Two Roads Diverged
“And that has made all the difference.”
It’s time to go home. I’m sitting in the Mini waiting for the heater to warm the interior to anything higher than the 25 degrees registered on the digital thermometer. I’m listening to J. J. Cale singing Call Me The Breeze: “Ain’t no change in the weather. Ain’t no change in me.” All I know about this Abilene weather is what I discover each morning dressed in my summer, 1967, summer, 1968, Santa Monica, Will Rogers State, Malibu, Zuma, and Huntington Beach Southern California surfer jams, Earth Runners sandals, prAna t-shirt, and Quicksilver Mountain Wave hoodie when I take Lucy out back at 4:00 a.m. to do her business. Lucy is my ten-month-old Aussie, red-merle work of reparation, my penance for all those things I wanted to do back in the 60s. Too late I discovered Jesus said you also go to hell for what you’re thinking.
All I know about the state of anything is what I hear on National Public Radio driving to Hardin-Simmons each morning and driving home each evening. So coming to school this morning, I listened to a report from the Pew Research Center that nationally “college graduates ages 25 to 32 who are working full-time earn more annually—about $17,500 more—than employed young adults holding only a high school diploma.”
Then I was reminded about the Cline Shale oil field of dreams available to high school graduates in our neck of the what-I-wish-were woods, and trout streams, and mountains, so I asked my freshmen writers if any of their high school buddies packed away their diplomas and took the Greyhound to Midland-Odessa: “Oil that is, black gold, Texas tea.” One of my best writers raised his hand and said yes, he had been part of the oil rush. He made $80,000 his first year. Why did he decide to come to HSU to pursue a college degree? Was it so he could earn $17,500 more annually than those roughnecks taking home only eighty grand?
He turned in his White Mule gloves because “the work sucks.” So now he is here, and I’m privileged to have him in class. Here’s a thought—why not make the HSU First-Year Experience a year playing Jett Rink in Midland-Odessa; then scrub off the oil and grit and bring the $80,000 to Hardin-Simmons for an education from a tenure-track and tenured faculty which a national, independent consulting firm reported—“Quality of faculty (in/out major) excellent”—as being a main reason students remain at Hardin-Simmons, graduate, and succeed in a world that has become much too real. An education that won’t cost a couple of fingers, a toe, a hard hat sporting a hole the size of a bolt dropped from the crow’s nest (if they still call it that), taking only a small piece of skull if the student is lucky.
I was lucky. My best friend Marc was lucky. (Back in high school, we were Marcus and Adon. I miss those guys. I don’t think you would.) We had all the gasoline, drive-in-movie, and burger-and-fries cash any East Texas high school jocks could afford. We earned it hauling Magcobar Drilling Mud to oil rigs after football practice, in the middle of the night, most Saturdays and Sundays. A couple of times each year, we unloaded and stacked in the warehouse 100-pound sacks of drilling mud from box cars. It was dirty, lung-coating, vertebrae-shifting, disk-squashing work. Only the romantically heroic could last.
I loved it! Even, no, especially when I ignorantly leaned back with all my weight and pulled a steel hand-truck dollie stacked with 700 pounds of Mud on top of me, saved only by the dollie’s steel legs slamming down to form a space between the cement floor and the frame of the dollie bearing the 700 pounds, and Raymond Burk, a giant in overalls, hard and shiny as onyx, walked over and lifted the hand-truck, grabbed me to my feet and said, “Don’t do nothing stupid.” Loved it especially when Marc was driving us down a steep, dirt, oilfield road, and the load on the long flatbed shifted, sliding us into the ditch and coming to rest on the passenger’s side, my side. Loved it especially when I placed my right hand on the back of the wood rail of the flatbed while directing Marc’s backing up to the Mud house and waving for him to stop, and he did, and I realized I could not remove my hand from between the rail and the Mud house wall. And I still had a hand. Oh the glory! Oh the stories for Winnsboro High School cheerleaders and sometimes that majorette. They were as impressed as you.
Then the clock turned 1964. President Kennedy had just been assassinated. An army lieutenant from my hometown was in the newspaper surrounded on a hill in a place called Viet Nam, calling in an airstrike on his position and dying a real hero, really dead. Then Marcus married and enlisted. The oil went bust. I memorized Tennyson’s “The Charge of the Light Brigade”: “Theirs not to reason why, / Theirs but to do and die,” and left for college.
Flatt, Lester, and Earl Scruggs. “Ballad Of Jed Clampett. The Essential Flatt & Scruggs: ’Tis Sweet To Be
Frost, Robert. “The Road Not Taken.” The Road Not Taken: A Selection of Robert Frost’s Poems, Henry Holt, 1985. pp. 270-71.
Tennyson, Alfred, Lord. “The Charge of the Light Brigade.” Tennyson: Poems and Plays. Oxford UP, 1968. pp. 206-07.