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Texas | Columns | "Texas Tales"


by Mike Cox
Mike Cox
Anyone who has ever dealt with an officious bean-counter will appreciate a story D.B. Wright used to tell.

It happened in Venezuela in the mid-1950s, but it just as easily could have played out in Houston, Port Arthur, Midland or some warehouse in the Eagle Ford production in South Texas. And even though this story took place in South America, Texas-based oil workers filled the key roles.

The tale came in the mail about 25 years ago. Wright, who went by his nickname of Buckley, had “adopted” me as a pen pal. For a fellow who had made his living getting his hands greasy, Buckley liked to read, especially Texas-related books. He also made a pretty fair hand as a correspondent and storyteller.

Buckley had seen newspaper photos of assorted old tools no one seemed to have a name for. While he could only guess about the mystery items, he did know certain types of tools very well – drilling equipment.

“I am also well versed on items such as gismos, whatchamacallits, and maybe even twivels,” he wrote.

Back in 1956 on the western side of Venezuela, he continued, he worked as “material man” for a Texas-based drilling contractor “long on green but short of rigs.”

Luckily for Buckley’s boss, he found three old rigs for sale by one of the major oil companies. But the company would only turn loose of the rigs if Buckley’s company bought all of their surplus warehouse stock. On paper, the seller reckoned the value at $1 million.

“About half of it was rig parts…, but some $500,000 worth…was old, obsolete production equipment that had been outmoded since shortly after Spindletop blew in,” he wrote.

The only sensible thing to do was write off the worthless parts, but to do that, they had to be inventoried. So, Buckley’s company built more shelves in their warehouse and started sorting, tagging and storing various parts, entering them on a different set of books.

“About the time we had everything identified that we could,” he went on, “not having more than a truck load of various bolts, nuts, springs, plates, and the like without tags, we got word that we were going to be audited.”

Among the unidentified parts was a whatchamacallit that had stumped everyone. Nor had Buckley been able to find a match for it by checking a stack of old part catalogs the seller had magnanimously furnished.

In his letter, Buckley went to great length in describing it. It was painted black but no one could figure what it was for, much less a name.

Even so, Buckley found a use for it – as a paper weight on the warehouse parts counter.

“Every time someone who might know came by I would ask what it was. It got to be quite a joke. Everyone had a name for it but no one knew what the hell it was.”

When the bean-counter showed up, he started spot-checking Buckley’s warehouse.

“Most of the time it is a cinch to find any item that these boys pull a card to check,” Buckley said. “They are interested in money so it is the big money items that they want to see.”

But this fellow, perhaps more anal than most corporate abacus holders, periodically had Buckley or his workers hunt for “some little nitship item out of this mess of obsolete…equipment – spending time far more valuable than the item in question.”

One day, everyone busily searched high and low for what the inventory card described as: “No. TY-45077-KJ-3434, Plate; lock-retaining, Model # HQG, Tester: Jackson. Items on hand = 1. On order = 0. Previous sales = 0. Value: $4.63.”

As everyone continued to look for this part, the drilling superintendent, whose name was Sheppard, happened to walk in and ask what they were looking for. When Buckley explained that he was trying to find a $4.63 part for the auditor, his boss graciously offered to help.

Checking to make sure the auditor couldn’t see him, Sheppard discretely picked up Buckley’s mystery paperweight and slipped it on a shelf.

Then, after a bit more theatrics, the superintendent picks up the part he had just planted and loudly proclaimed:

“A fine bunch of warehousemen you all are. Here it is right in plain sight. If it had been a rattlesnake…. Better put a tag on it,” he said before walking out.

The auditor, who of course knew nothing of the oil business, glanced at the object Sheppard had found and made a checkmark on his list. The rest of the audit went off without a hitch.

Doing as told, Buckley filled out a tag that read: “Cat. #1. Stopper. Sheppard’s Auditor Stopper. To be used in emergency situations only.”

That done, Buckley put the now-named whatchamacallit back on the counter and continued to use it as a paper weight. Everyone in camp knew about the mystery item. When workers passed and saw it had a tag, the normal remark was, “So you finally found out what that damn thing is.”

When Buckley told the story that went with it, they’d have a big laugh. Finally, the gag had made the rounds and the object was no longer a source of amusement. It went back on the shelf and was forgotten.

At least until a different auditor showed up the following year. Unlike the one Buckley and his boss had fooled, the new guy could locate the parts he wanted to find, mark them off his list, and go to the next item without needing help. But one day, he picked up “Cat. #1…”

“The only snag he ran into was trying to find out from any of us, what the hell a Sheppard Auditor Stopper was.”

© Mike Cox
"Texas Tales' October 16, 2014 column

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