ALTA EVENTS

Busted: Brash Stories from Texas and New Mexico

A conversation with writers Joshua Wheeler and Bryan Mealer about the booms, busts, and bold characters of the Southwestern United States.

Alta regularly hosts and sponsors events that bring the pages of our magazine to life. We feature celebrated writers and photographers whose work provides insight and fresh perspective to life in California and the West. Select events are recorded as podcasts and published as conversations on AltaOnline.com.


For this event, titled, Busted: Brash Stories from Texas and New Mexico, we partnered with the Huntington-USC Institute on California and the West. Recorded on March 7, 2019 at The Huntington Library in San Marino, California, the event explores the hardscrabble times, places, and people of Texas and New Mexico. Writers Bryan Mealer and Joshua Wheeler joined Alta contributor and Los Angeles Times columnist Gustavo Arellano to recount the booms, busts and bold characters of life in the Southwestern United States. Mealer is the author most recently of The Kings of Big Springs: God, Oil, and One Family’s Search for the American Dream and Wheeler is the author of Acid West.

Huntington-USC Institute on California and the West Director Bill Deverell  on stage at the Huntington Library in San Marino, California on March 7, 2019. Blaise Zerega
Huntington-USC Institute on California and the West Director Bill Deverell introduces “Busted: Brash Stories from Texas and New Mexico.”

GUSTAVO ARELLANO: So often when we talk about the West or writing about the West, we are talking about writing about a place, writing about what is it that makes a particular place in the West ring. What makes it different from the bigger thing of the West? And also how do the writers exemplify that sense of place in what they talk about? And I think in these two books, you have two really wonderful examples of writing about place.

So you have Bryan’s book, The Kings of Big Springs. It’s exactly like West Texas, like the Permian basin. You have these beautiful long elegant passages, wonderful writing goes on and on and on, like the prairie. It’s just great writing. And then you have this book, Acid West. It’s just weird. It’s just like southern New Mexico. And if you’ve driven around Southern New Mexico, either on I25 or through the Painted Desert, you know those colors start flipping out like some psychedelic trip. You see those clouds out in the horizon, just angry, angry gray. And even though you’re in 95 degree weather coming in, you know at some point you’re going to come through that rainfall that you see, like this giant gray lines going on there. And that’s exactly how Joshua writes his essays, his passages, they’re just crazy. I think when I met him today, I’m like, “You’re a crazy writer. But I like that.”

So when we talk about your places that you’re writing about, we’re talking about Southern New Mexico SNM, which I love. And then we’re talking about the Permian basin, West Texas in general. So for both of you that to start off, you set your places both in the American imagination and in the American West. What do they mean both in the American imagination and in the West? Is it the same? Is it different? And then finally, what do they mean within the states where they belong? So what does Southern New Mexico mean to New Mexico, and then what does West Texas and the Permian Basin mean for Texas? So whoever wants to take it first.

JOSHUA WHEELER:  Okay. I think for New Mexico, Southern New Mexico is often an afterthought. You have northern New Mexico, which is Taos, Santa Fe, sort of the places that most people hear about most often. And down in Southern New Mexico we have a chip on our shoulder about that. So, Southern New Mexico in the context of New Mexico, I think is an afterthought, I think in the context of maybe the national myth, Southern New Mexico is thought of as the borderlands. Probably the biggest city sort of in that area is not even in New Mexico, it’s El Paso, Texas. And so if anybody knows the area, they know that. And when I tell people I’m from Alamogordo, if they know one thing, it’s the atomic bomb test. So then there’s that.

A map of the state of New Mexico, by county.MapsOfUS.org
A map of the state of New Mexico.

WHEELER: People see me and they think that I’m going to start glowing green or something. I think writing the book was a lot about trying to get not only people in New Mexico to pay attention to what happens in Southern New Mexico, but also to try and place Southern New Mexico within the context of the evolution of the American story, particularly the way in which it’s been important in the military industrial complex and the sacrifices that people  have made to live there, sometimes involuntarily, as a result of the military industrial complex. It’s just riding with a chip on my shoulder about a place which I love and hate, which is where the SNM comes from. It’s southern New Mexico, but it sounds like S&M. I love it, I hate it. Most of us love it and hate it, and we love to hate it and we hate to love it. So it’s all of that.

