Becoming a Geologist
I Discover I’m A Dork
As children, we were told that our primary responsibility was school, and everything else was secondary to that. We had a good library at home; there was always a modern set of encyclopedias in the house. My brother and I read encyclopedias constantly…for recreation. Neither of us went to the bathroom without an encyclopedia under our arm!
My father was always bringing home some cast-offs related to electricity. It might be a spark coil that could deliver a hefty jolt to your body one week, a set of field telephones the next, ancient telegraph keys and receivers the next. We always had plenty of 6-volt dry cells, rolls of wire, and solder to power up anything we might design. I disassembled stereos, telephones, and house wiring, and tried to get the stuff reassembled before my father got home. Mom never batted an eye when when she found me deep inside the stereo, the breaker box, or her mixer. One of my favorite afternoon activities was taking the back off the TV, pulling the vacuum tubes out, carefully examining them, and replacing them.
I played a lot of sandlot baseball and football at that time. However, I was covering up the fact that I was a certified dork.
Rocks Are Cool
We lived on the east coast, what is referred to in geology as the “coastal plain.” There were very few exposed rock outcrops nearby. I often read books about adventures in gold or silver mines out west, simply because that was where the rocks and minerals were!
Fossils could be found in our neighborhood, sometimes in strange places…fossilized shark’s teeth were abundant; my brother and I dug them out of the hot asphalt roads that melted in the summer. The Pleistocene teeth had made their way into the asphalt as fill material. The lovely Ecphora could be found in the fossil-filled Eocene limestone that was exposed at some local quarries.
My uncle Raymond worked as a customs inspector at the large nearby port. He sometimes brought me a chunk of some rock or mineral that had come in by the boatload down at the port. Iron ore, chromium ore, asbestos (asbestos was quite “cool” in those days), bauxite, manganese, sulfur, or mica. These specimens meant more to me than toys.
Since I picked up many rocks from railroad right-of-ways, my father referred to my entire youthful rock collection as “railroad rocks.”
In the 4th grade, I received a Skilcraft Geology Lab for Christmas! Santa had finally noticed my rock passion!
We sometimes vacationed in the Smoky Mountains, a full-blown rock and mineral super-paradise that I took great advantage of. Our Ford Galaxy was always dragging low when we returned.
Oak Terrace Elementary School
Mr. J. Howard Berry was the principal at Oak Terrace Elementary School, in North Charleston, South Carolina. The school was later renamed J. Howard Berry Elementary School.
Mr. Berry ran the school with an iron fist. He could show up in any class, any time; he was all over the place. Some people, probably many teachers, thought Mr. Berry was overbearing. My own mother thought he was overbearing. But I loved him. That was because Mr. Berry knew all about the fun things in the world. And those things were science, art, geography, and geology. There just didn’t seem to be anything that a science-minded kid might be interested in that Mr. Berry didn’t know about. I didn’t know it at the time, but I had encountered my very first Renaissance man.
I was somewhat scared of Mr. Berry. You just didn’t want to cross him. I never saw him lose his temper in public, he just gave off a vibe that said “don’t push him.” But he really loved to see kids learn things.
On any given day, we might be studying our math or history when Mr. Berry would pop into the room. The teacher would sigh, roll her eyes, and sit down. Mr. Berry had taken over the classroom. For the next 30 minutes, he might engage us with an impromptu french lesson, play selections of Sousa’s marches on a rickety old wind-up record player, or describe the gigantic stalactites in some cave in Peru. He knew how to fascinate students, and he put his heart into it. It was fairly obvious he would much rather teach than run the school.
When I was in the second grade, Mr. Berry came in our classroom, and asked the teacher for her best reader. She picked me. Mr. Berry took me to a sixth-grade class, where he had me read out loud from one of their textbooks. Perhaps he was disgusted with the reading skills of some of the sixth-graders? The book was easy enough to read, but I do remember missing one word; “echo,” mispronouncing it “eecho.” The sentence was about “Echo Canyon,” and this made a pretty big impression on me, for rocks were to be found in a canyon! I wanted to be in the sixth grade!
The Science Lab
Mr. Berry established a science lab at the school. Now, this was not just a room with a couple of dead frogs in it. This lab was packed to the gills with the most amazing dangerous stuff I could imagine. Chemicals-magnets-microscopes-bunsen burners-steam engines-gyroscopes-geiger counters-acid-scalpels-microscope slides. All kinds of curiosities from all around the world. But most of all, the rocks. Hundreds of specimens of rocks and minerals. Mr. Berry loved anything scientific, but he especially loved earth science and geology. And he loved talking about rocks and minerals, looking at them, and handling them.
