Lunch at The Abilene Club is private, of course, atop the Abilene National Bank Building at Number One Petroleum Place, where the lobby contains, among other ornaments, an oil portrait of John Wayne. Through the windows encircling the club unfolds a panorama of the Big Country, as they still call it here: from downtown, the plains stretch for miles to distant mountains opening onto Buffalo Gap.
My three companions were businessmen. Yes, the recession has hit here, too, they said. Nothing like up North, but they are feeling it. When that oil spigot shut down last spring, it really turned off.
They talked about oil rigs being "stacked" and out of operation; about millions of dollars worth of farm implements and equipment standing unsold in the cotton and wheat country north of town; about houses for sale, big ones from $450,000 and up in new developments sprouting with ever-grander signs of affluence around Abilene; about layoffs in their companies and downtown stores, and about Mexicans buying not just pistols but automatic weapons to take across the border 200 miles south at Del Rio and Eagle Pass. "They're fixing to have themselves a revolution down there," one said.
Even Texas, the land of the golden touch, pays the price of the national recession. That knowledge has shaken some here. Texas, capital of the Sun Belt and presumed wave of the American future, had come to think of itself as immune from the economic problems afflicting crumbling industrial centers of the Midwest and the Northeast.
Now the state has learned that it is not immune. Last month, Texas' unemployment rate rose by 1.7 percentage points to 8.4 percent. The Abilene National Bank was swallowed by a larger commercial institution after many of its investments turned sour during the big boom that swept through this area.
Still, there are vital, at times startling, differences between the regions.
Here, despite some disenchantment and grumbling about Reaganomics, the president retains the solid support he enjoyed before the recession. Here, "give him a chance" is no mere slogan, but an article of faith. Here, unlike concern expressed elsewhere about fairness or cutting social programs too deeply, there runs a counterstrain often boldly and nakedly expressed.
"To tell you the truth, I don't give a damn about what happens to those people," one of the men at the table said, referring to out-of-work people in the Midwest. "They got themselves into their mess, and they can work their way out of it."
The others agreed. Too many of the unemployed are not willing to work anyway, they said. The unions brought it on themselves. They were unproductive, their wage scales way out of line. All that those people from Michigan have is one skill, and what good is it today if you cannot do anything but weld? If they had made quality cars like the Japanese or the Germans do, people would have bought them.
As for the welfare and social programs, well, Texans take care of their own -- although at one of the lowest levels of benefits in the country -- always have, always will. Too bad about what was happening, but that was part of the price the country had to pay to get out of the present mess.
However, Texas has been hurt, and the situation here testifies to a serious downturn in fortunes. Texans still believe in their own destinies. They are, as one person said, winners. Success is something they know about firsthand. They ride the wave of the future. Any setbacks are certain to be temporary. Why else would people be flocking here?
One does not have to search for those new migrants who left the depression towns of the Midwest or the crowded, turbulent cities of the Northeast. They are all around here, and all tell the same story. They have been lured by the oldest of American dreams: seeking the other side of the rainbow that supposedly guarantees success.
At the airport Hertz counter is Julie Pfenninger, 20, daughter of a Chrysler factory worker in New Castle, Ind. She arrived in Abilene in June. At the Steak & Ale, the waitress, a recent college graduate, comes from Boston. At the Mexican restaurant, the hostess is from Seattle. At the motel, one maid is a new arrival from Kentucky; another is Mexican and speaks no English.
At a big transportation firm, young executive Daniel F. Eckert decided to leave his native New Jersey after experiencing the campus unrest of the early 1970s and then completing a tour as an Air Force jet pilot.
"I love Texas," Eckert said. "I want to stay here because the business environment is super. The economic situation, as far as taxes and growth potential go, led me to believe Texas was where I was going to stay."
Pfenninger, who completed a year at Purdue, put it differently, but expressed similar economic motivations. She decided to leave Indiana, she said, because "There's no future there. None. There's no way a young person can get ahead there. It's all manufacturing and factories and bankruptcies.
"I have some friends who say they'll never move away from up there, but they have nothing to do. Then there are people like me. They're all moving down south or west.
"Many of them moved to Houston and got on the oil rigs. Now they're starting to shut down. It's starting to hit here like it did three years ago in Indiana. Everything is tightening up. That's why I'm going to go back to school here and get my computer. I guess I'm money hungry or something, but I want more. I want to be something. I do want to have money. I know money can't buy you love or happiness, but it helps."
Pfenninger is finding, however, that money is a problem in Texas, too. She works for the minimum wage, earns less at her job as a waitress than she did in Indiana and finds that the cost of apartment living is even higher here than in the Midwest.
This is a common experience. Older persons who come to Texas seeking better economic opportunities find they often are unable to meet payments owed in their home areas at the lower rate of wages they get in Texas.