“We grew up with dust, we grew up with dust storms and the sky turned black from dirt. It’s a harsh landscape.”

ARELLANO: Yeah. What about a Permian?

BRYAN MEALER: The Permian, Big Spring, it was where the Comanche fell, the great Comanche tribe. And once the Comanche were defeated out of West Texas, the expansion could begin. Big Spring was founded by buffalo hunters, not just the buffalo hunters, but the people that came down to scavenge the bones that were left behind from the buffalo slaughters after the Comanche had been cleared. And they said that the first settlers to arrive in Big Spring arrived to an expansive sea of bleached bones. They could walk a mile on the bones not touching the ground. And they would stack these bones, the shape of hay-ricks, and they would just span sometimes 50 to 100 feet. And they would stack them next to where the TNP railroad was about to go through.

They were ranchers expanding on the old Comancheria, and these are the first citizens of the town. And after that, it became an empire of oil. In 1924, oil was found in west Texas, and it is the largest oil field in the world right now. I think it just surpassed Russia. And it’s still banging and that has always defined it, oil boom and bust will always define it. When it’s boom, it’s great, and when it’s a bust, we all know that story too.

ARELLANO: We in California, we think of Texas one giant monolithic, just afterthought really, does not compare at all to California. So how does the rest of Texas think about the Permian?

MEALER: Well, it’s ugly, and it’s naked. It’s for pump jacks and it smells bad and it’s full of dust. They used to say that when the people used to … the oil men used to bring their families to Big Spring in Midland and Odessa, their wives would cry. My grandmother used to … We used [inaudible 00:11:12], which is far west Texas coming to the New Mexico border.

A map of the basins, reefs, and platforms that make up the Permian Basin in Texas.Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc.
A map of the basins, reefs, and platforms that make up the Permian Basin in Texas.

MEALER: And the dust storms were so bad, she would hang diapers out to dry and come back and they were crusted in this red dust. We grew up with dust, we grew up with dust storms and the sky turned black from dirt. It’s a harsh landscape. Much like Southern New Mexico, we share a landscape in a way. If wind blows from Big Spring, it probably ends up in Alamogordo.

WHEELER: [Laughs.] It got a lot bigger once it got to Alamogord and mutated.

ARELLANO: So you both come from very distinctive areas then. How did you, in doing your books, draw upon those areas, to try to fashion the writing styles that you both employed?

WHEELER: I think many different facets exist in Southern New Mexico. You have obviously the Spanish culture from way back from Spain, you have the Mexican culture. You have the culture of the southern folks who moved in after the civil war. You have all of this sort of blending of cultures. And on top of that you have the military industrial complex, which shows up and then the aerospace industry, which shows up with NASA and the more recent commercial space endeavors like Virgin Galactic. And this just sort of mishmash of layering and layering on things is I think what my writing style is. I like to take personal history and mix it up with broader geographical history and mix that up with very specific scientific investigations. I just try and grab as much as I can and throw it into the pot in the same way that I saw pozole get made. For instance, when I was growing up.

ARELLANO: Yeah. You have asides, you have footnotes, you have just philosophical ramblings. It’s a little bit of everything. I’ve traveled a lot to Southern New Mexico, and you’ve just really captured all the craziness of that area.

WHEELER: I hope so. I hope it also captures a little bit of the courageous spirit of the people that in the face of all of this stuff, this whirlwind of stuff that they’ve had to deal with, they still are willing to stand there and look at it in the eye and try and make sense of it, even if they can’t necessarily defeat it.

“It’s a toughness that exists, self-reliance. It’s a frontier attitude in a way.”

ARELLANO: What about in your case?

MEALER: The wind blows so hard there, the wind blows constantly there. Like I said, there’s dust. It takes a kind of tenacity, I think, and a lot of patience to live there. One thing that distinguishes people in Big Spring and West Texas is, it is from say, Austin where I live now, or Houston. There’s this … I don’t know. It’s a toughness that exists, self-reliance. It’s a frontier attitude in a way. My sentences are long [because of this]. You read Cormac McCarthy who draws all of his stories from that area. And I mean that guy writes really long sentences.

