Cheney Spoken

An hour west of Fresno
the Cheney Pump Station,
rose from an elbow plain on the oil line
from Bakersfield to east Bay —
a stark green-metal pump house,
with opaque, wired windows and a tall,
cable-braced smokestack.Inside was the oil pumper,
a loud reciprocating stationary engine

like the sister-ship engine to the south
twenty miles at Halfway House.

Someone needed to live out there watching things,
so the local oil company hired Dave Cheney
to manage the engine and pumps.
Sometimes Dave would get drunk
and heave off his legs to show the kids his stumps.

By 1947 an arid rabbit run
surrounded the pump station for several miles.
Then as postwar deep-well cotton approached the mountains,
my parents married and bought
some of the elbow plain and leased the rest.
Everyone called it “the Cheney Ranch” —
even Dave up at the oil-line pumps.

My parents built a flat shack next to a Hindu camp —
that shack still exists, leaning from the south wind.
Early on the land was slipshod surveyed
by Irvins and Woodrows.
They ripped it with yellow chisels;
then dragged landplanes across it to smooth.
Dusty truck odometers laid out boundary roads
for electric power arriving through wires on creosote poles —
legally wonderful poles for thirty years,
till that pain in the ass Louis the Bra sued,
forcing everyone to backslide and correct their origins.

It’s why the poles and wires
cross fields now, instead of on the turnrows.

Those sections needed deep wells
to change from desert to farm,
so you got filthy men under lonely towers —
drilling two-thousand-foot holes cased with bad postwar steel.
Weakened casings at the perforations,
those first deep wells collapsed when pumped — abandoned.
Drilling crews were asked to move over,
redrill, and case with better steel.

It takes patience, please …
to fill the cylindrical space between casings
and well walls with packed pea gravel,
there’s math involved.
If all the gravel doesn’t surround the casing,
well walls won’t filter and the well dies as a sand pumper.
But if all the gravel packs in the hole, plus a little more,
then long useful deep well lives are lived.
I don’t mean to confuse —
they’re such essential holes in the desert
on the corners of every square mile.

The wells bored down into deep aquifers of ancient water
developed late in the evenings under car lights.
Inside the glow, transplanted Punjabis and Oklahomans
unloaded electric motors, which were copper-wrapped magnets.
Also overcoming the tonnage of Peerless pumps
and forty-foot screwed tubes and shafts —
they’re turbines with impellers inside staged bowls,
lifting and removing salty gray water.

Tractor and irrigation crews
workin’ up and preirrigating sections all summer.

Soon a land collapse began, as shallow aquifers became caverns.
Night tractors disappeared. Exhausted, dusty drivers climbed
from ravines every morning. Eventually the grade
of the elbow plain subsided and fell into rolling hills.

The Cheney was a trap in the subsidence country.

Insolvency in the desert heat.
Hindus with thirty thousand siphon hoses
workin’ both ways from the surveyed crowns
of open ditches to barley or cotton on shifting hillsides.
Main and drain ditches broke down and rearranged slopes.
Ditch breaks were repaired by muddy men while the wells ran —
dangerous to shut down a deep well.

Who knows?
Falling water may unscrew
seven hundred feet of hanging pump.
Swedging’s a waste of an expansion tool —
it means fishing for pumps and losing a swedge:
then you got a worthless swedge down the hole.
It’s crowded.

Winter water, back and forth from barley
and cotton preirrigations, followed by safflower in the spring,
since you can’t ever shut down the deep wells.

The cotton water started in June.
Blooms that survived the shed became bolls;
matured through Labor Day; then got picked and sold.

Always productive, tough to farm, and unlucky —
the Cheney was ours if anything ever was.

Over time, my father imagined hand-moved sprinkler lines
watering the Cheney, instead of hundreds of miles of open ditches.
So the Rainbirds came from industrial desolation
where an Italian carrot grower had sprinkler trials.

They tried portable steel mainlines with bolted flanges,
requiring eight men to make them portable.
Assembled across the middle,
they usually stayed there in the weeds.
The attached sprinkler laterals were made
of thirty-foot joints broken down and moved by Hindus
in deep-well thermal mud to the midthigh.
Changing a dozen quarter-mile lines a day for a dollar a line,
as sun-heated steel burned the hands of line movers.
The Cheney was watered from above by 1953.

Not long after I was born,
the federal portion of the State Water Project
agreed to deliver the Sacramento River
across the lower end of the ranch along the 325-foot elevation.

The canal divided the pattern of things,
as various legal interests resided above and below its course:
the Cheney mostly to the west; and above, the divide.
Clean project water would replace the ruinous salty deep wells,
which could be discarded, abandoned, and sealed.
The federal bureau condemned a right-of-way
and purchased crops within from the ranch in 1968.

Project water moved to the Cheney
through the Manning Avenue buried line —
welded and covered by Leo and Cleo of the Horner Bros.
Those wells became forgotten history —
perforated ghost holes to the dead, resistant seabed.

But the Cheney’s what we’re talking about.
The water came too late.

I come from some of those things …