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The President's Hometown

by Alexander Cockburn

A visit to the Petroleum Museum
You can see why George Bush doesn't believe in global warming. Growing up in west Texas summers he doubtless believes it can never get any hotter. It was 101 F at 8.30PM as I stopped in the course of a July drive across the states to ask directions to motel row from the inhabitants of a Dairy Queen -- two girls on an outing from Odessa (the grimier oil town down the interstate a few miles) and a solitary Goth in traditional black garb.

Since Laura Bush is the nation's First Librarian, I thought it only right to visit Midland's library, and was looking for it when I passed a building labeled Museum of the South West and stopped for a look. The first room had Audubon's prints of Texas animals from his last book, "Viviparous Quadrupeds of North America," published between 1845 and 1848. He died three years later. They are marvelous, and some of them, such as the ocelot and jaguar (now extinct in Texas), are so lively looking that you'd swear Audubon had sketched them from life. But, in fact, by that time in his life, Audubon rarely moved from his house on the Hudson, to which specimens arrived in various stages of putrefaction, sometimes pickled in rum.

Next to the Audubon room were dashing exhibits by young artists from the Wirral peninsula, in northwest England, also by the London-born Indian twin sisters Amrit and Rabindra Kaur Singh, whose wonderful use of the Indian miniature tradition to portray the Indian immigrant experience in the UK was arousing approving comment from Midlanders. The visitors' book unanimously sparkled with "exquisite," "beautiful" and, from Chris Adam, "fantastic show! The best to be seen here in years. I wish more of the locals understood it." I bought a Wirral beach scene photographed by Geraldine Hughes and went on my way, wondering why Midland and Wirral, of all places, are sister cities. Maybe it's because of a Midland fan of Gerry and the Pacemakers, since Wirral is the place you get to from Liverpool when you ferry across the Mersey ...

There are two splendid special collections in the Midland library devoted to genealogy and petroleum. In a break from poring over Dr. Ferdinand Roemer's "Texas," I chatted with the curator of these collections, to be told that Laura Bush, nee Welch, had worked as a librarian in Austin. In Midland she'd been a teacher. I thought there perhaps a tinge of disapproval in the voices of two ladies in the genealogy section when they discussed local history with me and made mention of "the Welch girl."

I rounded out the Midland visit with an excursion to the truly tremendous Permian Basin Petroleum Museum on Interstate 20, which does for hydrocarbons what the Uffizi does for the art of Renaissance Italy. The museum's entry is framed by two oil pumps, like triumphal gryphons. Here is to be found the famous map by O.C. Harper, done in 1924 and reckoned to be one of the most outstanding feats of reconnaissance geology in history. Harper accurately deduced the whereabouts of the vast oil resources of the Permian basin of west Texas and eastern New Mexico.

A year later, other geologists, scouts and land speculators were rushing to Midland, and soon, as an oilman later recalled in a news story of the 1950s displayed in the museum, they "had married all but a few of the single girls who had finished high school and a few who had not. Whirlwind courtships of two weeks to a month prior to the wedding were not uncommon. The few remaining eligible single young girls had but to decide with whom and how many dates they would have each evening. The young women were outnumbered about six to one by the single young men." By 1928, just one oil field, the 1,100-foot-deep Yates, was rated as having a daily production potential of 2.2 million barrels a day, just under the daily national consumption at that time of 2.6 million a day.

George Bush arrived in 1948, later recalling that "We all just wanted to make a lot of money quick." He never did make a big pile out of oil, and neither did George W., who spent the fifties in Midland as a boy, and returned there between 1975 and 1986 to try to make his pile.

The oilmen clearly had the time of their lives setting up the Petroleum Museum. At last, here was the opportunity to set the record straight, without any persnickety interference from the enviro crowd. There's the heroic art of oil exploration and extraction by Tom Lovell and that of Frank Gervasi and John Scott (better, in my opinion). There's a majestic reproduction of an entire coral reef of the sort harboring oil thousands of feet below our feet. There are drill bits and tableaux of all the good things oil brings. Outside there's the largest collection of old drilling rigs in the world.

It was hard to tear myself away, but the placed closed, and I drove down the interstate to seedy and depressed-looking Odessa, which, one triumphant year in recent memory, edged Miami to become Murder Capital of the United States. The notorious aggressions of a slice of Odessa's citizenry probably accounts for the fact that nearby, more prosperous and classy Midland county is Texas's rape capital on a per capita basis, according to Betty Dickerson of the Midland Rape Crisis Center. So much for the timeless values Bush claims to have imbibed in West Texas. Leaving Odessa I passed a sign for the Harvest Time Church: "Jesus Knows That Life Can Be Hard As Nails," then, to the right, in black on gold and red, the more urgent "ETERNITY, IT'S HELL WITHOUT JESUS."

© Creators Syndicate

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Albion Monitor August 13, 2001 (

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