Saturday, December 17, 2016

A MEMOIR

I once lived in a dusty, sparsely populated town in West Texas called Electra, a place that had been an oil boom town. Electra, named for a wealthy rancher's daughter, was located at the edge of a ranch originally owned by Daniel Waggoner, expanded to include a half million acres. As my friend, Janis Rice Grogan, says in All of My Life With You, "bars and churches vied for first place as centers of social life" there. My husband and I had moved to this barren place described as "having only a barbed wire fence between it and the North Pole," for his assignment as an engineer with Texaco, and Jan lived across the street from me — my closest friend among a handful in this small town. In her memoir, Jan speaks of the loneliness of this west Texas town and of the hour daily she and I spent together, discussing books. Both of us were not writing much then, but I think that our literary hour every morning probably helped spark a lifelong interest in book writing — for both of us.

While the major part of my writing has been in the realm of poetry, Jan has been working on this narration about her life with Gene Grogan, a petroleum engineer with Cities Service, beginning in Oklahoma and Texas and expanding to cover five continents. For almost sixty years, Jan and I have enjoyed a wonderful friendship, and I've been privy to many chapters of her memoir along the way. In All of My Life With You, Jan relates that the Grogan family moved nineteen times during the duration of her marriage to Gene — from the U.S. to Muscat, with assignments in New York, London, Bogota, Argentina, Nairobi, Aberdeen, and other oilfield sites. She also records Gene's rise in the oil industry from a field petroleum engineer with Cities Service to President of Occidental Oman Oil Company.

With three children in tow, Jan follows her husband to both exotic and dangerous foreign posts, sometimes enduring life in places like Comodoro Rivadavia in southern Argentina where four trees struggled for life in a city of 100,000, and "the wind always blew from the land toward the sea and a few times a year it could reach 150 miles an hour. Normal rainfall was ten inches but in 1963 over forty inches fell, turning the unpaved roads into quagmires..." When Jan left this country to wait for the arrival of her third child in the United States, she relates that she knelt down at the bottom of the airplane's steps and kissed the ground, vowing never to leave the U.S. again. However, she would renege on that vow for almost forty more years, following Gene around the world and to journey's end in Washington, D.C. where she now lives.

This memoir is not just the chronicle of an American woman's odyssey around the world, it's a love story about a successful marriage that prompted me to say at one time, "Gene is the perfect husband," because he was perhaps the most devoted, caring husband I observed during the times I visited the couple. It's also a book about the couple's faith that sustained them during dangerous encounters abroad. Gene was in charge of Occidental's North Sea operation in 1988 when Occidental's oil platform in the North Sea blew up, an incident dubbed the worst oil field accident in the history of the petroleum industry. One hundred sixty-seven men died in that explosion and its aftermath. In a poignant account of the accident, Jan records the visit of the famous oil-well firefighter Red Adair who extinguished the fire still blazing on the remains of Piper Alpha oil platform.

Jan, Diane, Gene, London 1973
All of My Life With You is a fascinating armchair tour of the world told by a courageous woman of faith who followed her husband on a journey that she says exemplifies Robert Frost's "Road Not Taken." Jan writes in a highly accessible style, exposing the reader to the Grogan's diverse religious encounters, as well as political situations. This is an engaging family saga filled with stories about people of differing backgrounds and cultures that inevitably impacted the Grogan family's tolerance and respect for diversity. It's also a tribute to Gene Grogan, "the perfect husband" whom Jan describes as possessing all the attributes of the Eagle Scout that he was: trustworthy, loyal, friendly, brave, reverent, etc. and, she adds, "also intelligent, exuberant and sensitive." During the last years of Gene's life, he suffered from Alzheimers, and his children observed that the disease robbed him of language and memory but his witty and playful personality remained intact.

The elegant eulogy Gene's son Patrick preached at Gene's funeral in December 2013 at St. Alban's in Washington, D.C. is included in All of My Life With You. Also, the moving "Epilogue" featuring part of the service of Compline from a New Zealand Prayer Book, creates a meet conclusion to this eloquent narrative. Family pictures are an added bonus.

Jan Rice Grogan was awarded a Medical Technology degree from the University of Oklahoma and earned a Master of Arts degree from the University of Aberdeen in Scotland.

For armchair travelers and memoir readers, this is a must read.

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