Carving drill pads out of rugged, brushy country fit for a range-riding cowhand, these dirt work pros know what it’s like to be where “you don’t run into anybody.”
By Hanaba Munn Welch
Oilfield workers are like cowboys. They often follow in their daddy’s boot prints.
Dennis Vaughn of Abilene drives trucks and operates dirt-moving equipment. It’s not just what he does. It’s who he is. “I’ve done it all my life,” he said, calling it quits at the end of a long day’s work smoothing out a rugged drill site near Matador in the middle of March.
His role model? His father. “He was running equipment back in his 30s,” Vaughn said. “He brought me around it when I was 8 years old.”
Vaughn has two brothers. “My middle brother, he’s into rig moving and driving trucks,” he said. “My younger brother, he’s a truck driver.”
It’s a Vaughn family tradition—specifically to do the kind of work that puts Dennis Vaughn and his kin and others of their ilk on their own, whether they’re driving big trucks or running dozers and graders at an “X” on a map to fashion a drilling pad and reserve pits and access roads out of rough terrain, often at a remote location that’s close to nowhere.
Guys like Vaughn are like the cowboys who take the solitary assignments, whether it’s looking after yearlings on a far pasture or riding fence. They’re their own bosses, at least until the foreman comes around.
For Vaughn, it’s a man named Ray, owner of the site-building company. “He always shows up and checks on us.”
Not that he has to. “We know what to do,” Vaughn said.
At the site north of Matador, Vaughn’s only co-worker in March was heavy equipment operator Bobby McKelvy. “Why I’m working out here, I don’t know,” McKelvy said. “It keeps me out of trouble, I guess. I’ve been on equipment all my life.”
Vaughn cites a different motivation. “I’ve got bills to pay,” he said. “I’ve got to go where the work’s at.”
McKelvy enjoys different circumstances. His father, originally a driller of water wells, founded Bulldog Steel, a company father and son ran together at Clyde. The McKelvys sold Bulldog about ten years ago, shifting their attention to a two-section ranch, where they run registered Angus cattle. But Bobby McKelvy is still drawn to oilfield dirt work.
“I’ve been on equipment all my life,” he said. “I grew up around a tank shop.”
McKelvy reckons he was barely old enough to walk when he started spending time with his dad at work.
Bulldog Steel originally built tanks and other equipment for the oilfield. When the oil business took a sharp downturn, McKelvy’s father changed his focus, going back to water—not to drill for it but to build tanks to hold it. “We went straight to water,” McKelvy said. “It saved us. We built water tanks, like for municipalities.”
Ultimately, Bulldog became one of the leading water tank manufacturers in Texas, McKelvy said. “We had a very good reputation,” he added.
Then his dad got a good offer for the company—too good to refuse, McKelvy said. But now, instead of staying home to help his dad look after the herd, he chooses to put in long hours on a dozer miles from home.
McKelvy has a 20-year-old son in college at Hardin-Simmons in Abilene. He’s counting on him to break tradition. “He’s really bright,” McKelvy said. “He started working at the shop. I encouraged him not to. You’re only young once. I spent way too much of my time up there.”
The youngest McKelvy will have a choice of careers, even if his own father can’t help but move dirt, happiest when it’s just him and a big machine under a big sky. “I don’t ever run into anybody I know,” McKelvy said. “I get dropped in when there’s a flag in the dirt and stay there till it’s done. I don’t think I could take on a regular job where I wasn’t my own boss… or it would be awful hard to.”
Vaughn seems to prefer the solitary life too, although he doesn’t like work that takes him away from home too much of the time. “I’ve run long-haul over the road,” he said. “It just got old. I had my fill of that.”
Most of the time, Vaughn is home by nightfall, but the job north of Matador meant he and McKelvy had to lodge in Childress, several miles to the north.
Vaughn has a wife; McKelvy, a girlfriend. Both women have no choice but to accept the nature of the work the men do. “She’d rather me be home every night,” Vaughn said. “She don’t like it, but she understands.”
Like McKelvy, Vaughn describes drill site preparation as isolated work. “Ain’t nobody out here,” he said. “We’re gone before anybody shows up.”
Once the drilling rig goes up and ancillary equipment rolls into place, the scene changes and so does the comparison to the cowboy life. It’s more like spring roundup—a time for all hands to show up at a site to get the work done, each dependent both on himself and others in the crew to stay safe amid the dangers, whether it’s hooves, horns, and lariats or chains, cables, and a spinning drill pipe.
If there’s another notable similarity between the two kinds of work, it’s the transience, both of the work and the workers. Some ranch work is year-round, but some is seasonal. Drought conditions can have the same negative effect on ranching activities as plummeting oil prices on job opportunities in the oil and gas realm. Both industries attract workers who understand what it means to live with the changes. Some seem even to prefer a less predictable way of life, and they think nothing of changing outfits and jobs.
“I do something till I get bored with it,” Vaughn said. “I’ve dabbled in lots of stuff—drove trucks, been a mechanic, moved drilling rigs.”
He finds the drill site work interesting because he never knows exactly what to expect. “Every location is different,” he said. “Every one has got a different challenge to it.”
At the time of the interview, he’d been working for Abilene-based G&N Construction for six months, putting in some long days—work that’s not for the faint-hearted or anyone who likes to sleep late. The same birds chirping when the spring roundup hands saddle their horses are the ones Vaughn is likely to hear when he gets to his work site.
“I started at 5 this morning,” Vaughn said. “We’ve been averaging 130 to 140 hours every two weeks.”
It helps that the pay is good—better than cowboying, for sure. But even Vaughn might admit it’s more than the money that keeps him on the job. It’s a way of life.
If the oilfield lacks the romance of the Old West, it doesn’t miss it by much. One more classic movie like Boomtown, Giant, or Hellfighters or a television series like J.R.’s Dallas, and things could change. The elements are in place: danger, intrigue, challenges, striking landscapes, opportunities for dishonesty and heroism, and a cast of characters with strong icon potential. They’re the next-best thing to cowboys. They just don’t wear fringe.