I have no idea where Mr. Berry got the money to build his science lab. No other schools around the area had anything like it. Even North Charleston High School, in the same town, didn’t have anything like it. But it was there, and you just had to show a little interest, and it was opened to you.
One day, Mr. Berry came to our classroom. He asked if anyone knew what was engraved on a certain linoleum block sitting in a case in the school library. Well, I had taken the time to look at the block once. So, I raised my hand, and told him the linoleum block was engraved with the Cherokee alphabet. As a reward, I was taken to his private darkroom, which he had installed at the school. We spent most of the afternoon taking photos, developing the film, and making prints. Then we took one of his large telescopes outside, and looked at sunspots on the sun. It was pretty close to magic.
Not The Pet
One might get the idea I was Mr. Berry’s “pet” from the above stories. Actually, he didn’t know me from Adam. This was just the kind of thing he did when any kid showed any gumption. He was totally ignorant of my identity. I was just another curious kid.
In fact, a few weeks after the Cherokee alphabet incident, I was summoned to his office for a reaming meant for another kid who possessed my exact first and last name. It took a full 5 minutes of stammering to convince him it was a case of mistaken identity. It was a narrow escape, as corporal punishment was still the rage then, and he was quite familiar with dealing it out.
Berry’s Science Camp
Mr. Berry owned a country home called “Ingleside,” at Liberty Hill, South Carolina. Here he ran a science camp in the summer for interested students. One of the highlights of my life was being allowed to attend this camp.
There were perhaps 12 boys the year I went. Everything was planned out, and everything was about science, with geology being at the tip-top of the list. We slept in tents in a canyon at the back of his large property and used an outhouse called the “Gray Ghost.” A couple of boys were singled out (maybe their moms had advised him that their children were “sensitive”), and these unfortunates were quartered in the house with Mr. and Mrs. Berry. They were much pitied. I much preferred the smelly old army tents!
I should point out that Mr. Berry was not anti-female; for some years previously he ran a camp at Spruce Pine, North Carolina, where he had facilities for both girls and boys. But this was his first year of running the camp at Liberty Hill, and the facilities were limited.
Mr. Berry charged $50 for his camp, an amount that was astronomical to me in those days. However, I suspect it barely covered his expenses, since he hired several college-age counselors to help him run the place. My parents put up the money, for which I am eternally grateful.
Highlights at the camp were field trips to nearby sites of geologic interest. One trip involved a journey to a dangerous pegmatite mine that gave up garnets the size of of saltshakers. Mr. Berry thought children should be allowed to participate in “hazardous” activities…as long as they were pursuing the cause of science…better to be dead than stupid, he seemed to think. Mixing acids, flaming phosphorous globules, and scrambling up death-defying cliffs at abandoned mines was part of his strategy to keep things interesting. I’m afraid Mr. Berry could not get away with his camp nowadays!
Mr. Berry smoked like a fiend at the camp that year, but spent a whole lot of time advising us boys that we should never smoke. Thankfully, I heeded his wise advice.
The best part came at the end of the camp. It was a wonderful overnight camping trip to Spruce Pine, North Carolina, where we attended the famous rock and mineral show held there every year. It was the biggest thing for me, ever. Despite Mr. Berry’s dangerous reputation, a 60-year-old man has to be a heck of a sport to haul twelve deodorant-needy adolescent jerks to the top of a mountain, sleep in the dirt with them in a floor-less flooded tent, get up in the middle of the night to go outside in a driving rainstorm, dig a rain-diversion trench in his sodden underwear, then apologize the next day because some of the kids’ sleeping bags got wet.
I Was Diverted
After some diversions that lasted well past high school, I reached a fork in the road: (1) rock geologist or (2) rock guitarist? The well-known quandary of every kid of that era was resolved for me when I arrived on campus as a freshman. Drat! There were no courses in Stratocaster or Telecaster on the class schedule! But there were plenty of courses in geology! A whole degree program, in fact! So, I signed up for my first course, Physical Geology 101 (often called “Rocks for Jocks”) right off the bat.
(All songs Copyright © 2011 by Geomore.com)
The College of Charleston
It just so happened the College of Charleston had recently ramped up its interest (and dollar expenditures) in science programs. A hulking, extremely well-equipped modern science center (I love equipment!) had been constructed a year or so prior to my entrance. The geology program itself was also quite new, and the teaching staff was stocked with freshly-anointed, gung-ho young PhD’s.
I blundered into an environment that focused purely on teaching, learning, and one-on-one experience. No TA’s taught courses at the CofC (some geology majors were allowed to be lab assistants); most classes contained less than sixteen students, and the emphasis was on teaching, not research. A better experience would have been difficult to find. Many thanks to the original gang in the College of Charleston Geology Department: Michael Katuna, Richard Chalcraft, Glen Merrill, David Lawrence, and Aileen Wojtal Duc!
