Flipping the Switch on the Frackers

I have to regain power over the frackers on my own terms

In the winter of 2010, my wife’s father was approached by some fracking guys who offered to test his land for a possible well. After the test, they told him he’d be making buku crazy dollars, hundreds of thousands easy. The fracking guys are telling this fable to  a retired recluse who spends all day with his little garden, his chickens. What would he know? He paid a lawyer to get a good mineral rights contract and told the frackers to go for it. The water underground there was bad anyways since some other drill guys put an oil pump in the backyard in the 1960s, which worked for a while and then somehow flooded the aquifer with oil and destroyed the drinking water. The old man dreamed of burning his shack down and having a modular home built on the spot.

This is property way off in the middle of nowhere. Roads so crooked it takes nearly an hour to drive seven miles to the front door. I can technically outrun cars that leave his house for seven miles. So, the frackers ripped a a new road along the ridge atop his holler where he used to ride his quad-runner scouting for firewood , and over the course of a couple of weeks with trucks going all day, they sunk a well, capped it, and left. Seems they drilled too many wells, so they couldn’t pay him anything until they drilled. Real fishy.

His mother is in her 90s and she has Alzheimer’s Disease. He took care of her himself up until 2008, but then he couldn’t lift her out of the tub anymore and he had to put her in a home. He lives off social security and can’t visit her often. If he has a little more money coming in he could go see her more so. But the well is capped.

He worries that the fracking guys are going in horizontally from another location and siphoning off the gas from under his property and using the well cap as a way of generating  convection to draw the gas to another pad somewhere. He’s probably right, and he’ll die poor. He can’t do anything. He gave them legal right to proceed on his land, and promised to pay him when and if they drew gas from down below.

In little towns all over the United States, frackers are digging into the Marcellus Shale, the huge area under the eastern part of the North American continent where this gas is located.The rush for resources of this magnitude has not seen since the oil boom. Little towns are going flush with money. Dirt poor farmers are overnight millionaires. People sometimes just get so greedy they don’t think straight.

The frackers are everywhere. Some people call them frackers, others call them “drill guys”, and they’re making lots of money. Consequently, rents are unusually high in towns that are, by all reasonable standards, nothing but ruins where  a new house hasn’t gone up from the ground in thirty years, sometimes forty, since the time when the oil dried up. The migrant drillers are everywhere, making good money, and people do whatever they can to get a piece of the action. When I tried to rent a house here in SW Pennsylvania, I found the rates to be absolutely outrageous.  Frackers, though, frackers will pay up to $700 for a bedroom. Not for a house or a condo or an apartment, but for a bedroom in someone else’s house. It’s usually only $400 to $500 a bedroom for a fracker. For $1000 a month you can get a house with no dishwasher, no A/C and no washer or dryer hook-up. Just like 1930.

On the rental property behind my house sits another old home, the ground floor nothing more than a crumbling carriage stables with a two bedroom, one story home built above it. Fracking guys live in it. The gas companies bought up all the empty houses they could, then they rent to fracking guys at rates they choose. They own the home I’m renting, and they own that one. Had a little problem with a gas leak when we moved in, but they fixed that. I wonder how much they charge their own employees to live in a fracking rental?

The guys who live at the other end of the backyard sidewalk appear out of nowhere at odd hours, and usually only stay the night. I see them up in the morning rushing to get to their pick-up trucks. I see them late at night drinking hooch from red plastic cups and smoking on their porch. I wave, but they just nod.

They just don’t matter, they come and go like ghosts, ghosts who litter. They leave trash on the porch for weeks, leave lights on with shirts slung over doorways inside, drive all over the yard. When I moved in here last year I had to clean up all the broken bottles they’d thrown against our rental home. The landlord had gotten most up, but there were shards all in the grass, so my son and I didn’t play back there. Those guys just didn’t care.

Then, one day I see that two guys were staying at the house and later that evening a very large floodlight attached to my house was on. Never saw two guys before. Never saw my flood lamp on before. It turns out to be more of the same with two guys. More smoke breaks, more cans and red cups, spitting tobacco juice in the grass littered with broken bottles. The whole backyard  is washed in orange halogen light. One night a woman came by for an hour or two, then left and got into a car out front and left. Whenever the guys were there they’d turn on all the lights and the flood lamp attached to my rear wall would sputter and come on. It looks like something someone took from a stadium, just massive.

In my son’s bedroom, the light glowed on his ceiling like a false dawn. It kept him up. The flood lamp  lights up the whole front of their house. I sat inside the darkened guest room and watched the two guys wander around drinking beers and flicking cigarettes down their patio stairs. I thought of my wife’s father sitting in his shack unable to do anything because the social security check have already been used that month, him sitting there, seemingly on a fortune, missing his mom for want of gas money to make the 100 mile round trip.

I wanted that floodlight off. I noticed in the kitchen there was a weird light switch with a toggle unlike one I’d ever seen before. It stayed in the middle, but you could bend it up or down, and it would snap back to the middle position as soon as you let go of it.

Switch can be pushed up or down but snaps back in the middle.

Weird. I wondered if that would turn off the floodlight. My son was upstairs in bed. singing about his room being so bright, “And now it’s really really bright in the morning, but there’s no cereal, no no, it’s not time fer dat no no the sun is in the clou-ou-ou-ou-ds”.

I tried the switch, got nothing, but I was still clicking it absentmindedly. The funny words of the song my little boy was singing were floating downstairs and I could just make them out, and they had my attention, and that’s why I held the toggle for a full three seconds in a stressed, upward position before letting it go. Boink. It snapped back to the middle. Suddenly the entire back of the house and the backyard plunged into darkness. The light on the frackers’ porch winked out and, more importantly, the giant floodlight on the back of the house went out. After a moment I could see the stars and the river a mile or so off in the distance. The nights are beautiful out here in the country.  My son hollers, “Night-night!”

Hmm. If I held the switch for a three count, I controlled the light on their porch AND my floodlight. Now, whenever the frackers come home and turn on their porch light so they can smoke on the porch or whatever, I can decide to turn their light back off. I admit it: whenever I see one of those drill guys on their back porch or walking to and from one of their trucks, I turn the light off. They stop and look around, but I am safe in the shadows of my darkened kitchen. That’s right. Right before they get to their truck I switch the lights on and off real fast just once. They stop and looked around, said something to each other and fumbled for the door locks with their keys.

I decide who has power now.

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