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By Cathy Newman
Let me tell you about a town I like that sits smack in the middle of furnace-hot desert with oceans of oil below ground and not much to speak of above.
Mentone (population 15, more or less) is the county seat of Loving County, Texas. It's also the only town in Loving County, the least populated county in the 48 contiguous United States. You can drive through Mentone in 12 seconds flat and not even stretch the speed limit. You pass the post office, the Boot Track Cafe on the left; the courthouse, a gas station on the right. You've left the town behind; sand and prickly scrub lie ahead. The terrain is griddle flat; on a clear day, which is almost always, you can see the Davis Mountains 75 miles to the southwest.
Even so, Mentone is not unlike the town you or I live in. It may look different on the outside, but on the inside passions run the same. It's just that the sparse landscape and population render the clockworks of Loving County transparent. With so few trees around, you can see the forest for what it is.
Let us count Loving County's blessings: one elevator, two stop signs, and 674 oil wells. Other blessings: no stoplights and no lawyers.
There's not much water to speak of in Mentone. Until 1988 drinking water was trucked in from Pecos, 23 miles away. Now the county has its own well, but even so, water is limited in quantity and quality. Mentone water is so mineral laden, pipes clog and lawns curl up and die.
Loving County has about 70 residents; most meant to stop briefly but got alkaline in their blood and stayed. "When I came to Mentone, I asked my husband how long we would have to live in this god forsaken place," Mary Belle Jones told me. "Just a few years," her husband, who worked for Sinclair Oil, assured her. That was 47 years ago.
Social life revolves around the Boot Track Cafe, a ramshackle building with lipstick-red wood posts and a tin roof. Inside is a plank floor and tables where a bottle of hot sauce passes for a centerpiece.
Once when I stopped in, Mattie Thorp was lunching with her friends Mildred Crawford and Snooks Williams, who had driven down from Pecos. Mattie, 94 and a tiny sparrow of a woman, was nursing a pulled tooth. As usual, talk soon drifted to rain. In Loving County everyone has a rain gauge, and what precipitation there is (hardly any) is measured in hundredths of an inch. Mildred recalled the day she went out in the front yard and discovered it was raining; then she went out to the backyard and discovered it was not. Rain, like most things around here, is downright ornery.
Topic B at the Boot Track is the price of oil. Loving County sits on a huge limestone and sandstone sponge of oil known as the Permian Basin. When oil prices soared in the 1970s, a flash flood of tax revenue poured into county coffers, and the county decided to renovate the courthouse. "We did it up right," said County Judge Donald C. Creager. "We got the finest walnut paneling money could buy." Also, white stone flooring and a $5,000 electronic flagpole that automatically raises and lowers the flag. But oil prices don't always stay high, and if the town doesn't figure out how to attract industry (difficult in a place with scant water), Mentone may dry up and blow away.
Which would be a shame. Where else is there a place where the county judge (Donald C. Creager) is brother to a county commissioner (Royce Creager) and father-in-law to the sheriff (Richard Putnam)?
Political apathy is unthinkable. Voter turnout is 100 percent. "Make that 150 percent,"corrects Mary Belle Jones, a former county appraiser whose husband, Punk, is a former sheriff.
But Richard "Dickie" Putnam calls Mary Belle's estimate too conservative. He should know. As sheriff he also serves as voter registrar. There are 156 registered voters in the county: more than two voters for every person who actually lives there. It's absolutely legal. Proof of residence, even if you don't spend much time in the county, gives you voting rights.
Besides the Creagers and Joneses, the third dynasty in town is the Hoppers, descendants of original homesteaders. The three factions don't always see eye to eye. It's the usual squabble over money and power. As one resident put it: "Put three big bullfrogs on one lily pad, and there's bound to be trouble."
For an additional perspective, I visited with Lloyd Goodrich, who lives on the outskirts of town in a house with peeling white paint and a decor best described as gothic junkyard. Lloyd, whose face looks like badly eroded plateau partly hidden by a Brillo-like beard, has a master's degree in engineering. When he graduated, you could only get a job on the East Coast or West Coast. He didn't care for either so just stayed home.
Loving County has its share of small-town petty, Lloyd admitted, but you'd find that anywhere. In the end, folks stick together. "Here you might not like somebody, but you go to the funeral," he said, then recited a poem:
Me and my brother
We fight with each other.
But woe betide
The guy from outside.
"Our Hatfield-McCoy stuff has settled down," Judge Creager said when I stopped by the courthouse to say good-bye. "Besides, in sickness and in death, Mentone takes care of its own." Over the past 20 years four houses have burned down, including Dickie Putnam's trailer, and each time the town collected enough money to help the owners rebuild.
A few years ago Janie Parker, the county auditor, got a call from a man with the state welfare department in Austin who asked why the county hadn't signed up for a program that provided funds for the indigent.
"We have no indigent," Janie patiently explained. There is no unemployment in Loving County. "But what if you did?" the man asked. After all, funds were there for the asking. "Suppose you did have folks who needed welfare," he persisted. "What would happen then?"
"Why, we'd all pitch in," Janie said.