by Bobby D. Weaver
The oil patch abounds in unforgettable characters. In bygone days the well shooter ranked high on that list and, for all I know, he might still be right up there. It takes an unusual personality to work with nitroglycerine on a daily basis. The steely nerves of those nitro handlers are legendary. No less legendary are some of the yarns of their personal exploits. One of those is recounted by John J. McLaurin in his book, Sketches in Crude Oil, published in 1896.
It seems that this careless shooter somehow spilled a little liquid nitro on the floor of the magazine where it was stored. He did not notice it at the time, but later on when he happened to stomp down hard on his right foot he was immediately catapulted right over the top of the derrick. Being a sure-footed devil, the shooter managed, as he returned to earth, to land upright, but as soon as his left foot touched the ground the same thing happened. Not wishing to repeat the ordeal, he removed his shoes, took a stiff shot of whiskey to settle his nerves, and finished the job in his socks.
Though McLaurin doesn’t mention it, that fellow might have been the same lonely well shooter who was so unpopular in his rooming house that he had to adopt a stray kitten for company. Admiring the kitten’s feistiness, the shooter named him Nitro.
Unlike the other boarders, the kitten took to the shooter immediately. They became so close that the shooter began to feed his pet small doses of nitroglycerine. Before long little Nitro developed a real taste for the liquid explosive and wouldn’t drink any milk that wasn’t laced with it. Clearly, Nitro was developing a pretty serious problem, but like a lot of addicts, he did a fair job of hiding it. None of the other boarders knew about his habit.
That was unfortunate because everyone in the house was not a cat lover, least of all the grizzled old cable tool driller. He had absolutely no use for cats and no inclination to hide it. Every time little Nitro came near, he would break into a cussing fit and throw whatever was nearby at the poor animal.
One day when the shooter was out in the field the driller was coming in off tour. As the driller opened the front door and stepped inside, Nitro made a mad dash for freedom. The driller couldn’t resist the opportunity to aim a mighty kick at the fleeing animal, but Nitro was too quick, and the momentum of failing to connect knocked the driller off his feet. At that the cat spun, hissed loudly, and spat at his tormentor. They say that the explosion could be heard for miles. Witnesses swore that the last they saw of the driller, whose boots were blown off, he was hightailing it barefoot, with old Nitro bounding along behind, still hissing, and leaving small craters everywhere he spat.
Spending 20 years laboring in greasy overalls in the oil patch and doing a hard time stretch collecting oral histories for Texas Tech has provided Bobby Weaver with a wealth of oil field yarns. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.