Thursday, August 16, 2018

FROM ELECTRA, TEXAS TO POTOMAC, MARYLAND


The photograph above is one that Vickie Sullivan snapped of my long-time friend, Jan Grogan, shown reading material for her new manuscript , which is set in Oklahoma, her birthplace. Jan’s last book, All of My Life With You, is a memoir of her adventures with her husband, Gene, who served at the helm of worldwide oil operations of a major U.S. oil company. Their long journey began in Electra, Texas where “at every turn on this sun-scorched plain, oil well pump jacks peck at the earth like Jurassic birds.”* I and my husband, a petroleum engineer with Texaco, happened to live across the street from the Grogans at the same time Gene launched his successful career in the oil patch.

During our recent visit with Jan in her elegant townhouse in Potomac, Maryland (a residence quite unlike the cracker box the Grogans occupied in Electra), we talked about her new manuscript and her inchoate interest in literature and writing, which began with conversations during morning breaks she and I enjoyed in Electra. “The only problem was that we’d be having an inspiring conversation about literature, and you’d get up and say you had to leave,” Jan said. “You timed our visits from 10 a.m. - 11 a.m. exactly. And you seem to have retained that same sense of urgency about time. A one night visit and you’re already leaving!”

She was spot on because I’m OCD about time. In the case of Electra, Texas, the occasions for significant happenings were scant, so I had to think hard to remember why I compartmentalized my social life into hour-long visits. I‘d had only one article published in the Morning Advocate in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, and my poetry was still in a box of the bedroom closet, so I wasn’t exactly a literary lion who had to hurry back to my desk to write for a deadline. However, I was revising an article I’d sent to Phoebe Adams at the Atlantic Monthly because she’d written a personal letter of encouragement about its merit after she decided that my prose about defrosting an old refrigerator was a little “contrived.” Thinking back on this rejection, I doubt if Phoebe had ever defrosted an aged refrigerator in a $60 rental located in a small Texas town…but, still, the personal letter had encouraged me. And I was trying to get writing done before the birth of the firstborn daughter I was carrying when Jan and I met. 

Jan moved to Wichita Falls within six months after our meeting when her husband entered the fast track of Cities Service Company, leaving me and my husband to a diminished social life in this West Texas town that had survived the demise of an oil boom involving the Clayco gusher in 1911. I lived on a street named after W.T. Waggoner, one of the oil magnates, whose ranch covered a half million acres in this West Texas area. Water was scarce at the time of the big boom, but W.T. Waggoner’s claim to fame had occurred when he lobbied railroad professionals to build a railroad station at the site then called Beaver Switch and later named Electra after Waggoner’s daughter. Waggoner had actually been dismayed when he drilled for water in his sprawling ranch territory and the sites yielded crude oil that polluted his water wells. He sold part of his land to a developer named Solomon Williams, and in 1911 the Clayco gusher brought in abundant oil, causing the burgeoning of the entire north Texas oil industry.

Years later, Jasper Smith III of Vivian, Louisiana worked in the oil fields of Electra and wrote about this experience as a roustabout in Dinner with Mobutu: A Chronicle of My Life and Times, and I discovered that Suzi Thornton, one of my Fortnightly Literary Club sisters in my hometown of New Iberia, Louisiana, is the sister of this chronicler. By the time Jasper had become an oil field worker in Electra, the town had mushroomed to a population of nearly 5000, and when we lived there in 1959 it had only diminished about four percent. At the time of the boom, citizens had numbered 640, and 10 years later the population had increased to 4700. Today, there are approximately 2700 citizens.

Citizens of Electra say that the town is a place of pump jacks unequaled in number in the world, and its fortunes go up and down like these jacks. Today, the W.T. Waggoner Refinery has become a place of scrap metal, but 14 oil companies still operate in the area. One of the oldest wells drilled in 1911 still pumps oil. From my spare knowledge of oil patch production, I’d say that 80 percent of area wells still producing constitutes a phenomenal record.

In this dry, dusty part of the U.S., Stephanie, my first daughter, was born, and Jan Grogan, my neighbor in Electra, Texas became a lifetime friend who now claims that I sparked her initial interest in the writing craft while we sojourned on the hot plains of the “Pump Jack Capital of Texas.”

*Bernadette Pruitt, Special Contributor to the Dallas Morning News


Photograph by Victoria I. Sullivan

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