I did not believe the oil company would consider me. It was my second year in engineering, good grades padded by non-engineering electives (English and anthropology). I volunteered in one student organization. Perhaps it was the internship I secured after Freshman year, the recruiters unable to recognize any nepotism in that placement. For whatever reason it was, I stared at that offer email for several minutes, reading it multiple times to make sure I didn’t misunderstand. It would be the envy of most other people in my class. I had an offer from Whitelaw oil, for a summer internship at a polyethylene plant in Spindletop, Texas.
My internship would begin on the first of June. I stayed in Lawrence over a week after classes ended, enjoyed the late nights of Mass street, between the music venues and bars. In the mornings, I researched the region between Houston and Louisiana, which other chemical engineering students and faculty called the “petrochemical corridor”. Before it was hydrocarbon processing, and years before European settlers conquered the region, it was occupied by the Akokisa and Atakapa tribes. Curiously enough, I read that both tribes practiced cannibalism. Other than that, nothing in particular stood out. Usual nomadic hunter-gatherer society. Largely avoided by the Spanish and Mexicans, until settled by Texans.
In the last week of May, I drove to Texas. Interstate 35 to Dallas, then 45 to Houston, then 10. In a typical Kansas Summer, I could roll my windows down, and the breeze would be sufficient in place of air conditioning. But windows rolled down were not enough once I was South of Oklahoma City. Slowdowns along the highway would reduce the breeze and wind through the window. Dallas traffic was frequently a standstill. The additional humidity prevented my sweat from drying, instead rolling down my face and stinging my eyes. I would need to fix the air conditioning once I received a paycheck.
Traffic picked up again after Dallas, and people drove ninety miles per hour to Houston, as if there was nothing in between. I’ll admit at the speeds we were traveling, no tree looked unique or unlike the few hundred that came before them. Then, about sixty miles north of Houston, in a sudden clearing of trees, a giant white statue of the city’s namesake, Texas General and Statesman Samuel Houston. It was too late for me to pull off the highway, but I vowed to visit him once I left Spindletop and was returning to Lawrence. I continued on I-10.
My apartment would be in Harden, less than half an hour north of Spindletop. A recent Hurricane devastated Louisiana, and the migration of people to Texas resulted in a shortage of apartment availability in Spindletop proper. I didn’t mind having the extra time between work and the apartment. The commute would only be an inconvenience for the summer internship and the extra time would allow me to decompress from any stress of the job. And burning a little extra gasoline would be good for Chemical engineers anyways.
The first day was all HR paperwork and safety orientation. On the second day, us interns met across town at the refinery for an overview of the business, culture, and etiquette. Most of it covered standard office decorum, but the company stressed that employees should never, under any circumstances, admit that they are sorry. Sorry implies a mistake and can be a weakness. Instead, it is recommended to say “apologies” so that you recognize their inconvenience. From a legal point of view, empathy is preferable to any possible admission you were wrong.
Whitelaw provided a business overview for all interns. Not only the engineering students but human resources and accounting included. Luckily, this meeting covered only the downstream and refining part of the company, they wouldn’t explain the complexities of upstream activities. Accountants could easily learn how to put prices into their spreadsheets, not caring about the difference between olefins and aromatics. Whitelaw Oil tried to explain the refinery process in overly simplified schematics, rendering the process cartoonish.
One problem associated with crude oil is the heavy components. Think of the heavy hydrocarbon molecules made of many carbons such as those used in tar and asphalt. They must be broken down into more valuable lighter hydrocarbons, such as the ones that make gasoline or jet fuel. Industry calls the breaking down of longer hydrocarbons into smaller hydrocarbons at the refinery “cracking”. A catalyst aids the reaction kinetics, and the entire process is collectively referred to as “cat cracking.”
A simple diagram illustrated this process to the unfamiliar interns. The flowchart showed a pipeline of cats going into a reactor. The top of the reactor then had a pipeline out with cat heads, the body of the cat was in the bottom pipeline out. Thus, the cat was “cracked”.
