Who’s Number One in the Permian Basin?

For generations Midland and Odessa have been going at it out in West Texas. Now, at last, someone has noticed.

June 1975By Comments

From any decent distance these lonely sisters of the barren flat plain, these isolated twin mini-cities of the vast Permian Basin—Midland and Odessa—appear more alike than not. Their differences may seem paltry or superficial or not to exist at all to the visitor blasting across Interstate 10 toward Fort Worth or El Paso, for there is a peapod sameness—a tuneless monotony of brown land and anemic blue sky—in these baked badlands where often the wind grows angry and spits hot sand.

It is not country to invite most eyes or green most spirits, this outback land where I spent my formative years, this ancient seabed that now is a moonscape without the moon’s mysteries to recommend it. After about an hour of it—after miles of oil derricks, runty little stands of sagebrush or greasewood, and billboards plugging steak houses, country music radio, automobile or insurance bargains—one may begin to wonder where Texas keeps its bluebonnets or America stores its purple mountain majesties. One also may wonder where Odessa ends and Midland begins, or vice-versa: couldn’t you lump the sister cities in a single heap and call them “Midessa,” possibly without even their Chambers of Commerce noticing?

No, you could not. Proud denizens of each community, from bankers to barbers to roughnecks, would feel deprived and robbed to the point of war; there is an almost comic edge to their rivalry, in each community’s assumption that it has the drop and the goods over the other. There are differences in the towns—though not so powerful or so varied, probably, as the natives like to think—and certainly there is a mutual dedication toward maintaining them. It is more, somehow, than neighbors fighting for their respective shares of a common economic pie, and more than communities routinely tussling to see who lands the four-year college or gets to brand its name on a shared airport—though these, certainly, are part of the traditional squabbling.

“The two towns are much the products of their histories,” says Odessa trial lawyer Warren Burnett. “A long time ago, Midland decided to take the high road. That’s why the law offices over there have drapes and deep rugs and everybody talks in hushed tones. Odessa, on the other hand, has little demand for corporate lawyers. We are a bunch of sweat-hog lawyers over here, getting it on in the courtrooms. We tend to drink in bars. Midland lawyers drink at home.” He is not merely generalizing his own example: my Midland friends, lawyers or otherwise, invite me to their homes; Odessa chums transport me to, or meet me in, public places. My Odessa comrades—whatever their vocations—more willingly abandon their duties to accommodate my random, unannounced midday recreations; Midland pals generally put me off until the post-work hours. Odessa, in this particular, shares instincts with Fort Worth; Midland is more of Dallas, serious minded and buttoned down.

One can trace back this legitimate difference in styles—if not to root beginnings—at least to the late 1930s or early 1940s when geologists began to suspect that the two desert towns—only eighteen miles apart and then of fewer than 10,000 people each—sat smack in the middle of a rich oil pool.

Midland opted to become the financial center. With fortunes earlier established in cattle and cotton, the old First Families—the Scharbauers, Cowdens, Lancasters, Brunsons, Pecks, Barrons, Jowells, Proctors, Holts, Ulmers, et al.—decided their banks would lend money for oil speculation. In retrospect it seems a rather remarkable decision, something like Baptist deacons voting to sponsor a dice tournament or girlie show. For these were conservative hulks in their politics and in their personal habits, the descendants of hard-scrabblers who had dribbled and drifted into the lonesome territory in the 1870s or 1880s to slowly build a windmill town called Midway (because of its location smack between Dallas and El Paso). Their cattle empires had not been forged without pain, sweat, and loss. Many for years were “land poor”—their acreages alternately baked or flooded; grasses often were sparse; herds seeking forage or fleeing sudden violent storms wandered away across the open range; sometimes a few remaining marauding Indians stole horses or butchered precious beef. The fittest survived and, as Darrell Royal says, “The big ‘uns ate the little ‘uns plumb up.”

When Midland’s big ‘uns decided to loan money in a big way for oil speculation—as World War II ended and manpower and materials were in goodly supply—they were not exactly running foolish, riverboat gambler risks. No, for by then geologists had confirmed earlier suspicions: the bald desert literally reeked of oil, the subterranean Permian Basin Pool covered a grand expanse of the old prehistoric Permian Sea and tested out richer than fresh cowplop; it was, simply, one of the richest strikes to be found anywhere, and even some few fools and dreamers became wealthy.