But I think it comes with the landscape and you can’t really bullshit people very much because they won’t listen to you and they’ll look right through you. And so, you had to say what you mean, there’s not a lot of passive aggressive attitudes in West Texas, it’s very to the point. And I think, just growing up around my family, I probably got some of that with my writing and maybe just my worldview in a way, which of course transfers over to my writing.

ARELLANO: It’s interesting because the theme for tonight, it’s Busted, brash stories from both of your regions. Do you think both of your regions have that sort of duality of yes, they’re busted, down-low areas, but also the people who have to live there, they’re not going to be busted people because you have to be tough to be living in Southern New Mexico and, also, West Texas.

MEALER: I think bust is interwoven into our DNA. You read that study about the Dutch famine after World War II. The people they starved when the Nazis blocked Holland and their subsequent generation was fat. In Big Spring, in Midland and Odessa, it’s like your DNA is engineered toward feast or famine. At least it was, back when I was growing up in my parents’ generation. You’re used to the lows. My family, we came out there in the 1920s to work in the oil fields and we’re still working in the oilfields now. And that’s a lot of booms and busts. That’s a lot of ups and downs. In the 1950s, there was a time when it didn’t rain for seven years straight.

ARELLANO: We’re familiar with that here.

MEALER: Yeah, exactly. So it’s ingrained, that bust is ingrained and on the other end, there’s a bumper sticker that you used to see a lot in West Texas. I’m not sure if it’s still there now, but it said, “Dear Lord, give me another oil boom and I promise I won’t piss this one away.” And that’s true, so yeah.

WHEELER: I think in New Mexico there’s that same duality. But there’s also a similar one, and it’s the one that in the book I describe the people of this ilk as patriot-noiacs. It’s a mixing up the word patriotic and paranoia, which is something that you have a lot in Southern New Mexico. That specific essay I’m talking about, the folks who are adamant that the aliens actually landed in Roswell.

ARELLANO: They didn’t?

WHEELER: Something happened in Roswell. I don’t think we’ve really figured it out yet, but it also sort of describes the folks who were affected by the radiation from the first atomic blast. The cancer, the thyroid cancer in particular that has just ravaged those communities that were so close to that test and not given any sort of forewarning, has become a badge of courage for them. And they call themselves the ultimate patriots, which was such a strange thing to me because I always thought that being patriotic was a choice that you made. If you were going to make a sacrifice for your country, it was something that you chose to do. And they didn’t choose to be exposed to this radiation from this blast and have their children exposed to it and have their cows exposed to it, which exposed everybody who drank the cow’s milk.

And so they are very, very, very suspicious of the government. But at the same time, they are some of the most patriotic people that you will ever find. They have a very firm sense of their identity as part of America, but at the same time they’re always questioning it. What are you doing to me now? What have you done to me in the past? And that duality I think informs a lot of what it is to be in Southern New Mexico.

ARELLANO: You tell a lot of great stories in your book, Joshua. You talked a little bit about Roswell, you talked about the opening of the spaceport somewhere around Truth or Consequences. And even during dinner you were telling us about this judge who was murdered and then he got skinned and his like meat was boiled in something or whatever. That’s not even in the book.

WHEELER: That was not what we had for dinner by the way.

ARELLANO: So there’s a plethora of stories in Southern New Mexico and for your book, how did you choose which ones you wanted to tell?

WHEELER: Really, ultimately my editor just told me which ones to cut out. The book is quite thick, still, but it started out around 600, 700 pages.

ARELLANO: Oh man, I would have read it all.

GETTY IMAGES
The mushroom cloud of the Trinity test in New Mexico.

