The Unknown: The Hope for Oil
November 8, 2011
The Scene: Giddings, Texas
The Setting: The City Meat Market
Hershel Doyle glanced up from the pit, thick with the smoke of brisket and sausage. He watched the crowd elbowing its way into the City Meat Market as it did every day about noon. Same old crowd. The faces were always changing. So were the names. Yet, it was the same old crowd, an odd mixture of roughnecks and roustabouts, oil operators and drillers, company men and landmen, speculators and an occasional scam artist with a nervous twitch in his eye, their thirst unquenched by the never-ending search for oil. Giddings had become a boomtown during the 1970s, and his tables were covered by land maps and contracts and promissory notes. So many in the oil business met at the City Meat Market that operator Max Williams called it the Giddings Petroleum Club.
The town had been one of the poorest in Texas until Williams, his partner Irv Deal, and geologist Ray Holifield cracked the code of the unpredictable Austin Chalk and discovered the second largest oilfield during the past fifty years. Anyone who had ever worked on an oil well, wanted to work in the oil field, or who could spell oil made a mad rush to Giddings. And, sooner or later, they all wound up at the City Meat Market, which was little more than a hole in the wall flavored with barbecue smoke.
Hershel and his wife Lillian stood behind the counter piling ribs, brisket, pork, chicken, and sausages on brown butcher paper. No plates. Just plain old brown butcher paper. No menu. A man had no idea what a meal would cost him. He simply took as much meat as the cook stacked up, had it weighed, and paid so much an ounce or a pound. The saying was: If you could afford what you ordered yesterday, you can probably order it again today.
Some families came in day after day without a dime or the hope for a nickel to their name. It didn’t matter. Hershel and Lillian Doyle kept them fed. It was no sin to be poor, Lillian said. Everyone had been. At least everyone in Giddings had been. It was a sin to let somebody go hungry.
Everyday, Hershel Doyle heard the same phrase repeated over and over. Somebody had brought in another well. Somebody had struck it rich again. He was not a gambler or a risk taker, but he and Lillian leased out a hundred and seventy-five acres, picked up a pocket full of loose change, and watched an oil company drill test their land.
He had made a good living on barbecue. He was in the oil business now.
And he had a good well. At least that’s what Hershel Doyle was told. It was a damn good well. He sat back as the smoke drifted out of the Meat Market, grinned, and dared to dream big dreams.
Then something went terribly wrong.
The chalk belched.
The oil no longer reached the surface.
“What happened?” Hershel asked.
“Don’t know.” The operator shook his head, as bewildered as everyone else. “The well was flowing real good,” he said, “and all of a sudden it just cut off and shut down. I sure as hell can’t explain it.”
“What can you do?” Hershel wnted to know.
“Guess I can drill someplace else.”
“What about my oil?”
“Near as I can tell, you don’t have any.”
The operators, roughnecks, roustabouts, geologists, tool pushers, and wheelers and dealers who ambled into the City Meat market for barbecue every day left Hershel Doyle more oil on his table tops than anyone ever found deep in his ground.