Keeping the Frequent Flyers in the Air
by j.r. horton
they call them airplanes but they don’t run on air, they run on light kerosene and that is derived from oil, something that seems to escape the environmentalists who help lay down all those contrails that pollute the upper atmosphere as they hurry back and forth between their million-dollar houses in California and Washington D.C. to lobby the government against the oil companies.
i spent more than twenty-five years doing seismic surveys in search of oil reserves in the United States including Alaska. Then, in turn, i worked in Mexico, Yemen, Oman, Egypt, Tanzania, South Africa, Peru (three times), Ecuador (two times), Bolivia, Venezuela and Chad. i have worked for most of the major oil companies and know their corporate personalities. more on that later.
when i was a kid i wanted to be a teacher. at the dinner table i had stared at my father’s work-battered hands, deeply fissured from the cold and sun, the red cracks showing remnants of the black grease and dirt he had absorbed while working on giant earthmovers like D-9 Caterpillars, power shovels and enormous electric draglines. i wanted to have a job that meant clean hands and, please God, weekends and summers off.
I finished my first year of college, which my Dad paid for, then realized that if i was going to get any more education I’d have to pay for it myself. working in the coal mine summers then living like a coyote during the school year didn’t have that much appeal for me so i decided to look for another route. after some thought i came up with a plan: I’d join the Air Force for four years and get another year’s or more college credits while i was serving. If i applied myself I’d come out with enough GI Bill benefits to allow me to finish a B.A. program and go on for a Master’s degree. i got lucky. a basic training instructor told me that if i had taken any foreign languages in high school i had a good chance of going to one of the several language schools the Air Force had. i passed the test and, omigod, got orders to attend Yale University to study the Chinese language!
then i woke up one morning in the basic training barracks with an enormous lump under my jaw. i went to sick call where they referred me to the base hospital. there they found that a tumor in my left salivary gland had caused the problem. Didn’t look good. but when they cut it out and did a biopsy the tumor proved to be benign. good.
not so good. because I’d missed my orders for Yale they said I’d had my chance and was bound for either Cook or Cop school, and that was it. The Air Force needed me where the need was greatest — cooking or copping. shit.
dejected, i phoned my mom and told her what had happened. she was sympathetic but what could a mom do? well, she could tell her mom, my grandmother, the only Democrat in northern Lincoln County, Wyoming. first, some history.
the year is 1961 and John F. Kennedy has just started his term as President of the United States. at the Democratic Convention the year before the state of Wyoming’s delegation, lead by Senator Gale Magee, had given Kennedy the votes that put him over the top and made him the candidate for the party. needless to say, JFK and Gale Magee became close friends at that point in history.
flash forward: Jon Horton is tossing restlessly in a basic training bunk as he thinks depressing thoughts of becoming a cook or a military policeman for four long years. At 5:00 AM a flashlight is shone in his face and the CQ runner says, “Horton, the Captain wants to see you in his office at 0600 and look sharp because he’s mad as hell—good luck.” damn!
what had i done to offend? very little, it turned out. but what had my grandmother, the only Democrat in northern Lincoln County, done? well, she’d phoned Senator Magee and asked him to intervene in the sad case of her wonderful grandson Jon, born a Democrat and committed to the faith. Wyoming is a big state with a small constituency and the wishes of a towering Democrat like my little grandma was not to be ignored.
I went to the Captains’ door and knocked. he screamed, “COME IN” and i opened the door to take three paces inside and stand at rigid attention. the man was apoplectic. he glared at me and said, his voice shaking, “I hate you political bastards!” me? i hadn’t even voted in my first chance to participate in the system. huh?
the man leaned back in his chair and, i swear, broke a pencil he’d been gripping in both hands. “You will receive orders for the next foreign language assignment, which is for Russian at Syracuse University.” he threw the broken halves down and leaned forward. “Now get the fuck out of my office, and if i see you for only one second between now and the time you ship out i will have...your...ass.”
the only time he had a shot at me was one day in the Base Exchange but i dropped what I’d been shopping for and did a low crawl down the aisle, out the door, and onto the path to language school and a career as an academic. after all, i could see that one year’s worth of college credits from Syracuse University was a gimme and if i took some more courses during the remainder of my service, with the G.I. i could even consider the possibility of graduate school and a vaulting academic career! Like they say, if you want to hear God chuckle, tell him your plans.
to cut to the chase, i got a B.A. in Russian Language and Literature, then i did all the coursework for a Master’s degree and had nine hours toward my Doctor of Arts but it was 1974, the year the National Organization of Women hijacked the Affirmative Action bus. You’ve already read my rant on that subject.
a wise man once said of American women, “they control 75% of the money and 100% of the pussy and they still want more control.” And i think he was onto something.