WHEELER: A lot of a lot of stuff did get cut out. So even though I’m pulling all these different writing styles into my essays, I usually start with one very specific moment. There’s a lot of pictures happening behind us, but you might’ve seen the one of the atomic blast, the mushroom cloud in black and white. I love that photograph because it was taken by a pinhole camera, which is one of the simplest kinds of cameras. And the light comes in through a very tiny hole. And I just loved that idea that one way to understand something as vast and world changing as an atomic bomb is by looking at it through the tiniest possible hole. And so a lot of my essays just look at one tiny moment and try and understand everything through that. I talk about the man who fell from the stratosphere for instance, part of this Red Bull thing that happened several years ago. And the whole essay is just trying to understand what was going through his mind as he was standing on that ledge.

ARELLANO: Like literally fell from the stratosphere, it’s not like a hotel name or anything, but like the stratosphere. That’s like what? 50,000? How many feet up in the air?

WHEELER: It’s 26 miles or something like that.

ARELLANO: There we go. Yeah. Quite high.

WHEELER: I forget what the original question was.

ARELLANO: The choice. How do you make the choice of stories?

WHEELER: I think I chose stories, based on single moments that I could find, that I thought in trying to understand those moments, I could understand something much more vast.

ARELLANO: Do you know the story about Jesus on a tortilla?

WHEELER: Is this like somebody saw his face on a Tortilla?

ARELLANO: That’s an SNM story. I tell that story in my book, Taco USA, that’s the only disappointment I had, because I would have loved to see you just go like wax poetic on the whole story of how this one woman, one day she’s making flour tortillas for breakfast burritos and then she sees a thumb size imprint of what she thinks is the face of Jesus and she ends up creating this whole shrine about it. She comes out on Donahue and whatever, and then she lacquered it up, and then one day her granddaughter says, “Can I take this Jesus Tortilla to my second grade class?” She takes it and it shatters. They still have the shards of Jesus, but it’s no longer in their shrine, it’s actually in a drawer inside the kitchen.

WHEELER: It’s now tortilla strips for the children.

ARELLANO: Yeah, exactly. You should tell that one next time.

WHEELER: Just recently there was a Virgin Mary statue in Clovis that was crying olive oil.

ARELLANO: Oh damn.

WHEELER: Yeah. So this is something that’s happening all over Southern New Mexico.

ARELLANO: I absolutely love it.

WHEELER: If we get the Virgin Mary statue together with the Jesus Tortilla, we’ve got a whole appetizer.

ARELLANO: We’re saved. Absolutely. My favorite story that you told though, just because I’m a nerd, is a story of trying to dig up ET in the municipal dump in Alamogordo. This is a story that involves what many gamers called the worst video game in history. Atari basically dumped all these cartridges, thousands of cartridges in the dead of night. And then in the gamers are digging for them, and you have all of Alamogordo looking on and people freaked out that they might find carcasses of, was it radioactive pigs?

WHEELER: Pigs that had been poisoned by a particular kind of fertilizer that was later outlawed as a result of people dying in Alamogordo being exposed to that meat. Yeah.

“Our obsession with these pop culture things will drive us to literally dig through our own trash, in order to have some kind of nostalgic artifact.”

ARELLANO: Yeah. So talk a little bit about that story. How’d you find out about it? You were there, so like what was all the craziness going on?

WHEELER: It was a story that I grew up hearing about. It’s one of those urban myths that they sort of say, “Oh, there’s E.T.s buried in the dump behind the McDonald’s. But it turned out it wasn’t an urban myth at all. Atari was actually a company that was going bankrupt, and they were trying to get all of these games off their books. So they just drove them from their plant in El Paso, Texas to the nearest town where they thought nobody would notice, and they buried them all. And [ screenwriter Zak Penn and movie producers including Xbox Entertainment Studios] eventually got together with the guy who ran the dump back in the 80s, and they decided to make a documentary about digging them up. And it turned into this whole fiasco in which we were digging industrial waste, as if it was archeological gold.

Meanwhile, they’re digging through all of our town’s trash and everybody from town is coming out and standing in their own trash and watching these people from out of town like look at our trash and say, “Wow, this is valuable, we’re taking it, you can’t have it.” The whole thing was just strange, but it was also what? I co-opt this term that the New York Times used to describe a book called Ready Player One, you may have seen the movie based on that book, the New York Times called that book a “nerdgasm,” and I describe this event at the city dump as a nerdgasm. Our obsession with these pop culture things will drive us to literally dig through our own trash, in order to have some kind of nostalgic artifact.