Midland’s old First Families themselves owned much of the underground wealth; their ancestors, tenaciously accumulative, sometimes had left spreads reaching into other Permian Basin counties and even far up into New Mexico. Their descendants had the then-sacrosanct 27 1/2 per cent oil depletion allowance going for them, which made Tax Time almost as merry a season as Christmas. They did not urge money on you just because you wanted to hunt oil or thought you knew where to find it. But if you could show decent prospects—a hopeful geological survey, proximity to earlier drilling successes, an option to explore where the signs looked good—then Midland’s banks would finance you to their long-term profit.

Independent oilmen swarmed in from all over, as did draftsmen and landmen and scouts and geologists and technicians and Ivy League lawyers. All these energetic movers and shakers needed facilities, so Midland’s banks plowed their capital into mini-skyscrapers—nineteen stories, twenty-four, twenty-nine; it was astonishing to see a budding Dallas springing from the flat desert floor—and soon the major oil companies, as well as the independents, became tenants. Midland bragged on itself as “Headquarters City of the Vast Permian Basin Empire.” New hotels, restaurants, country clubs, and housing developments multiplied themselves; street names reflected the new influx: Harvard Drive, Yale Street, Princeton Circle. The less fortunate found a new recreation: driving around West Midland to view sprawling new homes—some looking like Mussolini-era depots or the Ramada Inns of a later day or old stone forts—with their manicured lawns and landscaped trees or shrubs. Some prosperous newcomers, agitated by blowing sands during the windy season, erected costly, high—and ineffectual—fences as protection. Everybody wore burr haircuts, neckties, class rings, and hopes of riches on their sleeves. “Midland’s full of eight-thousand-dollar-a-year millionaires,” Odessans liked to sneer.

There was the roughneck’s contempt of the fop in it, yes, but the community sneer also transported a certain sour-grapes jealousy. Odessa literally kept a low profile: you could scarcely see its skyline from the nearby oil fields. Its banks having risked no big money and its community fathers then lacking Midland’s stubborn feverish dreamy boosterisms, it remained a vulgar sprawl of a town—the home of pipe yards, oil-well servicing outfits, tool companies, mud companies, trucking companies, construction companies—many operating from shacks or Quonset huts. It was tent-city ugly, the bedroom town of the driller and the lowly roustabout who suffered the fumes and rattlings of growling giant trucks; it had the feel and smell of grease in its pores. Along the clutter of the East Eighth Street dives you could find the sort of action you craved: beer-drinking music, fisticuffs, dice or card opportunities, painted ladies for hire. To be a police reporter there was to visit the hospital emergency room often—great were the stabbings and shootings and simple country butt-stomps—and to find the jails bursting at the seams. Where Midland boasted its grand homes, Odessa was a hodgepodge of frame houses built like cracker boxes for the most part; an arabesque settlement of odors and backyard goat pens or rabbit hutches.

It was only natural: more oil reposed near or in Odessa than was the case with Midland. This geological happenstance—or was it a signal of God’s Texas will?—kept the sour, gassy, vomity stink in the air; kept the flares and the sump pits burning at night; kept the fry-cook cafes preparing sack lunches; kept the three-dollar motels full; kept the beer and the adrenaline and the blood flowing; kept the crews working around-the-clock “towers.” Odessa lighted the dark desert with thousands of flares and hundreds of drilling rig lights; the casual nocturnal passer-by might have judged himself to have stumbled on an undiscovered metropolis. Midland, on the other hand, seemed dark and shuttered; its native youth complained of sidewalks rolling up at nine o’clock. Having worked its eight hours, Midland’s white-collar and professional element went to the country club or to bed—or, perhaps, to Odessa.

It was my misfortune as a teenager in the mid-1940s to live in Midland while harboring Odessa preferences in my soul, my character, and my heritage. I loved the wild clashes and random clamors of “Sintown”—Odessa’s aggressive definition of itself—while despising Midland’s controlled bloodless efficiency and organized civic bustle: what sensitive poor boy truly believes he belongs in a communal entity advertising itself as “Headquarters City of the Vast Permian Basin Empire”? Odessa might break my jaw, sure, but Midland, with its socio-economic snobberies, automatic exclusions, and reflexive acquisitive instincts, seemed a threat to break my spirit. I thought it a pretentious place, one excessively concerned with form and appearance, one full of fake camaraderie and gimlet-eyed hustlers bent on getting the buck. When I read Sinclair Lewis’ Main Street, I was astonished to learn that its self-winding promoters and glad-handing exploiters had done their business in Minnesota rather than Midland.