It seemed in poor taste to use even a cartoon of a cat, and I thought I could break the ice by making a joke out of it. I leaned to my left and whispered to another intern, “Could you imagine if animal rights groups found out about this?” The person to my left heard this joke, but gave back a stone-cold silence and awkward glance. Was I the only person who thought this was funny? No. It was probably that I wasn’t heard properly. I turned to my right and said, “Could you imagine if animal rights groups found out about this?” Again, no response.
It didn’t matter if I got along with other interns. They were all at the refinery. I was the only one on the West side of town at the polyethylene plant. By the end of my first week, I settled in with my mentor Derrick, to discuss the scope of my project.
“What was your name, again?”
“John,” I said.
“Right” He motioned over to a small scale model of the polyethylene plant. “This will be the project for your internship, John” He pointed to one of the three largest structures in the plant. “Reactor number two. The polyethylene receives a nitrogen purge after the reactor, and we are not quite sure if we are over purging.”
“Do we have the design calculations -” I started, but Derrick waved his hand in dismissal.
“This plant is very old, and the product we make today has a different catalyst than the product it was designed for. I have a draft standard operating procedure for reducing the nitrogen flow, and then you can grab samples for laboratory analysis.”
He handed me a piece of paper. It seems my mentor knew my project scope, and I was a glorified data collection boy.
“And we plan on adding a volatile organic compound sensor in a month. You can help us with any recalibration of gains and offsets.”
Sample collection. Cursory data analysis. Instrument quality control. Not the glorious internship I thought it would be with Whitelaw Oil, but at thirty-five dollars an hour, I was happy to do whatever my mentor had in mind. “When do we start?” I asked.
“I’ll meet you in the reactor two control room Monday morning,” he said. “The guys are friendly enough. Then I’ll take you for a sample collection and show you the lab.”
“Work starts at eight.” Derrick said, eyes squinting at me. “See you in the control room then. Have a good weekend.”
And with that I was dismissed, stared at the computer for an hour or so before grabbing my keys and walking out the door.
I spent the first weekend catching up on social media, playing video games, and upgrading my car’s air conditioning to withstand the south Texas Summer. I put the repair on my credit card. I’ll pay it off when I get a paycheck. The town of Harden didn’t have many amenities. One grocery store, one gas station. On the positive side, it was quiet at night. My apartment was almost a mile off the highway, and once traffic died down I could hear the wildlife beyond the trees at the edge of the parking lot.
It was late Sunday evening, the sun already set below the horizon. Shadows in the apartment’s parking lot were then a function of electric lamplights. Before I went to bed, I briefly looked outside, and saw a cat walking across the parking lot. But something didn’t seem right, and I took a closer look. The cat’s stride was uneven, and the body was swaying from side to side. About half way across the parking lot, it fell over, and I could clearly see that the cat had no head. Who would behead a cat? No other person was outside in the parking lot or apartment grounds. I locked the door and went to sleep.
That Monday morning was a meeting with the operators in the reactor two control room. Despite studying chemical engineering, I didn’t know what to expect in a control room. It was a few guys all watching different computer screens, casually chatting about the weekend’s football games. They were a friendly bunch, and even offered something called boudin as a kind of breakfast.
“They got that back in Kansas?”
“No, nothing like this.” It’s best described as an attempt at sausage, but having bits of rice in it. My family would often make Venison sausage after bagging a whitetail in northeast Kansas. I assumed they made this sausage themselves too. “Did you make this yourself?”
An uneasy silence came across the control room. Only sound was the small hum of the computers. Everybody stared at me, their looks slowly turning aggressive.
“He didn’t mean anything by that.” Derrick said. And then everybody relaxed. He introduced me, explained what I would be helping with, and shared the standard operating procedures for nitrogen reduction and sample collection. After reading the morning temperatures, pressures, and production rates, he took me outside and up the metal grate stairs to the sample collection point on reactor two. He pulled out a small test tube and held it underneath the stream of polyethylene until filled. Then he corked it off and we walked down the stairs.
