Heartbreak, love, and the flight of the Doodlebug Man

The story has stayed bottled up inside me for years. I finally summoned up enough nerve to tell it in my new novel, Back Side of a Blue Moon.

I grew up in the East Texas oil patch.

The first sound I remember was the creaking and the groaning of overworked pump jacks coaxing black gold from deep within Woodbine sand.

The first images I remember were those derricks climbing into the night sky, silhouetted against the the distant rumble of thunder and flashes of jagged lightning as storms pounded the piny woods.

I sat for years and listened to oilmen tell the story as they pieced together those years when the Great Depression threatened to turn Kilgore into a ghost town and cotton fields into a wasteland.

The town survived because of one man who searched for oil and one woman who dare to let him drill his well on her land.

Dad Joiner rode into East Texas by train, quoting the Bible as passionately as any brush arbor evangelish, promising to drill for oil and vowing he would tap into a “treasure trove that all the kings of the earth might covet.

Dad Joiner, third from left in the Straw Boater, at the site of the Discovery Well.

He had forty-five dollars in his pocket, and he was quietly buying up oil leases from hungry farmers and homesteaders who thought that a dollar an acre was big money. After all, a dollar an acre separated the poor from the dirt poor, and maybe a tired old man with slumped shoulders actually did have the ability to find enough oil to lighten their load and wash away the harsh times.

Dad Joiner sat down with Daisy Bradford and, with as much poetry as his old heart could muster, explained how fortunes made from oil could greatly benefit the impoverished region that was suffering from the curse of the Great Depression.

His words painted vivid portraits of new schools, new hospitals, new museums. Hunger would have to pack up and go somewhere else because tables would be full for a change, he said. There would be jobs for men and groceries for babies.

Dad Joiner could make it happen, he said. All he needed was leases on her land. The old wildcatter could drill anywhere he wanted in East Texas, but it was her land that sheltered the oil. Her land could make a difference.

Daisy Bradford, center, with geologist Doc Lloyd, left, and wildcatter Dad Joiner, right.

Daisy Bradford smiled. She was a good and Christian woman, and his plea suddenly gave her a new purpose in life. She and Dad read the Bible together and breathed a silent prayer as they watched the sun drop down behind the pines.

Daisy Bradford leased him 925.5 acres for fifty cents an acre. It was the least she could do to chase away the misery and poverty that had settled down like vermin around the farmsteads of her neighbors.

Now all Dad Joiner had to do was find $462.75 to pay her.

The story has stayed bottled up inside me for years. I finally summoned up enough nerve to tell it in my new novel, Back Side of a Blue Moon.

The discovery of the East Texas field was the stuff of fiction.

Blue Moon is pure fiction. I took the facts, re-shuffled them, and came up with my own story. But there are a lot of Kilgore and Henderson stuffed inside those words.

There was never a hint of romance between Dad Joiner and Daisy Bradford.

He was too old. She was too religious.

In Blue Moon, however, Doc Bannister comes to town searching for oil, and he is the genuine con artist and flim flam that everyone in East Texas believed Dad Joiner to be.

Eudora Durant owns the land.

She’s poor.

The land’s poor.

Her abusive husband is missing.

The whole town of Ashland believes she killed him.

It’s a story perfect for love.

I described Eudora this way:

EUDORA DURANT KNEW there must be a hundred or more good ways of dying, some better than others, some worse, and she wondered why she had insisted on taking the slowest path possible to the grave. She couldn’t blame anyone for her lot in life. All she had to do was look in the cracked mirror beside her bed from time to time, and she knew where the blame fell, and it landed squarely on her shoulders.

She had been a fine looking lady in her early twenties. Just about everybody in Riverview said so. Tall. Slender. Flaming auburn hair that draped elegantly across her shoulders. It was said from the front pew of the Baptist church to the front porch of Jim Hamilton’s Dinner Bell Cafe, that Eudora possessed a winsome smile as warm as mid-day in August. Feel bad? Feel blue? Feeling sorry for yourself? Just wait ‘til Eudora comes walking by and smiles at you. You’ll be cured between good and morning.

Here is the way Doc entered the story:

DOC BANNISTER WAS an illusion. Waskom Brown had him pegged a long time ago. But then, Waskom Brown was the only daddy Doc ever had, and Doc was twenty-five years old before he crossed paths with old Waskom in a Hot Springs house of ill repute, and Doc would be dead as hell if Waskom hadn’t come along when he did.

A man peddling doodlebugs to farmers – who prayed for oil now that the water had dried up – needed a partner if only to drive the getaway car, and getaway cars were not always plentiful when the doodlebug exploded and sprayed sand instead of oil across the stunted cotton stalks. If that old black doodlebug box, filled with wires, dials, lights, buzzers and whistles, could have found oil, then Doc would have been a rich man instead of a wanted man, and those who wanted him usually wanted to kill him. They had buried a lot of his doodlebugs along the way and were always within an eyelash of burying him.

Instead Doc was on the run, traveling from one con to the next scam, and the back roads could run out pretty fast for a man during the patchwork years of the 1930s.

Back Side of a Blue Moon is the story of two people fighting the odds, hoping to surive heartache and hard times.

Will they find oil?

Maybe.

Will they find love?

That’s the only reason the novel was written. I didn’t know one way or another until the last sentence had been hammered into place. All I can say is: Every romance has its mystery.

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