Into the Land of Broken Dreams and Empty Pockets
November 13, 2013
A weary Chuck Alcorn drove through the biting wind and dust of a land as dry as the bones of cattle that had fallen victim to a hard drought settling down upon the barren landscape of Lee County.
Chuck Alcorn had a job to do, and his work was never easy, seldom lucrative, and usually a pain in the ass. His was a face well known throughout the oilfield, and company men always dreaded that singular, self-loathing moment when they knew it was time to pick up the phone and call him. His name officially was C. W., but everyone called him Chuck. He was a junior. But nobody cared from which branch of the family tree he had descended. He made his money, what little of it there was, from a various assortment of failures and misfortunes encountered on a rig site. As he always said, “I managed to build the rough edges of my career on the unromantic side of the oil business.”
Chuck Alcorn, in the shank of another long, unforgiving day, standing up to his ankles in mud, his face splattered with streaks of oil and grease, thought he would kill for the outside chance of being a genuine, authentic, down-home wildcatter who owned his own oil well or maybe a field full of them. He learned about the intricacies and pitfalls of the business during his early years at Gulf Oil. Simple realities: The rich got richer, and the poor boy operations went busted, and so many of the fields wound up as graveyards for rusting pipe, burned out pumps, empty holes, and hopes gone awry.
By 1973, he owned his own oil well salvage company down in Victoria. However, Chuck Alcorn, it appeared, had never been destined to explore new fields, shoot and read seismographs, track down investors, negotiate with bankers, patch together leases and a drilling crew, and finally search down hole for a pool or a river of crude. He had, more or less, been condemned to the task of buying up old wells and attempting to rejuvenate them with a special treatment that the industry referred to as acidizing.
He took the old, the tired, the worn out and tried like hell to make them profitable. A few breathed a little life, but, sooner or later, the dead usually stayed dead.
He was, many believed, the oil business equivalent of a used car dealer.
Sometimes there was a little oil left smoldering in the ground. At a humiliating price of four dollars a barrel, it didn’t amount to much. Often more trouble than it was worth. Breaking even was becoming more difficult all the time.
Mostly he merely salvaged the pipe and equipment left abandoned in the field and sold it for scrap or to some little two-bit oil company trying to scrape by and maybe strike it rich with glorified leftovers from Chuck Alcorn’s personal junkyard.
He was forty years old, had hair turning gray long before its time, and stood six feet, four inches tall. Some of the ladies thought he had a boyish face, and others thought he was downright handsome, and none paid a lot of attention to the oil dirt buried beneath his fingernails. He was a working man. That’s all. A working man with the face of a boy and the hardened eyes of a man who understood the tribulations of disappointment.
Chuck Alcorn could be white collar when he needed to be, even put on a pin-stripe business suit when necessary, but he felt more at home in his khaki shirt, khaki pants, and brown cowboy boots, usually crusted with dried mud. In the field, he wore a battered cowboy hat with a narrow, curled brim and drove a four-door Ford pickup truck. Good on the road, off the road, in cow pastures, from one creek bank to another, and into terrain where only the brave dared to go and only the lucky came back out again with their sanity intact. Pot holes. Chug holes. Post holes. Didn’t matter. Chuck Alcorn, sooner or later, drove across them all.
It was not the best of days, growing dark, and the sun hadn’t even set. Chilly even for October. And the clouds above the narrow Lee County road were gray and beginning to turn black, fringed with shades of purple, and full of wind. He waited for the rains to fall and figured he wouldn’t have to wait long. Chuck Alcorn was the son of an independent drilling contractor, a third generation interloper in the Texas oil patch. He had graduated from the University of Texas with a degree in geology, dutifully paying for his education by working long hours as a roughneck during the summer months.
Chuck Alcorn remained a fixture in the oilfield even when times grew hard and virtually impossible for men who hitched their dreams and borrowed money to a frayed hole in the ground. He watched the world around him become glutted with foreign oil. He saw the price of crude tumble to four dollars a barrel and sensed a serious shift in the economy, for the worst, always the worst, when drilling activity sank to a twenty-year low. Major oil companies were re-thinking their long-range strategies and casting their hopes and a bulk of their dwindling finances on offshore drilling, content to sell their onshore operations for pennies on the dollar and suffer the losses and the consequences.
Work was difficult to find. New and old fields alike were dying for lack of funds, lack of interest, lack of gumption. A man might be willing to gamble, but only as long as he still had a few chips left to wager. The only difference between a wildcatter and a bum was the number of empty beer bottles sitting on the table in front of him. The wildcatter didn’t have any.
Chuck Alcorn was grateful for any scrap of salvage business that came his way. Someone had drilled on promise and potential. Someone had gone broke. Dry hole. Disappointing hole. The money ran short. The money ran out.
The phone call came. The well would be his baby now, provided he wanted it, and Chuck Alcorn hated to ever say he didn’t. Some of the wells he bought outright. Some he bought on credit, hoping to turn a profit before the note came due. Some he bought so low he felt like he had stolen them.
In some, the oil was so scarce he felt as though he had been swindled. No time to fret. No reason to worry. All in a day’s work. Chuck Alcorn understood simple realities. He hadn’t lost the dream. He still wanted an oil well. Any well. Any place. As long as it kept on producing. He wasn’t a greedy man. One good well just might be enough, although enough was never enough in the oil patch where, during tough times, a man could run out of money and friends at about the same time.
That was the reason why Chuck Alcorn was heading in the general direction of Giddings on such a dreary afternoon. He turned on the radio in his pickup truck, and, amongst the static, the news kept spitting out bursts of information about the Israeli and Arab war. Deadly. Brutal. Frightening consequences. Only the Good Lord had any idea about what the conflict might do to the oil business, which was already hanging on with broken fingernails. Chuck Alcorn shook his head. The business had always been a sordid kind of gamble where men bet their lives, their fortunes, their futures on a stacked deck. Now he had begun to wonder if there was anyone left who could afford the ante. A pair of deuces in a game of two-handed poker was no hand at all.
Please click the book cover image to read more about Gamble in the Devil’s Chalk.