Dear Friend of Frank,
My old buddy Michael Hollman asked a throwaway question today: " A number of years ago," Mike said, "you told us you had a natural gas well in the Permian basin. How is that doing?"
"Not exactly," I replied, and with that the floodgates opened.
The well in question was a dud, a shallow gas well hardly worth maintaining. The developer capped it after a few years. We made pennies.
Me and the gas well. (c) www.samjosephphotography.com
By "we", I mean me and about 30 relatives, descendants of my maternal great-grandfather Sam Baum, who with a cousin bought some 1,200 acres of land mostly in Lavaca County, Texas. This was in the 'teens, during a rush of enthusiasm for investing in Texas oil and gas property.
Our land was not in the Permian, unfortunately. It was in Nowhere, Texas, at the center of a triangle 120 miles on a side linking Houston, Austin and San Antonio. You could fly into any of those cities, rent a car and drive; it'd take the same amount of time to reach Nowhere, Texas.
The years went along with little or no activity. Sam Baum eventually died, leaving the land in trust for his heirs. The years went along some more, what income the trust received being mostly from grazing rights. In the '50s, all but the mineral rights were sold off. That land now is a weekend-getaway hunting resort for Houston oilmen.
The mineral rights were all we wanted. Under Texas law, they have peculiar power, often trumping land rights of occupants.
The years go along some more and now it's the '90s. A wildcatter, one Auburn Dennis, negotiates a deal with my beloved late cousin Sheldon Baum, then designated manager of the Baum Trust. It's a way-too-generous deal, as I am later to discover, but no matter: Mr. Dennis strikes oil, lots of it, enough that there's plenty of money for him and millions of dollars for the Baum heirs ... among whom my mom Marjorie-Lee Baum has the largest share; by a quirk of fate, "Marj" was an only child and her cousins weren't.
At the time, my mom was on her way to dying from an incurable, untreatable movement disorder. Her care was costing hundreds of thousands. It would have impoverished her, leaving nothing for me and my sister Judy -- but for that Lavaca County oil money. The oil in effect paid for the last years of Marjorie-Lee Baum Joseph's life.
Then Mom died, the wells dried up, and so did the money.
More years pass. The trust is reorganized into an LLC because it can only live 100 years under, I think, Missouri law (the Baums are centered in Kansas City). My cousin Suzie is made manager. Then radio silence for several years. One fine night I discover why. Suzie calls from Chicago to say she's been going through a Divorce from Hell, has been neglecting the Baum LLC, and might I be interested in becoming a manager in her stead?
I am recently retired, have some background in oil and gas, and find myself itching for such a project. I accept. So do my cousins Barbara and Steve, but somehow I'm designated lead manager. And that's how this city boy finds himself in Nowhere, Texas, for a couple of fascinating days.
Son Sam is tagging along, having sweet-talked me by saying 'Dad, you're going to need a photographer.' We book a room in the Best Western in Hallettsville, the county seat, connect with our "landman" Jim Fenner, and off we go to the oil patch.
We tour that pathetic little gas well. We survey the rolling, empty landscape that encompasses our mineral rights. We meet up with Auburn Dennis in the Tastee Freez where every Lavaca oil deal gets done. And at night we return to the Best Western, where cars of oilfield workers jam the lot because someone somewhere is making oil money ... just not us.
(A parenthetical note about Hallettsville TX, seat of Lavaca County. Although the population was only 2,510 in the 2010 census, Hallettsville boasts a courthouse whose five-story-high clock tower is visible for miles around. And the surrounding lands, which I have mean-spiritedly described as Nowhere, are rolling and verdant, wooded with low deciduous trees and washed with streams. The land is alive with wild game; we saw feral pigs among other fauna. So while Lavaca isn't amenable to farming or grazing, nor all that amenable to mineral exploration, it's great for hunting and fishing.)
Auburn Dennis could be in the movies. Good-looking in a wavy-haired well-fed way, fast-talking, Jesus-loving, Mr. Dennis is slippery as Jell-O nailed to the wall. He regales us with seismic soundings that look like colorful squiggles to us but harbor mysteries of great wealth to him. But over the months to come, I am to discover that whatever Auburn Dennis has just finished saying is inoperative. No deal is made.
Instead, a Houston company called Square Mile Development comes seemingly out of nowhere and does a nice quick deal, negotiated by Yours Truly on (boasting here) far better terms than the one dear Sheldon negotiated in the '90s.
(Square Mile didn't actually come "out of nowhere." They were corralled by Jim Fenner because that's what Texas "landmen" do. Think real estate agents, except that landmen represent the customer [developer], not the seller [we rights-holders].)
Baum LLC has a happy association with Square Mile for a few years. Square Mile buys some options, does some exploratory drilling, we make some money (though a fraction of what we collected in the '90s). Then they throw in the towel and ever since ... radio silence. Oil prices collapse. Because we aren't in the Permian, or anywhere else good, our land isn't amenable to "fracking." Drilling must be done the old-fashioned way, straight down. That's a lot costlier than "fracking," meaning unprofitable at the depression-level where oil prices have languished until recently.
Now crude is playing footsie around $100 a barrel, but no one -- not Square Mile, not Auburn Dennis, not no one -- has come knocking. I call Jim Fenner once in a blue moon but he has no joy to share. We bide our time. We made our money. Maybe we will again one fine day.
Frank S Joseph Author
www.frankjoseph.com / firstname.lastname@example.org
P.S. Still available: FREE copies of the 2006 Mid Atlantic Highlands edition of To Love Mercy, the first novel of the Chicago Trilogy. Just send a request to email@example.com.
Cathy Baker just finished reading her FREE copy and here's what she said:
"I finished your book last night. What's impressive is that you've written an adult novel told in large part from the POV of two kids. How did you pull that off, I have to wonder.
"The book leapt out of my hands when Steve and Sass, after their picaresque journey through the night, and finding themselves among squabbling adults, decide in unison to bolt back outside. The scene at Lake Michigan as the sun rises was just magnificent. The suggestion that these two young boys might find a way to meet again, at a ball game, gave me a real sense of hope, even though I know things really didn't change much or quickly for these kids in late forties Chicago.
"Also--Riverview [Amusement Park]. As a little kid I went to Excelsior Amusement Park, Excelsior, MN, and you might as well have been describing the same place. Also as a little kid I went to the Minnesota state fair with my twin sister and best friend and somehow. after listening to the barker outside the freak show, my friend's father permitted us to go inside. Even as an 8-year-old I realized he shouldn't have let us. The shame of staring at the 'freaks' must be part of the attraction. I don't really remember what I saw. ... We wish we hadn't gone inside. The creepy [barker in the novel], and the way he bullied Steve into betting away his remaining cash, was superbly told. Bravo, Frank! Also, the little boy in the dunk tank--super, super creepy. Bravo again.
"Can't wait to read book number two and to read in final book three."