MIDLAND, Texas - Scott Dufford's wife loves to tell the story. It was 1993, and her wildcatter husband who had left his job at Marathon Oil to venture out on his own had been drilling well after well. Eight, nine, 10 of them by now. All dry as the dusty, parched terrain here where trees have to be imported and lawns have been known to be spray-painted in pursuit of the elusive yet fiercely coveted green.
Dufford came home one night and told his wife to use whatever was in the pantry; they couldn't afford any more groceries. She called her father, a house painter in Findlay, Ohio, and asked if he would hire Scott as an assistant. She cried all night.
But Dufford stuck with Midland and all its promise. And the next time out in the hot West Texas oil patch - and the time after that and the time after that - he hit oil in 1993. Lots of it. So much so that in 1997, three years shy of turning 40, Dufford sold his company for $58 million. He bought into a real estate company, another drilling company, a professional hockey team in Lubbock, and a dot-com. His wife decorated his office on the 17th floor of the tallest building in Midland (which he now owns with partners) - in haute Western.
Sitting on a deerskin chair in front of an elk antler lamp, Dufford believes he is precisely what George W. Bush has in mind when the Republican presidential candidate talks about the values of hard work, determination and endless opportunity that define Midland, Bush's childhood home.
"Nearly anything is possible with hard work," says Dufford, who is contemplating elective office. "That's Midland values."
Bush, who spent his grade school days making mischief and playing ball in this conservative, energetic town - and returned here after his gold-plated East Coast education hoping to echo his father's success in the oil business - has often said that to understand him, one must understand Midland and its optimistic attitudes.
"In Midland, Texas, where I grew up, the town motto was `The sky is the limit,'" Bush said in his acceptance speech at the Republican convention this summer. "There was a restless energy, a basic conviction that, with hard work, anybody could succeed and everybody deserved a chance."
But the values of this isolated, oil-driven community of 100,000 in the heart of the Permian Basin, a plane ride away from the nearest big city or body of water, appear far more complex than the idyllic, color-blind land of Little League, backyard barbecues and opportunity for all that Bush considers the bedrock of his character.
Like many Southern towns of country clubs and debutante balls, this home to whites, an ever-growing population of Hispanics and a small number of African-Americans was once rigidly segregated. Even today, its handling of racial issues sometimes becomes as tangled as the giant tumbleweeds that roll through town.
Its time-frozen quality that is so endearing at Rexall's 1950s-style soda fountain - and as planes land with flight attendants tee-heeing, "Welcome to Midland; set your watches for 1957" - also threatens to stymie efforts at economic development and diversity.
And with the fabric of the community soaked in the boom-and-bust cycle of oil, the Midlander's quest, like much of his worth and value, has always been tied to the other fiercely coveted green.
"We came here to get rich," says David Cockrell, one of the dozens of oilmen who stream into the linoleum-floored Main Street Diner every morning, flipping their cell phones onto the table alongside their gravy-covered plates of fried eggs, sausage and biscuits.
From Midland's unlikely downtown of shiny, sleek skyscrapers that jut out of the region's vast, flat barrenness like a corporate Oz, it is easy to see the reflection of many of Bush's beliefs. Hard work, self-reliance, giving back to the community and disdain for government are more than the ethic here. They are like a cult.
It is also easy to see why Midlanders often point out the friendly people and lack of traffic as drawing cards. Midway between Fort Worth and El Paso - hence the name Midland - the community sits amid a baked brown landscape of mesquite and sagebrush where the brick ranch homes are surrounded, not by white picket fences, but by cinder-block walls that keep out debris during sandstorms.
Of course, the chief draw, the one that lured George H. W. Bush and his family, and people from all over the globe in the 1950s, was the promise of a fast fortune in oil.
"It was a paradise for ambition," says P. D. Sams, a husky-voiced oil executive who came to Midland in 1951.