One of the grand ironies reposed in the barbs of the Odessa High School Bronchos when they administered our annual Thanksgiving Day gridiron thumpings; in so many words they taunted us as rich boys, spoiled sissybritches, and gluttons of privilege—never mind that more than half of Midland’s Bulldogs were South Side have-nots whose fathers roughnecked in the oil patch or night-watched and maybe broke wind at the table. Our civic boosters having done their jobs too well, the Odessa kids took us for Highland Park swells. The image was there, you see, and our proletariat adversaries—whose town, after all, had been named by foreign-born railroad workers for a town in Russia!—zinged us with the vigor of Marxists come to redistribute the wealth. Their savagery was intimidating: we sissybritches Headquarters-City-of-the-Vast-Permian-Basin-Empire boys lost to Sintown by 20 to 7 and 48 to 0 in my time; only by joining the Army before my senior season did I avoid the record 55-0 plastering of 1946. High school football was, I think, a legitimate cultural and psychological measuring stick of that time and that place: many of us concluded that Odessa was, indeed, the rawer and the tougher community.

Neither of these now are particularly “warm” towns—though Odessa, in day-to-day living, may come closer to giving that impression. As in an earlier time, Odessa is looser, more informal, more rollicking, more old-shoe and howdy-do. But you must remember that we are dealing in relative terms: we are talking, essentially, about two nervous and up-tight communities that continue to respond to their shaping heritages. Midland hung a horse thief from a courthouse tree at the turn of the century; juries in each town have voted people eligible for the electric chair. Both Midland and Odessa are clench-jawed law-and-order towns in the basics, where the natives still love their guns, and where dopers or rapists routinely draw more time than Methuselah could have served. Visiting longhairs continue to receive funny looks in polite society and need only enter the rowdier beer joints to assure their butt-stompings. The angry Old Testament God is not dead in the Permian Basin; indeed, He remains healthy and able to extract His vengeances.

Going back, for me, is like coming out on the other side of a Time Machine: it could be 1960 again, or maybe the mid-1950s. Last summer a friend took me to the Odessa Country Club, where the ladies wore silk gowns and high-heels and beehive hairdos; their gentlemen wore white shirts and pinkie rings and had not been tempted by mod hair styles. A middle-aged lady wearing a corsage pumped the organ while her slick-haired, mustachioed partner squeezed an accordion. The crowd sang along: of blue moons and of bicycles built for two and of goodnights to Irene. For a little while one might believe that Eisenhower lived, that Gable was back and Garson had him, that TCU might beat Texas.

Politically, this is bedrock conservative territory with the nut wing among Rightists well-represented. Midland is striped-pants Republican, going for Tom Dewey in 1948, and it elected local Republicans long before Odessa, with its “yellow dog Democrat” instincts. Midland so loved Richard Nixon that one almost felt relief when encountering a Scoop Jackson—or even a George Wallace—Democrat. Odessa once selected General Edwin Walker over John Connally for governor, and always treated Ralph Yarborough as if he carried a social disease. When the John Birch Society discovered that Ike and John Foster Dulles might be leaders of the Internal Communist Conspiracy, it found hundreds of ready West Texas converts: the president of the Odessa Jaycees, indeed, became a paid Birch recruiter; “Impeach Earl Warren” bumper stickers for years out-numbered Jesus messages. When I visited an Odessa bookstore in the late 1960s, while on a promotion tour, the Birchers posted a lady who wrote down all the dangerous things I said. Periodically, in both Midland and Odessa, vigilantes attempt to pluck Hemingway, Steinbeck, Vonnegut, and other dangerous or trashy writers from the library shelves.