ARELLANO: Yeah. Read a little bit from your book. Tell us what passage you’re going to read and then just wrap us into it.

Author Joshua Wheel's "Acid West" is a collection of essays centered around New Mexico and the Southwest. MCD x FSG Originals
Author Joshua Wheel’s “Acid West” is a collection of essays centered around New Mexico and the Southwest.

WHEELER: Sure, sure. Well, I think I’ll just read a very short part from the essay about the downwinders who are the people who were affected by the radioactive waste from the first atomic blast. So this is me with the downwinders at a memorial that they have every year.

Out beyond Centerfield is a rusty merry-go-round, the kid powered playground kind with the kids running in circles to get it spinning at unsafe speeds and jumping on and getting immediately flung off, and all through the reading of names and extinguishing of luminarias that merry-go-round never stops creaking and spinning, the children of Tularosa never stopped running and hollering and getting flung into the night. It’s almost like they don’t even know they’re the children of the bomb. Or, the Gadget. Children of the Gadget. Out of New Mexico came two different versions of the bomb and then there was a super bomb and eventually many tens of thousands of each including warheads on missiles and torpedoes, but they were all born of that same moment of warfare singularity when mass destruction became less of a campaign and more of a decision. The Trinity Site: just 45 miles northwest of those children discovering the nauseous joy of physics on the merry-go-round. Every bomb is the Bomb, but that first one at Trinity was called the Gadget–a code name for secrecy’s sake, a name diluted by the technicality that it was only a test device, a name meant to hide the significance of what we were about to do. Just a gizmo or widget. A little doohickey. Nothing but a goddamn gadget. Just toying with a nauseous joy of physics.

Henry Herrera sits up in his lawn chair next to the bleachers and says, The thing went off and the fire went up and the cloud rose and the bottom half went up that way. He gestures over my head toward first base. But then the top part, the mushroom top started coming back this way and fell all over everything. He waves both of his arms back toward us and all around us, big swoops of old. thin, and cricket arms over his head like he might be able to accurately pantomime an atomic blast or like he’s invoking its spirit or just inviting the fireball to rain down again so the rest of us can really understand.

Henry is sort of a celebrity in this crowd. One of the only remaining residents of Tularosa who actually witnessed the Gadget’s blast. A guy who’s beat cancer three times already and says he’ll lick it again if he gets the chance. I’ve heard him repeat the story, word for word, to anyone who will listen for years now. He sits next to me fiddling with the pearl snaps on his Western shirt, petting his white hair down in back behind his big ears, telling the tale in spurts, little stanzas between long gaps of pondering, those rests of silent reflection that never stop growing as we age, like ears, like I guess all our really old storytellers have big ears and the will to ride a lull for as long as it takes until an aphorism or an anecdote is marinated on the tongue and is ready to serve. He serves one up, I’ll bet $10 to a doughnut, your mama never blamed you for the atomic bomb. True enough. And the rest of the story sidles out as the luminarias burn.

ARELLANO: Thank you.

WHEELER: He goes, he goes on to tell the story, much like the diapers story in which his mother hangs the linen out to dry the morning of the atomic blast. She hears this explosion and comes out and all of the white laundry has been turned to black by the soot of the bomb.

ARELLANO:: Oh, boy. Bryan, you were talking earlier about boom and bust. And I really think you did a great job of exemplifying that idea and who turns out to be the main characters in your book, your father, and his friend Grady Cunningham, the whole reason for your folks going back there. So talk a little bit about both of those characters and how they exemplified the bigger themes of the book.

MEALER: So, my dad, he grew up in that town, and he moved away like a lot of people do. And by the time he was 26, he had three kids, myself and my two sisters. He fled that town because it was ugly. There was nothing there. It was the busts and booms. We grew up in a very strict, Assemblies of God Pentecostal environment. The church was very good for our family around the great depression when we had nothing else, when we were losing our farms and our homes and our children at too young of age, the church was a safety net, and it was good for us. But as the generations went on and times weren’t as desperate anymore, we didn’t really need the church so much.

