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from the October 2012 issue


Karl Walter Block was the only son of Irmgard Block (née Mucek) and Heinrich Maria Block. Heinrich had been a captain during the war and worked in an important secret office in Berlin until, for reasons no one ever discovered, he was dishonorably discharged, on Hitler’s own orders, and sent back to Upper Austria, where there was nothing left for him but to toil away from morning till night for the rest of his life on the farm he had inherited from his parents. This fate enraged him, and he took out his anger on his son at every possible opportunity. He hit Karl when he didn’t obey, or when he didn’t obey quickly enough, or when he did something wrong, or just for the hell of it. He called him dumb and incapable, and he called him weak, which soon proved untrue, as Karl Walter grew up surprisingly fast and turned into a tough young man who could pull his own weight, and became strong enough that after a certain point his father gave up the abuse.

Karl Walter obeyed his father, but hated him and swore revenge. For his mother, who never came to his defense, he had only scorn.

In school, Karl Walter Block would gladly have satisfied his teacher’s hopes, but scholastic achievement was beyond him. He could perform a craft as well as anyone, or indeed better, simply by watching a tradesman work, but he was never at home in the world of paper and books.

His poor performance in school was due also to the fact that he had to help with the hard work of the farm and often didn’t get to his homework; in fact in the mornings he was frequently so bone-tired that it was all he could do just to stay awake. Of all his schoolmates, his clothes were the shabbiest, which prompted most of his teachers not to make any particular effort with him. The fact that he rarely knew how to combat his schoolmates’ teasing and mockery with anything other than his fists brought him additional bad marks at school, extra work as punishment, and occasional detentions, which earned him yet more beatings from his father.

One day shortly after his fifteenth birthday he decided that he’d had enough. Coldly determined, he packed his knapsack with a few clothes instead of his school things, together with all the money he’d secretly saved up, and left his parents’ house in the early-morning hours, not to return for nearly three decades, not even for his mother’s funeral.

Away from home, Karl Walter Block made out better than he had expected. He was prepared to do any work or break any law to avoid going back, but since he was big enough to pass for an older boy, or even a grownup if one didn’t look too closely—and who really looked closely?—and since his needs were few, it seemed to him as if the big, wide world welcomed him with open arms. And how big and wide a world it was! Up till then the only city he’d ever known was Kremsmünster. To him, Steyr seemed massive and Linz was a cosmopolitan city that even legendary places like Paris and New York couldn’t possibly rival. The farther his travels took him, the more he was filled with the overwhelming desire to see the world. To travel to faraway lands—the farther the better!

Finally, he headed for Hamburg with nothing but the shirt on his back and a vague plan to sign on to a ship bound across the seas. He’d hardly arrived before he met a man who had taken a job as drilling engineer in an oil company. “Why don’t you come along?” the man asked him, which Karl Walter Block did, and on that very same evening he had a contract obtained with a false birthdate, and a ticket to Venezuela.

The craft of drilling for oil practically taught itself. He went with the others, did as they did, and was soon busy with diamond bits and roller cone bits, with the motors of freight lifts and with hoses thicker than his thigh. He pitched in to help maneuver the huge hook on its pulley, which, with the swivel, weighed easily eight tons or more. Together the men would strain to lift the sections of drill pipe or the surface casings when a newly sunk production well had to be cased. And if the drill stem broke, there was no one as adept as he at recovering the “fish” with a taper tap and fishing bell. He’d grub with his bare hands in the drilling fluid and learned to recognize by smell and touch what was coming up from the deep, to understand what was going on below. Along the way he learned English and Spanish, as well as how to handle alcohol and girls, both of which smelled tantalizing and were easy to come by in Maracaibo.

In Venezuela they worked for all they were worth, hell-bent on producing oil. Just as he was starting to get bored, someone from the company asked him if he could imagine working in Indonesia. Karl Walter Block knew nothing about Indonesia and couldn’t really imagine a thing about it, but he replied, “Certainly.”

A few days later he boarded a plane to Sumatra. There he worked for several weeks in the Duri Field, where there were new techniques to be mastered. This field contained only heavy oil, which required steam to be injected in the ground in order to extract it. Then he was assigned to a team charged with tapping new deposits in the Java Sea from drilling platforms just off the coast. This was referred to as “off-shore,” and it was said that this type of drilling had a great future. It was the sixties, the Americans were on their way to the moon, and no one seriously considered the idea that the world’s oil deposits might be limited.