Waking back to the front offices, he pointed out the plant’s lab that would handle the sample analysis. He took out the test tube and handed it to me, “Take this and go see Darla in there. We can catch up after lunch.”
I walked into the lab and didn’t see anybody inside. I checked every room, and began to shout Darla’s name. Was this a prank? Frustrated, I exited the back door, and saw a woman smoking behind the building. After introductions, we walked back inside. I handed off the sample analysis, and Darla showed me the excel spreadsheet that her machine would spit out and email to me. All very simple stuff. We bullshitted for almost half an hour before I excused myself for lunch.
When I got back to the front offices, I saw Derrick in the common kitchen, setting his lunch on the table. He unpacked an orange, and then went to the sink to wash it.
“Is that just standard operating procedure to wash the skin of the orange?” I asked sarcastically.
He slowly turned his head to face me, and winced in pain. “It’s the food down here.” He kept washing the orange while looking at me, “It tastes… gray. Not right away, but you’ll see. It tastes gray.”
After saying that, he began to twitch, then progressed to convulsions, his body contorting and jerking until he threw up onto the floor, something brown-reddish colored. He leaned over, and then collapsed onto the floor wheezing. I ran out of the kitchen and shouted for help. A different employee stepped into the hallway, and I signaled them into the kitchen.
When we arrived at the kitchen, Derrick was still standing up, washing his orange. There was no blood or vomit on the floor. He was breathing fine. “You should take the time this afternoon to introduce yourself to other areas of the plant. Maintenance, pelletizing… good to be familiar with all of the processes. And everybody is friendly.” Derrick said.
I stared at the other employee who I signaled for help. They nonchalantly set their lunch down on the table, and proceeded to take their banana to the sink for a quick rinse.
After lunch, I took my mentor’s advice and went to introduce myself to other buildings. I started with the building to the north of the laboratory. It was quiet, clean. It looked almost like the reactor two control room, but the pressure gauges were analog instead of digital computer screens. And instead of four guys watching computer screens, it was just one man taking gauge readings on his notepad.
“Hello” I said after stepping inside, “I’m the summer intern”
“WELCOME” The older man boomed. He set down his notepad, and shook my hand. “I’m John. What project did they give you?”
“My name too.” I said. “Derrick gave me a project on nitrogen purge. This place looks old compared to the low-pressure reactor. No computer screens.”
“No, this reactor is something of a dinosaur,” He chuckled, “First way polyethylene was made. High pressure, high temperature, and just a little bit of hydrogen peroxide.”
“That’s it?” I asked.
“Just enough for the hydrogen peroxide to initiate a free-radical reaction. Reacts with ethylene pretty well, creating a polymer chain. Temperatures and pressures in this reaction are self-regulating with pneumatic controllers, monitored by these gauges here.” He waved his hand to the panels of ancient instrumentation.”
“So… just you here?” I asked.
“New management has been very focused on cost-cutting. I wouldn’t mind having other people to pass the time with. Playing cards or dominoes in the down-time, ya know?”
“Well, I’m just passing through, introducing myself to different departments.”
“Come back when you can,” He said, “If you have any questions about the plant history, or if you want to play a game of dominoes.”
I made a mental note as I excused myself out the door. Any questions about the history of the plant? This guy was a little off, but I could always come back to him as the plant’s historian.
In the following weeks, I noticed a strange thing about the people at the polyethylene plant. Few people seemed to eat raw food, be it fruit, salads, or anything homemade. Most bought their food packaged, created from some far away factory. When people brought in unprocessed food, it was always washed. Salads, nuts, everything was either packaged or washed. Following suit, I began to purchase pre-packaged meals myself. Perhaps they knew something about the food in the area that I didn’t.