And we began to rebel, and my dad rebelled hard and did a lot of drugs, this was in the late 60s. But he married my mom who was a nice, innocent Assemblies of God cheerleader. And whenever my dad strayed, my mom would reel him in from the darkness back to grace. And so we were living near Houston. My Dad was working at a refinery and had a good job, we were part of a good church. And his old buddy Grady calls him up. Grady, who was a gay man, had married the daughter of the undisputed king of Big Spring, a man named Raymond Tollett, who was this polymath figure who had been a former FBI agent, and a self-trained lawyer, and had come to Big Spring and basically taken a refinery that was a rusted hunk of scrap and turned it into a Fortune 500 company.

He kind of revolutionized the plastics and petrochemicals in the 1950s and became, made a fortune. He ended up drinking himself to death, which is a big story on my book. But Raymond Tollett and his daughter was there and Grady wooed her, ended up marrying her and became a millionaire in the process. He calls my dad up and says, “Bobby, how you’d like to be a millionaire?” And my dad’s 26 years old, he says, “Sounds pretty good.” Well, Grady had started an oil company in Big Spring, knew nothing about oil, knew nothing about anything. But he started an oil company with [his wife] Ann’s money and was starting to drill some wells. Then my dad came down, dragged us all down there and for the next three years, they entered Grady’s orbit, this honky-tonk highlife orbit. They lived like rappers for like three or four years flying in the King Air jets and wearing fur coats, flying to Dallas to buy gold rings, flying to New Orleans for lunch.

Grady bought a football team at one point and landed a helicopter on the 50-yard line, jumped out with a tumbler of V.O. whisky in his hand and a cigarette in the other. I mean, it’s just … Grady exemplified both the brashness, the extravagance, and the complete shortsighted stupidity of every oil boom that has ever happened. My dad was a more pragmatic guy. My dad still had this, this fear of God in him. My dad had the fear of hell in him. My dad felt bad when all those guys would you start doing lines of cocaine and drinking for four days straight. An oil boom is a backslider’s paradise. Jesus Christ has no purchase in an oil boom. That’s was what was going on when I was 10 years old, and I remember it fondly.

ARELLANO: Yeah. It is almost like the bust that happened saved your father, and you talked about that, how your dad finally had this realization that his … Your grandfather, his father, he resented him and sort of his very pragmatic, very just methodical ways of just writing things out. And your dad as a young man couldn’t understand it, but after Grady he was like, “Oh, I finally realized.” And that saved him.

MEALER: Yeah. The bust happened, Grady went bankrupt. My dad got out just at the right time and we had nothing, nothing. We high tailed to San Antonio, didn’t look in the rear view mirror and just started from zero basically. Probably one of the best things my dad ever did was to get out of that. That’s a common story in that part of the country.

ARELLANO: What do you think the booms and busts of West Texas can teach the rest of the United States? Because in the American imagination, oil boom, oil bust, it happens again, and again, and again. So what lessons can we learn, not just in California but the rest of the United States, about what happened through your family or for where your family’s from?

MEALER: We’re experiencing one of the biggest world booms in history right now in West Texas. I think those previous busts have been very educational for these companies and these people now. Back in my dad’s day, when he was roughnecking and all that stuff, all these guys were doing a lot of drugs and I think they still do, but it’s more cleaned up. You don’t have guys blowing all their money. There was a Rolls-Royce dealership in Midland, it was one of three in the country.

“I think you go to West Texas now, people are making way more money than they used to make back then, and they’re being a lot smarter about it. And it’s almost kind of boring actually, to be honest.”

ARELLANO: I still can’t get the image out of my mind of Grady just throwing out all these lobsters every night because no one wanted to eat lobsters in Big Spring.

MEALER: Yeah.

ARELLANO: Or the steak dianes or veal oscars and all that.