Next he went to Africa, where Shell had been producing oil in Nigeria for over a decade. They were ready to forge onward to the Nile Delta, to a shelf over fifty kilometers wide at a depth of up to two hundred meters, and Karl Walter Block joined an exploration team for the first time.

This was a new experience. On the one hand it was frustrating, since nine out of every ten wells yielded nothing. On the other hand, it was thrilling, because in spite of all the pilot surveys, the seismic technology, aerial photographs, and magnetic measurements, at the end of the day it was a hunt, a struggle with nature and the unknown, a battle of men prepared to go to any lengths against the elements. Tropical storms swirled overhead while they screwed together drill pipes. Again and again they started the diesel engines which drove the rotary table, though they were dripping wet and on the verge of collapse. Then the merciless equatorial sun returned, burning down on their skin until they could barely breathe, and quickly turning them nearly as brown as the locals, who had little to say throughout the operation, and with whom the men rarely had cause to interact. They lost one man when he squatted on a low-lying bar of the drilling platform to take a shit and some kind of carnivorous fish came and left nothing but a puddle of blood; they never discovered what kind of fish it had been.

Yet they remained unsuccessful. The geologists brooded over their charts, their analyses of seismic surveys and core samples, conferred with each other, telephoned, made calculations— only to find that the site that they’d chosen by means of these same tools continued to yield nothing.

“It’s hopeless,” the chief geologist eventually declared to the assembled team. It was April of 1968. On the wall of the barracks hung all the charts, red spots marking the places they had already tried drilling, and the team was offered a detailed yet incomprehensible picture of where geological studies predicted oil should be.

There, perched among the others on a chair with a bottle of ice-cold beer in his hand, Karl Walter felt for the first time what he was later to call “the feeling.”

He looked at one chart—the first and oldest seismic chart—and everything the scientists were saying became a muffled, unintelligible noise. One spot on the worn, faded, ragged-edged piece of paper seemed to glow. Or was it winking at him? Karl Walter Block wasn’t sure. The next thing he knew, he had stood up and walked to the chart, pointed to the spot and said: “There. That’s where we have to drill.”

It was instinct. To hell with the technology, the science wasn’t worth shit if they didn’t find oil. It was all about the hunter’s instinct. Mankind’s oldest skill.

The geologists didn’t laugh. They simply looked at him with great embarrassment.

“Karl,” said one, “there’s nothing there. Not even the shadow of a chance.”

Block, twenty-two at the time, though he was taken for older, stubbornly shook his Styrian head.

“There’s oil there.” He raised his beer bottle a bit. “I can feel it in my blood.”

“You’re drunk, Karl.”

“If you say so.” He sat down.

The next day, the team of geologists named the last place to drill. It lay almost exactly on the spot Karl Walter Block had pointed to. They drilled, and they found oil. The field was later estimated at about a billion barrels and was named Forcardos Yokri.

And so the company found an oilfield on his advice, an oilfield from which they were to extract a billion barrels, and many more billion dollars of profit, yet Karl Walter Block received not a word of thanks, let alone any sort of reward. This annoyed him.

But the fact that not one of the oil engineers ever thought to ask him how he had done it, how he had known, was unforgivable. From that moment on his days with the company were numbered.

Oh, he stayed. And he worked. Even harder, if possible. He made himself available for the jobs that were so dirty and difficult that the company voluntarily paid him bonuses. He switched to another company, drilled in the North Sea, toiled away on drilling platforms while hurricanes with winds of over ninety miles an hour raged above him and roared so furiously at the sea that it was often impossible to be heard even when shouting. He went to Alaska, where America’s largest oilfield, Prudhoe Bay, discovered at the end of the sixties, was being developed. More than one engineer fell victim to the blizzards and the ferocious cold. He lived frugally, taking his money now to the bank instead of the bordello.

Over the years, what he had first perceived in Nigeria solidified into certainty: he could find oil where others found nothing. He had a sixth sense for what was buried beneath the earth.

Whenever the opportunity arose, he worked in exploration teams, but by now he had learned to keep his mouth shut. All he did was look at the charts, the seismic data, the mineralogical findings, the aerial and satellite photos, and the other types of data that came to be added over the years. He looked at everything, again and again, for hours when he was allowed, and waited for his intuition to speak. Secretly he looked at points on the chart and said to himself, “There’s oil there...and there...and there...” He waited until all the drilling had proven where the oil was. And he was nearly always correct.

But he didn’t say a word to anyone. Never again would an oil company profit from his talents. The day would come when he’d find oil, his own oil, by himself. The day would come when he’d show them all.

