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Priorities

I felt like a piece of beef jerky! It was after 6:00 p.m. on a scorching July afternoon. I was filthy, sweaty, dehydrated, and exhausted.

Twelve hours earlier, I had opened my eyes to the sounds of birds chirping. I’d slipped quietly out of my tent and turned the embers of the previous night’s fire into enough for everyone to cook breakfast on. Then, while the water in my coffee pot worked toward a boil, I’d struck my tent and packed everything. The timing was almost perfect. I finished just in time to pour a fresh cup of coffee.

Even at twelve years old, I was a coffee fanatic, and in my mind, ten minutes early was on time.

By the time the Assistant Scoutmaster leading our hike emerged from his tent, my enjoyment of the pleasant morning had begun to fade.

There had been a long discussion about whether I would even be on this hike. Dan, the man leading the hike, had insisted that I be there. But the hike was planned to leave Friday evening and not return until Sunday morning.

Because of a rained-out game earlier in the week, my Little League team was scheduled for a doubleheader on Sunday afternoon. On top of it all, the team’s other catcher was scheduled as the starting pitcher in the first game. I had to be there . . .

Everything needed to go perfectly for me to get to the game, but even in the best-case scenario, I would be drained before the umpire shouted “Play Ball”. Now, as 8:00 started sliding towards 8:30 with peoples’ tents still standing and some people still sleeping, I was feeling the best-case slipping away.

We eventually got underway but, as I had feared, we got to the trailhead behind schedule. All of the parents and some of the other Leaders in our troop were there waiting for us. My Dad smiled at everybody and shouted a friendly greeting as we crested the hill. He then helped me get my pack into the trunk of the car, said quick goodbyes to the others, and excused us so that we could get to the game.

I was a little bit puzzled, I had figured he would have had something to say about what a tight spot this had put us in. But instead, we just hopped in the car, turned the music up and got going.

Now, five hours later, I was standing in the shower with the first opportunity to catch my breath and think. I had pulled it off. I’d finished the whole hike and my team had swept the double-header. As I got out of the shower, dressed, and headed downstairs, I could smell something cooking on the grill.

When we finally sat down for dinner, my Dad looked at me and said: “long day, huh?”. I told him that I had been surprised when he didn’t say anything at the trailhead earlier. We had gotten through it but it had all gone just as he’d predicted.

He looked at me and smiled. “Would that have gotten you to your game in time for warmups”?

I just smiled back and shook my head. “No sir, I don’t suppose it would have”.

When the Going Gets Rough

We were still on the west side of Columbus, OH the first time it happened. It was a Friday afternoon. Our three-man crew had been working in the area all week and now we were headed back to Pittsburgh for a weekend off and some R ‘n’ R. Mark was leading the pack in the big hydro-vac truck with Ryan behind him in the camera van. I was bringing up the rear in the support pickup.

It had been a long week. The temperatures had been high. We’d been working to clear storm sewers that had been contaminated with run-off from a local plant. Whatever they were letting into the system ended up smelling like wet dog food by the time it got to where we were working. It hadn’t ended well either. While jetting out one of the lines, Mark’s hose had gotten hung up and we’d ended up cutting nearly 400’ feet off of the truck’s reel.

But all that was behind us as we wound our way onto I-70 East. I had the air conditioning on and the music loud. Things were looking up for us. Then I saw Mark’s truck pull off to the side of the road . . .

First Ryan and then I slid across the white line and onto the shoulder behind Mark.

By the time I had walked up to the cab of Mark’s truck, he was already out of the vehicle and talking to the mechanics back at our shop on his cell phone. Just as I arrived at Mark’s side, I could hear Danny’s Irish accent on the other end of the cell connection saying “tell ya what Markie, put that Rafferty fella on the phone for me, would ya?”

“What can I do for ya Danny?” I asked as I took the phone from Mark.

After a quick conversation, we’d agreed that I would do some quick diagnostics and call him back. When I did, he agreed with my conclusions that it had to be a problem with a sensor in the truck’s computer system.

“So, are you guys going to have it towed someplace local?”

“Sorry Stevie . . . Ken wants you to try to limp it to the nearest heavy truck garage”.

That was what I had feared. Rather than pay a tow truck, the head mechanic wanted us to work our way through rush-hour traffic to the other side of Columbus with a truck that could lose all of its power at any time without any notice. Mark, as the driver and operator of the disabled vehicle, was committed. Ryan, as crew leader, was responsible for finding a garage, making the appointment, and making sure that Mark got the truck there before getting Mark back to the shop. I was the new guy at the company, but I had nearly a decade of experience dealing with heavy equipment and challenges like this one.

Ryan looked at me . . .

“There’s no reason for you to stay. If you want to just head straight back to the shop, you can go ahead.”

I smiled at him.

“We left as a crew. We’ll roll back in as a crew.”

Now What?

I sat at my desk and pulled up the website, just as I had every payday for the previous eight years. As I entered the amount that I wanted to pay, I realized that it was more than the ‘pay off amount’ for the last of my student loans. In my mind, I went back to a moment, eight years earlier, when I had placed a finished but unedited and undefended copy of my doctoral dissertation on my advisor’s desk.

After thanking him for all he had done for me over the preceding five years, I shook his hand and walked out of his office, closing the door behind me. I walked out of the building and across campus to where my ten-year-old Mitsubishi Mirage was waiting for me with all of my earthly belongings inside. I slid out of my parking spot and into L.A. traffic, found the 101 and set a course due East.

The drive from Southern California to Pennsylvania gave me a lot of time to think about what I had just done. I had walked away from a Ph.D. in Communication Studies without finishing. Why?

My final conversation with my advisor ran through my head. After five years of working toward a goal, I was nearly there but I was miserable. And, on top of it all, due to the financial downturn two years earlier, people starting out in my position were struggling. I had taken out a mountain of student loans to support myself over the past five years.

“I really think that you should stay one more semester and finish the dissertation,” my advisor had said to me. “What on earth are you going to do instead”?

I explained that I had come to understand that I had made a mistake; that I had invested a lot of time and effort in a project that wasn’t going to lead to a happy life and that any more time, effort, or money spent in that direction was just throwing good after bad. “After all,” I had told him, “I’ve got everything but the piece of paper . . . and the paper only matters to other people”.

From there, I had returned to Pennsylvania, found work in the oilfield, and set my sights on paying off the loans in under 10 years. Over time, the oilfield had taken me to Oklahoma, Texas, Alaska, North Dakota, and ultimately, back to Pennsylvania.

I sat there, with the cursor hovering over the “Send” button on the website.

I thought about the eight years that had flown by me. As I sat there, alone, in my small apartment, I thought about all of the sacrifices that I had made; not allowing myself the time to play music or the luxury of driving a nice car, never having the time to devote to the relationships that mattered the most to me. Then I thought about all of the things that I had wanted to do as a young man that I hadn’t been doing. Through five years of burying myself in books while in graduate school and eight years of chasing oilfield work wherever it took me, I had lost sight of what mattered most.

As a young man, I had been determined to make the world a better place. I had been involved in causes that mattered to me. I had protested. I had volunteered. I had donated. That had been what lead me to graduate school in the first place!

But for more than a decade, I had been focused on just one thing. First, the doing and then the undoing of a single bad decision.

I hit the “Send” button. I sat back in my chair and I thought to myself . . . “Now what?”

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