Name: Karen Fife-Payne
Date: August 24, 2018
Circumstance: In-person interview; 3rd floor of the Ft. Worth Hilton (Ft. Worth, Texas), 2018 Creole Reunion.
Editor’s Note: Karen Fife-Payne was one of warmest people at the reunion, generously pointing out others I should talk to long after we sat down. Nevertheless, the conversation we had was fantastic. She also introduced me to an interesting, Venezuelan-made work, accessible here, describing the way the oil story is told from a Venezuelan perspective.
Recording of our conversation: https://drive.google.com/file/d/1LNxZq_GbKJRR-J1EdpnHLWNhymqcWaMI/view?usp=sharing
Trent Kannegieter (TK): I’m holding a mamon. No one’s sure how it got here (to the reunion) because they’re not easily accessible in the United States.
Karen Fife Payne (KF): You need something to take that flavor away. Where are you from?
TK: I am from Alabama. I live near where Glen Wilcox lives now.
KF: I don’t know him.
TK: Do you know Laura? His daughter? She’s here. To start, when did your family go to Venezuela?
KF: My step dad went in 1931. A bunch of them went out of the East Texas oil field. They lived in barracks/Quonset huts. They were a bunch of bachelors. They had all their food and everything provided. He came home to Texas on a holiday, and he met my mother. That was in 1947. They got married in 1948 in Carapito, Venezuela which is in Eastern Venezuela. We were there several years. He was in nearly every camp down there; 1931 to 1959 is a long time. We moved to Jusepin which is in the middle, and then we moved to La Salina. Those are the only camps I’ve lived in. He flew me into Paternales on a seaplane once. He was 55 when he retired.
TK: So, he was an engineer?
KF: No. He was a farm boy. Dropped out of school in sixth grade. He was probably hanging around pool halls when he started working in the East Texas oil fields. He ended up being the head of production in Venezuela when he retired. Getting all of the oil in the tankers in Carapito. The tankers came up the Orinoco River. I showed you the pictures of the wharf. He was really polished, well-spoken. He had been down there so long that he had a good rapport with his workers; he treated them well, and they respected him.
He saw the writing on the wall. He started having trouble with his workers. The Communists/Socialists were riling them up. It broke his heart. So, he retired and came back to the States in 1959. For someone with a sixth-grade education, he totally predicted what was going to happen to Venezuela. The reason he retired was what happened from 1959 to 2018. He knew what was going to happen. He said that they would nationalize the oil industry, and they wouldn’t know how to run it.
We were the richest country in South America. It was incredible. The oil camp houses weren’t fancy, but La Salina and Hollywood were on stilts. We had a concrete slab house. Everyone had a live-in maid. One of my first memories was a maid, Emma Mahildo, who would hold my bike, so I could start pedaling; I was six. My mother wouldn’t let anyone in the kitchen until we got this maid who came out of the jungle; she’d never worn shoes. She was an excellent cook.
For kids, it was idyllic. It was like a military encampment. It was safe. There were guards. So the kids were free to roam everywhere. All the camps had golf courses and country clubs. Everyone was a member. Movies twice a week on an outdoor screen.
One of my favorite pictures from Carapito is of my mother on a burro. They had donkey baseball. Have you ever heard of donkey baseball? (no) Oh my goodness. They had donkeys. You would hit the ball and then get on the donkey and ride to the bases. Men and women played. I think you had a drink at the bases; I’m not sure, you’d have to ask someone.
The women were like my mom. They were farm girls, and they weren’t used to having all that time. One of the things that happened down there is that people started to drink too much. They had rum-and-coke card parties that started at 10 in the morning. So, you had that issue.
There was a lady named Olga Greenfield, she lived across the street. She’d blow out eggs for all the kids in the camp. I’ve taught my grandchildren to do that. What else did I learn there? I learned to swim at Carapito at the club. (I was born in 1942.)
We went on Alcoa cruise lines. You could only come home every 18 months, and we could only stay for six weeks. Because you weren’t paying income tax. So, every two years you would have to buy all of your clothes and shoes (you’d have to guess what size you needed for growing kids). After we bought everything, you’d have to scuff them up, so the customs guys didn’t think they were new.
My first memory was arriving on the boat in Venezuela in Maracuy, just down from Caracas. There was a car there for us. I was six. We went to customs. When you opened the suitcases, there were two bottles of whiskey atop each suitcase. After you got through customs, there was no whiskey in the suitcases. There was a lot of mordida, a lot of graft and corruption, even then. And then, we’d get down the road about an hour, and there was a chain across the road. Now there’s an armed guard with his girlfriend in a hammock there. He has Fife open up the trunk; he didn’t take anything, but I’m sure Fife bribed him. (Fife is her stepfather.)
I’m trying to visualize different things in Carapito. There were howlers. We’d go into the jungle. I only saw a cat, probably panther, cross the street one time. Mostly monkeys and parrots, lots of macaws. The camps were close together; there were many different companies. There was a couple at a non-Creole camp; he raised rabbits, and she raised macaws. She had Charlie, and he would bite us.
We used to climb out of the camp and take sugarcane from the farmers.
TK: Did your dad ever talk with you about the old days, before you were there?