“But it’s better now,” a late-thirtyish Odessa merchant insisted. We were drinking a pair of Golden Scotch Mists, in the Golden Rooster Club, high atop The Inn of the Golden West—and looking down on miles and miles of Flat Brown. He said, “You don’t have all that hate and suspicion of the McCarthy years or when the Birchers ran wild. You know, for a while out here it looked like the kook element might take over the school boards and city hall. But they raised so much silly hell and made so many improbable charges that it scared folks. And it was the responsible businessmen who banded together to stop ‘em. We told folks, ‘Hell, you can’t have disruptive forces in charge of things.’” Still, the West Texas version of moderation leaves something to be desired. Students of the new (1973) University of Texas of the Permian Basin at Odessa are still complaining of authorities censoring their school paper and firing its editor in 1974. One hears of battles breaking out in the public schools over the vital matter of proper Dress Codes, and occasional patriots picket visiting speakers harboring loose ideas. Maybe the fundamentalists have had to fire and fall back, but they’re still in there sniping.

Such natural conservative reflexes as were handed down by the region’s original settlers (independent, isolationist critters willing to risk a raw country in exchange for individual opportunities) have been reinforced, and continue to be reinforced, by the one-note drummings of what Harry Truman called “the one-party press.” Of course, the safely monopolistic newspapers in each city fail to run the risks of the early-day pioneers—hell, they don’t even run the risks of that competitive Free Enterprise system they so doggedly recommend to the rest of us—as they preach against meddling Feds, Godless Reds, labor unions, and government spending or sapping taxations at all levels.

The chain-owned Odessa American (a product of Freedom Newspapers, with headquarters in Orange County, California) is the more blunt and strident; the home-owned Midland Reporter-Telegram tends to pussyfoot or hem and haw. In essence, however, they serve the same masters. KOSA-TV, Odessa—the CBS outlet—has a long history of Tory owners and managers who have protectively offered sitcom reruns or old movies whenever they found network documentaries excessively Leftist; KMID-TV, Midland, the NBC affiliate, is less sensitive to such menaces. You could fry in the sun, however, if you waited on a corner until any of the media outlets decided to probe or explore poverty, racism, institutional injustices, or otherwise critically examine their bailiwicks. In this, however, they probably are guilty of little more neglect than the Texas norm: city reporters may rake a little muck in Houston or Dallas, but in Amarillo and Abilene—or in Lufkin or Lubbock—you will not find much dirt disturbed unless the wind does it.

When Midland was a windmill town, in the late 1880s, its town boosters and Texas and Pacific railroad officials made a decision that may still haunt it: they refused to seek government emergency aid, while others did, during a disastrous two-year drought that starved cattle herds and dried up water holes. “But Midland’s citizens had sunk everything they had in the future,” John Howard Griffin wrote in his Land of the High Sky, “ and [they] did not want the rest of the world to know the true situation. While the land lay parched, the people underplayed the disaster.” This inherited inclination not to face reality and to soft-pedal shortcomings or failures, accounts in some measure for Midland’s having been out-stripped by Odessa in recent years. Midland’s civic leaders and community dads, in effect, proved short-sighted. They put all their economic eggs in one basket, depending on a white-collar and professional work force, and they built skyscrapers and housing developments as if the merry boom never would end. By the mid-1960s, however, as oil production lost its potential for dizzy quick profits due to restricted allowables and world market conditions, many independent operators went under; the major oil companies retrenched by first trimming their white-collar fat. Midland lost in each case; the companies which did not close their local operations pared them to the bone, transferring their main forces to Tulsa or Houston or elsewhere. Suddenly, Midland had 1700 surplus dwellings on its hands and many semi-empty skyscrapers. The population, which had grown to 67,000 in 1960, slipped back to 58,000 despite a high local birth rate. People lost their jobs at the Chamber of Commerce, civic leaders dreamed of “renovating” downtown, billboards were posted on the outskirts calling attention to Midland’s “good business climate.” Nothing much happened.

The problem began long before it was apparent, as most problems do. Like Fort Worth when the late Amon Carter and his ruling pals aged or died, Midland had made few provisions for replacing its natural leaders. As early as 1950—though the fact then was obscured by the runaway boom—its formerly vigorous old-timers began to lose their visions and their grips. Midland at that time refused to join the Upper Colorado River Authority—a mistake Odessa did not make—and fifteen years would pass before the city, after many costly drilling operations discovering dry holes, found water sources sufficient to encourage modern industry. As the old leaders withered, perhaps they became less concerned with the future than in a comfortable present and in hanging onto the past; the prevailing attitude ran well, we got a nice little town here, we don’t need to mess it up with labor troubles and factories and a certain class of people. Midland settled down to building a spiffy Little Theater and a symphony orchestra that played in white ties—each with its own imported full-time professional director—and to counting its money and its blessings; its banks and newspapers hired artists and writers to capture the spirit of Midland on canvas and in books. Everybody played a lot of golf and drank martinis.

