The University of Texas Permian Basin English department recently received a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities to conduct a variety of programs that ultimately aim to publish West Texans’ personal experiences from the boom/bust cycle of the oil and gas industry to be shared on a website for the sake of research and to simply get firsthand stories on the record. This is what I presented at one of their readings on May 10.
One December evening, just last winter, I was about two miles into my three-mile run when I heard the voice in my head say, “It wasn’t for you.”
I had been listening to a podcast about trail running, and the speaker was discussing how our fear of failure controls so many of our thoughts and actions. But like it happens so often, the story I was hearing wasn’t the story my brain landed on. Suddenly I was back to 1986 and a story I’d been telling myself for 30 years: “You weren’t good enough.”
In 1986 I was working in Midland for a major oil company as District Engineer, a job I was proud of and a job I loved. Business had been booming, still riding the wave of the energy crises of the 1970s when oil reached a peak price of $35/bbl, the equivalent of $102 in today’s dollars. It was a great time to be in oil and gas. Until suddenly, it wasn’t.
In a moment, oil prices went into worldwide freefall, eventually dropping to $8 per barrel and wreaking havoc on all of us. In Midland, companies were going bankrupt sequentially, which in turn caused six banks to fail.
And then the unthinkable happened, the flagship bank and pride of Midland Texas, First National Bank, failed, in spite of holding $1.3 billion in assets.
The FDIC was so busy in Midland liquidating banks and businesses they set up shop in a building near Clay Desta, now known as the Apache Building, but people like me who survived that era still refer to as the FDIC Building. The FDIC eventually became Midland County`s third-largest employer.
I had friends all over town who were laid off, or lost their businesses. Every Sunday at church we heard the update: who was looking for work, who was in trouble, who was moving away. One of my best friends, a geologist, got a job slicing meat at Albertson’s, so he got to keep his house.
In the middle of all this terrible news, I got a phone call from the Vice-President of Production in Tulsa, asking me to consider taking a transfer to our office in Rio Vista, California. While friends were losing their jobs, I was being offered a promotion.
On paper it was a parallel transfer, equivalent to the job I already had, but with respect to budget and activity and company visibility it was a big opportunity to step up the corporate ladder. It would be a high-profile position with unlimited opportunity to keep moving up, and I was honored to be offered the chance.
Cyndi and I traveled to Lodi, California (made famous by Credence Clearwater Revival, “Oh Lord, I’m Stuck in Lodi Again”) to look around the town and meet my future co-workers. The main two things we noticed were the nonexistence of edible Mexican food, and the shockingly high real estate prices. It was frightening. While the housing market in Midland had collapsed, the market in central California was booming.
We couldn’t afford anything in Lodi that was a place we’d want to live in and raise our six-year-old son and three-year-old daughter. In addition, we couldn’t sell our house in Midland for enough to pay off the mortgage. Real estate prices had fallen so quickly we were $30,000 upside down in our mortgage. It would’ve taken us a lifetime to recover from a financial hit like that.
However, in spite of all that, we were looking forward to the change, and doing whatever we could to make the details work out. I was so excited about the opportunity in California I didn’t understand the long-lasting economic price we’d have to pay.
To prepare for the move we’d sold our extra car, which wouldn’t have passed California emission standards, and Cyndi had quit her job. We’d attended several going-away parties and even accepted gifts. We were ready to go.
Until the end of May.
I was in a quarterly production meeting in Seminole, Texas, when the Regional Manager pulled me aside and told me my transfer was going to be delayed for a while. He said the VPs in the meeting didn’t really know who I was and it would be a good idea for me to hang out with them and try to make a good impression. I was stunned. I’d planned to leave for California the next day. Only now I was supposed to enter some corporate fraternity rush to make a good impression to earn the position I’d already been offered and that I was clearly qualified for. It was humiliating.
The delay stretched across the summer leaving us feeling homeless and unneeded. I had little to work on since I’d passed my projects on to the other engineers in the office. Every week I’d hear the same thing from the Regional Manager, “Not yet, we’ll let you know.”
Finally, four months later, in September, the Regional Manager told me the entire transfer had been canceled. The future was over. When I asked him why, and did I do something wrong, he just looked away and wouldn’t answer. All I could get from him was a mumble about eight-dollar oil. I knew that was part of it, but not the entire story.
Months later I understood that my transfer was caught up in a battle between two Vice Presidents, and my guy lost, He retired a few months later. But I was left to assume it was all my fault. I didn’t measure up in the eyes of senior management. I wasn’t good enough as an engineer. I would never be one of the big boys, one of the cool kids.
Cyndi and I had said goodbye to so many close friends it was embarrassing to still be in town. People saw us at church and asked, “Are you still here? We thought you’d moved.” Today, when we look back on those years, our closest friends after “the move” were different people than from before. It was too awkward to reconnect and start over.
I never really recovered. After that day I didn’t work as late, or work as hard as before. My imagination and creativity – my best assets – went to other ventures outside my job. I still did good engineering work, but it was at 75% instead of 120%.
Why did I give up? Because the way I saw it, I got my turn and did my best and I was smart and funny and clever, but I got slammed by the company. They took away the offer and gave it to someone else. When I realized my best stuff didn’t have a chance to succeed, I relaxed and quit playing along. In that moment I lost interest in the corporate game.
And here’s another thing. My friends were losing their jobs, but I was still working and well-paid. I had a bit of survivor’s guilt, so I kept all my pain and disappointment inside. It didn’t seem manly to complain about a missed promotion when my friends were losing their homes.
I continued working for the same company until they sold all their Midland assets during the 1994 oil price downturn and I was laid off. I was unemployed for the next two years.
Since then I’ve continued to work in the oil and gas industry in Midland, as a contract engineer or engineering consultant, for a dozen different companies. I love living in Midland, and working in Midland, but I have no desire to move up anybody’s corporate ladder.
If you’d’ve asked, I would have told you I had outgrown the resentment that came from that career-changing incident. That my worst day was long behind me.
That is, until one dark night last December when I understood this 30-year-old story was still haunting me.
But that wasn’t the end of it. When I heard those words in my head, “It wasn’t for you,” it did more than take me back to 1986. It also opened up my eyes to the different life I now live.
And in that moment, in that instance, as I was running west alongside Mike Black’s long fence on Mockingbird between Alysheba Lane and A Street, I finally realized the answer to my story from 1986 was not the one I’d been telling myself for 30 years. I had been wrong. I was not held back by a short-sighted employer, as I’d thought, but I’d been set free. The promotion I wanted, the opportunity I craved, might’ve been a good career move, but it wasn’t right for me. It wasn’t the best future for our family.
Here’s the thing. If the job had worked out and we’d made the move, odds are I would be an upper-level manager today in that same major oil company, pulling down big dollars, living in a giant house, and spending lavishly on my lovely wife.
But what would be the effect of our lives besides oil and gas? Where would our lasting impact be? Where would our significance be?
That December night, during my last mile running toward home, I looked back at the important things in our lives that we would have missed had we made the move to California in 1986.
The ministries we are involved in today would never have happened, and neither would the life-changing effect on people around us.
The twelve years I spent in city government, and all the amazing projects I helped work on, would not have been possible had we moved.
The true story was this: I hadn’t been jilted by my company. I had been saved by God. The corporate climb wasn’t for me. My place was to stay in Midland and invest in the people entrusted to us. I could never have made that decision on my own, I needed God’s intervention. I needed to be set free.
That’s what I heard one night last December while running. The oil bust of 1986 changed my life. Made it better.