Woodward, Okla. —
“Sometimes, if you stand on the bottom rail of a bridge and lean over to watch the river slipping slowly away beneath you, you will suddenly know everything there is to be known.”
Winnie the Pooh
By Rachael Van Horn
You probably already know this, but for the sake of clarity, I will tell you again; Oklahoma is the sixth largest oil producing state in America-has been for a long time.
Texas argues back and forth with Alaska for the title of the most barrels produced year to year, and among Oklahoma oil executives you can still find some of those salty wildcatters of yesteryear.
But it’s Pennsylvania who owns the real history behind “where it all began” for the oil industry itself.
You see, oil was accidentally discovered in several other locations and countries while drilling for drinking water in the mid 19th century.
In 1859 though, Pennsylvania’s discovery at Oil Creek near Titusville, Pennsylvania occurred while actually drilling for oil-a key point then and still paramount today-at least for the purpose of this column.
Those guys must have been terrified taking that kind of public gamble under the scrutiny of people who thought them crazy.
From my interviews with some of their town members about its history, many back then, secretly wanted them to fail for no other reason than to hide behind their own cowardice and decisions to play it safe and stick with the “old ways.”
In fact, it is my supposition, the intent of those drillers, combined with a ball-grabbing ability to tolerate risks, are the top two ingredients in what drives the oil industry. Perhaps this is why it can be such a miserable industry in which to work sometimes.
That’s what bothers me about this industry-what’s keeping me awake these nights.
It’s that, at the end of the day there is so much opportunity for failure and who wants to fail? Not me.
Since coming to this region to live in 2008, I have struggled to redefine myself in a way that works outside of a war zone.
I had to achieve this in order that I might have a life that is not a mere existence. That’s what I had living for years in a battlefield. I came home to get a life, not spend it on another type of battle field, called the oil field.
Yet, I couldn’t have known the lessons that God had set forth for me to learn in the oil field for the last four years about perseverance, forging on in the face of fear and perhaps the most poignant lesson, to accept others right where they are.
I think here in the sage dotted sandhills, I found a fear more palpable than the terror I felt at being hit by a mortar or shot by a sniper while in Rashadia, Iraq. I always knew those things could happen there. But for some reason, I accepted and found peace in those possibilities because they really did not represent my own failure. If someone wanted to shoot me then they would and no one would blame me or link my death to my own failure. Oddly, there is some comfort in that. I know, it’s crazy.
What I found here, in the gorgeous cuts and ravines of western Oklahoma though, was the real possibility of personal failure and it scared me to death. The truth is, standing beside a pumping unit that I am trying to fix and get running is more frightening than driving down a road I knew might kill me. Not because I fear the equipment-I am at home with pumping units. But because there is no hiding my failure if I can't get it running again.
So I stay, late and even later to get pumping units going.
In my past, I have always put my hand to employment that I knew I could master. I was an award winning journalist and a very solid performing soldier. Then I decided to work in the oil field, an industry whose employees bare the same culture of risk and possible failure as it does.
To be clear, the oil industry is not known for its coddling, "personal goal development" or the “setting-up-for-success” of its workers. It generally does not host warm, fuzzy motivational speakers. It does not talk to its employees about “The Seven Habits of Highly Successful People”. It does not have award banquets for its top performing roustabout or pumper. It says, “You want in, prove it and don't just prove it once, prove it daily.”
Learning how to transition from a leadership driven focus to being my own leader, responsible for not only my own success and failure, but also the recognition of each of those for myself, has been a deeply, difficult learning curve.
Add to it, that everything we endeavors to do in this community is high profile, and you have the reason behind the staggering numbers of people in this industry who are either medicated or self medicating.
Honestly, if I weren't so worn out and asleep by 8 p.m., I’d have a drinking problem myself.
Here in the Panhandle, every decision or risk taking behavior is known in intimate detail by each member of the community, so much so, that it rivals who’s sleeping with whom, for gossip playtime at the café every morning.
“Did you see Apache is drilling a well on ole’ so-and-so’s place? It’s a horizontal, I hear. Hope it doesn't turn out like that one over east. I hear that one produced nothing more than salt water. Not a drop of oil.”
Or how about this catchy little piece of gossip you hear when having coffee in the morning with your "friends";
”Did you hear so-and-so married that "Jane Doe" girl. That’s probably doomed.”
Failure is so highly visible here that actual success takes a second-no- a fourth seat to it and we wonder why we can't seem to grow some of our communities.
We have to take risks and possibly fail if we are to grow.
Yes, you guessed it. This column isn't about the oil industry. It is about the fear of failure.
It is meant to be a rare dialogue regarding our own fears that stampede in our nightmares and trod upon fresh thinking.
Fear keeps us hobbled, makes us sick and gets us nowhere. Those people here, in the Panhandle who have been successful, did so in many cases, riding a lonely horse to an even more isolated reality.
They end up that way, because the rest of us still let fear of failure shackle our community instead of stepping out behind those risk takers and supporting those few who put aside fear and do it anyway.
I can’t tell you how often I have heard people say mean and awful things about those people here who have been successful or who try to achieve something amazing. I just don’t get it.
And yet here I am-knowing all of this conceptually, but struggling to say what needs to be said because I live in terror of what people might say about me-what kinds of adjectives might be used to describe me over watery coffee. People love to hate the oil industry because it does what we cannot. With courage edging on craziness, unapologetic and without regard for wishy-washy public sentiment, it reaches 7,500 feet into the inky unknown and in some cases, hits a dry hole.
But sometimes, it hits a gusher.
Rachael Van Horn is a staff writer for the Woodward News