Odessa, in the same period, was coming into an aggressive new wealth and spawning a new generation of go-getters determined to keep the good times rolling. A diversified economy was their goal. By the mid-1950s Odessa was on the way to landing a sizeable petrochemical complex and was building a huge county coliseum in which to stage a profitable biannual commercial Oil Show plus everything from rodeos to wrestling to rock band concerts (at a time when Midland was surrendering, because of a lack of facilities and community interest, its traditional World Championship Rodeo); it was dispatching civic squads far and wide to attract government or private funding. The city grew its own modest skyline and constructed a replica of the Stratford-on-Avon Shakespearian Theater; whenever Odessa and Midland vied for four-year colleges or new post offices or district courts or regional offices of state agencies, Odessa somehow seemed to get there first. Today, though Midland held a slight population edge through the early 1940s and the growth battle remained close for another twenty years, Odessa claims more than 83,000 people to Midland’s 58,000 and has clearly become the area trade center.

Not that either city is much of a paradise to a former resident of both, now that he has much roaming on his record. Though fast-food operations offer a variety of delicacies from pizza to barbecue to shrimp to Mexican specialties to chicken broiled, fried, baked, and maybe spanked, it may be safely said that neither Midland nor Odessa offers anything remotely resembling a first-class restaurant; if you asked to see the wine cellar, they’d think you were anticipating a tornado.

Movies reach these Permian Basin precincts only after much aging in the can. There is not a truly decent bookstore in either city. The magazine racks recommend a high percentage of detective stories, mechanical manuals, homemaking hints, and almost as many porn offering as Times Square outlets. Unless you crave country music or studio evangelists or thirteen super-loud and frantic commercials per six minutes, you have small use for your West Texas radio. About all I find to do there—outside of enjoying the company of a precious few old friends—is drink and hope for an improbable romantic adventure while waiting for my flight to be called; it’s either that or a big night in the Christian Science reading room. Sin City has become Dullsville.

However, your tireless researcher, doggedly at work in Odessa’s White Buffalo Saloon, did make the acquaintance of a young topless dancer newly arrived from Philadelphia by way of Los Angeles. “Why’d you stop here?” he demanded—clearly implying that surely she had run out of gas, lost her road map, or might be on the lam with Patty Hearst. “Hunny,” she said, “I read they was having a boom out here. A boom means money. And money means I’m gonna be real happy in my surroundings.”

Yes, it’s true. Even as much as America suffers unaccustomed economic rigors, the sober inheritors of the old Permian Basin are having themselves a first-class oil boom out there—thanks to the energy shortage, rising oil prices, and the tough new attitudes of Arabian sheiks. When Walter Cronkite devoted a couple of minutes to the Odessa boom, the town was overrun by migrants seeking work; local officials say the influx brought unemployment up from 2 to 3.1 per cent. “But, hell,” a barber says, “you can hold two jobs if you’re willin’ to work. All it takes is want-to.” And an independent operator complains, “Gettin’ the hardware’s the problem. Hell, if I had the drillpipe and the rotary rigs I’d be gettin’ good rich. Everybody kinda let their equipment run down in the last few years, not much drilling was going on, and when things opened up it caught us off-base. There’s even a goddamn black market in drilling gear.”

An Odessa policewoman says, “We knew good times had come when crime shot up. The prostitutes and con men and knob-knockers are comin’ back. They seem to smell it. Not that it’s like it was in the early Fifties; the town’s not a wide-open sinkhole—but we’re keepin’ an eye on it.” Midland, too, has known its drilling activity; as in the older time, however, it fails to bustle in concert with Odessa’s tempo. The proprietor of a Midland cafe catering to working men said in mid-March, “It’s slowed down some lately. Maybe because it’s tax time coming up. But once in a while I wake up in a cold sweat fearin’ the boom won’t last.” The current boom, true, has little of the frantic Fifties in it to date; they are not throwing up new steel and stone towers or staying open all night. But oil’s worth digging up again, yessir, and out there in the Permian Basin sands they’re dreaming of it reaching $15 or $20 a barrel and making new millionaires all over again.

