by Bobby Weaver
During the 1950s and ’60s I was a part of the hard working, hard drinking group of oilfield of hands in the Permian Basin who were generally referred to as “oilfield trash” by outsiders. In those days Odessa had the reputation as the rough and ready working man’s town while Midland, only 20 miles to the east, was known as the regional oil company headquarters town with a more settled reputation. Those oilfield hands I knew in Odessa lived and worked within a social climate created by a cadre of mostly single young men whose main recreation was characterized as drinking, fighting, and womanizing, providing they could find a female with whom to womanize. However, my personal observation is that despite that reputation, there was an inordinately large number of churches in the town. Trying to reconcile that dichotomy in my mind has given me food for thought for many years.
In 1949 my family moved to Odessa from the rural bible belt of central Texas to land in the midst of Sodom and Gomorrah, but we quickly adapted. The most obvious sign of the change in our domicile was a host of drinking emporiums scattered throughout the city, with the greatest concentration being located in a two-block area on east 8th Street a short distance from downtown. As I remember it there were about eight or ten of them with exotic names like the Nip and Sip, the Tivoli, and the High Hat Club. Those joints did not even have locks on their doors because they never closed.
Soon after that the town began to clean up its reputation, because sometime around 1951 or 1952 all the 8th Street clubs were closed. I am not sure what happened to all of them—except for the Nip and Sip. Its owner moved out on the west side of the Andrews Highway, just north of the city limits, where he opened the Pelican Club. About that time the area around the Pelican became the stereotypical center of oilfield worker leisure time activities, with numerous beer joints along with the town’s largest and most popular dance hall, the Stardust, located just across the highway from the Pelican.
That is not to say that there did not remain a significant number of isolated watering holes scattered helter skelter all over town. By then, though, the main concentration tended to lay along main drags on the periphery of the city—like North Grant before it became the Andrews Highway, South Grant before it became the Crane Highway, East 8th out east of Dixie before it resumed its Highway 80 duties, and the Kermit Highway to the northwest. You might say it was easy to “get a cold one” upon entering or leaving town in any direction.
I suppose all that underlies the nature of oilfield hands both then and now. They have always tended toward a relatively young lot of 18-to-30-year-old working class males to whom beer drinking is an important part of their social structure. For example, in 1955, when I went to work in a tank building crew, one of the things we did as a standard practice was take beer out on the job. On the way to work each morning we always stopped at an ice plant or convenience store and filled our water cans. In the bottom of the can we put a six pack of beer. Atop that we placed a twelve and one half pound block of ice (a few years later the block ice disappeared in favor of the chunk type ice in vogue nowadays). Then we added the water. At the job site we changed from our street clothes into work clothes and spent the day at hard labor. At quitting time we got the beer out and had a cold one while changing clothes. You cannot imagine how good that tasted after a long day working under a hot July sun.
For those unfortunate souls who did not have beer in their water cans, there were always places to remedy the problem on the outskirts of town. One typical example of those that I remember plainly was the Moonlight Bar that lay north of town on the Andrews County line. There you could stop, go in, and have a beer or two and even purchase a bottle of spirits at the attached liquor store. I remember an old oilfield hand we called John “Mule.” His real name was Johann Muhlenbakker or some such name but nobody could pronounce nor spell it so he became just old John “Mule.” Anyway, when we were working up around Andrews, as we approached the county line on the way home, he would always lean over the front seat as ask the driver, “Say old podna could you pull up there at the Moonlight and let me get a bottle?” We were probably going to anyway, but he wanted to make sure we didn’t forget. Old John was the first person I ever heard of that had a charge account at a liquor store. It was the first bill he paid every month and sometimes it was the only bill he paid.
Another well known place back in those days was Turnbaugh Corner. It was located out west of Goldsmith where the Burma Road (now state highway 181) intersected with the road that ran past the old Phillips refinery. It was a little place not much bigger than an oilfield “doghouse” and as I remember it sported only a table with four chairs around it. It was operated by Ma Turnbaugh. I never knew much about her except she had been around the patch a long time and everybody seemed to revere her. Ma dispensed beer, soft drinks, cigarettes, and snacks to the hands driving past her front door. If you were coming in from the field in the afternoon it was almost mandatory to stop there. The tiny parking lot would always be full to overflowing with scores of pickups, small trucks, and company cars, which would line the roadside for a considerable distance. Once you got inside Ma seemed to know everybody by name and sometimes the hands would take over the duty of handing out the merchandise while Ma handled the cash register (she was careful about that part). Lord only knows how many gallons of beer were carted out of that little place by some of the toughest types in the country who would never in their wildest dreams take advantage of that little old lady.