KF: Not really. Even the old guys here weren’t from that time. He would be 114 now.
Jusepin was entirely different. It was out in the middle of nowhere. It was in the plains, and it was a very basic camp.
The schools were all excellent. Most of them were old-maid school teachers who came down to latch on to an engineer. (Don’t put that in your report!) Excellent schools. They taught half in English and half in Spanish. It’s not like bilingual education now in Texas schools. You really learned the Spanish.
I broke my leg in Jusepin. They had orchids in the quebradas. We’d go down in these gulleys, and one day I fell.
Then we went to La Salina. I think I was in sixth or seventh grade. That’s where I met most of these people here. It was a bigger camp on Lake Maracaibo. There were two parts to the camp, Hollywood and Las Cupulas. They used to grill goat for holidays. The Hispanics still do that in Texas. The company used to provide buses to take teenagers out to swim in Lake Maracaibo. It wasn’t polluted, even with all of oil drills. The company had a dance floor out there.
I can’t tell you much about the oil operations. They would leave for work at 5:30 am and come home for a hot lunch at 11:30. Went back to work at 1 and worked until 4 pm. Then went to the club at 4 and played dominoes. We didn’t have a TV; I didn’t have a TV until I was 17 years old. He would come home and listen to the shortwave radio to hear the international news. We could listen to American Bandstand to hear the new music.
I don’t think we had telephones. I don’t remember telephones. I can’t think of anything else. I only had a kid’s perspective. We partied in the summer. You couldn’t drive until you were 21, and you couldn’t leave the camp. We’d dance until 2 in the morning under the houses that were on stilts. We weren’t drinking; we’d have cokes and potato chips. Because we didn’t have curfews. They knew where we were all the time. We could take a taxi to other camps.
TK: Did you go to high school there or in the US?
KF: Then you had to go to Maracaibo or Caracas to high school. My parents decided if he had to go off, then I’d go back to the States. I lived with my aunt and went to public high school in the States for ninth grade, and then I went to boarding school at St. Stephens in Austin. The guys mostly went to military academies.
TK: When you were in the staff school in Venezuela was it mostly Americans? Were there Venezuelans in there with you?
KF: It was mostly Americans. It was mostly the children of the Americans. In La Salina, the Venezuelans lived down in Cabimas, not in the camp with us. The Venezuelan homes were very basic. They were one room with a kitchen; I don’t even know what they did for restroom facilities. The one room had hooks for hammocks all around the wall.
There was a Venezuelan doctor whose daughter hung out with us. They lived downtown. They had a rooftop that looked down on the jail. When you went to jail in Venezuela, your family had to bring you food. There were movie theatres that didn’t have roofs. We’d go watch comedians there too.
Americans didn’t want to have a car wreck. If you had a car wreck, you went to jail. There was a young guy who had a car wreck; he ran into a woman and killed her. He went to jail. The company got him and flew him out of the country before he could be sentenced. All the boys had motorcycles because you couldn’t drive until you were 21. They would ride all over Maracaibo. You learned who was coming to the camp by the sound of his motorcycle. This was the 1950s when girls were wearing crinolines and party dresses. We would ride side saddle on those motorcycles. It was great. It was crazy.
TK: When you went to St. Stephens, what did you notice as the academic differences between the education in the oil camps and at St. Stephens?
KF: Oh, it was different because we were a different age, meaning you’d study history, different subjects etc. The teachers at the oil camp schools were excellent. I was an average student at St. Stephens. I wasn’t very dedicated to academics. I read all the time; I still read. I graduated when I was 17, and my dad retired that year. So I moved home and went to the University of Texas. I graduated UT in three years. I was well prepared at Venezuela and St. Stephens. I live close to St. Stephens now. Back then it was way out in the country, but Austin has grown up all around it. Back then it was nine miles away from anywhere. Kids would run away, and they’d have to go nine miles to get anywhere. It was so different from the freedom I was used to in Venezuela. We had to go to chapel twice a day, and we had chores. The kids who go there now are so spoiled. Back then we served dinner, swept floors, etc. Every two weeks you got a new assignment. It was good for you. We had some teachers that were amazing. My Spanish teacher was amazing. It was an incredible experience.
TK: After your dad retired, did you ever go back to Venezuela?
KF: No. I majored in Latin American studies at UT because I was going to go back. I was so naïve. I get out of college, and I’m a 20-year old Anglo female who’s never worked a day in her life. What company is going to hire me to go to Latin America? I went to Dallas and interviewed with all of these companies for ten days. I came home crying. Regrouped and went back up there and got a job. In my career I never used my Latin American studies.
TK: What was it like studying Latin America at UT when your perspective was already so aware of Venezuelan realities?
KF: It was very good. Many of the professors came from different countries. In those days, the Latin American studies office was very small, and there were very few students. I remember I took Portuguese; that was not my best subject. I’m still really good at languages. When we go to Italy, I listen to my tapes for six months before we go, and I can understand. I still use my Spanish a lot in Texas with all the Latinos.
We used to fly back and forth on Pan Am. In those days, there were lounges in the back of the plane. There was no first class. We would just be raising cain back there. No one complained. We had so much fun.