The Night the World Ended

Abstract:The "oil patch" has plenty of tales, and the tellers are vanishing fast. In this, an excerpt from a soon-to-be-published collection of oilfield yarns and remembrances, we learn that for some, the world came to a fiery end way back in the 1940s—almost.

Analysis:Editor's note: The following is one segment of a heartwarming collection of oilfield stories assembled by the late Darnell Peacock of Conroe, TX. A petroleum industry writer/editor who chronicled the modern history of the oil and gas industry as a daily newspaper oil editor of some renown, Peacock went on to become editor of several oil industry trade magazines and finally as the successful publisher of two widely read drilling and well service industry newsletters. He died in 1998.

Peacock, a West Texas native raised during the depression years of the 1930s, identified best with the common oilfield "hand"—the men (and surprisingly, even some women) who worked with calloused hands and many times missing fingers and thumbs in hardscrabble oilfield settings from Beaumont to Bakersfield and everywhere in between.

When Peacock decided to organize a book of tales, each separated by his sage comments, titled "Oilfield Trash I've Known and Loved," it wasn't difficult for him to read and cherish the following yarn and get the author's permission to include it in the book. The late John Paul Pitts, an award-winning oil editor of the Midland, TX Reporter-Telegram, wrote it some years ago. That publication today is the last remaining U.S. daily newspaper with such an editor listed on its masthead.

Pitts passed away in 2001, but his remembrance, which follows, is "puredee oil patch," and features the kind of people both he and Peacock knew and loved. And while the book is nearing completion by another editor and a publisher is being sought, Pitts' memorial to oil patch days long gone is a first-rate example of the manuscript's rich content:


The scene opens on a Saturday night near Wink, in the late 1940s. It was a typical West Texas summer night, and the winds were still soft and warm long after the sun had set.

As was the custom of that time and place, a congregation of roughnecks, pipeliners, well-service hands, roustabouts, and other oil patch types not long from the cotton patch had gathered in my grandparents' front yard.

This gathering of transplanted Arkies, most from the same small town in the Razorback State, would sit for hours in the yard, smoking and discussing newer used cars, better jobs, and Arkansas genealogies:

"She was a Hawkins 'fore she married the Jones boy. Her daddy was Big Bud's brother, the one that shot that Alvin boy down to Jonesboro. And the whole bunch was related to the Wilsons over at Black Oak. They was a no-count bunch."

It would go on for hours, until the talk turned to the second favorite subject—getting a better job. Someone among this gathering of upwardly mobile rednecks was always looking for a better job, about to get a better job, or knew somebody who had gotten a better job.

I was about 8 or 9 years old, and would usually lie beside my Grandma's rocking chair, listening to the grownup gibberish until the rhythmic squeak of the well-used rocker lulled me to sleep.

On this night, however, as I was about to nod off, a strange and heavenly event began to unfold.

Suddenly, the sky became alive with "falling stars." There were oohs and ahhs as first one, then another, and then a flurry of stars "fell." Presently, one of the ladies pointed and half shouted: "Look!"

We all followed her gaze. A strange pulsating glow had appeared on the northern horizon, first small, then quickly casting a fiery hue across the entire northern sky. It looked like sunrise, but the sun had barely set. First thought was that it must be a gas flare. But no flare, not even the giant one over at Denver City, could light up the sky like that. It was a most spectacular sight—the falling stars and the glowing sky.

Just as the shepherds tending their flocks at night must have wondered about that bright star over Bethlehem, there was considerable "wondering" about this heavenly spectacle over toward Kermit. Was the town burning? It was too far away for that. Nobody seemed to be able to offer a logical reason why the stars would fall and the sky would glow.

Suddenly, Grandma bolted from her rocker with the answer. Hands raised, she shouted: "Praise God! It's Him. It's the Lord!"

At these gatherings, Grandma usually rocked, savored her snuff and listened, but seldom spoke. When she did speak, people took notice.

In addition to being the unofficial matriarch to this community of Arkies-turned-Texans, she had also earned herself somewhat of a reputation as a self-taught theologian—a "wise lady" who could hold her own in end times discussions with Jehovah's Witnesses.

I never knew her to go to church, but each Saturday morning she would sit in the porch swing, read True Detective magazines and occasionally look down the road for well-dressed people carrying Bibles.

"Is that them, son?" She'd ask, squinting, when they finally appeared.

"That's them, Grandma!" I'd say. Then, like an old Texas rancher who'd sighted approaching strangers and wanted his rifle, she would drawl: "Fetch me my Book."

The Doomsday duel was on: Grandma against the Jehovah's Witnesses. The theological showdown would last for hours, as each verse-slinger flipped Bible pages almost without looking. Finally it would end, with neither a winner nor hard feelings—but always with the understanding that there would be a rematch. On those Saturdays when they didn't come, she was often visibly disappointed.

Such was Grandma's reputation around Wink. So now, startled eyes focused hard on her as she loudly proclaimed the second coming: "It's the Lord! He said he would return from the east, in flaming glory with all his angels! It's him! Praise the Lord!"

The glow was actually in the north, but that point seemed to be missed.

Nevertheless, jaws dropped, sinful cigarettes were stomped, and a dozen silent faces exchanged the same puzzled looks that asked, "Do we pray? Do we run home for the kids? Just wait? Will it be painless?"

Grandma had spoken, and now the strange, unexplainable fiery phenomenon made sense: It was the end of the world!

I wasn't scared, 'cause I was with Grandma. The rest, however, weren't so sure. They sat stunned, fear written boldly across their faces.

It must have been only minutes, but it seemed like hours, before her husband, my Grandpa, who feared neither man nor God, made his move. He swaggered slowly into the house and flipped on the radio. We all knew why. If it were the end of the world, surely there would be something about it on the radio—that is, if anybody were still out there.

Our ears were cocked toward the screen door as we waited for the radio tubes to heat up. Finally, through the static, sprang the voice of Hank Williams, singing about "cheatin' hearts," or something. It was like music from heaven. There were no news flashes about Doomsday, and instinctively this terrified oil patch clan knew that the world was still turning. Mankind was still out there, still playing country music.

The relief was audible, cigarettes were relit, and within minutes the group disbanded, drifting toward their cars with only the most casual of comments. However, some very chill glances were cast at Grandma, who had now gone back to rockin' and spittin' and crochetin'. She did not look up, but a faint smile on her snuff-stained lips did not go undetected. Her sense of humor was always a subdued one.

In any case, next day we learned the truth. A gas well had blown out near Jal, NM, and had lent an eerie hue to the meteor shower. It was all quite normal.

Not so normal though, was that brief encounter with eternity—the night Grandma scared the hell out of some Arkansas transplants up near Wink, in West Texas.