Posted by: Brad Nixon | January 19, 2011

Full of a Number of Things

The World is full of a number of things

I’m sure we should be as happy as kings.

So wrote Robert Louis Stevenson in A Child’s Garden of Verse. For writers, this is good news. It signifies that the variety of experience and degree of unceasing change in the world mean an endless supply of stuff to write about. Every person walking down the street, every car stalled by the side of the road, every overheard conversation is grist for the mill of imagination and investigation.

Matthew Arnold famously gave us a version of this same notion in “Dover Beach,” as he describes how the sound of waves washing pebbles up the beach causes the narrator of the poem to think of Sophocles listening to the same sound long before on the shore of another ocean, and being reminded of “the turbid ebb and flow of human misery.” Or, as another English writer said, “Every picture tells a story, don’t it?”

Take this photo, for instance:

I took this photo a few months ago as I drove to work along El Segundo Blvd. (near the intersection where I usually encounter Ward and Steve and Ozzie). That one should find oneself following a truck labeled “Molten Sulfur” can invoke a number of responses: horror, terror, insane laughter, indignation, and, well, it probably depends on the sort of day one is having.

I see these trucks all the time. There’s an oil refinery just a few blocks from my office, and they’re always either removing or bringing molten sulfur to and from the place. I should be curious enough to find out: does the refining process require molten sulfur to be brought in, or does it produce molten sulfur that must be trucked out? As it happened, I followed molten sulfur trucks not only on this day but on the two successive days, but I’m in too much of hurry to find and post the photos I shot on the second and third days and, besides, if you’ve seen one molten sulfur truck ….

This is just one of the myriad “number of things” that there are to think and write about. Why do they either need or produce molten sulfur to refine crude oil? How do they get it in and out of the trucks? Do those pieces of machinery on the back of the trailer control the flow of molten sulfur and how do they work? Who makes that specialized tanker? Who inspects it? Where does the molten sulfur come from and/or where does it go (one suspects that the giant port of Los Angeles and the ships there have something to do with it, at one end of the molten sulfur’s trip or the other). Well, I’m not a journalist, I’ve trained more as a storyteller. Even so, what am I to do with the information that this trailer contains (or will contain, depending on whether or not it’s full or on its way to be filled) molten sulfur? Obviously, nothing. There is nothing for me to do except hope that no one slams into it at the intersection ahead, engulfing me in poisonous, corrosive goo or that a maniac with an AK-47 behind the driver’s seat who hasn’t taken his medication suddenly cracks and mistakes the big silver trailer for an alien spaceship, or that a micrometeorite plunges through the atmosphere, punctures the tank and blows us all to smithereens.

So many things. But each one takes work. It’s one thing to sit calmly behind the wheel, contemplating the questions of molten sulfur or spinning out incredible story lines involving it (I suddenly spot Harrison Ford in the SUV beside me, regarding with squinty-eyed suspicion the driver of the semi, while, from a hovering helicopter overhead, Christopher Walken is paragliding down to land on top of the trailer and start hacking at the metal surface with an axe!), (or Angelina Jolie speeds toward the next intersection, chased by Steve Buscemi, while Angelina knows that the molten sulfur truck really contains a mammoth nuclear bomb …) Of course, before I write even the most fanciful story like one of those I have to find out if molten sulfur is poisonous or corrosive or explosive, or if it’s just hot. What does it look like? Liquid? Gas? Dang, a lot of work, and that’s just one vehicle in a line of hundreds of vehicles, all requiring research if I’m to write about them. No wonder it takes Tom Clancy years to write his massively researched books. I can hardly get to work without needed to pull over and consult Wikipedia about all the things I don’t know about this darned truck full of (or not) molten sulfur!

It wears me out. I could contact the refinery, operated by one of the world’s largest petroleum companies. I’m certain that they have a professional staff of public relations folks who can provide me all the necessary answers about the purchase, transport, generation and use of molten sulfur. Heck, all I did was take a photo of a moderately remarkable sight on my way to work. I don’t want to write a graduate thesis. But that’s the writer’s burden. Just imagine you’re Leonardo (Da Vinci, not DiCaprio), walking the streets of Florence, and this big truck full of “Zolfo Fuso” (I had to research that, by the way) drives by. Imagine what that dude could do with the idea of a big tank of zolfo fuso! He’d start designing machines powered by zolfo fuso, weapons discharging zolfo fuso and maybe statues carved out of it.

Me, I was writing recently about coffee; specifically, some of the famous coffee houses around the world with lots of history (you’ll hear more about that soon). Seems easy, eh? Oh, no. If you’re writing about coffee, well, coffee experts are going to read it, and, buddy, you’d better not be saying that coffee houses started in City A when in fact they started a hundred years before that in City B. It takes time, and, believe me, the information you find online provided by City A coffeehouses does not necessarily mention the primacy of those in City B.

So, yes, I do rejoice that the world is full of a number of things, or perhaps even innumerable things; that’s what makes it great to be a writer, but it’s also a big pain in the neck. If there were only ten or a thousand or even a billion things, Leonardo could’ve handled it and we’d be done. Instead, he made up more things. And so did Sophocles, and Matthew Arnold and R. L. Stevenson and Tom Clancy.

Maybe I’ll take the bus next time. At least I could use my Huckleberry to be researching this stuff instead of having to watch out for Christopher Walken coming down out of the sky wielding an axe!

© 2012 Brad Nixon


  1. 40

    That is how you would see it in europe.

    40 stands for the danger where the first digit is the primary threat and th second the secondary threat. 4 stands for flameable solids. and 0 stands for no extra danger. 2448 is an international number for the type of the content. in this case 2448 stands for sulfur. these numbers are invaluable for civil servants in case of any sorts of accident.

    The number directly gets verified and firefighters and such, immediatly know what the dangers are in handling these goods, how to best treat them and what impact they have in various kind of situations. all possible numbers are written down in an international book containing all goods that one could encounter. This is standard equipment on any european firetruck.

    Just as a piece of extra info

    Thought you might like to know that


    • Niels, thanks for giving us a bit of what you firemen know! Now I know who to call.


  2. Gotta confess the first thought that came to mind after seeing your photo was that it is obviously a Brenner tank, built by the shores of Lake Winnebago in Fond du Lac Wisconsin, and that you were heading for a tie-in with our old working friend Moe Monin, as it was his neice who used to work there. But I guess it is not all about me after all. I am shocked. No matter, the Brenner people fabricate very fine equipment which, hopefully, will never need to stand the crash test you fear. But I’d still like to see that Steve Buscemi/Angelina Jolie chase scene you have in mind.


    • Man, first a real-life fireman explains how you know what’s in it, and then a real-life industrial equipment dude knows who MADE it. Kewl. Thanks


  3. Fine, I’ll do the work. Google tells us that sulfur is a by-product of the oil refining process; sulfur often being an unwelcome constituent of the crude. Transportation is easiest in the molten state (290* F, more or less) and one assumes the trucks you see are not just bait for action thrillers, but are hauling that yellow goo to some other industrial location as sulfur has many, many uses.


    • Thanks, bro. Hey, do you want to just write my next blog for me? I was going to trace the influence of Wittgenstein’s Logico-Tractatus Philosophocus on the works of Dr. Seuss.


      • And here I’d always thought Mr. Geisel’s works were Suessi generis. I’ll get right on that.


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