Oil Prices, Small Diners, and my Uncle Barton Wade Ratliff

wellTulsa        With the price of gas moving towards $2.50 per gallon in the oil and gas states of Louisiana, Texas, and Oklahoma, consumers are ecstatic, but that doesn’t mean that everyone is happy. State budgets and countless oil company deals are all built on the assumptions of what a barrel of sweet crude sells for in the market, and where recently the price was $130 per barrel and some are saying it may hit as low as $70 per barrel, that means big time trouble for thousands of finance people re-calculating their numbers. Halliburton, the huge oil services company that used to be headquartered in Duncan, Oklahoma about 90 miles outside of Oklahoma City, almost immediately started trying to see if it could work out a merger with the #3 services outfit to see if they could both survive the price collapse.

I find myself following all of this closely for lots of reasons. I live in a part of the country where we will see the aftershocks in terms of public services. I’m also in Tulsa with members of my family to celebrate the life of one of my uncles on my mother’s side of the family, Barton Wade Ratliff, who had been a petroleum engineer based in places like Duncan and many other spots around oil country. He had recently passed away at 88. We shared our middle name and probably a lot more than that. After working for big companies,  he had bought and consolidated drilling companies into Ratliff Drilling in the 1970s and was publicly listed on the stock exchange for a while. He had drilling rigs in Texas, Oklahoma, the Dakotas, and Canada, but when the price of oil dropped precipitously during the early 1980’s oil glut to as low as $10 per barrel, which would be about $60 per barrel in today’s prices, he lost his shirt and everything else fairly quickly.

It didn’t matter how good you were at finding oil in the ground, the world was out of your control. States, countries, and big companies will talk big now about how they can still be productive as low as $68 per barrel, which is what Halliburton, now headquartered in Houston claims these days, but smaller fish, like my uncle Barton Wade’s outfit 30 odd years ago won’t make it.

My memories of my uncle are most vivid from the summer of 1966 when I worked as a roustabout or oil field jack-of-all-trades for Hooper Construction providing contract labor on the Skelly Oil properties outside of Velma, Oklahoma. My uncle was superintendent for the Velma fields then and put the word in for me to get the job, so I could raise money for college expenses. I would work from 7am to 3pm and then go into the office and do bookkeeping for extra hours and dollars. There wasn’t much else to do but work in a small oil field town, and my family had known many of them before ending up in New Orleans, so that’s what I did. Incidentally don’t ever think that fracking is a new thing. I was processing invoices for fracking in the mid-1960s in Velma. In a lot of older fields in Pennsylvania, Kentucky, Oklahoma, and Texas injecting water and whatnot was used to juice up some wells to increase production and yield. I was staying with my aunt and uncle and their blended family of cousins, so it was quite a tribe and a great experience.

Uncle Barton Wade was a character, known as Bart around the fields. He drove big cars and he drove them fast. He was loud and garrulous, and filled up a room with a cigar in his mouth and a giant laugh and lightning quick, firm opinions about everything. A couple of Saturdays during that summer, I went with him at dawn to a small café where he stopped for the same breakfast six days a week filled with oil hands, local businessmen, anyone and everyone because this was the small town social and information network in Velma, and we strode in like he owned the place, which given how important the oil industry was there, my uncle almost did. My daughter and I found a similar place for breakfast in Tulsa today. She looked through the plate glass window before we walked in and turned to me and said, “I wonder if they allow women in here,” which of course they did, but she would be the only one and this was decidedly part of the men’s world culture of the west still alive and kicking in cowboy country filled with mounds of hash browns and country patty sausage unknown elsewhere.

My uncle was to the right of conservative. He used to give me pamphlets to read from Garner Ted Armstrong and various rightwing political groups that saw oil men as their own sweet crude ready to be pumped. But that was politics and I was family, and that made politics a distant second to him. It didn’t matter whether in a normal conversation ACORN and everything I did and worked for might be seen as the antichrist and wreck and ruin for everything he held sacred, I was family, and family was first, and he was proud as a peacock of everything I ever did with ACORN.

It didn’t matter if he was high rolling or flat broke, he worshiped my brother and me. When he passed away, I asked my son, if he remember my Uncle Barton Wade, and he said, “Sure, he used to call Uncle Dale and ask for the answers while he was watching Jeopardy sometimes.” As he got older he used to call and talk to my companera for hours sometimes about psychic, spiritual things he felt, that would have been unimaginable to me when I was working for him in Velma at 17. He would call me trying to figure out how to connect to someone in Chad or India, because he was convinced he could find water or oil there. My daughter remembered those calls and thought of my uncle as “eccentric,” and he was in his own way, but with total conviction I can assure you that he was one of a kind.

And, come hell or high water, there were two things he taught me that I’ll never forget. One is how to read while driving so every minute mattered, which many might not think was the best lesson in the world, but is a skill nonetheless that I mastered after a fashion. I once read hundreds of pages of T. Harry Williams’ great biography of Huey Long driving back and forth from Little Rock to New Orleans in the early 1970s. The other thing he taught me, undoubtedly more valuable, is that the importance of family is foremost, good times or bad, and that’s a lesson I’ll never forget.

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