I hung around the department day and night, as well as every summer. I was a lab assistant during the school year, and sawed rock slabs or made thin-sections in the summer…whatever I could do. During much of that time, I was interested in “hard-rock” geology. “Hard-rocker” is slang for a geologist who specializes in igneous or metamorphic rocks. This type of geologist spends a lot of time with thin-sections and a microscope, studying crystalline structures and other way-out stuff.
Towards the end of my degree program, I developed an interest in coal geology. I sought out the world’s foremost coal geologist…John C. Ferm, and discovered he was a professor at the University of South Carolina, a mere 100 miles up the road! It killed me to tell my favorite hard-rock professor at the CofC, who might have hoped I would become one of his igneous proteges, that I wanted to defect to “soft rock” coal geology, apply to graduate school, and study with Ferm.
I applied to the University of South Carolina masters program in Geology, and asked for a teaching assistantship. They turned me down.
Wow! Turned down for a state school in a state I was a resident of! That was tough. I fired off an application to the next-best coal school in the country: West Virginia University. Again, I was rejected.
The University of Kentucky
I figured I had to get close to the coal. The third time turned out to be a charm My application to the University of Kentucky was approved. Not only that, the geology department at Bowman Hall was willing to give me a sorely-needed teaching assistantship. On a quick visit to Lexington, I spotted two tons of coal proudly displayed right in the middle of the campus. This spectacular fossilized omen confirmed that UK would be a great place to spend a few years. We moved to Kentucky in the middle of the worst winter in a long time, slipping and sliding all the way. That winter was not too long ago as far as geologic time goes! But all the climate-change blather at that time centered on global cooling, and the rapidly-approaching ICE AGE!
I got started under a wonderful professor…William C. MacQuown. He taught stratigraphy, and also happened to have twenty years experience in the oil business, including a stint as Sohio’s Chief Geologist in Oklahoma City. Dr. MacQuown certainly knew the practical side of geology, and he had a great interest in the Paleozoic, which just happened to be my favorite set of rocks. Very soon, I forgot about coal geology, and started thinking about stratigraphy. And, there’s no better place to practice stratigraphy than in the oil patch.
The next year, the news came that the geology department at UK had decided to hire an eminent coal geologist. I just about dropped my rock hammer when I discovered the new hire was none other than Dr. John C. Ferm!
Dr. Ferm soon showed up, but you might think the Rolling Stones had arrived for a concert. Ferm blew into town with his own entourage, dragging his very own PDP-8 minicomputer! His gigantic staff included his very own PhD computer scientist, who was in charge of nursing the thing! Very few individuals actually owned computers at this time (the first microcomputer was only two years old), and Ferm must have been the only guy in the world with his own PDP-8. Ferm’s machine, four feet square, was ensconced in its very own building, across the street from Bowman Hall.
Even though I enjoyed a couple of courses in coal geology under Dr. Ferm, and actually served as his research assistant for a semester, I had decided to stick with petroleum geology. I did get to spend a fair amount of time in the room that housed the PDP-8. I watched in awe as the connected plotter spit out perfect..lovely…detailed schematics of coal-seam boreholes. I wanted to see a computer spewing oil-field maps and electric logs; something that would soon come to pass.
Cities Service Company (CITCO/CITGO)
Near the end of my stay at UK, I got a phone call from Oklahoma. Jon Huffman asked me to come to Oklahoma City to interview for my first geologist job! Jon worked for a company called Cities Service Company. The company, better known as “Citco” or “Citgo,” was an 80-year old company with deep roots in the old Indian Territory. Cities’ huge mid-continent assets were a product of the early 1900′s oil boom in Oklahoma and Kansas, when the predecessor Indian Territory Illuminating Oil Company (ITIO) made many enormously successful (and quite romantic) discoveries.
A geologist likes to hedge his bets, so I had another interview scheduled at the same time in downtown Houston, with a company called Pennzoil (yes, the famous motor-oil company). I got a forty-dollar interview suit, and headed for Houston. It was a hopping place, and it was (and still is) the big cheese of oil and gas technology and deal-making.
After that interview, I arrived in Oklahoma City to visit Cities Service. OKC was the center of oil exploration in the mid-continent, hosted a huge ongoing cowboy craze, and came complete with a laid-back atmosphere coupled with big-city amenities. “The City” sat atop the Anadarko Basin, one of the most prolific, romantic, oil and gas producing areas in the world. I liked it right off the bat. It also turned out to be the place where I would start my career!