Merry Christmas Granddad

I’m working on my fourth book now which I am tentatively calling Notes About Me: Stories About Growing Up & Kin”. Here is a Note from it, albeit unedited at this time. I’ll post some more from it as I write more, and more from the other three books which there are plenty yet to post.

Christmas Eve 1968, Apollo 8 was going around the moon and the presents were under the tree at Granddad’s house in Valley View on Lee Street and we were there awaiting having “the tree”. It was a warm Christmas Eve as we sometimes see in Texas and we were doing something – exactly what escapes my memory after so many decades – when the phone rang.

Granddad picked it up and I then remember me, Granddad, and my dad piling into his Buick Electra 225 and speeding off to the east. Why on Christmas Eve would you leave in a hurry? A natural gas well Granddad had invested in had “blown out”.

What’s a blow you ask? When you drill a well sometimes the formation have gas that is under high pressure and it comes up the well bore. If it is high enough to overcome the weight of the drilling mud – water and particulate matter pumped down the hole used to lubricate the drill stem and hold up the hole – the drill pipe can be shot out of the well bore, the gases then gush out, and then usually ignite and explode since they hit a spark from the equipment on the rig like the big diesel engines that spin the drill stem. The rig will literally melt and collapse in 30 seconds or so. And worse things can happen too like poisonous H2S gas being present when breathed is instant death like some military nerve agent. And worse is what did happen as the well was belching the deadly “sour gas” as it is called in the “oil patch”. Pretty heady stuff for an eight year old to learn, eh? But listen and learn I did that day.

We drove for some time to Sulfur Springs, Texas where the well was. As we approached the well from the west we could see the huge whitish plume of the burning gas. Granddad drove south and the well was to our east and we came back to the well form the south to avoid the deadly outflow – the wind was from the south that bright, sunny day.

Next, we drove through the open gate on the pasture and drove up to within 200 feet or so of the well. There was very little of the rig left, some piles of twisted metal on either side of the well with its huge thrashing flame which condensed into the white smoke plume.

Walking around the area were men in red overalls and hard hats. None other than Red Adair’s famous oil field firefighters from Houston. That made an impression on me – watch the old John Wayne movie “Hellfighters” and you will see a fictionalized account of them there.

They had some equipment around the well too which they had used to drag away some of the debris to get to the well’s flame – you can see that on “Hellfighters” too. Red Adairs’ folks were walking around calmly; to them it was just another day’s work in the field. We walked around the site, always checking the wind in case it changed and we had to run to avoid getting caught it, granddad talked to Adair’s red clad troops, and then drove back to Valley View and get back to the tree and it’s still unopened presents.

To me it was a pretty amazing site to see and was forever burned into my memories. When I worked in the oil field in high school and was around it it always made me appreciate the possible dangers of being around wells, even though the likelihood of an explosive event was very, very low – my mom did not agree with that statistical evaluation however and always dreaded it when I went out in the field. Especially if I was up on the drilling floor of a rig and saw the drill stem going up and down from a gas pressure “kick”.

Kicks are pretty common and the driller just adds more and heavier mud to the pumps and it stops. Most of the time, that is, unless you get a really BIG kick as what happened at the Sulfur Springs well or on the BP Gulf disaster as an extreme example. But for now, we will dispense with my lecture on how blowouts occur and come back to the present time.

That was one Christmas Eve for sure; I cannot say another one had that much drama except for when my other grandfather, Clem Turner died. I can say now that must have been one helluva present for my Granddad to get that day. While he was not usually an emotional man if I had known what I know now about such things I think I could have told him “Merry Christmas Granddad” and he would have cracked a little smile at the irony of getting such an explosive gift on that usually calm fun-filled family day.

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