Texas Historical Documents

Gas Plant Tales


Back in 1955 I was working the graveyard shift at the Shell Gas plant about 20 miles west of Odessa. Well OK it was in Notrees, Texas. I wasn't going to mention exactly where it was because I didn't want to explain it, but I guess I will.

Notrees, Texas is west of Odessa and how it got its name is a story in itself. The small community needed a post office. When the community leaders applied to the postal service for a post office they sent in the name Springfield for the community. The postal officials said there were too many Springfield's. They said "Send us a description of the topographical characteristics of the area and examples of the indigenous flora and fauna." The reply went back to the postal officials, "Well we ain't got no trees." …And with the infinite wisdom of a federal agency Notrees was born. Now it wasn't exactly true that there were no trees in Notrees. There actually was one tree growing near the highway. It was one of those volunteer trees that came out of no where. It was probably 10 years old when it was dug up in 1942. That's when crews finishing the Shell gas plant dug the tree up and moved it in front of the plant office.

Now, where was I?

Well I was working as an oilier in the number two engine room at the gas plant. We had eight Cooper Bessemer GMV 10 integral engines to keep running. In between filling the McCord lubricators every four hours, and continuous cleaning, chipping and painting, we had to load and unload the compressors at the whim of some idiot pumper out in the field that always seem to open a well around bean time.

We did get two fifteen minute breaks per shift and thirty minutes for lunch and we needed it, just to get away from the drone of those noisy engines. A couple of pieces of cotton in your ears made it just bearable. Depending on the weather, we took our breaks either in the boiler room or the smoke shack right by the engine room. For lunch we ate on a long table right next to the change room. If you were some contractor just temporarily working at the plant you better be careful where you sat to eat lunch. The company hands took all the choice eating-places and they didn't mind telling you where you could go… and eat your lunch.

Lunch? well sort of. Working the graveyard shift meant you ate lunch about 4:00 AM, right after you gauged off and recorded the total production for the day. About 6:00 am you start looking for the daylight crew to show up and relieve the graveyard shift.

Operating a gas plant is sort of like being a prison guard, when the prisoners are in their cells and quiet everything's OK, but let them get out of their cells and start acting up, and all heck breaks out. That's the way it is working at a gas plant, when things are running well its pretty easy, almost boring. But let the weather take a drastic change or the gremlins get into the engines and all hell breaks loose. Everybody is running around like a one legged man in an *** kicking match. You do what ever it takes to get it running and keep it running.

Although most problems in gas plants are of a mechanical nature, it's real easy to start believing that the equipment has a mind of its own. Such as relieving the evening crew and right after they walk out the door all hell breaks loose, or lots of trouble on Christmas day when there is no extra help to call on. These sorts of things caused lots of superstitions. I knew a mechanic once that he always backed out of any engine room he was in. His idea was to never turn his back on a running engine.

Yes, there were lots of "characters" working in gas plants, all of them having their strange little quirks. One I remember was a Yankee we had working as an operator. We called him "Boston" Joe. He had come to Texas after the war. He was smart enough but always seemed to come up short in common sense. We were in the lunchroom one day when "Boston" was complaining about a big red ant bed in the alley behind his house. Every spring he would go to war with these critters and they always came back.

Then Smiling Jim one of our tank farm hands said, "Boston, I know exactly how to get rid of those ants".

Boston, not being too proud to accept some help said, "Don't just sit there grinning, tell me what to do."

"Well before we go home this morning come by the truck rack with that quart mason jar you brought your ice tea in and let me fill it up with ethyl mercaptan. Then when you get home pour that whole jar all over that ant bed, and by the time you get up this evening to come to work that ant bed will be gone for good."

Now, I need to break in here and tell some of you green horns exactly what ethyl mercapitan is before I can finish my story. You see when natural gas comes out of the ground and is processed it has no odor, nether does its by-product, propane. It's pretty important that it has a smell or you would never know if you had a leak. So one of the things we do at the gas plant is add something to it to make it stink, and that something is ethyl mercaptan. We have lots of other names for it but the nicest I can come with is skunk pee. It really stinks and it is powerful. To stink up 10,000 gallons of propane takes about a pint of ethyl mercapitan. Now back to my story.

Boston thought this was a great idea. Right at quitting time he was at the loading rack with his freshly rinsed out mason jar ready to fill it with ethyl mercapitan and give those evil ants their due. Smiling Jim was there to accommodate him.

"You got a good tight lid for that jar," Smiling Jim asks.

"Yep, I do, and I'll be sure and put it the bed of your pickup on the way home," Boston replied.

"No, I have a wire here, I'm going to tie it on the back bumper, I want to make sure not to get any of that skunk pee on my truck!" Smiling Jim exclaimed.

When Smiling Jim dropped Boston Joe off at his house the sun had been up only for a few minutes, but there was pretty good light. So Boston took the jar filled with ethyl mercapitan into the alley and with a big grin on his face began his assault on the enemy camp, the ants.

First he poured it right on top of the ant bed. Then he poured some more on the mound he had destroyed the month before to keep them from moving back into their old residence. And then to assure himself none would escape into his back yard, he poured the rest down the length of his fence. There was something devious about how Boston was enjoying this.

When he was finished, Boston chunked the jar in a trash can in the alley and went in the back door of his house. It was a normal week day morning with his kids trying to get off to school and him anxious to get to bed.

Boston's wife was cooking breakfast for the kids when he walked in.

She looked at him and said, "What were you doing in the alley" and before he could answer, she said "…and what's that awful smell."

"Ant poison," he answered, "We won't have anymore trouble with them."

"Well, I think the kids are out of the bathroom so you can take your bath and go to bed"

And that's exactly what he did, he was ready to get some sleep because in a few hours it would be time to go back to work.

Around 10:00 am, Boston was startled awake by a boom rattling of the windows in his bedroom. He dozed off, and again "boom". He decided to get up and see what was going on. When he came into the kitchen he found his wife looking out the kitchen window toward the alley.

"What's going on," he asked?

"Oh! You're not going to believe it. There is a big gas leak in the alley they have shut the gas off in the whole neighborhood! And they say it may take a week to replace the line," she said.

Boston peered between the blinds to look out at the alley. Sure enough, Pioneer Natural Gas was out in force. There was a back hoe, a front end loader, and a bunch of dump trucks coming and going. And of course there was a full contingent of shovel leaner's.

Boston tried to sleep but with all the noise he couldn't. That night when Smiling Jim came by to pick up him up for work he was ready and waiting!

"You knew what would happen when I poured out that ethyl mercapitan," Boston exclaimed!

"What do you mean," Smiling Jim smiled?

"They dug up all the gas lines in my neighborhood, and I had to eat a cold breakfast, and my wife couldn't get the laundry done, and its going to be like this all week!"

"What'cha griping about, got rid of your ants didn't 'ya?"

Yep, there are lots of characters in a gas plant.Ant