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Continuing the chronicles of local man's 1920s Iraqi adventure
By Mary Jo Dathe
, Glimpses of Yesteryear
Tuesday, March 11, 2014 3:06 AM
Howard Keck, 1912 graduate of Spring Valley High School, became an oil well operator in Iraq in 1928. This illustration is from a 1964 World Book encyclopedia, which may be more modern than the rig he was using at the time.
This column continues the story of Howard Keck's life near Baghdad, Iraq, as he works at the oil wells being drilled back in the 1920s. By October of 1927 Howard had great news, "We have struck it rich! I've been helping cap one of the greatest wells in the world. The geologist had given it up as a dry hole, shallow at only 1,500'; but it started and it took a week for us to close it. As much as 100,000 barrels every 24 hours. The company engineers are amazed at how much can come from a ten inch pipe, and gas is so bad, they have to wear masks. Two men went back to explore the area, two laborers tried to save them, and all four were found dead in a huddle. There is a lake of oil about one mile by three miles and several feet deep, no storage, so it will be pumped away and burned. It will have to flow for six months before a pipeline can be laid. The well is near Kirkuk. We are lying about at the hotel where I'm writing the letter, as the gas is so bad at the rig. We hang out here or at the tea shop, mostly men, few women, fully veiled, and the lower class half naked."
In November Howard wrote home, remembering it was probably threshing time in Minnesota and all the hard work involved with hardly enough results to make it worth doing again for another year. Life was not too bad for him. Aside from being lonesome, poor food, sand flies, fever, gas - "all to ruin our health" - life was easy. The rig was within walking distance of the bungalow, two white men ran the machinery for about 7 1/2 hours, they came in at 4 p.m. "Ten laborers do all the work, they meet us at the door, we go to the 'mess' with electric fans and a large ice box - tea, cold beer, fruit juice with soda water, we sit and visit, then take a bath or shower. We put on white ducks dressed for dinner; we have an Arab cook, servants wait tables, and tend our every need. One night two of us went hunting and got a turkey bustard, about the size of a wild turkey. It made fine eating, stuffed and baked. Our cook is improving. The bustard was shot from a car racing across the plains at 50 miles per hour - great sport.
"Story on the oil wells? Still 100,000 barrels a day, maybe the largest in the world. Oil is forced up by its own pressure, like an artesian well, but it also produces clouds of poisonous gas. Two of the fellows tried to walk back to camp through the gas, four laborers found them, but all six perished. One guy was a good friend that he mourned." Howard said, "We work hard and are promised a bonus."
Howard's next letter is dated in May of 1928. He reported that workers may be allowed two year contracts and could go back to the States with all expenses paid if they returned for two more years. His old company was sending men to South America, and he was considering a change. He didn't care for the people, their religion, and being so far from civilization. An uprising near Basra was troubling, and the English were rushing troops there who were returning from China. They were also sending in airplanes and armored vehicles. However, he tells about nine guys going on a big hunt. They got 195 ducks, one goose, and four wild hogs that were about 300 pounds each. He said the wild game really breaks the monotony of mutton every day.
The locals farm thousands of acres much as in the time of Christ, using sticks for plows. Shepherds go ahead of large flocks of sheep and goats, using whistling or calling to keep them following. Howard would like to visit Ur of the Chaldees where archeologists were doing a lot of work. They were convinced it was once a flourishing city, maybe 6,000 years before. He was glad the family liked the silver pieces he had sent them for Christmas.
The story on Howard Keck and his life in Iraq will conclude with the column next week.
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