When the volatile organic compound (VOC) sensor was installed downstream of reactor two, it became a deluge of data for me to import, analyze and compare to the laboratory samples’ spreadsheet. The correlations were rough, and imperfect. Too much noise and variation in the sample analysis. There was no direct cause and effect. A nitrogen reduction of x% did not result in a VOC increase of y%. It was more probabilistic. Instead, a nitrogen reduction of x% resulted in a VOC increase of y% to z%. Harder to predict, and so I brushed up on my uncertainty calculations.
There was a brief moment when the reactor was offline before a new catalyst trial, and the VOC sensor was still registering organic gasses. I brought this to the attention of Derrick, who didn’t believe me at first. After showing him the monitoring data alongside the production rates, we arranged a meeting with the process and instrumentation technician. I had an entire day with him, following controller lines, measuring voltage, and recalculating gains and offsets for the sensor. At the end of the week, Derrick confided in me that he was skeptical of the instrumentation when management proposed it to him. When he was a summer intern, they trusted him to smell the gas himself and rank it on a scale.
I laughed. “How did you calibrate your nose?”
But Derrick didn’t think it was funny. “Exactly, I didn’t need to.”
That process stuck with me for a bit. I was measuring via labs and correlating to sensor voltage. Derrick breathed the air. Which was more trustworthy?
In the last month of the internship, I decided to ask the operator of the high-pressure reactor about the food preparation among the employees. When I walked inside the control room, he was there taking temperature and pressure records into his notebook. When I asked about the food, he paused, looking out the window for a second, before writing down his last pressure reading and walking over to me.
“You know, at first I thought it was a coincidence myself, the way that Whitelaw Oil has been so aggressive at cost cutting. But now that you mention the food….” He traced his finger over the control panel, circling the outer rim of a pressure gauge. “When Whitelaw took over the refinery and polyethylene plant, they stopped handing out turkeys for Thanksgiving. That was an event I always looked forward to, receiving a turkey from the plant manager himself. But the year after the merger, Whitelaw gave out gift cards.”
“More than the turkey was worth?” I asked.
“Yes, but that wasn’t the point. The point was the community event, the plant manager in service of us equipment operators, handing out that food as if we were equals.” His voice became higher and shrill.
I didn’t say anything,
“You know the plant manager’s excuse? He said that it wasn’t sanitary for him to handle that food. Does that make any sense to you? I didn’t understand it then, but maybe it has something to do with what you’re talking about. That the food here needs to be packaged, or at least washed.”
It was at this moment that I saw a cat walking across the field. I walked over to the window to get a better view, but it stepped out of sight before I could get a closer look.
“You know, I worked overseas in sub-Saharan Africa with a different company, on a refinery project.” John reclined in his chair and reminisced, “After my plane arrived and I stepped onto the bridge, all of that heat and humidity hit me like a wall. The combined sweat and odor of Africa is an overwhelmingly organic, pestilential scent you can’t escape. Meanwhile, the air at the refinery was free of this smell. Heat and humidity yes, but we would regularly dredge our ditches and remove all plants. It was clean, ascetic. The only scent was the chemical processing of hydrocarbons. Sure, it may give you cancer… but to die of old age instead of the many ways Africa could kill you? Cancer is progress.”
The culmination of my summer internship was a presentation to upper and middle management. The location was an oversized conference room between the front offices and reactor control rooms. Derrick and I held a practice presentation that Monday.
It felt out of place at first, giving that dry-run presentation in an empty conference room. Only Derrick was in attendance to critique my slides and performance, the other chairs superfluous, empty of souls. Capacity of the venue didn’t match the throughput of the moment.
The last slide in my presentation simply asked, “Questions?” and with that Derreck asked,
“How much money could be saved on nitrogen reduction?”
“That’s a good question,” I said, “Let me write that down,” and then looked to the table at my side and saw that I didn’t have any pen or paper.
“Second mistake,” He said, “Always have pen and paper ready.”
“Only a couple of days to run economics.” I grumbled. What use was a mentor if he was going to spring this trap on me?
“I’ll give you my presentation from when I was an intern.” He smiled. “The idea was the same back then, but we’ve had to move slowly in terms of writing SOPs and data collection. You should be able to update the numbers quickly.”
