We can never know for sure why people do things. We can know what they say about their actions, and we can analyze the rationale behind their acts, but their innermost thoughts about what they’ve just done cannot be recovered, nor can we know what goes through the minds of those most deeply affected by decisions carried out. And so it is with John and Bernice in 1952. My mother was silent; she never talked about her husband’s relinquishment of a good career with an established company or about the consequences of that act a couple of years later. In a very small and symbolic way, my parents were re-playing the great historical migrations in which human beings left the certainty of a particular social and economic realm and set forth upon an adventure with unpredictable results and at a particularly vulnerable time in their lives. It’s great bar talk to speculate whether this same kind of unrest is hard wired into members of the genus Homo, thus, perhaps, fueling the original migrations out of sub-Saharan Africa two million years ago. My father would do it again within twenty four months, this time taking even more of a gamble, with his children’s futures even more vulnerable to disruption, and at a time when global events—especially the development of Middle Eastern petroleum resources following World War II—virtually assured his failure.
After leaving Tidewater, he took a position with a smaller company owned by a man named Laurence Youngblood, a very successful independent developer of oil properties. Compared to the Tidewater offices in the Hales Building—now demolished—Youngblood’s suite in the First National Bank building was luxurious. I visited his office there once and the memory is of dark wood, carpeted floors, and leather-covered chairs. A woman came in to the room where John was drawing one of his elegant maps. She had some papers in her hand and asked him a question about them, in the process putting her knee up on a chair and revealing a long length of very nice leg, quite possibly on purpose. I was sitting down in a chair next to this leg, so I don’t remember her face. Now, after working in offices for nearly fifty years, I can easily wonder whether those papers were simply an excuse to be in the room. That would not surprise me; my father could be a very interesting and patient man, qualities that evidently—if the fate of Enron Corporation is any indication—are becoming increasingly rare in the corporate world, especially that portion of it involved in the commercial development of fossil energy resources.
But over the next year or so after leaving Tidewater, it must have become obvious to both Bernice and John that something was wrong; as in the case of Tidewater, I sensed that my mother contributed significantly to her husband’s decisions. Youngblood was not a correct match, either, or else they saw no future in the company, but then again it could just as easily have been the winter in North Dakota that made my father resign from Youngblood and set out on his own as a consulting geologist. The year was 1953, and in late November he was sent to “sit” on a well somewhere near Bismarck. This phrase—“sit on a well”—was a familiar part of our family conversation; it meant go out to the rig, collect, wash, and examine the tailings (“samples”), call in Halliburton to run an electric log if necessary, perhaps call for a core, all preliminary to declaring the well ready for casing, perforation, and production, or, of course, a dry hole.
If it happened to be the right time of year, I’d sometimes get to go for a couple of days, maybe sleeping in the back seat of a company car or eating Vienna sausages and crackers in a cheap motel room while my father napped, waiting for a 3:00AM encounter with some candidate oil sand. Well drilling and sitting are 24/7 jobs; nobody can declare that the target formation will be reached a mile under the ground always at 10:00AM right after coffee and a leisurely donut. But I would not be going on the well sit near Bismarck in November; the overnights would turn into a month, maybe two, and Bernice and John both knew it. The Bismarck trip was only the latest of lessons in which I learned that certain professions required duty well beyond 9:00 AM to 5:00 PM, and indeed the life of any professional could easily be a 24/7/365 commitment to one’s “job.”
Before he left, my father bought us a television set, upon which I then watched the Joseph McCarthy hearings. When he returned in February, he handed me a salted porcupine skin bought from “an Indian woman” who subsequent to skinning it, had eaten the animal. Now, more than half a century after the fact, I detect my father’s thoughts about his son—‘Johnny would like that skin; I’ll just buy it.’ The porcupine skin survived in our garage for several years; I still have some of the quills from it. He also returned with heavy army surplus clothing—40s period Arctic gear—that I still have and use sometimes in Nebraska. Whenever I don this long parka, it occurs to me that whatever clothing allowed Cro-Magnon people to survive the Ice Ages in Europe would probably also allow me to fire up the snow blower and clear a suburban sidewalk on the North Central American Great Plains during some February of the Third Millennium.
The porcupine skin was an artifact straight out of the 19th Century, symbolic of Little Big Horn, Wounded Knee, and the destruction of culture as a fact of human existence. The surrogate father television set with Joseph McCarthy leering through its lens, polluting an Oklahoma City living room with his hatred and disdain, was an artifact of modernism. Thus it was not the machine itself that turned out to be an unforeseen product of Hiroshima, but what it expressed, namely, a fear of communism, symbolized by the giant Soviet Union, and the manifestation of that fear—a United States Senator from Wisconsin. This same technology could, however, with the passage of a few hours, evolve quietly into confirmation that the American family had a bumbling titular husband, a feisty-mouthed red-headed wife, and conspiratorial neighbors. All was well; Lucille Ball cancelled out Joseph McCarthy—at least in our minds. Except in Bernice Locke’s mind that is. The McCarthy hearings were real; I Love Lucy was not; and never, ever, would Bernice’s children be allowed to forget the distinction.
The only other obvious and immediate multicultural result of my father’s winter in Bismarck was some vocabulary, for example, “head bolt heater,” a term that he used with a certain amount of amazement, perhaps more for the idea than for the resulting technology. A head bolt heater was a cylinder head bolt designed as a heating element and plugged into a wall socket in your garage; an automobile engine thus warmed would start when it was minus 30oF outside. The fact that its name entered our family lexicon was not deemed strange in any way. We learned the language of men looking for oil by listening to John’s long distance phone calls. All of the oil field words and grammar, all of the language of petroleum geologists discussing, late at night over a long distance connection, what to do about a hole into which money is draining at an alarming rate, and all the catch phrases involved in negotiating a lease also came into our home by way of my father’s work.