Thousands of stories come out of those joints and some of them are even true. You hear a lot about the fights that went on there and it is true that there was a fracas now and again, but not constantly as one would be led to believe. Perhaps a good example of those who frequently fought was a hand named Henry Larson that I worked with for a number of years. When Henry was in his cups the man invariably got into some sort of squabble. His fighting strategy, as described by another of our friends, was two-fold. In phase one Henry would lean his head forward and let the other guy beat on it until his opponent became exhausted. In phase two he finished off the exhausted opponent. It was probably a good plan for a drunk, but to the best of my knowledge Henry never lasted long enough to implement phase two.
The truth of the matter was that all those young men working in the oil patch put in long hard days performing strenuous and often dangerous work. When they had a little time off there was very little available in the way of entertainment, so they drifted toward the bars and dance halls to unwind. Generally what went down at the serious drinking establishments was a group who worked together gathering for a big cold pitcher of beer and good conversation after a hard day’s work in the hot sunshine. Most times they would be served by a smiling bar maid wearing tight jeans and sporting a giant bouffant hairdo who addressed everybody as “Hon.” There, ensconced under the cooling breeze of an air conditioner with the jukebox playing softly in the background, they totally relaxed. There is no doubt that more miles of pipeline were laid, more deep wells drilled, and more tanks built under those conditions than ever took place in the reality of the oil patch.
Most of the joints were simple affairs with a bar, maybe a few tables and chairs, and some Naugahyde-upholstered booths around the perimeter. The old Ten Thirteen Club, located at 1013 North Grant, is one of those that comes to mind as typical. When you walked into that cool dark interior the first thing you saw was a shuffleboard table in the middle of the room and the first thing you heard was some country and western tune playing softly on the jukebox in a back corner. There might be a couple of guys hunched down at the bar sipping beer and talking about nothing in particular. It was a cool dark place where you could meet your buddies and relax or even dance a round or two with your girl.
Then of course there were the bar maids. It was deemed necessary for bar owners to have young outgoing girls working for them as an attraction for their male oriented clientele. Among the younger set that I remember was a little five foot nothing girl we called “Little Bit.” I was still in high school when I first met her. At the time she was car hopping and putting up with a lot of lip from smart mouthed teenagers. Later on she became a bar maid at a little joint some of us frequented and by then she was married to a roughneck. That little gal was probably typical of those working back then. She was small and cute, sported that ubiquitous bleached blonde bouffant hairdo, chewed gum all the time, and knew how to put you in your place. She would come over to our table and say, “How are you doing, Hon? It’s been a while since I seen you. Still drinking Lone Star I guess.” Then she would walk away to fill our order knowing full well that we would be totally focused on those tight jeans of hers.
I never really knew what became of Little Bit but I would guess the she probably stayed with that line of work. Over time most of those gals who stayed with the work became pretty hard cases. I remember Vi was a bar maid over at the Big Rig. She was a woman probably in her late 30s who had evidently been in the trade a long time. On the surface she was pretty much like Little Bit but with an attitude.
So those were the hands who gave the patch its somewhat less-than-lustrous reputation. When they were young they were living a great adventure with little thought for tomorrow. But nobody can stand up to that type of lifestyle forever. With a little age they began to settle down, maybe get married and start a family, and move on to more stable oilfield work with the major oil companies or even leave the patch altogether. That cycle has repeated itself with each boom and created a cultural division of younger and older workers in each oil town. Maybe that explains the large number of churches in Odessa in the ’50s and ’60s, which some say rivaled the number of beer joints in terms of numbers. To the best of my knowledge that aspect of oilfield life has never been investigated. Maybe it is because the stable side of life does not make as exciting a tale as the wild side.
Bobby Weaver is a regular contributor to PB Oil and Gas Magazine. His humor column, “Oil Patch Tales,” also appears in every issue.