the Persian Gulf up the river to the refinery. Each day they fought to survive.

Gin, beer, and mint juleps capped the night celebrations.

What did the Justice Department lawyers know? Some little guy broke rules, too bad, but the Big Oil men said no, we weren’t patriots—there is a war over there. Ashland wasn’t playing by the rules that the big oil men helped write. Stop the illegal shipment of oil from Iran.

Fourteen-hour days on the trading floors and in the refinery got the barges up the river and a paycheck to the families in town. Warm spuds and chicken on the table. Dollars were not gambled or drunk during the embargo. The oil traders kept the families of Ashland, Ironton, and Huntington happy. The men I ate lunch with would not surrender. My boss and I had to explain this to some Washington, D.C. lawyers who did not give a damn about Ashland, Kentucky.

*

I drove through the coal mining towns, looked at homes scattered across the hills, tumbling into valleys. I ate raspberry pie in the diner served by a waitress with few teeth. “How’re you doin’, hon? What do you want?” I saw the bent backs, the coal-stained faces of the unemployed, and I remembered that John L. Lewis did not save all the miners here in Appalachia—some got better-paying jobs and others didn’t. The union organizer was a hero to most, but the big men, the owners, still sat in the house on the hill, doing what they wanted. They did especially well when the people did not fight back. I knew the history, but not the faces.

The country western reminded me that “life ain’t fair” as Patsy Cline cried for help, for a little less drink and more love. The jukebox rang out as we sat with heads down. I looked out the dusty diner window as the rain moved in. Black and white was not so obvious to an East Coast college kid like me. Big companies are bad and little guys must get organized. So many get left behind.

Don’t steal or cheat on the one you love. Get money for food, put dinner on the table, and don’t complain. A job and a roof that don’t leak is all I want.

Yes, the press release looks good. The shah’s men did business with us; no one else would. We refine the best-performing benzene and make the strongest, longest-lasting Valvoline Oil to beat others around the Indy 500. We win and they, the big oil companies, won’t keep us down.

*

My suit fit, but my philosophy of the world did not. I left New York City and college to meet those men who supported the war and didn’t think much of hippies or protestors. I listened, watched, and drank beer across the river in Ironton in beat-up bars that served workers coming from the dry side of Kentucky. I sat in classrooms, looked around diners, and I ordered breakfast at the House of Pancakes. I could not make it here, too many words in my head, and fuzzy images trying to explain the world.

We stand in the rain in a long line
waiting at Ford Highland Park. For work.
You know what work is—if you’re
old enough to read this you know what
work is, although you may not do it.

—Philip Levine

My Ashland buddies tell me that they supported the Vietnam War because they are patriots and believe our president, even if he is impeached. Richard Nixon leaves in August of 1974 with his telltale V sign, fingers raised above his head as he boards the USA One helicopter for his last flight. My friends in Ashland say this should not be.

I eat breakfast, lunch, dinner in a different world. I drive my beat-up Chevrolet to work and explain why the shah does business with the likes of us. I ask questions because that is how I was taught. I really don’t know what is going on because it was hard to learn the facts of life.

I suck my breath in as I edit the press release one last time. I strike out imagined references to Savak, the secret Iranian police doing no good, and I make sure the oil cronies become consultants. The intermediaries that we paid through offshore accounts in the Bahamas—the fastest way to grease the wheels of commerce. What were we supposed to do, watch Ashland Oil go under and the town collapse because others messed up?

My boss asked what should we do? Confess, close the door, and give the men working down by the river pink slips? Uncle Billy, over his second and third bourbon, said no. The world is unfair, the big oil guys always squeeze tight, knock you out if they can. This is not a nice business. We must be twice as smart, three times as fast, and we have to make deals behind closed doors. We must build more efficient refineries, make better products, and we buy oil from those who sell to refine since we have none. Sometimes we do this in secret because the big oil men in Houston do not care about us, or the people who work here. They don’t give a damn about the men and women in Kentucky.

