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  Texas : Features : Columns : N. Ray Maxie :

"High Pockets"
and a Near Death Experience

by N. Ray Maxie
N. Ray Maxie
The air was real frigid across the Northeast Texas piney-woods when I awoke that morning. A blue-norther had arrived over night. It was Saturday and I didn't have to go to school. Everything seemed as usual for an early December morning. There was a light frost on the grass across the meadow. The rooftops were white with frost and little water vapor clouds appeared before my face when I breathed into the frigid air. To go outside, we dressed warmly with layered clothing and a heavy topcoat. I wore a pull-over-the-head sock cap. My Louisiana born and bred mother had always called that cap a "toboggan cap". I believe that she had seen it called that in the Sears Roebuck catalog. So, a toboggan IT was and that is what we kids always called it. It was a very warm head cover and protected the ears quite well. Another cap or hat could be worn over it. I had never heard it called a sock-cap until I was in my twenties and had gotten off the front porch and out into the world past the yard fence. Dad always said that you couldn't lay around on the front porch and run with the big dogs.

My father was a pumper in the East Texas oil fields for a small oil company that had come into the area and bought up many less than "gusher" oil wells. Some oil people soon began to call those wells, "strippers", since they had become very low producers and were only stripping out what little oil remained. Dad had been known in the Rodessa Field around McLeod for many years as "high pockets". He was a tall man with long legs and hip pockets that were high off the ground. Thus he was tagged "high-pockets" by fellow oil field workers. Most every oil worker had a nickname. One was "grease monkey". Another was "bo-weevil". There was one from over in Louisiana called "Cajun". Then, just to name a few, there were others like, green-hand, lefty, big foot, jake, hobo, or the boss called "pappy".

During our "down home" family breakfast that Saturday morning, dad asked me to come and accompany him on his rounds in the oil field that day. Something that I very seldom did. As we were finishing up our grits, fried eggs, bacon, homemade biscuits and sweet milk, he said that I seemed anxious to go with him and I was. Soon we walked out and got into his old work truck, a 1939 Chevrolet pickup and headed off to the oil field. Most all of that great breakfast we had just eaten had come from right there on our little farm.

He and I first stopped at well W. D. Chew #1. Dad had to service the engine, check some flow gauges and lubricate the walking beam. The next well was Chew #2 and he did practically the same thing over again, except he also slowed the engine down some. It was pumping too fast. We went on to the Dawson well and the Rambo wells. Later, to the Tyson wells that were a good three miles away, toward McLeod, down an old deep rutted sand road. When we arrived there, Dad gauged the holding tanks, checked the separator and made sure all things were operating just right. The Tyson lease was on an old sand hill. That sand produced plenty of grass burrs and bull nettles for an active young lad to get into. There also was a very good chinky-pen tree on that lease. I was always more than happy to pick up chinky-pens there in the fall. But, by early December, they were all gone. The chinky-pen is a small chestnut, no bigger than a marble; cracked with your teeth, spitting out the husk you can eat the kernel. Many times I have carried a pocket full of those tasty little nuts to school. Probably many other Cass County kids did too.

Coming back, we stopped to check and service the Willis #1 and #2 wells and the Bogus well. By this time it was getting after noon and I was pretty weary and hungry. Dad decided it was time to head home for lunch. But, on the way, he had one more little stop to make.

Soon we approached a small two-inch pipeline that ran under the gravel road. The high-pressure pipeline was laid on top of the ground out through the woods along a well-kept and mowed pipeline trail. Those small oil companies seldom went to the expense of burying their pipelines. Dad parked the pickup along side the gravel road. He then took an eighteen-inch Stilson wrench from the back of his truck and advised me that he would return in just a few minutes. He disappeared into the woods on the trail down the pipeline as I sat in the pickup. Dad had gone to a gas-flow meter on that pipeline to change the charts, check the gas pressure and install some mercury into the meter system.

Suddenly, as I sat there nearly napping, I heard an awfully loud explosion and a tremendous spewing of high-pressure gas. It scared the wits out of me and I instantly knew something very serious had happened. Quickly jumping from the pickup, I ran "full speed" out the trail to see what had happened. Dad had seen the need to reduce the gas flow pressure to the meter and had taken along the Stilson wrench to turn the valve. Those rusty old valve stems often became so stiff, it was very difficult to turn the wheel by hand. It's called a "frozen" valve. Some leverage was often needed. So the Stilson wrench was used to turn the valve wheel. And it took a lot of force to turn it. With extremely cold air temperature that day and the very cold gas pressure, conditions weren't good. With extra force upon the old fragile two-inch valve, it suddenly broke off from the pipeline. That caused the loud explosion with nonstop spewing of high-pressure gas into the air. With the pipe flopping uncontrollably on the ground like a loose water hose, I tell you this frightened kid was mighty afraid that we had lost "high pockets" right there.

Quickly I saw what had happened and searched the woods for my dad. I found him blown about twenty yards away from the gas meter. He was semi-conscious, rolling around and moaning incoherently. I did my best to comfort him and I saw no bleeding or broken bones. The gas was still spewing deafeningly loud and luckily it did not catch fire. The explosion had blown dad away, out into the wooded area. I was a highly frightened kid trying to comfort him as he lay there, still, resting a bit and regaining consciousness. We were extremely fortunate we didn't lose "high pockets" that day. He later began to talk coherently, coming around a little. I then helped him to his feet. Dad leaned on a tree for a while and soon leaned heavily upon me as we stumbled back to our pickup truck. He sat on the tailgate a while regaining his strength and wits. He managed to drink some water. Before long, he felt like driving a short distance away to another gas valve. There he turned off the high-pressure gas to the broken pipeline and meter. That stopped the loud spewing noise.

Dad then, with my inexperienced help steering the truck, clumsily managed drive the mile or so home. Arriving there, mother was, to say the least, very concerned and totally shocked at what had happened. She immediately attended to my dad's comfort and bruises. He later felt like eating some lunch and recuperated in bed the remainder of the day. Mom and everyone else was mighty, mighty happy that dad had taken this kid along with him on that cold, frosty day. Thank goodness the next day was Sunday and it was his regular day off duty.

We were once again very fortunate that dad was not killed or seriously injured in this accident. There were other near misses for "high-pockets" in the oil field, but he lived well into retirement. At age seventy he passed away from a massive heart attack.

The oil field can be a dangerous place to work. You see, I knew that from experience. So when I grew up, finished high school, wondered off the front porch and way out past the yard fence, I sought other kinds of "maybe safer" employment.
Nolan Ray Maxie
"Ramblin' Ray" July 1, 2005
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