When his daughter first saw an offshore oil rig squatting off the coast here like something out of "Star Wars," Mike Dawson of nearby Jamestown remembers, "she turned to me and said "Well, they've finally landed."

The year-old invasion of these New England waters, however, has been more a cultural and an economic phenomenon than anything else as the cowboy-booted high rollers of the oil world have come ashore into the land of the bean and the cod.

Working from a beachhead in the 4,600-acre former naval base at Quonset Point and Davisville, just north of here, more than 50 oil companies, rig renters, pipe fitters, mud dealers, and associated industries have been injecting thousands of dollars into a Rhode Island economy that has been stagnant or depressed for years.

Down home Rhode Islanders, for whom the American Midwest is a dissant journey, are confronting sheepskin-jacketed roughnecks who remininisce in casual drawls about bygone days in Singapore and Riyadh.

So far, even after a year of drilling in the Baltimore Canyon area 100 miles offshore to the south, few people in the area appear to have any conception of the economic scope of the oil industry or what it could mean to their state.

Many don't even know the oilmen are here.

"I don't know who the hell they are," said Mavis Purden, a waitress at a restaurant on U.S. 1 near Davisville. "They come in here winking at the girls and leaving big tips and talking about 'logging' and 'mud.' I thought they were in the timber business."

So far, most of the $97.1 million invested by the oil companies in the Baltimore Canyon exploration effort has gone elsewhere into the U.S. treasury for lease fees or southwest to Houston and Tulsa and Lafayette, La., major industry supply points for men and machines.

But a major find in the Baltimore Canyon could change much of that, generating thousands of jobs in the creation and operation of production facilities to bring oil from the ocean floor.

And as the staging operation for the Baltimore Canyon exploration grows here, the oil business already is making itself felt in the area's economy.

Pat Butterworth, a local resident hired as a secretary by Tenneco, says people in Providence "have no idea of their own economic stake in what's going on out here.

"Over the holidays I was calling around trying to get some carpeting for the offices and I couldn't get anyone to return my calls. They figured maybe I wanted a rug or something.

"Finally I got someone to do the job and after New Year's the others started calling back and asking what I wanted. I told them we had already gotten the job done. Then they'd ask how big the order was and when I told them 30 offices there would be this long pained silence at the other end of the phone.

"They just hadn't known there was that kind of business available."

The same thing happened, she said, with a $3,000 order for office chairs.

But as Butterworth and others remark, there are more than economic differences at work here: there are different mentalities.

In New England, the land originally populated by Puritans, the beef and bourbon accents and million-dollar gambles of the oilmen from the Southwest are looked upon with some puzzlement.

One recent evening, as two oilmen sat in a Newport bar, quietly talking about the Middle East, the bartender and two patrons could be heard in the background discussing the issuance of earplugs to protect patrons sitting nearby from the Texas twang.

"These people here aren't accustomed tomed to hope and confidence," said Don Brown of Tenneco. "They don't understand that in Houston dreams have a way of coming true."

Tenneco, which this week will begin drilling the 16th well in the Baltimore Canyon, has placed it under the direction of Hugh Horton, 52, a burly softspoken native of Quitman, Tex., and Ralph Miller, 40, a drawling, Alvin, Tex. native who now lives in Lafayette, La.

Horton, the project manager, and Miller, the drilling supervisor, last worked together three years ago on a well in the Red Sea.

"Hugh was working out of Peru and I was working out of Thailand and they had some problems with this well in Saudi Arabia and told us to get over and fix it, so we did," Miller said.

"It was kind of interesting over there in the Middle East, though I don't know what the hell's going to happen with this Iran business. Most of those Arabs are all right, if you ask me, especially Sadat. I've got a lot of respect for him. But now that Qaddafi, down in Libya, he's one crazy fellow."

Miller has a lot of pride in Tenneco's frontier division where he and Horton work and where, he says, "they don't just send any idiot out to drill a well."

Both Horton, who keeps pictures of flaming rigs and sunken drill platforms in his office to remind people what can go wrong, and Miller are former roughnecks who worked their way to management spots in "Oil Patch University," the world of the oil fields where the Horatio Alger dream remains very much alive.

Despite the ever-increasing complexity of the energy business, it is still one place, oilmen say, where hard work and initiative can mean as much as a college degree.

"If a kid comes in here with a high school education, shows some ability and is willing to work -- and that 'willing to work' is the most important part -- he can work up to rig manager (making $30,000 to $40,000) in three to five years," said Robert C. Parks of Zapata Inc., manager of the offshore rig leased by Tenneco, and an Oil Patch U. graduate himself.

"Of course, he's got to be with a good company, and that company might be different for different people. But it happens all the time."

Zapata, he said, eventually will hire about 40 percent of its 100-man drill crew from the Rhode Island area "but we'll have to start them at the bottom and train them." The bottom, he said, is a salary of about $18,000 a year for work shifts of 21 days on and 21 days off the Baltimore Canyon rigs.

Offshore drilling, of course, is hard, dirty and dangerous work. Parks said no one has yet been killed while drilling on the Zapata Ugland, the huge, self-powered offshore platform leased by Tenneco for its first Baltimore Canyon well.

But just last week two contract welders doing maintenance work on the rig fell nearly 100 feet to their death when a safety rope maltunctioned.

To Rhode Islanders that only confirmed suspicions that the oil business is some exotic, perilous calling native to the untamed Southwest but alien to their shores.

That strikes the oilmen as amusing.

"You know, in Houston or along the Gulf Coast or any where in the oil patch, offshore drilling is no big deal," Ralph Miller said over lunch one recent snowy Saturday.

"I never thought it was a big deal to anybody. But I have a friend who works in CBS in New York and he gave me a tour in there a year or so ago.

"I had on my McCloud coat, you know, and these people looked at me like I came from Mars. I was trying to find out about their work but they just wanted to know where I'd been in the world and where I was going, and everything. I tell you, here in the East things are really different."