The day came sooner than he anticipated.

One day, while Block was busy with an offshore project in the Gulf of Mexico, a letter bearing Austrian postage and a multitude of stamps and seals arrived. It looked very official, and indeed it was. The district court of Styria wished to inform him that his father, Capt. (Retd.) Heinrich Maria Block, born August 13, 1915, was deceased, and that Karl Walter was the sole heir to his father’s property, namely the farmhouse and land. He was to return to Austria immediately to settle all the formalities.

Karl Walter Block returned to land on the next available helicopter and took the first plane to Austria. Two days later he was the legal owner of the Block farm. He didn’t bother to visit his father’s grave.

Over the next few days, Block paced over the fields and meadows of the estate, his gaze fixed on the ground as if searching for something. He repeated his circuit at different times of day, when it was raining, and when the sun shone. Sometimes, according to the reports curious neighbors gave at the village pub, he would even lie down on the ground, in the middle of a field, as if listening to the ground itself.

“So what are you going to do with the farm now?” asked a man who drove up one day unannounced. He wore a striped brown suit and looked like a real estate agent, ready to swoop on a good deal like a vulture. “A man like you—you’re more at home on the oilfields of the world than in agriculture.”

“I’m going to drill for oil here,” Karl Walter Block explained calmly.

Of course everyone thought he was mad, completely and utterly. The authorities returned his first application, commenting that they didn’t have time for bullshit. The banks refused to even discuss a loan. The villagers called him “the oil sheikh” and had a good laugh at his expense.

But if they thought they could stop Karl Walter Block, they were sadly mistaken. He hired a lawyer who forced the authorities to consider his application for a drilling permit. Naturally the application was denied, but the lawyer picked apart the grounds for refusal until there was nothing left, and in the end the initial permits were granted—although with the strongest possible environmental regulations, against which even the lawyer was powerless.

Karl Walter Block could drill—but he was required to observe the legal noise limits of 45 dB(A) at night and 55 dB(A) by day, even though no one lived within miles. Accordingly, he was required to equip the facilities and machinery with expensive soundproofing and to erect five-meter-high noise barriers all around the drilling site. All the waste produced from drilling had to be separated and stored in special containers; it was to be disposed of only by licensed companies, and the entire waste stream had to be recorded in detail.

Regardless of whether the well produced or not, Karl Walter Block was required to fill it in up to ground level with concrete after the work was completed, to fully dismantle the drilling site, and to recultivate the land. Indeed he was even required to remove the sod from the ground at the drilling site, store it during the drilling, and replace it afterward.

All of these regulations would be closely monitored by unannounced state inspections—all at Block’s own expense, of course.

“Just so long as I can finally start drilling,” was Block’s only response.

Despite offering the most generous terms, he was unable to find any partners for the project. It cost him months to track down the tiny bank on the other side of Austria that inally agreed to give him credit, for which he mortgaged the house and all the land he had inherited, and invested every schilling and every dollar he had saved over the years. Everything he owned was devoted to the project of wresting oil from the mountainous land of Upper Austria.

In spite of all that, there wasn’t enough money. Since he couldn’t afford to hire workers, he worked alone. Nor could he pay for modern machines—deep drilling machines that would be able to drill on steep slopes. Instead, Block telephoned around the world and hunted down used machinery—beat-up discarded drill pipes, cracked drill heads, and casings with manufacturing defects that required laborious repairs before they could be used.

The villagers watched uneasily from afar as little by little a derrick grew, eventually reaching a height of about fifty meters. Five 400-horsepower diesel engines drove the drill which finally dug into the Austrian ground. Four mud pumps, each of them requiring a thousand liters of suspension fluid per minute, washed the rock chips out of the bore hole. Work progressed centimeter by centimeter, in a nerve-racking race against the ever-dwindling supply of money.

Block did everything alone. He screwed together the drill pipe, operated the pulley, connected the swivel, and tended the motors. And that was the easy part. When drilling was halted because the drill bit had finally given up the ghost, he had to pull up the entire drill pipe again, unscrewing and putting each individual length of pipe aside until the drill head finally reached the surface and could be replaced. And then all of it had to go down again: the pipe had to be fastened to the rotary table, then the next pipe lifted with the pulley, positioned, and screwed on, and then the whole thing carefully and cautiously lowered a few meters deeper into the hole—and the process repeated with dozens, eventually with hundreds of pieces of pipe.

