PBOG’s popular humor columnist—Bobby Weaver, creator of our “Oil Patch Tales” column—has lived the life and loves to tell of its ins and outs, ups and downs, and a few of its “high fives” along the way.
by Jesse Mullins
“Memory is a complicated thing,” someone once said. Sometimes it takes time for memories to gain clarity. Bobby Weaver, 78, has accumulated nearly eight decades of them, and he is philosophical about the retrieval process, when it comes to recollecting that much life experience.
“I’ve reached an age where you look back on things a lot and a lot of things become clear,” Weaver said recently. “As my old friend Jimmy Ziglar used to say, ‘When you’re in the middle of a bar fight, you don’t have time to count the beer bottles in the air…’ ” He laughs. “So when you’re in the midst of these things, you don’t realize the significance of them.” But significant they are, and Weaver favored his PBOG interlocuter with some of the highlights of a lifetime in the patch, along with some life’s lessons to boot.
“All my life, I’ve liked stories,” said Weaver, who today makes his home in Edmond, Okla. “I can remember things I heard from those old-timers I worked with down there in the Permian Basin. I’d hear them tell these yarns about what happened back in the old days. And I pretty much remember those, and then, later, when I got going in the archive work [Weaver was an archivist at more than one historical museum], I collected a lot more stories.”
So many, in fact, he’s become a living storehouse of the legends and lore of the Permian oil patch. That, plus an authority on a number of other things, including ethnology, Southwestern history, the cowboy life, and museum curation and consultation.
He’s a historian, an author, a storyteller, a craftsman, even a preservationist of sorts. A preserver of culture. He’s a link to the past and he is a celebrant of the present.
But let’s let his contemporaries tell us who he is.
“Bobby Weaver is first and foremost a storyteller, but he is also an oil field folklorist and historian, a man who is comfortable in the halls of academe as well as on the drilling rig floor,” says Joe Specht, an oilfield historian himself. Specht, who wrote PBOG‘s well-received “Oil Patch Music of the Permian Basin” series that concluded earlier this year, has worked with Weaver on the speaking circuit. Specht goes on: “Weaver never abandoned his oil patch roots; in fact, he used this blue collar sensibility in combination with his academic training to produce the groundbreaking Oilfield Trash: Life and Labor in the Oil Patch.”
Specht’s assessment points up one of Weaver’s unique qualities. It’s rare to find someone who has had such a bluecollar working man’s career as Weaver has had, and yet who also has conquered the academic world as well. Weaver doesn’t often say it, but he has a Ph.D. in history. And those twin achievements bookend what might be called a third career—that humorist/folklorist/storyteller role that perhaps fits him as well or better than the other two. He’s a renaissance man for the hydrocarbons set, but he’d rather tell you a joke about a rig-up.
Byron Price is well known in the museum world, having been executive director of the National Cowboy Museum and Western Heritage Center, as well as the Panhandle Plains Museum. At both places he supervised one Bobby Weaver.
“Bobby is somebody who, as an academic, doesn’t take himself too seriously,” says Price, who is currently the executive director of the University of Oklahoma Press. “He has a great sense of hunor and a disarming air about him that would make you not think he is as intelligent as he really is. But underneath that good-ol’-boy exterior is a thoughtful guy and a danged good historian.”
Price said he had known Weaver when both were in graduate school at Texas Tech University. “I knew him then through his wife, Dianna [Everett],” he said.
Later, when both were at Panhandle Plains, and Price had been promoted to executive director of that institution, the board decided to erect a new wing that would house a petroleum exhibit. Weaver was already on staff there, and Price knew exactly the guy for the job.
“He had grown up in the business,” Price said.
Later still, when Price was installed to head the National Cowboy Museum, he fetched Weaver to join him there. That museum was on the threshold of a massive expansion program. They weren’t just adding a wing. They were adding wings, plural, to the tune of more than fifty million dollars.
“Bobby was invaluable to that,” Price said. “He worked closely with the contractors, and with his experience in that field [contracting], he kept us from having some major cost overruns. And he helped us in a lot of other practical ways, also. With all of that, and with him being a scholar—well, that’s a combination you don’t find very often. He’s someone who can operate in the real world and the academic world.
“Bobby is down to earth,” Price added. “And he is a good guy to be around.”
Jerry Holt, a boyhood friend of Weaver’s, is still close to Weaver, having known him since the eighth grade. “We grew up together,” Holt said, and he adds with a laugh: “He married my girlfriend when I was off in the service.”
Holt isn’t kidding—that really happened—but it amuses him today, and apparently did at the time, too. “There’s never been a better friend,” he adds. “We sacked groceries together in Odessa, during our high school years.”
Holt remembers something else from that time. “Back then, at Odessa High School, at the end of the spring semester, there would be test times, and after you took a test, you’d be free to roam around campus until you took the next one. Well, I was with Bobby and he had the idea that we could confiscate the fire extinguishers off the school bus, because when they’re filled with water they really squirt a long ways. Then we got in the back of a convertible and we were driving around, squirting people. Well, eventually, we pulled back into the parking lot, and when we did, a car pulled up behind us and there were two guys in it. They weren’t high schoolers—these were older guys. They said, ‘We want those [extinguishers].’ Well, there were about four or five of us in the car, so Bobby said, ‘You’ve gotta take ’em.’ And Bobby and I got out. Well, those two guys proceeded to kick the hell out of both of us. And we were saying to the others who were still in the car, ‘What the hell are you doing back there?’ [laughs]. We’ve asked them that many a time since then, too,” he chuckled.