MEALER: Yeah. After he bought the football team, he bought the local steakhouse and he wanted to turn it into a five-star establishment and hired a maître d’ and this chef out of Dallas and thought he was going to turn this big enterprise and the bust happened right around then. The clientele return to the old penny-pinching ranchers and farmers, you just wanted a chicken fried steak and chile rellenos. They weren’t gonna eat veal oscar and all that kind of stuff. So they were just throwing away crateloads of lobsters out of the dumpster.

ARELLANO: Jeez.

MEALER: I mean, I think you go to West Texas now, people are making way more money than they used to make back then, and they’re being a lot smarter about it. And it’s almost kind of boring actually, to be honest. As for a writer, there’s just not that many great stories out there of just moral failure that you can really sink your teeth into.

ARELLANO: Oh man.

MEALER: I mean, come on. I grew up in the Assemblies of God church, my bread and butter is like sin and redemption. Give me bottoming out in a motel room somewhere and an angel coming and saving you. That’s what it’s all about, man.

Author Bryan Mealer read from his book, "The Kings of Big Spring: God, Oil, and One Family's Search for the American Dream"Flatiron Books
Author Bryan Mealer read from his book, “The Kings of Big Spring: God, Oil, and One Family’s Search for the American Dream”

ARELLANO: Read us a passage and tell us what the passage is going to be.

MEALER: Yeah, I had a few passages. Always, when people say, “What’s your book about?” I always say it’s Grapes of Wrath meets Boogie Nights.

ARELLANO:  That’s a good description.

MEALER: And so I always like to end with just a little cocaine. My dad was one of many staff members that Grady had. Grady had an entourage, mostly of very young, good looking, young men. And one guy’s job was just to turn on the IBM. Most of them all their job was to just drive Grady around, so he could get drunk. This is about that group and about what was happening in Big Spring around that time. I mention a man here named Ike Rob. Grady used to work at a movie theater, that’s how he got his start in Big Spring. And Ike Rob owned the movie theater, and he owned several movie theaters. Grady was an usher and really idolized this man Ike Rob. And there’s another name, Dora Roberts, you’ll see. Dora Roberts was one of the wealthiest ranchers in Big Spring. She lost both of her husbands to horseback riding accidents and inherited millions, millions, and millions of dollars of oil leases. Anyways, so this is the disintegration of the town during that period.

Truth was, Dad and Grady, those guys were flying too high to even see the ground. To help Grady maintain that kind of velocity, he started buying help. It seemed like everybody was on something, whether it was coke, speed or Tennessee whiskey. Even the Big Spring Herald ran a big series about amounts of drugs flooding Big Spring because of the boom. “Almost all the workers smoke and eat speed,” a roughneck told the paper. Men were doing anything to pack it in the long hours, not knowing how long the bonanza was going to last. In fact, the driller on the Jones lease had to send his crew home one night because the crew were so high.

Roughnecks could buy speed for a dollar a hit, while “prellies” [nickname for phenmetrazine] were 10 and guaranteed 16 hours of wide-eye. But cocaine wasn’t for oil hands. At $3,000 an ounce, it ran like pipeline across cherrywood desks where toy pump jacks bobbed up and down to Deep in the Heart of Texas. It was railed out in restroom stalls at the Petroleum Club, in dark-windowed limousines that snaked between the tanker trucks blasting Bloody Mary Morning. It was at the Brass Nail steakhouse where the waitresses left it in cellophane baggies in the change slot of the cigarette machine, and it ate like cancer and all the great families of Big Spring.

The Dora Roberts fortune melted away and not only on Ferraris and helicopters, but famous “Elephant Hunt” parties thrown at one of the biggest ranch houses in town where bowls heaped with cocaine sat out like bean dip for all to share. As for Raymond Tollett’s money, it walked from an idling limousine to a dealer’s door in West 18th Street with Buddy’s one good hand sweating against the wheel.

The cocaine moved into the Petroleum Building, along the conference room table and in smudged powder traces atop the liquor-tray glass, and it moved into his home. As luck would have it, Ike Rob’s widow went up north to be with her kids and put the dream house in Highland South up for sale. Grady bought it for cash plus the house next door. He put his office in the old upstairs theater where, as an usher, he’d once sat at the floor of the master, screening Love Story and the Hawaiians, and said to the boys, “Can you believe it? Can you believe I own Ike Rob’s house?” He then hired a butler named Riggins, a tall black man he’d met on the north side, to wait on Ann, Buddy, and Kirby while upstairs he got high with town trash who congregated like pilot fish. Every man a king! Every man a millionaire! The next week, those same people were filing past the secretary asking Grady for money.

