Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Cork from a Pig's Ass

Today’s economic crisis is old hat for me; I have lived it all before. Wife Anne and I suffered financially for ten long years after our oil company failed in the eighties. We somehow managed to pay our bills, mainly because we pared our lifestyle down significantly. We went to the movies and out to eat once a week, and spent only cash because we had no credit cards.

Despite our spare existence, money was tight, hardly anyone drilling for oil or natural gas, or buying prospects from an independent geologist. We did not have much in the way of assets, just a huge glass piggy bank filled with coins from years of collecting.

“We won’t raid the piggy bank until we just have to,” Anne said. “I know there is at least a thousand dollars there and it will last us a while if we need it.”

Things grew tight many times but years passed without the necessity of breaking the piggy bank. Finally, the fateful day arrived. The big glass pig had a large cork in its rear. We removed it and poured the coins into a pillowcase.

We had no bank account because we had legal judgments against us as principles in the failed oil company. If we had maintained an account, one of our creditors would have garnished the proceeds and taken them. Because of this, we simply picked a bank at random, walked in with our booty-filled pillowcase and asked a hapless cashier to convert the coins to bills for us.

There was not, much to our dismay, anywhere near a thousand dollars in the pillowcase. The cashier showed us the printout from the coin counter and handed us two-hundred-fifty-two-dollars and fifty-two cents. I felt like someone had kicked me in the gut and Anne almost started crying as the cashier counted out the money.

We had no health insurance for years and could not afford to go to the dentist. If we had a toothache, we just suffered. It was not that we weren’t making money. When I was lucky enough to sell a prospect, we were the recipients of lots of money. Problem is, you never knew how long you had to make it last. Still, we always seemed to do better than minimum wage.

After finally cracking the piggy bank, Anne told me we both needed to get real jobs. “Except for oil and gas, you’re not qualified to do anything except maybe teach. If we don’t sell a prospect in the next ten days, we need to find a job, even if it’s sacking groceries.”

There was a joke going around at the time that went something like this: When a petroleum geologist applies for a job at McDonald’s, the manager rejects him because, “All our geologists have Master’s degrees.”

I have no regrets toiling in the oil and gas profession. Oil, quite simply, is the most important commodity, with the possible exception of water, on the face of the earth. Life as we know it would shut completely down if we had to rely on wind, solar, water or nuclear energy, even for a single day. Yes, burning oil pollutes the atmosphere and we should stop. We have better uses for the oil anyway – drugs, plastics and so many other things without which we cannot endure. Problem is, there is no substitute now.

People that rail against the oil industry are like vegetarians that wear leather belts and shoes. Do you want to stop destroying the ozone? Quit driving your car. As a person that has worked in the energy business all his life, I feel much maligned, and think of an eighties bumper sticker that said, Please do not tell my mother I work in the oil business. She thinks I am a piano player in a whorehouse.

I was not looking forward to the possibility of having to swallow what was left of my pride and take a minimum wage job, but I was prepared to do so. I did not, as luck would have it, because an oil company in Illinois (go figure) called. Someone we both knew had recommended me for a position as geological consultant. The little company gave me two-thousand dollars a month as a retainer and we settled on a fair figure that they would pay me if they purchased one of my prospects.

Two-thousand dollars a month does not sound like much, but our overhead was low and it was just enough to pay our bills and leave a little extra for unexpected needs. We even had enough for Anne to finish her business degree, and then to enter law school. We were also able to purchase health insurance and get our teeth fixed.

Things were not all rosy. Anne’s teeth, according to our dentist, were “toast,” and she would eventually have to have them all pulled. For Anne, a person that brushed and flossed at least twice daily this was a heartbreaker. That day never arrived because her health was already failing. She first suffered a heart attack and we later learned that she had lung cancer.

Today, as I read the newspapers and scan the internet, I feel the financial pain the people of the world are experiencing. We are all close to the end of our rope, and the President, like Anne and me so many years ago, has already popped the cork from the pig’s ass.

One thing I know for sure - stress can kill you as sure as a bullet through the heart, but you do not have to let it. What do we do? My east Texas grandmother had a saying – “When you reach the end of your rope, tie a knot and hang on.”

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