Bobby Weaver first laid eyes on the Permian Basin in 1949, at the age of 12, when he moved there from central Texas with his family. “So [from there] I grew up in the oilfield, and as soon as I got big enough to work, I went to work as a tank builder on a tank building crew, because that’s what my dad did.”
The Weavers were farming people who had never had much. Bobby’s father went alone to Odessa in August 1948 to find work in the midst of an oil boom. As is the case in boom times, housing was virtually unavailable. It took him a year to find accommodations for his family.
“And when he came home for Christmas, I rode back with him because an uncle of mine was out there and could bring me back. I remember going out—we came through Rising Star and Cross Plains on Highway 36 and got to Abilene, and that’s when I figured out we were leaving the well-watered country and going into a desert. [laughs] Then, the closer we got to Odessa, the more it turned into this fairyland. I mean, there were what I thought were Christmas trees scattered all over the country out there. It was nighttime, you know. Well, Dad said, ‘No, those are rigs lit up, running at night.’ And there were all those flares. I mean it was just… it was so different. Then we pulled into Odessa, on Second Street, on Highway 80, and it looked like a carnival. There were neon lights everywhere, there were these beer joints, there were dance hall clubs. I thought I’d gone to Sodom and Gomorrah. [laughs] I’d grown up in one of those strict Methodist backgrounds, and so, I was just fascinated. And I’ve been fascinated ever since.”
He started working full-time straight out of high school, as a tank builder.
“And there’s not a crossroad in West Texas I haven’t been to,” he said. “We went everywhere. And it was like a drug. For a young person, it’s extremely exciting, because you never work the same place twice. A typical job for us was to build two high fives—two 500 barrel tanks, along with walk and stairway—and that would be about a two-day job. And so we’d build that tank battery out, oh, let’s say, 60 or 70 miles north of Odessa, and we’d finish it and then we’d go down east of Odessa 35 or 40 miles. And so you never really hit the same place twice in over a year’s time. And you’re always going. It’s always something different. And it’s a very enticing lifestyle to a young single person. A lot of them stayed with it and made careers out of it.”
When he wasn’t building storage tanks, he was filling time by building grain elevators. He tells of how things were in that traveling roadshow as well.
“We built an elevator at Floydada,” he began. “And while we were over at Floydada, they had what they called an Old Settler’s Reunion. It was a big thing—there was a street dance out there, and these fiddling contests and all that—so the crew all got together, and we all went down to that. It got dark, and they moved the whole thing into an old abandoned JC Penney’s store, there, to have the dance. And it was going on, and I got to looking up, and these people were going out the back door out there, and they were coming back with these cold libations. Now, this was a dry county, you understand. And so I thought I’d check it out. I went out there—if I’m lyin’ I’m dyin’, man—and there in the alley stood a law enforcement officer complete with cowboy boots, Stetson hat, big shiny badge, gun on his hip, selling beer out of the trunk of his patrol car!” [laughter]
Jerry Duke, Weaver’s brother-in-law and former coworker, recalls how life was in the tanking heyday.
“We were working around Big Lake and we’d stop on the way home from work to get a six pack of beer. We [meaning Duke and the other hands, other than Weaver] would buy the cheap beer. But not Bobby. He would buy the Heineken. Then we’d drink all ours up… and then we’d drink his up! The Heineken!” he said with a laugh.
Things were different in those days. But Weaver and his peers always found a way to have fun. He made a career of it for some years, then decided to broaden his horizons.
While in his early 30s, having been married 15 years, Weaver had taken a day job working at General Tire and Rubber in Odessa, while still tanking on the side. He also had been studying sporadically at Odessa Junior College. One night in 1969, having worked some 30 hours straight, he was coming off a graveyard shift “and [I] ran off the road, hitting a perfectly innocent pickup truck sitting beside the road.”
For Weaver, it was an awakening in more ways than one.
“I’m sitting there in the cab of my pickup, sun shining in the bright August morning, and I said to myself, ‘Bobby Weaver, you are out of your damned mind. You are going to be working shift work for the rest of your natural life.’ And so I had an epiphany. That began my first real experience with a real college. And you know, I found out it was so much easier than working for a living. [laughs] I mean, I stayed with it till they gave me a Ph.D. just to get rid of me.”
So it was off to Texas Tech. There were other doings during those years, of course—including a work stint at Reynolds Metals in Corpus Christi, working on ships, and some more education over at Texas A&I, in a master’s program in history, and a divorce, and a return to Lubbock and Texas Tech.
In the spring of 1974 he was back in Odessa, tanking some more. But then academics won out again, and as he finished his doctorate in Tech at Lubbock, he opted to continue on in that environs, and found himself working in that institution’s Southwest Collection, as an archivist.