Still, they keep coming. But whether they find the success they seek, or go back in failure, they are part of one of the most dramatic changes in America, one that affects the nature of the Southwest's old towns such as Abilene.
Not that Abilene represents the recent Texas explosion. It has grown, but not as dramatically as has Dallas or Houston. Abilene started a century ago as a cow town in the heart of Indian country, named for the then more famous Kansas community at the end of the cattle trail. Minutes into a drive beyond the sprawling developments today, one sees the same sort of flat sprawling chaparral-and-mesquite countryside that existed then.
For decades, Abilene remained essentially an isolated city on the central Texas plains about 200 miles west of Dallas. It was a place given to bouts with floods and dust storms, comfortable in its political and social conservatism, its many churches and denominational schools. Until a few years ago, drinks were not sold legally, pleasing Baptists and bootleggers alike.
Its greatest population growth, during the 1940s and 1950s, was for a familiar Texas reason: politics and its relationship with defense dollars. Thanks to the help of Lyndon B. Johnson, then a senator, Abilene became the home of Dyess Air Force Base, a Strategic Air Command facility. The population doubled. If the B1 bomber is built, people here expect to a see a wing of that new strike force stationed here, further strengthening Abilene's economic base.
In other ways the Abilene story of recent years has mirrored that of Texas and the so-called Sun Belt. Perhaps, in miniature, it is the Sun Belt example. An amazing boom, spawned by development of the "oil patch" west of here in Midland and Odessa, swept through Abilene, producing great new wealth, tall buildings, seemingly endless opportunities. Then, almost as quickly as it arrived, it passed.
The suddenness of that change was a shock for more than obvious reasons. Abilene and this part of west Texas had come to think of itself as immune from cyclical economic shifts that hit other areas. The slumps of the 1960s and 1970s were barely felt here.
At the beginning of this decade, while other sections began experiencing distress, Abilene and west Texas took off like a rocket. As the recession lengthened throughout the nation last year, 1981 proved fantastic, so much so that Abilene began an aggressive job-recruiting campaign over radio and television because not enough people were available to fill the jobs.
Come to Abilene, ads run across the nation said. We have jobs here. Many did. In just one year, the number of jobs here rose from 66,000 to 72,000. Now many are leaving.
"The last few months, there's been quite a lot of unemployment, mostly related to the demise of the oil prosperity period," said Dick Tarpley, editor of The Abilene Reporter-News. "There's been a decline in anything tied to the oil business. Oil-field rigs were being built as fast as they could, and then they began to be stacked. Money for drilling dropped off.
"Midland and Odessa, being almost primarily oil, suffered worse than we have. But our rate of unemployment rose from around 3.5 percent to over 6 percent. People are leaving, the merchants are hit hard, the real estate market is way off. It's definitely been depressing the last few months."
The problem extends beyond oil.
At Merchants Transfer, a multimillion-dollar trucking firm with headquarters in Abilene but serving all of Texas and as far as Denver, President Richard F. Bacon said:
"It's not just the oil business. It's general. Two years ago, an oil man would say, 'Send me a new tool. Any price. Get it here! Send it on an airplane. Send it on Merchants. Just get it here.'
" 'Course now they rebuild tools. They straighten them and use them again. I have no idea how many oil rigs are stacked. It's affected us. We've come pretty close to normal times, but it seems like everything's gone to hell in a basket for us. Well, that's not true either.
"We're way below on freight bills. I measure what we do in shipments, and we're not handling near as much. Houston is the worst I've seen it. We were handling 1,200 shipments a day there. Now it's down to 800 to 900. Your big companies down there have laid off so many people. So if Houston is hurting, everything is hurting.
"We were bragging to our people that we had not had to lay anybody off. We made an issue of it. And we got through March of this year, and we were still hammering on that -- that we hadn't laid anybody off.
"Now we've probably got 200 fewer people on our system than we had in April. Some clericals are gone. Some supervisors are gone. Truck drivers are gone. And we are still in decline. We haven't hit the bottom. I keep looking for the bottom.
"And when I say motor freight, I say to you you are talking Texas commerce, because we serve Beaumont and Freeport and the Panhandle and a lot of places you never heard of. We've gone from a peak of averaging 9,000 shipments a day to around 6,500. And this is happening to all of us." CAPTION: Picture 1, A $3.8 million new rig stands, unsold, at Abilene, where the slump is starting to hurt.; Picture 2, Merchants Transfer boss Bacon: "We are still in decline. We haven't hit the bottom. I keep looking for the bottom."; Map, no caption, By Brad Wye for The Washington Post; Picture 3, Sherrell L. Hazelwood of Tri-J Drilling witth a stacked oil rig, which, with related gear, is worth $700,000. When that oil spigot shut down last spring, it really turned off. Photos by Larry Morris -- The Washington Post