I got up, dusted myself off and muttered, What the eff do i do now? why, go to the oil patch, that’s what. there was an oil boom broaching in western Wyoming and when i returned to my old stomping grounds i walked into the most exotic cultural phenomenon since the 60s. look at my photo album Seismic 1 for verification.
And so i abandoned the faerie world of American academics and stepped into the world where my fictional hero, Tommy Thompson, would prosper, fall into Hell and make his eventual way painfully back. he is the Hero with one of a thousand faces, as Joseph Campbell called him.
excerpt from Murder in Jackson Hole a novel about the real West
In those days, the soaring prices of oil had made helicopter oil exploration affordable. The original Overthrust Belt lay just south of Jackson Hole. It had grabbed the curiosity of exploration geologists for years, but the standard technology for data acquisition was not feasible in the mountains. The traditional truck-mounted equipment could not get onto the steep, mountainous terrain. When the government told the oil companies to use it or lose it in the form of his windfall profit taxes, they decided to spend their money on going into the mountains. Instead of trucks they would use helicopters, even if they cost more than $1,000 an hour to operate. Fugitive tax money could be scored by the ton.
“Portable" oil exploration originally attracted ex-dishwashers and other loners, outsiders, fugitives and adrenaline freaks. Budding ecologists and outdoor enthusiasts soon added themselves to the mix. That odd brew was a hybrid the likes of which no one had seen before. In short order the juggies, had created a lifestyle that included rigorous work, hippie-derived dress, a semi-holistic philosophy, state-of-the-art outdoor equipment, school buses converted to mobile homes, promiscuous sex, helicopters and copious drugs of all kinds.
Such a sociological phenomenon was derived from the hippie movement and dovetailed perfectly with the budding environmental movement. In a fundamental irony at the heart of the thing, here was the favorite boogie man of the Big Environmentalist—Big Oil. And Big Oil was underwriting this outbreak of Gypsy environmentalism. It wasn't unusual for juggies to vandalize the equipment of their own crew for some trespass against one of the constantly shifting tenets of environmentalism, then move on to another crew. Most of these people were new to the mountains that brought out feelings that they had never had access to before. Ah, here was the Nature of the Transcendentalists, at last.
In the background played a mongrel mix of music: the Country folk sentimentality of John Denver hashed in with the white soul of Jackson Brown and the rocking boogie of Foreigner and The Cars. Taken all together, one hell of a mix, fueled by Jet A, Michelob, mezcal, Black Jack, Peppermint schnapps, adrenaline, Lebanese blonde hash, Moroccan brown hash and hash oil from Afghanistan, Thai stick, Oaxaca gold pot, Maui wowie, Panama red, Black beauties, Yellow jackets, Reds, Mexican black tar for the needle freaks, big shrooms, little rainbow shrooms from the cow pastures in Oregon, 'luuds and a local mixture made by hippie chicks in Wilson of mescaline ground up with rosehips and other herbs that they bagged into grams and called Jackson Brown. It joined whatever else the screaming jeebies demanded the Juggies dump into the pharmacopoeia in an attempt to reconstitute some form of the sanity most of them had left their mother’s side with.
And Bugs Rios fit into this mongrel scene slicker than a preacher's prick in a heifer calf: Populist, anarchist, transcendental philosopher and needle freak. It was a dangerous game for Bugs to be playing. Dave had known Rios was a two-time loser and if he was busted for any one of the things he was involved in he could go to prison for life. But adrenaline was another one of Bugs' addictions and he thrived on the dangerous illusion being able to outthink and outrun the law enforcement types. No matter how you cut it, he was one delusional, and dangerous, son of a bitch.”