MICHELE NORRIS, host:
A company like Exxon can produce millions of barrels of oil every day but across the country, there are still mom-and-pop producers that generate only a few barrels a day. Yet, they somehow stay in business.
A case in point, Al Chiles, who lives in rural northwest Louisiana. He spent his life in the oil field and he's figured out how to provide for his family no matter what the price of crude is. From Red River Radio, in Shreveport, Kate Archer Kent has this profile of a fourth generation oil hand.
KATE ARCHER KENT: Al Chiles' routine starts the same way every day. He employs all his senses to inspect his oil wells, the pump jacks' bobbing times.
Mr. AL CHILES (Oil Producer): When I pull my wells, I turn my radio down, I already got - the wind is down, you know. I could hear that well. I'm sitting here looking at it. And I'm also listening to it to make sure that ain't got something squeaking or a (unintelligible) to go out.
KENT: Chiles and his brother drilled this well and 74 others on the family homestead. For two decades Chiles tended to these wells around the clock. They never went offline even when crude plummeted below $10 a barrel. It was 1986. Chiles was 22 with an infant and a new well part supply store he purchased from his dad.
Mr. CHILES: Our sales at that store alone was averaging, say, 40, 50,000, $60,000 worth of sales a month. My sales went to three to $4,000 a month.
KENT: Through the years, he's weathered the ups and downs by doing whatever it takes to keep his wells pumping - pulling iron, replacing belts, digging post holes, running power lines.
Mr. CHILES: You got your nose to the grindstone every day, getting up before daylight, going to bed after dark, just (unintelligible) out, you know, your back's hurting, and then you turn around, 10 years are done gone by.
KENT: Chiles has an intimate bond with the black stuff. Standing next to a well, he rubs fresh oil on his fingertips like lotion.
Mr. CHILES: This right here is kind of a sweet smell, rose(ph) smells good to me. I guess all here's about what you call a 23 gravity. This is a good lube oil.
KENT: At 44, he admits he'll never be a J.R. Hewing but he was managed to send managed to send both his daughters through college. The Chiles family slowly built up production in fields that were proven more than a half century ago. Regardless of how high oil gets, his family leaves frugally.
Mr. CHILES: There's enough that you need and you done set your life to where - this is all we need, aside my wife (unintelligible) wants Suburban. It's still running, it still does a good job, I mean, I just can't see going out there and buy another vehicle.
KENT: His penny pinching isn't the norm. Independent oil man John Hyatt(ph) produces all over the Deep South. He's based in nearby Shreveport. He's encountered families with mineral rights who are quickly scaling the income brackets.
Mr. JOHN HYATT (Oil Producer): One of the things you can see when I started getting as far as a checks, big ones, is that I'll send you a (unintelligible) see new cars. You know, and I guarantee you, some of these folks had bought only corn probably, 20 years.
KENT: Chiles has one indulgence.
Mr. CHILES: It's this ox baby.
KENT: Ten pack mules graze among the oil wells.
Mr. CHILES: and we got Molly(ph), Mott(ph), Gordon(ph), and that Evelyn(ph), Sally(ph) over there.
KENT: Chiles takes (unintelligible) to the Colorado Rockies to go elk hunting. He's made this pilgrimage every year except in 1998. That was another time when oil hit rock bottom and he couldn't afford the trip. His family lived off their savings for a year.
Mr. CHILES: After we paid the bills, operated these wells and everything, I had about $350 leftover.
KENT: Today, Chiles is buying more land with mineral rights. He sold the wells on his family land and bought deeper ones that produce about 200 barrels a day. He sees how crude can lead to sprawling homes and fancy cars. But those are merely possessions.
Mr. CHILES: There's integrity and honesty that no amount of money can buy, you know? What I work for and there's probably people that would disagree with me but I've been first right. I think I have.
KENT: On this night, he heads home to a steak dinner. It's a permissible splurge given the current market.
For NPR News, I'm Kate Archer Kent.
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