“Nothing Venture” 8

After we settled the debts of Calgary Refining and went our separate ways, it took something like two years before I contemplated writing about the attempt to buy the doomed refinery. Doomed it was, because the plant was put to the cutting torch and the buildings levelled. Nothing was ever built on the site except a couple of bridges and a city freeway.

I did speak to people about keeping the story in the public memory, of our being led on and then hung out to dry, but of the words I received most were against a book of any kind. In the great scheme of things and the cutthroat business of moiling for oil, one failed project is neither here nor there. “At most,” one reporter suggested, “it might make a short magazine article.”

I never considered turning the action into a magazine or newspaper article – read once and consigned to the G file. I’ve never really considered the medium worth spending much blood and sweat upon. To turn the action into a novel that might stick in a few people’s memories and even last upon a few dusty shelves would take more than mere reportage. If others were ever to read of our attempt and failure, and perhaps be better prepared for a future action of their own, the whole story, emotional as well as factual, needed a stage on which to play out. Not an easy task for a new writer who’d never published anything but a few local interest columns.

The principal characters were the first big issue. I felt certain I would never produce a worthwhile novel unless I placed myself at as much distance as I could manage. There needed to be a secretary treasurer of the employee company, but he could not resemble me lest he tried to steal the reader’s sympathies for his own solace. At this distance I have to wonder if that was the best idea – there’s nothing more gripping than hot blood on the page, if the writer could handle it. I don’t think I could in those days and am not too sure how successful I’d be today.

The other main characters were no easier. Bill, our company president, had blotted his copybook in a number of ways during the action. For me personally he presented a problem as we were cut from far different cloth. He was greedy, boastful, and selfish – in all respects an ideal man to be a captain of industry – if only he had the industry to captain. The refinery project was likely his best chance of ever reaching business success, because he had no money behind him and no great intellect to compensate for it. He had dealt our project a serious blow halfway through the action when he quit his job at the refinery to go into real estate. Our detractors lost no time in labelling him an outsider.

I only met him once after the end of our project. His real estate career had ended badly when he became collateral damage in an extensive mortgage scam. He lost his real estate licence, but others went to jail. He was selling used cars a few years later. I felt I could not use his real life character in my novel, but again in hindsight, I think I made a mistake. He should have been the protagonist in all his envy and unscrupulous longing for riches and success, but I’m not sure I could have done his gutter fighting personality the justice it deserved.

Our company vice-president, Jack the long time union man, was never at ease on the other side of the boardroom table and hardly made a mark in our discussions with Imperial or our joint venture partners. He was invaluable as our point man for keeping the other refinery workers on side through all the trials that beset us along the way. Much was made of the possibility of some workers getting more than others – talk about Orwell’s “Animal Farm”. I know he spent many hours working to convince our fellow workers that no animals were more equal than others – not easy once the disruptive social patterns of commerce took control. In our economic system everyone at the bottom is equal, and the ones at the top supposedly unique and special.

Next time I’ll have to look at the two drafts of the novel I came up with, and the hilariously funny ending a writer in residence enjoyed. It was supposed to be serious.

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