Dauphine Island A front page article in the Times blurted out that “Pay in Oil Fields, Not College, Is Luring Youths in Montana,” as if they were sounding the alarm that perverts were roaming loose in the playgrounds. A 19-year old was shown in front of his new, black GM Silverado pickup in short sleeves with the snow dusted trees of eastern Montana behind him. Just out of high school, he was making $50,000 per year in the latest oil field boom with fracking wells there between Montana and North Dakota. A young woman was making $20 per hour as a server. Others were helping build the “man camps,” hotels, and houses. School principals when interviewed told of shooing away recruiters, as if they were candy men, from their charges. Community college enrollments were down by almost half in the area. I scratched my head reading this, was in an alarm or an advertisement?
We have national crises of youth unemployment with escalating higher education costs and student debt loads that are staggeringly unconscionable with no relief in sight, and someone thinks it might be news that young people would jump at the chance to make $40 or $50 grand right now, today in the oil fields. What world are these people living in? Pull up your pants and stop showing so much of your class!
We all remember forks in the road in our lives, where we might have taken this route or another, made this decision or another, and our lives would have been totally different. Being born and raised in the oil patch from Wyoming to Colorado to Kentucky and finally to Louisiana where we chased the fields, I can tell you the siren call is loud and tempting. I worked as a roustabout in the Velma oil fields south of Oklahoma City the summer after graduating from high school to make money to go to college. I was only there to make money. I’d work my shift during the day and at night I would process invoices and run totals on a hand cranked calculator in the office. One 20 day stretch it was over 100 degrees on that red dirt and dry as a bone so much that several times we dropped a job, threw our tools in the truck, and when highballing on the dirt roads to fight grass fires with tanks strapped to our backs to keep the fire from the horsehead pumping wells. I was offered a job as a foreman on a crew at the end of the summer, but I had spent too much time listening to Pete Bills tell about his life from Oil City, Pennsylvania to Texas to Oklahoma chasing oil to be tempted.
On the other hand the next summer working offshore for a contracting company on Chevron rigs out of Venice, Louisiana, 14-on, 7-off with 12-hour shifts and living on the rigs, I had one year of college done, Vietnam was raging, I was making money, and the bloom of school was off the rose from studying, working shifts in the cafeteria, driving a laundry truck, and stacking boxes of books at the college bookstore. Drilling was in full force on the huge new fields in Prudhoe Bay, Alaska, they were desperate for workers with oil field experience, and the rumor was that they were so desperate you could get a critical job draft deferment. Alaska, too, was something ever kid raised in the West wished and wondered about – it was Wyoming on steroids! But, at the end of that summer the gut check was really all about the money. If I signed on for 90-days straight on a drilling rig they would pay me $20,000 for the tour, shake my hand and I could come back for more or keep walking wherever my life led me.
$20,000 for 90 days work would be tempting today for 19-year old, but $20K 45 years ago was big time, crazy money! Thanks to the miracle of Google, I can tell you that those 20000 dollars in 1967 would have had the same buying power as $137,186.63 in 2012!! I was going to Williams College at the time which then, as now, was priced at the top of the scale, but $20K would have paid my tuition all four years meaning a 90-day turn in Alaska and the financial loan and debt burden of school would have been next to nothing. I rolled around on that platform bunk 10 miles out in the Gulf of Mexico many a night trying to figure out what to do and whispered about what it all meant to the young girl back home I was dating in New Orleans until her father would come to the door in the wee hours to reel her back in again.
Maybe if the offer had been a little firmer? Maybe if my years in the warm weather of Louisiana and then the freezing winter of western Massachusetts hadn’t made me wary of 90-days in the winter in Prudhoe Bay? Maybe if I had been willing to break with my parents then, as I was only a few months later? Maybe if I were surer about the draft deferment or whether my bad knee would keep me away from the rice paddies and war of Southeast Asia? Maybe this, or maybe that? In the end I passed on Alaska and all the money that came with it then, and went back to school for another 4 months before leaving to organize against the war and making the series of large and small decisions which became my life to this day.
Nonetheless, I can’t read an article like this one in the Times without knowing how easy it would be to grab the job and the money now, rather than the certainty about school debt and uncertainty about employment later. If I were living anywhere in the West east of Billings, I would be in the oil fields in a minute today. I still think about how close the call was then in Louisiana to pass on Alaska and give Massachusetts one more, last chance.
More of us need to realize, there but for fortune….