Burnett, Norman Childress, and I are quaffing beer in a peeled Andrews Highway joint where the nicks and clicks of shuffleboard discs compete with a jukebox howling its best.

“Midland,” Burnett is saying, “simply has more of the genteel about it. Don’t underestimate for a moment the influence of Midland women on their community. They’ve been a cultural force. A lot of ‘em came out here fresh from the proper schools back East, married to husbands farmed out to protect second- or third-generation family investments or to serve some corporate interest back there. One thing fails to lead to another, so to speak, and soon the Midland Women feel stuck out here. They view their experiences as having suffered some remote outpost—as with the British, say, in India. And like the British, they’ve tried to improve the lot of the natives. Such appreciations of the arts or high fashion or gracious living as may attend these wilds—well, probably they’re traceable to the Midland Women. Odessa has a smattering of such women, but many fewer. This is, and has been, the working man’s town.”

Childress shifts on his barstool in a manner to indicate he has enjoyed about all the good spoken of Midland that he can stand. Except for Navy service and once trying to hack it at Hardin-Simmons before he lost interest, Childress is native-Odessa to the core; this background guarantees that he thinks lowlier of Midland than of Outer Mongolia. “Them sumbitches in Midland,” he charges, “they won’t let go of the past. They still give a prize to the first bale of cotton in Midland every year and if they wanted to be fair about it they’d give a prize to both bales.”

Childress is a Good Ole Boy who sells used cars from his own lot in Odessa—out of a trailer-house office plumped down in a scabby section he delights in wryly calling “the heart of the financial district”—and when he played high school basketball as “Snake” Childress he could be counted on to address the opponent who missed a shot or double-dribbled as “Hot Rock” for the rest of the game. So he is a natural heckler, one quick to use the needle. What he said, however, qualified as apt beer hall social commentary: Midland has had this thing about preserving what already is gone and—until recent years, anyhow—was the damnedest place for staging Pioneer Days and Frontier Days and such that you ever saw. Back when Midland put much energy into its annual week-long rodeo, civic clubbers with lariats roped and dragged to portable sidewalk “jails” any citizen or visitor who failed to “dress Western.” This, to me, always seemed the games of children. More than once I caused hard feelings and was considered a poor community sport by fighting such ersatz cowboys as they attempted to toy with my civil rights. Odessans might gussy-up their Chamber-of-Commerce Chuck Wagon Gang to feed barbecue in the interest of area trade days, but they knew enough not to put their hands on you or otherwise force participation in their play-actings. I deduced that Odessans failed to feel the Midland compulsions that require all loyal sons and daughters to show enthusiasm for its community projects in the name of vague, blowsy mutual Good. It was as if all of Midland comprised an advertising agency whose employees were required to endorse “the product.” Great were the pressures on employees to see that each firm contributed 100 per cent to the United Fund Drive, or joined civic clubs, or conducted themselves with a certain decorum. You could fall from favor, maybe even lose a job, by joking of the oil business or getting a shade sloppy at the office party or too openly promoting “Leftist” candidates. There was a harsh paternalism to the place, one bordering on Group-think. Not that Odessa was entirely innocent; it, too, knew its despotic employers who watched clocks, attitudes, and otherwise meddled in private lives. To this day, I see signs of uneasy employer-employee relations and the notion, somehow, that the worker better not forget who butters the bread.

When I go back, my old Midland friends—with rare exceptions—preach to me: my judgments are excessively harsh, I drink too much, I do not enough appreciate my roots and the country that helped shape me, I should shuck the tinsel glitter and false gods of the East to come on home and recover the old values. I think they actually believe I am somehow deprived by not living there, that my secret soul must yearn for some missing magic indigenous to Midland and available nowhere else.

It is these I often bid goodnight in order to race across the wasteland to Odessa, there to seek out my natural companions—the sweat-hog lawyers and car salesmen and newspaper men. Whatever spirit of adventure and hot fevered hope as live in the Permian Basin exist among these. That, to me, is the essential difference between the sister cities of the flat brown plain, and in lonely country where one has a sense of living on the very edge it is not an inconsiderable one.

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