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Texas Tales

published: September 6th 2019
by: Mike Cox

It’s time to confess.
    No, I haven’t killed anyone. Worse than that. Though words are hardly adequate to describe the calamitous event that darkened my 16th birthday, here’s the sad tale, with a parallel telling of another Texas teenager’s learning experience in an earlier era.
    In the fall of 1964, life was good and about to get better. As a sophomore at Austin’s Lanier High School, I was doing well in school and I had a steady girlfriend, Leslie Playford. All I needed to make my young life complete was a driver’s license.
    Toward that end, I had aced the classroom component of driver training and had my learner’s permit. A slight complication arose when a scheduling problem prevented me from getting into the behind-the-wheel course that would have enabled me to perfect my driving on Austin Indepen-dent School District time. But my grandfather hired a commercial driving ins-tructor to get me up to speed.
    On Saturday, December 26 I turned 16, then the legal age for getting an unrestricted license. The Department of Public Safety’s North Austin driver’s license office would be open until noon on this day after Christmas, but I planned to be there shortly after they unlocked the door to clear the last hurdle to mobility independence -- the driving test.
    That night, for once without an adult driving, Leslie and I planned to celebrate my birthday by going to an Italian place for pizza, then a culinary rarity in Austin, followed by a movie at the Chief Drive-In on Lamar Boulevard.
    (Yeah, right. Leslie had already confided in me that she would bring a bottle of mouth wash for us to tone down the pizza breath.)
    Secure in my private sector training, I drove to the DPS with my granddad beside me. In those days, a DPS trooper armed with a checklist on a clipboard sat in the front seat with you and directed you through the test. Turn here. Stop here. Back here.
    I handled my grandmother’s 1952 Plymouth with a steady, confident hand. The final part of the test was parallel parking, an operation which I had practiced repeatedly. But when I executed the maneuver for the trooper, the bumper of the Ply-mouth lightly touched one of the wooden stanchions.
    With no hint of looming disaster, the trooper matter-of-factly instructed me to pull out of the parallel parking spot and pointed to a parking spot. Once I had properly parked the Plymouth and duly set the emergency brake, I awaited the happy news that I had passed the test.
    “Mr. Cox,” the trooper said way too formally, “you hit one of the stanchions. That automatically fails you. You can take the test again on the next business day.”
    Unfortunately, that would be Monday. That meant I couldn’t drive Leslie to the drive-in that night. Devastated and humiliated, I went home to call Leslie and tell her I had flunked the test.
    I’m sure my granddad said all the right things – It’s not the end of the world; I’ll drive you and Leslie to the show; you’ll pass it next time; and Leslie won’t think any less of you. Obviously, all that made sense, but not to me back then. As far as I was concerned, my life had reached its bleakest moment.
    My granddad turned 16 in the summer of 1913 before Texas required anyone to have a driver’s license. Back then, the majority of Texans still traveled by horse or in a horse-drawn buggy. Teen-agers did their courting behind Old Dobbin. 
    “In the early 1900s I saw many beautiful weddings… that were the result of a courtship by horse and buggy,” Ashley N. Beasley wrote in his 1977 memoir, “Blow Your Smoke To-ward the Sky.”
    No matter the means of locomotion, parents have eternally stood in the way of vehicular teenage romance.
    “In my young days,” Lulu Richard Gentry of Denison recalled in 1974 at 87, “girls were not allowed to go buggy-riding with their boy friends, because it just wasn’t proper.”
    But, being a teenager, one day she slipped out for a spin with her beau, who had rented a buggy from the local livery stable. The conveyance had a black leather spring seat just right for two.
    “It was just before the 4th of July,” Gentry continued. “Mother had made me a real pretty white dress for the 4th of July picnic and I decided to wear my pretty new dress…on this buggy ride.”
    Armed with a parasol to protect her from the sun, she rode with her boyfriend to a ferry on the Red River. As soon as they rolled up, she recognized one of her mother’s friends. Cleverly, the teenager used her umbrella to hide from the nosy neighbor.
    Safe from discovery, she enjoyed the rest of the afternoon with her boy-friend. At least until he dropped her off near her house. It had been a particularly hot day, and, as she explained, “I had sweated and across my back and across my seat were two great big black streaks [from the poorly dyed buggy seat] on my pretty white dress.”
    Making it inside her house unnoticed, she spent most of the rest of the evening washing that dress.
