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My first taste of Texas

by Richard Mason | June 21, 2022 at 5:00 a.m.

Well, when this Norphlet boy and his Smackover gal bride left the Ozark hills, it would be 12 years before we bid a goodbye to Texas and returned to Arkansas.

That morning, we left Fayetteville heading for Houston, where I had just been hired by Exxon. I had gotten off the elevator on the wrong floor and stumbled into the Southwest District Office of Humble Oil and Refining Company, which had just been bought by Exxon. I was hired as a production geologist assigned to Kingsville, Texas.

Actually, I was hired because several Exxon geologists from Denver had turned down a transfer to Kingsville.

Vertis and I drove straight to Houston, where I stopped long enough to find a low rent motel where Vertis waited while I went to finish filling out employment papers and get a company physical.

That only took about an hour, but when I exited the building on the opposite side where I parked, it took me another hour and a half to find my car, but then we celebrated at Christies Seafood, where we dined on Gulf shrimp. When they placed two scoops of a green and red blobs on the table, we wondered what they were. Country boy and girl didn't recognize colored butter.

Well, the next morning we headed south on Highway 59, and as we passed through Victoria and the pine trees turned into mesquite bushes, my bride teared up. But we made it to Kingsville in time to set up our 10-by-35-foot trailer, which Exxon had hauled down from Fayetteville, and the next morning I drove out to the King Ranch where the District Offices were located.

The famous King Ranch was and still is the prize oil and gas holding of Exxon in South Texas. Captain King, a riverboat captain, started by buying a Spanish land grant and built the ranch up to almost a million acres. As the ranch got bigger, he went to Mexico and hired an entire small village to work on the ranch.

We had been in South Texas a week when the District Geologist sent everyone home early.

"Hurricane Carla is supposed to make landfall south of Corpus Christi, and you need to prepare," he said.

Well, we prepared all right, by leaving that trailer for a motel until Carla notched north and spared Kingsville.

It didn't take long before we had a new set of friends, and on weekends we drove the 80 miles to Matamoros, Mexico. The border was safe then, and we could spend the weekend for less than $20 a night and eat at the Texas Bar across the border where $5 bought a meal with two entrées.

Sometimes we would just drive 15 miles south of Kingsville to Ricardo where Hubert's Danceland was located. Our first trip was to hear Earnest Tubb and the Texas Troubadours. We walked in and instead of a theater with seats, it was a very large hall with tables around the walls leaving a really big dance floor. Well, we didn't come to dance, but evidently everybody else did. When old Earnest kicked off the show everybody stood, including us; in a few seconds Vertis and I sat down, but we were the only ones. Then, as the Troubadours and Earnest really kicked up the music, everyone on the floor was suddenly moving to the Texas Two-Step, and this big crowd of two-steppers moved counterclockwise around the floor.

As soon as we got settled in Kingsville, a couple of our new friends took us to the King's Inn on Baffin Bay. Over the years I've dined at plenty of upscale restaurants, but the King's Inn ranks up near the top of my list.

Of course, in South Texas, Mexican food was on everybody's list, and we found out quickly that small home cooked Mexican food was the best. At Christmas, a knock on the door from a young boy announcing, "Christmas Hot Tamales," set the standard for me.

We only lived in Kingsville for two years, and my work as a geologist was to supervise the infield drilling of a major oil and gas field. I received the equivalent of ten years' experience, as I got over 100 wells drilled.

Then one afternoon when I was about to leave the office, the District Geologist called me in and after a short discussion, he offered me a transfer to Benghazi, Libya. Of course, Vertis and I checked it out and everything we could find out about it was bad, but the money, which with the hardship allowance, doubled my salary.

Actually, I think getting out of that trailer was really the key. We had to give it away when we left. We spent two years in Benghazi, and it lived up to its clipping. It was terrible.

Then we transferred back, this time to Corpus Christi, where I really got into fishing in the Gulf. There are a lot of ways to fish in the Gulf, and I did most of them. However, my favorite was gigging flounder.

There are a lot of back bays with shallow water around Corpus, and gigging flounder is very simple. You take a gig and on a dark night with no moon, you put on a headlight and wade in water above your knees and below your waist. Flounders are a flat fish that lie on the bottom, and you have to really look to see the outline of the fish. When you spot one, you simply gig it and reach down to hold the fish while you put it on a stringer.

There is only one problem with floundering, as it's called: small stingrays look almost exactly like a flounder except for the pointed tail. Let your imagination run, and you have just gigged a stingray. "Sting." Uh huh.

Another way to fish was to wade in the Laguna Madre, a long, shallow bay behind the Gulf beach. You move slowly in the shallow water looking for speckled trout. These fish are large, sometime weighing over six pounds, and when you spot one, you flick a shrimp baited hook and hold on to your rig.

Of course, there is the Gulf, and I spent hours standing in waist deep water and throwing my line out into the open ocean. Usually I caught speckled trout, but occasionally a red snapper.

The one fish I remember was one I didn't catch. I felt something hit my bait, I reared back, set the hook, and wow! The water just exploded. A huge tarpon cleared the water, and I just hung on until it snapped the line.

Well, when you're young you do some stupid things, like when a good friend and I took his 14-foot outboard out into the open Gulf to fish for mackerel, without even lifejackets. We did catch a lot of mackerel, but I really only remember one trip. I was in the bottom of the boat trying to unhook a big mackerel as the boat rocked and the fish and gunk smelled in the boat bottom suddenly... yuck! Seasick! I threw up my toenails.

Richard Mason is an author and speaker. He can be reached at [email protected]

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