Conversations at a Montana Gas Pump
On the way to one of the most spectacular parks in the country on Wednesday, I stopped off at a gas station in Columbia Falls, a town known as the "Gateway to Glacier National Park." Columbia Falls (population 3800), like most small towns in the United States, is drastically changing and gas prices are high at 2.84/gallon. Here are excerpts from a few interviews about gas prices, the community and the Iraq war.
Why do you think gas prices have gone up?
Tourist prices. You hear excuses, but who knows really? It's not out of hand yet.
Does it bother you?
Any price increase bothers me. I'm on social security, but what are you gonna do?
How long have you lived here?
Off and on sine 1962.
How has it changed over the years?
Way too many people moving in. It's not the last best place anymore.
How is the job market here?
It stinks. Incomes stink. Jobs stink.
What did you do before you retired?
I worked at the aluminum plant. That's one of the best jobs in the valley for a blue collar worker. Unfortunately, they've been shut down, too.
So where do people work? Which companies employ the most people?
The tourist industry. Unless you have a very professional job, you're gonna work for the tourist industry and it's not gonna pay enough to make a living on.
How do people make it?
Well, I retired. When they told me I was laid off, I said, OK, I'm outta here and I'm not coming back. They were good to me while I was there.
Do you have health insurance?
Not yet. I'm too young. I'm just 63 now, but I'm a healthy person so I'm not too worried about it.
Since you're on social security, what do you think about Bush's plan to change it?
I really don't know about it yet. Who does?
How does this area lean politically?
It's pretty conservative. We're all individuals. That's why we live here. I'm a registered Democrat and I voted for Bush both times.
What do you like about Bush?
I like that he's a conservative.
Do you think he's doing a good job?
So far. Everybody's preoccupied with his military endeavors and I support him 100 percent. That might not be real popular, but that's the way it is. It's a job that needs to be done.
Why do you think we're in Iraq?
We're there primarily for oil. Our oil comes from that region and our country runs on it. You gotta protect it. Maybe that's not popular, but that's the way it is. You shut your car down and what are you gonna do?
So you think we're at war for oil?
Probably 75 percent. We also have terrorism to deal with. We've been concerned about those people's freedoms and human rights for a long time. Everybody says bring our troops home, but you have to remember that the military is there to fight. People who sign up with the military do it to fight. That's their job.
When Bush says we have to finish the job, what does that mean?
You have to wait until they have an established government and police themselves. You can't walk out now and leave them with all the insurgents and all the terrorists. You can't do that. You've already totally disrupted their government. You can't just step away and say, sorry I'm done. You have to finish the job.
Do you think we've created more terrorism by going to war?
It's created more over there.
Why do you think gas prices have increased?
I think part of it is to help for the disasters and the war. I've got a sneaking hunch that it's going to go up even more with the other hurricane that we just had.
Are people taking measure to drive less or is that hard to do around here where you don't have public transportation?
Job wise, it's really tough. You gotta have the gas to get to work. My son works at the airport and sometimes he has to drive back and forth a couple of times. Then there's activity. Our family is an outdoorsy family. We hunt and fish and that's been cut down. When we go somewhere, it's usually two or three of us helping to pay for the gas to drive up in the woods or take a fishing trip or to go hunting. We used to take off and not worry about it, but we do now.
Did you hear Bush say we have to be better conservers the other day?
I didn't hear it myself, but it boils down to what a guy can afford. I'm on disability right now and I can't afford to do a lot of things. My income doesn't change at all anymore. I have to really watch the number of trips I take and what I do.
Do you think the government can do anything about this?
I think they could, but I think they're going the wrong way. I just wish they would explain why this is happening instead of people just running to the gas pumps and see it go up everyday 10 or 20 cents without any explanation. That's the thing that gets me. What's the reason for it?
Are you from this area?
Yeah, I've lived here my whole life.
How has it changed over the years?
It has grown. I have three boys and they don't have a clue about what is used to look like around here. Thirty or forty years ago, it was so small and you could just enjoy driving around with no traffic. Now when you go to the park or the reservoir, you'll find 10 times more people there.
How about jobs and the economy?
Depends on what you do. When people come in, you have a lot of building jobs, so if you're a carpenter, an electrician or in construction, it's fine. But people who don't have a particular trade work at minimum wage. It's tough.
What did you do before you went on disability?
I worked at the aluminum plant for 29 years and my neck got all screwed up. I got chronic arthritis so I can't really do anything anymore.
How does this town lean politically?
It's more Republican, but I think Bush is losing a lot of his popularity over what's going on right now.
Did you vote for him?
Yeah, both times.
Why do you think he's losing popularity?
A lot of it has to do with the war. I think things sort of backfired on him in that respect. I think it's gonna be a never ending battle over there, trying to straighten a country that huge out. I just can't see it happening in a couple years; there's just no way it can happen.
Were you in favor of the war in the beginning?
I guess I had mixed feelings about it. I was in some ways, but I didn't want all of this to happen. I'm just thankful that none of my kids are in the service right now.
What do you think we should do?
It's hard to say. I think it would be impossible to just pack up and leave. To lose everything we were trying to gain probably wouldn't be the right thing to do either.
Why do you think we're there?
That's a good question. It's hard to answer that. We got Hussein out of there, but of course, the weapon deal didn't seem to be what they thought it was. I don't know. The United States can't change every country in the world to our specifications. I just don't know. I think people are getting fed up with it.
What do you think of our current political climate in general?
I don't think the Democrats have had anybody in there that has been worth voting for and I used to be a Democrat for years and years.
Why'd you change?
Probably because of Bill Clinton. (laughs)
So you're open to voting Democrat, but you haven't liked any of the candidates?
Do you think people want something different politically? If someone talked about real issues truthfully, would people respond? Would you respond?
Yeah, the truth would be nice. I guess that goes with the territory. When you vote for a Republican, you're voting for big business. That's the one thing that I never have liked about voting Republican. That's one of the reasons I didn't before. When I first started dealing with lawyers when I was going through my workman's comp, they told me about a lot of the changes made over the years. They told me I could thank the governor for that, who was a Republican. All those changes were made because of him. They were bad changes that hurt the worker. There's basically a formula now.
Did that make you rethink how you vote?
It pissed me off. Yeah. If a decent Democrat got in there, I probably would go back and vote that way. If it's Hillary, forget it. (laughs)