GEORGE W. BUSH CAUGHT HIS FIRST GLIMPSE OF TEXAS in 1948, when he and his mother stepped onto the tarmac of an Odessa airstrip after a twelve-hour flight from the East Coast. He was just two years old then, and Odessa was a small industrial town: a scattering of pump jacks, equipment yards, and tin-roofed warehouses sitting on the prairie, where the roadside shimmered with gas flares and the sour smell of oil hung in the air. Even during those good times, the West Texas oil patch had little to recommend it besides the lure of black gold and the wide-open sky—a far cry from the gracious living in New Haven, Connecticut, where the Bushes lived next door to the president of Yale University. Now they found themselves in a dirt-under-the-fingernails workingman’s town, where drillers, roughnecks, and roustabouts were arriving by the day, crowding into tent cities and even chicken coops for shelter. Housing was scarce, the work was grueling, and the weather—tornadoes, sandstorms, and months without rain—was hard to endure. The tumbleweeds were so plentiful that residents painted them gold and dusted them with glitter, using them as Christmas ornaments.
It was an unlikely place for George W. to come of age, particularly since his parents were accustomed to the rarefied circles of the Eastern establishment. But for his father and the other young men who were drawn to West Texas in the late 1940’s and early 1950’s, the oil patch had its own exotic appeal. It held out not only the promise of wealth but also the promise of self-invention: a strike-out-on-your-own, do-it-yourself sort of independence far removed from the patrician atmosphere of his father’s hometown of Greenwich, where lineage and tradition dictated one’s path. In 1948 George Herbert Walker Bush, then 24, was taken with this idea, just as his son would be nearly three decades later. Rather than heading to Wall Street, the elder Bush steered his red Studebaker toward the oil fields of Texas the day after he graduated from Yale, sending for his family once he had found a house to rent. The decade he would spend there would profoundly mark his son. Far from buttoned-down New England, George W. Bush would grow to be loud, loose, and earthy—a child with all the rough edges of the West and the jangling, nervous energy of the boom.
The Bushes started out simply enough, in a shotgun house along an unpaved road where outhouses and mules stood side by side. It was plain living: Two prostitutes lived on the other side of the house, which was split into a duplex by a makeshift partition, and the male clientele kept the house’s one bathroom busy from dusk through dawn. The Bushes were clearly out of their element in Odessa and better suited to neighboring Midland, the tamer white-collar town to the east on U.S. 20, where engineers, geologists, and financiers were moving from the East Coast to cash in on the boom. Only twenty miles apart on the desert, the sister cities were as different as night and day—“Midland is for raising families” goes the adage, “Odessa is for raising hell”—but the Bushes wouldn’t fully appreciate the distinction until they moved to Midland two years later. In the meantime they made do; George worked twelve-hour days sweeping out oil equipment warehouses and painting pump jacks for Ideco Oil, while Barbara looked after their strong-willed son. “I like to tease my mother that she has white hair because of me,” George W. said this spring.
In 1949 George Bush was briefly transferred to California, where he traveled from rig to rig as a drill-bit salesman and where Barbara would give birth to a daughter, Robin. It was a lonely time: The family followed his work from Bakersfield to Whittier and then on to Ventura and Compton, staying in motels and rentals along the way. It came as a relief to them all when Bush was transferred back to West Texas in 1950, this time to Midland. For George W., Midland became the place that he would most closely identify himself with, the place that—despite ten years of schooling in the East, summers spent at the family home in Maine, and considerable time in Houston, Dallas, and Austin as an adult—he still thinks of as home. “Midland made a big impression on all of us,” explains Charlie Younger, an orthopedic surgeon who was one of his first Midland neighbors. “It was an idyllic place to grow up, a real Ozzie-and-Harriet sort of town, and there’s a great sense of nostalgia among our group of friends for that time. Four or so years ago George and I were hashing something out, and he turned to me and said, ‘If I died today, I’d like to be buried in Midland.’”
Midland was a place of boundless optimism in 1950, a boomtown whose population would nearly triple before the Bushes left West Texas in 1959. Over the course of their stay there, its unpaved streets would give way to office buildings that could be seen from thirty miles away, jutting upward from the flat, wide expanse of buffalo grass and sagebrush. It was dubbed the Tall City of the Plains, but Midlanders preferred the grander “Headquarters City of the Vast Permian Basin Empire,” a nod to its new status as the center for Texas oil. Land and oil leases were trading hands at such a rapid-fire rate that most deals were done on a handshake; there wasn’t time for paperwork. “We were young and eager to do new things, trying to make our way in a part of the country that was completely foreign to us,” remembers John Ashmun, who lived two doors down from the Bushes. “All we had was each other’s company. In the evenings on Maple Street we’d sit around in khakis and sport shirts, and we’d charcoal some burgers while the children ran wild. After dinner the men would get in a corner and talk oil.”
Back then, Younger