When John Lewis Mealer set out from the hollows of the Georgia Blue Ridge in 1892, it was to escape warring moonshiners and lawmen, and to find work in the exploding, inviting West. Young, unmarried and intent on making something of himself, he wanted a fresh start. Almost a century later, John’s grandson and author Bryan Mealer’s father, Bobby, left his steady but dead-end job at a chemical plant near Houston for the oil booms and busts of Big Spring, Texas, taking a big chance on oil with his mercurial cousin Grady. Married and the father of three, Bobby too was looking for a fresh start.
In between these familiar quests rolled a near-century full of heroes and heartbreaks, world wars and depressions, dust storms, droughts and drugs—all rigorously described in this sprawl of a story that entwines family and global history. God, like Texas oil, was a constant threat or promise; church was as all encompassing—and sometimes oppressive—as family. The Mealer men were wannabe kings, hoping to claim the throne that an oil boom promised—or to at least own their own land.
The Kings of Big Spring is a family tree that offers no shade for its errant members. Violent, luckless husbands; unfaithful, hapless wives; and abandoned, wayward children are plentiful here. Their tales are told with the straightforwardness of a seasoned journalist, though Mealer seems justifiably wary of some of them. Like the Mealers, Big Spring crashed and reinvented itself, again and again. Weather was an endless cycle of killing winds. Pestilence was a curse. The economy was dependent on vulnerable crops and volatile markets. Oil helped to power two world wars and the Korean conflict, then transformed itself via petrochemicals.
Mealer says of his family, “We drew our strength from the power of our own flesh and blood.” The same could be said of Texas history, then and now.