Taking the Last Shot

Max Williams had been there before. Another place. Another time. But he had a working knowledge of the harsh, dry landscape and a hot wind slapping his face as though it came from the back corner of a blacksmith’s furnace.

For hours, he had stood on hard ground above the devil’s chalk, watching as a drill bit pulled a string of pipe deeper into the good earth. It was more than nine thousand feet down now, just a few inches above hell, and still searching for a fault line crammed with black crude.

The hole was empty. His bank account was almost empty. All Max Williams looked for was one last shot. That’s all he needed. If nothing else, he could make the last shot. He was certainly not afraid to take it.

Max Williams. Painting by Robert Hurst

So many years earlier, Max Williams had stood alone in the shank of the day,  just a boy and his basketball, surrounded by a harsh, dry landscape, a brisk West Texas wind cutting his face with sweat and shards of alkali sand that came twisting across the prairie like a whirling dervish gone mad.

His had been a hard life in a town where no one complained. In Guthrie, his school had no restrooms, no running water, and no gym. And now he was back in Avoca, which was too small to even field a six-man football team. It was an idyllic life, he thought. No money but few problems. Neighbors took care of each other, and he never worried about tomorrow or the day after.

During his thirteenth year, his world shattered. His father died. And the pleasantries of childhood scattered like the wind that swept the rock arroyos clean.

He stared out at the dry, harsh landscape, clutching a scarred, leather basketball, his eyes shifting toward the old hoop hanging ten feet above him. He refused to cry. He had never seen his father cry. He couldn’t cry. But his heart was breaking.

As a melancholy sun dropped below the treetops, with a hot wind stinging his face and his eyes unflinching, Max Williams shot basket after basket, hour after hour, until darkness tumbled down around his shoulders and draped itself across the dry, harsh landscape like a funeral shroud.

Basketball would become his salvation. In high school, he was a magician on the court. As one sportswriter reported: “He handled the ball like a transfer student from a New York playground. It was Showtime when Max hit the floor – passes came from behind the back and over the bus. He had a weird one-handed jump shot in an era when the two-handed set was the only way to put it up.”

Max Williams became the first Texas high school player to ever be chosen All-State for three consecutive years. He ended his high school career as the all-time leading scorer in Texas schoolboy history. There were several occasions when he scored as many as fifty or sixty points in a game, and sometimes the long-range bomber personally outscored the other team. Just Max, the ball, and nothing but the net.

The Avoca post office had difficulty handling the mail that came pouring in with college scholarship offers. He was, in the eyes of America’s great basketball coaches, a wanted man.

But Doc Hayes, the legendary SMU coach, drove the long, straight-shot to Avoca and bought Max Williams a steak dinner. The deal was signed, medium rare. He became a Mustang and the biggest draw in the Southwest Conference, a deadly assassin with the ball. He wasn’t tall. He wasn’t particularly fast. You couldn’t stop him. He was called a high-flying Houdini with a basketball, a man who could build two points in mid-air and out of thin air. His game had a little razzle and a lot of dazzle, and he led SMU to an upset victory over the powerful Kentucky Wildcats.

Pump jacks dot the landscape of the Giddings field.

But that was then. The lights had gone out in a basketball arena. This was now. And he was standing in the formidable, unforgiving midst of a, harsh landscape just south of Giddings, Texas, searching with his last dollars for a hole, he hoped, that wouldn’t be as dry as the barren countryside around him.

Max Williams was bearing the weight of a drilling cost on the far side of $320,000 as the drill bit tore heavily into the tight layers of limestone. All or nothing. That was the creed of the chalk. All or nothing, with the emphasis almost always on nothing. The chalk was as hard as concrete. His crew may have been drilling for a precise spot, but there was a lot of wiggle in the chalk. As had been said, “Finding oil in the chalk was like trying to open the lock on a car door with a coat hanger two blocks long.”

Day after day, the long hours weaving themselves around him like a spider web, Max Williams watched the drill bit turn, going ever deeper. The intensity around the well was so thick, he said, that it was often difficult to breath. Emotions were running the gamut from wild expectations to a belief that the well might be little more than a pipe dream with more chalk than oil. He needed the oil. Chalk was so cheap he couldn’t give it away.

The pipe suddenly shuddered, and the well kicked wildly out of control and wide open. Max Williams stood with a face of stone, his eyes never wavering from the well as it painted the slush pits around him the color of honey gold. It had hit big, bigger than any one had the right to expect or imagine.

Williams glanced down at his hands. They were covered with good, honest dirt, spackled with a trace of oil.

He wrapped his arm around the shoulders of his geologist, the guru of the Giddings field, Ray Holifield. “You must be a genius,” he said. “You told me you could outsmart the chalk, and I believe you did.”

Holifield may have been grinning for all  the world to see, but the grin was a lie. A big lie. Ray Holifield was lucky, and he knew it.

The drill bit had hit the hard chalk and twisted off at a crooked angle. No one realized it during the chaos and frenetic activity on the rig, but the bit had badly lost its direction, strayed off course, and missed the critical fault that had been Holifield’s primary target.

Instead, it had driven quite accidentally into a greater fault that harbored a much larger fractured reservoir of oil. It was a mistake, perhaps, but a mistake worth millions. Holifield kept his secret to himself and basked in the glory of the moment. His face was streaked the color of honey. The residue on his lips tasted like oil. Oil had never tasted so sweet.

He turned to Max Williams and asked, “Ever felt this good before?”

“Once,” Williams said.

“What could feel this good?”

“Hitting a fifteen-foot jump shot to beat Kentucky.”

Max Williams glanced around at the dry, harsh landscape as the sun faded behind a scattered grove of oaks. He was looking at the rig. But all he could see in his mind was a basketball hoop hanging behind his home in Avoca, Texas.

He heard the sound of the old, leather basketball as it bounced on hard ground, hard as the clay beneath his feet. He remembered the shots he had taken time after time, standing alone amidst the dry, harsh landscape on the day his father died. He had always wished his father could have been there to see the shot that beat Kentucky. Max Williams wiped the honey oil on his jeans and wished that his father could see him now.

Caleb Pirtle III is author of Gamble in the Devil’s Chalk, the inside story of the Giddings boom, the second largest oilfield discovered in the continental United States in the past fifty years.

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  • Such a beautiful, heartwarming story, Caleb, due in largest part to the gift you have in telling it! Wonderful!

  • David Atkinson

    Great style Caleb. I love your descriptions and what a great story.

  • Robert Hurst

    Thanks for including my painting of Max.

  • Joyce Turley

    This wonderful story makes me homesick for the oil business and when I lived in Oklahoma for 22 years. I’m now in San
    Francisco. Find a well here. We have everything except oil. Joyce Turley

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