The villagers just shook their heads at the lunatic who toiled from sunrise to late in the night as if pursued by a hundred devils. Did he ever eat? Did he sleep at all? A nurse who lived in the village got in the habit of driving past the farm on her way to work to check if the man was still alive.

And then one day all the pipes were attached and sunk in the well, but still there was no trace of oil.

“Now he’ll come to his senses,” the people said.

Instead, Karl Walter Block said, “I need more pipe.”

But he had no more money. All he had was a few schillings in his pocket—not even enough for a warm meal. For the last few weeks he had lived off potatoes that he dug up out of his father’s old potato field and roasted over a fire. 

He let the nurse take him to the hospital and offered to give blood, if he could get money for it. At first the doctor refused, but he let himself be convinced to at least examine the man, and found to his surprise that he’d rarely seen such a healthy person, not to mention one with the rare blood type AB negative. Block was allowed to give blood, received the bounty he’d been promised and a hearty meal to boot, and was taken back to the village by the nurse.

But the money wasn’t enough for even one more length of pipe.

Block asked around in the village for a job that would make him some quick money. The innkeeper eventually hired him to take care of the livestock that he raised in addition to keeping the pub. He would not, however, grant Block an advance. Block ordered the pipe anyway; he took the little money he had to the post office and sent telegraphs until he found a supplier that would sell the pipe on account.

It arrived two weeks later. The shipping cost more than the pipe itself. On the very same evening Block hauled it to the derrick, screwed it on, turned on the engines and drilled down another twenty meters. It was a dangerous maneuver, since leaving a well for weeks and then suddenly resuming drilling could easily destroy everything.

Yet all went well, and the pipe disappeared into the ground as before, and still nothing happened. Block turned off the engines again and stood for a long time staring in silence at the hole, which looked like an ugly, scarred wound in the glow of the floodlights. Then he turned off the light and went to bed. The next morning he marched back into the village to work in the innkeeper’s stalls.

He managed to pay the bill for the drill pipe and the shipping before the first overdue notice arrived, and immediately ordered another. It too disappeared into the ground without anything breaking and without any movement in the flow line.

Block repeated the process a third time with the same result. Little by little, autumn arrived, the diesel in the tanks began to run low, and the drill bit seemed to be approaching the end of its life.

“Give up already,” the innkeeper said.

“No,” replied Block.

The innkeeper was beginning to find the man quite creepy. He used a small oversight as an excuse to fire Block, who then had to find another job. He was given a job loading containers at a factory that made a special kind of screw in a neighboring village. It was a long way to go.

Block rummaged in the attic for his father’s ancient bicycle and got it in passable condition. Nonetheless, the chain fell off at least once every time he rode it.

Meanwhile, an inspector came unannounced to the drilling site, and, finding Block not there, left notice that he was either to promptly resume drilling or give up the site and begin recultivation. The enclosed fine would have set Block back weeks, so he ignored it and instead ordered another pipe. This time the supplier insisted on advance payment.

The overdue notice from the authorities arrived promptly; the pipe did not.

Second notice. When Block called the supplier, a metal manufacturer in London, an insolvency administrator answered. The manufacturer, he explained, was being liquidated, and would not be supplying any more drill pipes. 

“But I already paid,” Block roared.

“Bad luck,” the insolvency administrator replied unapologetically.

The third overdue notice arrived from the authorities. Block went to the post office and sent a wire transfer of a single schilling. The great machine of administration responded with a new first notice for the remainder of the fine. With his remaining money Block ordered a pipe from a different company, this time one in the Netherlands.

The first leaves fell. Cool mists now shrouded the mountains in the mornings as he bicycled to work at the screw factory. The factory’s personnel manager told him that there would only be work for him through the end of the month.

“I’ll live,” Block said.

The next evening Block found a tax bill in his mailbox. Despite the fact that the Block Oil Company had thus far reported only losses, the tax office wanted money, and not just for the past year, but also an advance payment for the next year. The sums were so far out of Block’s capacities to pay that he used the bill to start a fire in the stove. He warmed himself slightly with potato soup, which had been practically his only source of nourishment for weeks, and went to bed.

Finally the pipe from Holland arrived. It was four meters shorter than promised. Nonetheless, Block mounted it, turned on the engines, which spewed thick gray clouds of exhaust into the cold sky, fastened the rotary table to the kelly, and began drilling.

He hit oil.

Ausgebrannt © 2007 by Verlagsgruppe Lübbe. Andreas Eschbach. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2012 by Anne Posten. All rights reserved.

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