He breathed the air. I inferred from voltage.
At the end of the week, I gave the final presentation to all management and engineers. The chairs in the conference room were full, my slides included cost savings to the plant, connecting science to economics. Everybody seemed satisfied with the statistics. If I had to gauge the reaction in the room, it would be favorable. When I got to the last slide, the one asking for questions, I only received softballs such as “Who makes the best boudin?”, “What’s the funniest Thibodeaux and Boudreaux joke you heard this summer?”
I thanked everybody at the end of the presentation, for all of their help in the project, and even the occasional history lesson especially from John in the high pressure reactor control room.
At this, everybody became quiet. Eyes bulged out, color drained from their faces. Terror swept across the room, and then people whispered to one another. Derrick stood up, and addressed the room.
“Thank you everybody for coming today. No further questions. Please get back to work.”
Derrick immediately whispered for me to walk to the front offices, and I gathered my pen and paper and exited the conference room with him escorting me.
Walking between the conference room building and the front offices, I looked over to the high pressure control room. Where the high pressure reactor was, only a shadow across an empty paved lot. I looked over at the control room, and only saw one wall standing. And then, strangely enough, I saw myself in the window. It was me beating at the windows, screaming for help while fires burned in the background. Or at least somebody who looked at me. Same build and face, but his hair was gray. I could see him/me, banging on the window, mouth open and flames in the background. But only a single wall. The rest of the building wasn’t there.
Derrick was at my side the entire time walking to the front offices, pushing me along as I stopped to look at the ruins of the control room. He led me into his office and closed the door behind us.
“What the fuck was that?” He asked. “I don’t know how you heard about the high pressure reactor, but it’s not professional to bring that up in the meeting.”
“I’m not sure what you’re talking about. John was there the other day, he was always nice enough to talk…”
“John died two years ago.” Derrick said. “There was a failure in the high-pressure reactor. Pressure built up and… had an uncontrolled release.”
Self-regulating devices, I thought to myself.
“I don’t know how to say this, but I no longer think subsequent employment would be appropriate. We won’t be recommending you to be hired.”
He walked me out to the parking lot, and watched me drive away. I packed the few items in my apartment and drove back to Kansas that next morning.
I made a point to stop at the Sam Houston statue on my way leaving Texas. I walked up to the brilliant white, expecting polished marble. Upon closer inspection, I saw that it was not carved of stone. The little plaque accompanying the statue let me know that Sam Houston was made of concrete, and wrapped with white fiberglass. Gray inside. I looked for gaps in the statue, where gray could be seen on the inside, peeking out.
There was an oil well far off in the distance. I couldn’t hear the motor running the pumpjack, but I could see the counterweight and polished rod move. I remember it was the middle of August, and the weather was starting to cool down. I liked the cold breeze over the plains. Reminds me of nature, of the harshness. Couldn’t survive as a hunter gatherer if I wanted to. The cold reminds me of the necessity of hydrocarbons. A necessity for those who produce the crude which runs the world.
It felt like a small failure, returning to Kansas without an offer to return to Whitelaw oil. But maybe that’s what becoming older means, the closing of opportunities. To realize that you don’t become yourself through unlimited new experiences, not by choosing which branches your life will take, but the several you don’t. That experiences slowly tear you down, like waves of radiation and free radicals slowly tear your cell’s base components. I imagined the molecules of my body buried for thousands of years, only.to come back through an oil well’s pumpjack.
Few of my classmates were interested in what I saw during the internship. Everybody is more interested in telling their tales. I only talked about the engineering component of my stint down the chemical corridor. The samples, the nitrogen, the calculations linking science to economics. My mentor breathed the air off reactor two. I never talked about the supernatural component, the person who died, yet talked to me. The one thing that I want to talk about, but can never explain, is that sometimes, a bite of fruit or other food… I don’t quite know how to best describe it. But sometimes, I’ll bite into a piece of fruit, and it will taste gray.
— J. prefers to remain anonymous.