If, by some off chance, you have heard of my hometown of Longview, in Northeast Texas, you would know of it vaguely as an exit off I-20 between Dallas and Shreveport – a sort of rest stop to get gas and take a pee break, maybe grab some beef jerky. Most people drive on past, foot growing heavier on the accelerator.
However, if you were to venture further from the interstate, what would you see in this “Long view” looking out of a car window? Not a whole heck of a lot. You’d spot the occasional scattering of cows. You’d be surrounded by skinny pine trees that become denser as you travel further east. Peering through the gangly woods and scanning open fields, the movement of oil pumps would catch your eye. They dot the entire area – like industrial rocking horses lurching rhythmically back and forth.
If you turned onto a country road, these oil pumps would become more clustered, set at all angles, racing to suck out the traces of oil left behind from another era. Perhaps they are galloping to get away, in search of movement – but in vain – held solid in their concrete bases. On my parents’ property, there are three within a stone’s throw. Their churning sounds lull me to sleep when I visit, as they did when I was a child.
Founded by the Pacific Railroad Company in the 1870s, the community initially thrived along the rails, its first industries lumber and cotton. Yet while the settlers were busy whistling Dixie, they soon depleted their resources. The county took another hit when the railroad up and moved its tracks west, to Dallas, leaving what was left of the town, quite literally, on the wrong side of the tracks.
Yet a local realtor believed there was oil beneath the surface, and when the Chamber of Commerce offered a prize of $10,000 for the first oil well to be drilled within the county, he chose a nearby farm and aimed his drill bit downward. On January 28, 1931, masses of the thick fluid spewed upward. Powerful and uncontrallable, the gusher ignited fire at the base – Black Gold! This led to the discovery of the highest yielding oil field in the world at the time. Rugged roughnecks came from far and wide, and the Oil Boom was born.
I never tired of seeing the scratchy black and white film footage of the wells shooting up like tar fireworks then falling like black rain to the muddy ground, splattering the bustling men. How I would have liked to experience the wild atmosphere of the saloons and cabarets framed along the wall during the city’s heyday.
By the time I was born in 1973, the boom had gone bust. The downtown area was mostly dead. There were a handful of restaurants, a plethora of gas stations. The big excitement was when the mall was built in 1980. It seemed like a city well past its prime.
I must admit, growing up in the country was plenty of a playground. The neighborhood kids and I would swim in the creek, never mind that it was dirty and snake-infested, crossing it back and forth balanced on the many oil pipes that spanned its girth. We hiked bare-footed on the winding greasy roads, inevitably leading to abandoned oil equipment, which we considered our own personal fortresses. We hiked on trails overgrown with brush, resting on thick vines, snacking on wild blackberries all the while. We’d hang out under the hot sun until dusk fell and relied on the sounds of the crickets’ and cicadas’ shrill chirping to tell us it was time to head home.
Children are born explorers, and teenagers see no limitations—one’s world expands with each year: Your crib, your house, your yard, your street, your school bus route, your bike trails, your community, your high school, your city. You’re too busy growing up to notice or care about anything beyond.
When was it, then, that I began to feel it shrink? Perhaps post Junior High when I grew tired of hanging out at the mall, when the Spencer’s went out of business?
Was it one event that sealed my decision to never move back? Was it seeing a fight break out in the front lawn at a house party between Tommy and Rodney, and witnessing Tommy bite off a significant piece of Rodney’s ear? Was it waiting as jacked-up pick up trucks were maneuvered around, bass pumping, their headlights pointed toward the grass, and then searching through the blades for the chunk of ear? Or was it being forced to attend church the following weekend, where Rodney and his mother were also members, and praying as a congregation for both forgiveness of Rodney’s drunkenness and the healing of his bandaged ear?
It was when I began to search out colleges that it occurred to me that Longview wasn’t exactly the most ambitious of towns. Toward the end of high school, the coolest of seniors before me graduated, yet chose to hang around for a few years after, losing their in-crowd status year by year until they could only be defined as losers. After all, having an older boyfriend was only a status symbol to a point.
I chose a private college in Fort Worth—and I know I was fortunate to have that opportunity. I was surprised when most of my classmates, even those who graduated at the top of the class, settled on the local junior college, choosing to continue to live with their parents: it was just more convenient, easier, they said.
By simply stepping onto that campus, my possibilities grew more infinite. I met intelligent, interesting people from all over the country – and the globe. Unlike church, there is no doubt in my mind that my college experience Saved Me. Halleluiah. However, upon graduation, after working in Dallas design firms for several years, that suburban sprawl of twisting highways and reflective glass became too expected, too sterile, too conservative. Tired of plaid shirts and pleated pants, yuppies and republicans, I moved to New York. Instead of exploring creeks and woods I was exploring an urban jungle, neighborhood by neighborhood, enthralled by the city’s extensive roots, enamored by its far-reaching branches.
Dinner conversations were elevated to a new level, and I strove to just keep up. People asked important questions, and seemed genuinely interested in the answers. People were passionate; they actively sought out, and were always doing, creating, and observing.
Instead of oil pumping underground, here life and movement flowed underneath, in the form of a network of subways, the bustle of commuters, the pulse of the city. With their diversity and enthusiasm, people are New York’s greatest natural resource. The mixture of native New Yorkers, old and recent immigrants, tourists – even people from Jersey – give life to the city. People like me, from small towns, farm girls from Iowa, musicians from Tennessee. These dreamers and fresh starters and adventurers piped in add to the compound, creating an endlessly renewable form of energy.
Ten years later, New York has given me a different appreciation of Longview. Now, when I visit my family, I love drinking my first cup of coffee in the morning sun, heat already radiating from the concrete porch at an early hour. Come in to the air conditioning, my parents say, but I like to feel the warmth all the way to my bones.
There is a simplicity of life in Longview that I sometimes miss; people are “straight shooters” as we call them; unpretentious. No fighting throngs of crowds from the minute you open your door in the morning, no waiting in lines, no verbal assaults. People grow gardens and go three-wheelin’, have horses, and bake pies.
Yet with its small joys, nostalgia can be deceptive. All I need do for a reality check is think about my high school friends’ recent Facebook posts. They post political views that make me wish there was a “strongly dislike” button, and share endless religious bumper-sticker-worthy jargon. Usually, while in town I’ve had to monitor my opinions and beliefs to not offend my family, clenching my jaw to keep my mouth shut at times.
I made the choice to leave and I make the choice to visit, and I will happily do so as long as I have the comforting knowledge of the return ticket tucked safely in my suitcase. Yet these visits reinforce life decisions; they reinvigorate, recharge. I go back to drink from the well. Return to the source, in order to gain the sustenance necessary to propell myself forward.
Inevitably, in a handful of days I’m ready to hit the oil top road – with one final sniff – until I merge onto I-20 toward the Dallas airport, where I will be shot through the sky and spit out among thousands of others from otherwheres, emerging from underground in the city I consider home; the city that allows me to continue to lay more pipeline.