- An American Drilling
When I started working at American Drilling, I was living on a guy's back porch in the south Broad Ripple district of Indianapolis. I was 25, unemployed, and a college dropout. What little money I had I spent on cigarettes, scratch-offs, and slushies from the corner gas station. Most people I knew had finished college, launched careers, married, bought homes and Labradoodles. I felt directionless in comparison. I was sleeping on a lumpy couch and looking online for jobs in Alaska. I planned to bus and hitchhike my way out west to gut fish on the slime line of a salmon cannery. The work sounded cold and grueling but interesting. I had no plans to finish school. Tuition kept rising, and I questioned whether I belonged in college at all. I'd felt defined by labor my whole life, the middle-school paper routes, the high-school retail jobs, the summers landscaping and digging graves in southern Indiana, the stints refueling airplanes in Cheyenne and driving recycling trucks in Atlanta. Working these jobs came more naturally than school, maybe because my father preached work in our house. For him, a "free handout" was one of life's greatest evils from which only hard work could save you. He and my mother weren't against college; if I could fund it, I should go. So I did. After high school, I unloaded trucks at Target and worked at the cemetery before chipping away at a bachelor's in English—four courses here, two there, the occasional summer semester. I started in '97, and by 2004 I was only six classes shy of becoming the first person in my immediate family to earn a college degree. The only person in my extended family to graduate from university was my father's older brother, Jerry.
I barely knew my Uncle Jerry. I mostly knew of him. I knew he lived [End Page 103] near Dallas and traveled the world, that he was once a small-town Indiana boy who built radios in the basement for fun. I knew he had graduated from Rose-Hulman, earned an MS from Southern Methodist and an MBA from UT Austin. Growing up, my father told the occasional story about my uncle's travels. "In South Korea, a woman cut up a live octopus in front of Jerry with a pair of scissors," my father said. "The tentacles kept moving on the plate, and when he ate a piece, it wriggled in his mouth."
My father's Jerry stories fascinated me. I hated school as a teen, but to a landlocked dreamer from the Midwest, my Uncle Jerry made a college education sound sexy. He'd started his own business, worked on wireless networks and smart grids, taught students in Israel, Argentina, Malaysia, and Australia, attended conferences across the U.S. He always remained something of a mystery, but I quickly learned he was the family maverick—intellectually ravenous, ambitious, and quite possibly the first atheist of Daviess County, having once stated he believed life started from a primordial soup of amino acids, a statement that ruffled the family for years and was oft-repeated, even if relatives did twist his words: "Jerry thinks we came from green sludge in the ocean. He may be smart, but he ain't got no common sense. He also said he doesn't believe in the virgin birth. You can't tell him anything."
Sitting on the concrete steps to my friend's back porch, I decided my Alaska plan was too risky. Money was tight. What if I went broke in Idaho? Got stranded in Boise? Made it to Alaska but failed to find work? Instead, I stayed in Indianapolis and took a job as a driller's helper.
American Drilling was part of a larger company called American Environmental. Most days we drove trucks and rigs around cornfields poking holes in the earth. To extract a tube of dirt at a depth of 15 feet took about three cigarettes, a reckless back, a steel-masted beast churning hollow-stem augers, and a pneumatic hammer pounding split-spoons on rods to...