    “Mother never did know that I took that buggy ride,” she concluded, “but I was so scared that I never did take another.”
    Back to 1964, having practiced until I could parallel park with my eyes closed, I passed the test the second time with no problems. The following weekend, only seven days later than planned, I took Leslie to the drive-in. But before I picked her up, I spent that afternoon at the empty drive-in repeatedly practicing pulling up to a speaker post. I wanted no more embarrassments.
    Shortly after Christmas in 1917, geologist Ed Owen received instructions from his employer to move from Oklahoma to Mineral Wells.
    With a master’s degree from the University of Missouri, Owen had been dispatched to the nation’s hottest oil field to apply his newly acquired knowledge of strata, anticlines and faults in reading what lay beneath the earth by observing features visible aboveground.
    Ranger, a once quiet railroad town on the Texas & Pacific, lay at the epicenter of the new boom area. But neither Ranger nor any of the other towns in Eastland or Stephens counties could handle the sudden and overwhelming influx of people interested in black gold.
    “Mineral Wells was temporarily an oil town in January 1918 by virtue of being the nearest city with adequate accommodations,” Owen later wrote for his posthumously published 1987 memoir, “The Flavor of Ed Owen – A Geologist Looks Back.” He continued: “Geologists and landmen were scattered throughout Central Texas as far west as Abilene and from Brownwood northward beyond Graham, but the several small towns had limited facilities, so everybody came into Mineral Wells as often as possible.”
    Even so, Mineral Wells became the “capital city” of the oil patch without becoming an oil town.
    “It continued primarily as a resort where people came to ‘boil out’ in its mineral water and drink the horrid stuff, and the white-collar contingent of oil men added only a livelier catalyst,” Owen wrote in prose as opinionated as the valuable proprietary information that the Greenwood Oil Company paid him to produce.
    Mineral water made Mineral Wells, but the new oil play gave the city more energy than a traveling salesmen convention. The Crazy Wells Hotel teemed with oil men on their way to or from the fields.
    On Saturday nights, the hotel hosted a dance in its lobby. The oil men staying at the Crazy Wells, Owen added dryly, “added some luster” to that weekly event. As did the soon-to-be-illegal booze sold at bargain prices on the eve of national prohibition by panicky Fort Worth saloon keepers trying to unload their stock while they could.
    But the nation had an additional thirst in 1918. The world war then under way, Owen wrote, “had created an insatiable demand for petroleum, and recent discoveries made this the most exciting district in the United States.”
    Much of the oil gushing from the ground around Ranger ended up as gasoline in the tanks of the ever-increasing number of automobiles in Texas and the rest of the nation.
    Though trains carried boomers to Mineral Wells and Ranger, they headed for the oil patch in trucks and Model T’s. Travel by motor vehicle was not too difficult at first – as long as the unpaved roads stayed dry. However, most heavy equipment still moved by wagon, and in addition to crowding the roadways, the wagons left ruts and horses made deep tracks. All that made for challenging vehicular travel.
    “Only J.J. McGowan could get an automobile past one of the wagon trains,” Owen wrote. “He was a big man who had been a London policeman before coming to the Empire as a geologist. He whipped enough teamsters to become known as a man who was entitled to half the road.”
    While horses and mules played havoc with the roads, two-legged creatures also impeded transportation. The canyon-crossed road between Ranger and Strawn, with plenty of ranch gates to slow travelers and high ground for lookout points, became particularly popular with hijackers.
    A joke popular at the time told of a gunman holding up an oil worker who had $6 in his wallet. After counting the money, the hijacker returned $3 to his victim.
    “Why’d you do that?” the surprised roughneck asked.
    “‘Because my brother’s robbing people down the road, and he’ll kill you if you don’t have any money,” the kind-hearted highwayman replied.
    Having completed his geological survey, Owen decided to serve his country. He quit his job on May 1, 1918 and sought without success to get into officer’s candidate school. Then he tried to enlist but got turned down over his eyesight and weight.
    Owen got his old job back, but ended up getting drafted that summer. He went through basic training, but the war ended before he could be shipped overseas and he returned to the still-booming oil business.
    He spent the rest of his long career in petroleum geology, serving as a special lecturer at the University of Texas from 1952 to 1970. He died in San Antonio in 1981 at 85.

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