I nod, I get it, but breaking the law isn’t right. I stare out the window late at night. I walk under the stars and I drive by the refinery lights in Catlettsburg, Kentucky. Good jobs for guys with grease under their fingernails who showed up night and day on time. This is not what I learned in college. There was no dirt on my hands. I did not have a morning hangover. I showed up at work every morning and got paid twice a month for writing words. I breathed in the heavy night air and looked at the stars for answers.

*

In third grade I fought the playground bullies. I pushed for our square of dirt in seventh grade, and I pretended not to be frightened at switchblades itching my chin. Early on I understood that the big guys, the older kids, always wanted more. They talked big, stole our bikes, and took when they could. Maybe the playground of business was no different. More rules, longer histories, more grudges, and too many advantages for the bigger guys. Those from the wrong side of the tracks often lost.

That September day with the afternoon light streaming through my boss’s window, I was on the other side with press release in hand. Was I part of the system, or just pushing back the bullies? We weren’t evil, twisting the truth just a bit, but the money facilitated the needed flow of oil to our refinery on the Ohio River. No one was harmed, and our goal was stay in business. No one would help us; those were the rules of the game. My voice was clear and strong, but still my conscience was asking questions.

My muckraking book about American business, about oil, became more complicated. Who was good, who was bad, and how did our economy operate? I knew little of John D. Rockefeller and Standard Oil, or OPEC, and the Middle East. My words stopped in mid-sentence.

I heard the chatter around the lunch table—understood the price they had to pay for oil they didn’t have. I knew that refineries were the crux of the oil business—that Rockefeller once controlled 90 percent of them before Teddy Roosevelt and the trustbusters said no more fixing the market. No more monopolizing. There was a long history behind this refinery in Catlettsburg, Kentucky, and our Iranian friends. Nothing was simple or fair.

*

But the prickly peach—T.S. Eliot’s take on his early days in dark London—did not elucidate my day. I turned the pages, read poetry, and walked through the winter slush. I slept in the men’s dorms at Shaker retreats and learned of their hard work. The rights and wrongs of their community. Still Shakers could not sustain their vision of just worlds without children. I finally got ambiguity—the gray of Bible stories—and the compromises of work. The jobs that put pancakes on the table.

I escaped the morality police. I looked both ways as I crossed the street, stopped at the light, and watched the freight train howl as it passed me downtown late at night. I was here to taste the everydayness of work. To review press releases, not to judge.

The muddy water of the Big Sandy rose as it merged with the Ohio River. My moral ruminations slipped away; leveled by the bright lights of factory work, the crying calls of coal miners, and dark barroom talk. My corporate suit, my edits to the press release did not make me a bully. I ate with my colleagues. I did not point my finger.

My uncle Billy, his oil trader buddies, the shah of Iran, who did business with these scrappy Kentucky oil men, all gathered at some secret table. These men had not supped in Persian palaces or slunk through Turkish baths. No, this was just business. The big oil guys—in Houston, Riyadh, London, and in the OPEC offices in Vienna—still wanted to crush us. Playground rules held.

The revolution of the 1960s did not happen, the big oil men still ruled, and the rules of the game were hard to change. My eyes opened wide. I was not always trusted by my new friends. Something shifted when I became part of the business, the supposed conspirators—no oil, no jobs. Fight the big oil bully and keep the factories running. Maybe I was Spencer Tracy or Jimmy Stewart fighting for my youthful dreams. Maybe not.

 

John Ballantine is a professor at Brandeis International Business School. He received his Bachelor’s degree in English from Harvard University, then earned his Master’s degree and Ph.D. in economics from University of Chicago and NYU Stern, respectively. Writing is a longstanding avocation of his, and a reflection of being in the world of his family, the equations he discusses in class, the books he reads, and the films he watch. Every month for the last fourteen years, he and his family have held “poetry potlucks” at their house.

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