When mixed with Seagram’s, the cocaine turned him into a beast out to devour all that passed by. That included waitresses, whom he tormented on a nightly basis to try to impress the boys, making them all but bleed for their tips while fetching his V.O. and water. Some had seen much worse and we’re game, rolling their eyes at his weird misogyny–while a few, to everyone’s relief–even gave it back. He loved them the most. But then one night his hand would find a thigh or an ass. When the woman twirled around, eyes sparking and with rage, it usually fell on Dad to make the peace and get everyone out. Ann would yell at Grady in the parking lot, and Mom would get quiet and upset and once home, she’d vow never to go out in public with him again. “But of course,” she’d say, “He did leave that girl $300 tip.”

Even the boys learned to watch their backs when Grady was on a binge. They’d surrendered a piece of themselves already to his appetite back when they first came aboard, gold struck and eager to impress. Grady had taken a few of them down to Melba’s on Third Street for prostitutes and let them pick out a girl. And while they were going at it, one of the gals pointed to a peephole in the wall and said, “He likes to watch, you know.” And the boys had had to live with that information.

Over time, though, they learned they could still draw honey from the hive without getting stung. In Vegas, when the knock on the door came at three in the morning, they pretended to sleep. Or in the limo, if his wandering hand brushed their thigh, they could scold him like a naughty child and that would be the end of it. And if necessary, they could go even further. One bleary night in a shared hotel room in Dallas, Grady’s desire boiled over on Jacques who put a finger in his eye,

“Try that again,” he said, “I’ll kill you.”

With Grady, each person had to ask himself the same question: How much were the good times really worth?

ARELLANO: Awesome. Awesome, awesome book. What does the future hold for the regions that you wrote about?

WHEELER: Well, right now, New Mexico is preparing to welcome the Virgin Galactic folks finally, after a decade, to the spaceport in Southern New Mexico. They’re completing some test flights out here in California.

ARELLANO: Yeah, anytime you see a weird light in the sky that’s part of this.

WHEELER: Yeah. I mean, hopefully, there’ll be flying me and you and the rest of us to space pretty soon from Truth or Consequences, New Mexico. Southern New Mexico, particularly over there in Eastern New Mexico, we’ve got a lot of oil and gas going on. So that’s a big thing that’s changing that region once again. And then there’s just a lot of people there reading Acid West. [Laughter.]

"Busted" moderator Gustavo Arellano quizzes authors Bryan Mealer and Joshua Wheeler on their books about the American Southwest—and the characters that shaped the landscape. Blaise Zerega
Authors Bryan Mealer and Joshua Wheeler discuss the booms and busts of the American Southwest with moderator Gustavo Arellano.

ARELLANO:  Right now you’re talking of course about the latest oil boom. Are the newcomers, are they changing the culture of the area?

MEALER: I mean, they’re just pumping more oil with fewer people. The job of a roughneck that employed my family for generations is a dying breed. It’s one of the last blue collar high paying jobs that there is out there. I mean, you can make $100,000 by working in the oilfields, but oil is on its way out. And they all know that down there but they’ll bleed the land dry and poison the ground and everything else until start listening to that crazy farmer with those wind turbines on his land and say, “Well, maybe this is a better, better choice.” It’s very clear, what they’re doing now is it’s almost like science fiction the way that they’re doing on that land. Horizontal drilling. They draw one hole and they shoot it five miles that way and five miles that way. I think it’s a little bit cleaner than it used to be. Back in my granddad’s day, oil would flow down the street, like up to your shins. We don’t have that anymore, but it’s still … I mean, the damage it’s doing is exponential. I mean, it’s crazy.

ARELLANO: Yeah. Absolutely. All right. Thank you all for coming.

This conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity and brevity.