His Southwest Collection role also had him traveling all over Texas interviewing people on their historical background and other topics. “I did a lot of interviews of oil field hands, because that was one of my favorite things.”
He left Tech in 1979 to assume a role at the Panhandle Plains Museum at Canyon, Texas. That institution bills itself as the oldest and largest historical museum in the state. Today, inside the front entryway of the museum, there stands a full-sized wooden drilling rig.
“I designed and built that rig,” Weaver says. He also handled much of the work of building the museum’s petroleum wing, right down to writing the text that appears on the labels beside the exhibits.
In 1988, he went from Panhandle Plains in Canyon, to the National Cowboy and Western Heritage Museum in Oklahoma City, rejoining Byron Price there. Weaver arrived as assistant director.
Price had inherited “a mess” at the famous museum. But as Weaver says, Price had a two-step program in mind.
“First of all, we were going to organize the programming—in other words, get the exhibits and events and things stabilized and the financial situation stabilized. And as soon as we got that going, we were going to do an expansion program. And that’s what we did. We went from 80,000 to 220,000 square feet. Basically, I was in charge of construction.”
The reopened museum was a sensation, and it became the role that capped Weaver’s workaday life, as he reached age 65 in that job, and retired—at least from salaried work. He did some consulting for other museums around the country for a time, and wrote some of his ten books, and embarked on a sporadic speaking career. But mostly he’s been doing whatever he’s fancied. Sort of like he has since he was 12.
So what has been the biggest payoff in such a varied life?
“My interest has always been the oilfield hands,” Weaver says.
He’s never been too intrigued by the executives-and-professionals side of the business—the CEOs, the engineers, the geologists, and the various other salaried office workers. It’s always been the hands-on types—the in-the-field doers.
“The thing about the oilfield is, it is one of those places where there has been tremendous technological change,” Weaver said. “It has found ways to drill quicker, deeper, to transport petroleum products easier, to do everything you could imagine. And this digital world has really escalated all of that. But the constant, and the thing that has intrigued me, is those hands. They haven’t changed. Everything has changed around them, but their attitudes, and their approach to life, and the way that they view their lifestyle—is still like it was in 1920. They’re just a good bunch of guys.” [laughs] Their view of life hasn’t changed. And the patch is one of those places where, even today, a person with only a limited formal education but a willingness to work can make a good living. That can’t be said about everyplace, everywhere.
“And here is the crux of what makes these people who they are. When they first came to the patch, they were mostly young, single-type people. Most of them came from a rural background. They never had any money. Their big entertainment came when they could go to town on a Saturday and take a couple or three dollars. With that, they whooped it up if they could.
“Well, when they arrived in the patch, every night started to be Saturday night. They had plenty of money, so they gained a somewhat disreputable reputation—at least among those who were outside of the industry. And as a consequence, when the oilfield crowd would move into a new boom area, they tended to coalesce and stick together more, because they were the ‘outsiders.’ And that is what created this culture I’m talking about. These attitudes, this independent spirit, all these kinds of things.
“That lifestyle creates that attitude. It creates a really independent spirit with the workers. I’ve read several psychological studies on why the union was never successful in the oilfield. And it’s largely that attitude—that, and the boom/bust kind of a thing. In other words, the union got a foothold in refineries, where the guys had to be there every day. But us, hell, we didn’t have, we didn’t need another boss. We didn’t even like the one we had. [laughs] And we just visualized the union as just somebody else you had to answer to.”
He sums it all up with some words of tribute to the old-timers.
“I’ve always wound up back down at the patch doing one thing or another. And the guys and the culture, the oilfield culture, just fascinates me, because they’re the ones that taught me to work. Those old men could do more with less than anybody you ever saw. They could ‘git ‘er done,’ as the Cable Guy says. [laughs] Basically, I’m a poor kid from the oil patch who got lucky and got a degree. I’m one of those fortunate people. I got to live out my dream. I got to do exactly what I wanted to do with my life, and so many people I’ve known have never been able to do that.
“They taught me how to make my way in the world. They taught me how to treat my fellow man.
“They just wouldn’t give up. You’re on a job and trying to get something done and they would figure out a way to get it handled. It might not be orthodox [laughs] but they would get it handled. People talk about shenanigans and quasi-legal doings in the oilfield, but I can’t tell you how many jobs I took on a handshake, and never did anyone beat me out of any money.”
He’s a historian, an author, a storyteller, a craftsman, even a preservationist of sorts.
“He used his blue collar sensibility… to produce the groundbreaking Oilfield Trash: Life and Labor in the Oil Patch.”
“Bobby… doesn’t take himself too seriously.”
“Underneath that good-ol’-boy exterior is a thoughtful guy.”
“The closer we got to Odessa, the more it turned into this fairyland.”
“Their approach to life, and the way that they view their lifestyle—is still like it was in 1920.”
“They tended to coalesce and stick together more, because they were the ‘outsiders.’”
“Those old men could do more with less than anybody you ever saw.”
“I can’t tell you how many jobs I took on a handshake.”
He laughs again, something he does often, and then says it from the heart. “I think those oilfield hands are the best people in the world.”