PAMPA, Texas Raise your hand if last weekend you hung out just north of this gritty panhandle town with famous multibillionaire T. Boone Pickens, the guy who's currently on TV several times a day pitching his revolutionary energy plan that he believes will deliver us from the death-grip of foreign oil. No, really, get those fingers wigglin' in the air if you sat at a table with the legendary 80-year-old Pickens, eating great food and swapping jokes, and if later you found yourself digging your thumbs into the passenger seat of an SUV as the hugely successful Texas oilman drove at NASCAR-like speeds over mile after mile of twisting dirt roads on his hard-to-believe ranch, shouting things such as, "Last weekend, Ted Turner was here."
Well, lookee there. My hand is up.
Right off the bat, I suppose some of you are wondering why a guy like T. Boone Pickens, friend of presidents and kings, would hang around with a guy like me. Some possibilities:
People like to mingle with legends. And as far away as Texas, there is a legend about a writer who toiled for 10 years at the Gazette and didn't try to kill himself.
Sometimes, hard-working, brilliant, successful people like to meet, well, other people.
Always seeking knowledge, Pickens wanted to find out who would die first: a newspaper writer bitten by a rattlesnake or the rattlesnake.
The truth is, my wife was the actual guest. Her father and Boone Pickens were fraternity brothers at Oklahoma State University after World War II. The two oilmen have remained close friends over the decades. And because my wife is quite small and cannot carry her own luggage, someone else must go along on these trips to hoist the Bag Of A Thousand Shoes. Often, that person is me.
The picturesque route
So we made the long and scenic drive, through the southeastern Colorado towns of La Junta ("Gateway to Lamar"), Lamar ("Gateway to La Junta") and Holly ("We Don't Even Have Gates"). Then we roared through a chunk of Kansas ("Guess Who's Sasnak Spelled Backwards?") and into the panhandle of Oklahoma, where people sit on their porches eagerly awaiting the next Dust Bowl, just for the breeze.
And suddenly we were in north Texas at Pickens' Mesa Vista Ranch, south of Perryton and north of Pampa. It stretches more than 25 miles from east to west and, at the moment, covers a staggering 68,000 acres. It also has so much water, thanks to the huge aquifer underneath, there is now a network of 19 huge, bulldozer-created lakes, all connected by a river and each nearly overflowing with fish.
To build his main home, atop a huge hill and surrounded by lakes and Broadmoor-like landscaping, he had materials brought in on 18-wheel trucks. Over the past seven years, according to Pickens' meticulous records, there have been 15,866 of these 18-wheel deliveries.
His landscaping contractor (who typically has between 150 and 200 people work the ranch each day) has been paid some $35 million.
Pickens, an avid hunter, has also turned Mesa Vista into one of the world's premier bird-hunting ranches. Quail flush from the grasses and bushes with alarming frequency.
But it's Pickens' energy plan for America that has thrust him into the spotlight this time, with almost-nightly appearances on CNN and other networks, even PBS. The plan involves using natural gas, wind turbines and solar energy to wean America off foreign oil. Pickens is spending $58 million of his money to share details with the nation (see pickensplan.com).
The man's message
He is as big as big shots get. But on Friday night and again Saturday night, and the hours in-between, there we were, sitting with him.
He tells jokes, like the one about the talking dog who was given a dollar bill and sent down the street by a bartender to buy a newspaper. When he didn't come back, his owner went looking and found the dog, uh, atop a poodle.
"You've never done a thing like this before," said his disappointed owner.
Said the dog: "I never had money before."
Later there was the SUV ride with Pickens behind the wheel. For two hours he drove and talked. He showed us the home where he was raised. It originally sat miles away in Holdenville, Okla. His wife bought the home recently and had it moved.
"Right there," he says, pointing to a corner of the front room, "is where I had to practice the clarinet."
Until the day his clarinet teacher told the family that Thomas Boone Pickens had no musical talent.
"Just no ability whatsoever," Pickens adds with a smile. "None at all, that's what she said."
Luckily for him and maybe now for our country there was talent in other areas.
He talked to us about energy, just as he has on TV. How we imported 24 percent of our oil in 1970, but it's 70 percent today (and growing). How cheap oil is gone, and now there are 8 million natural-gas vehicles in the world, but only 142,000 in America.
Pickens also told us more about his plan for wind power, building farms with turbines along the "wind corridor" from Texas to North Dakota, enough to supply 20 percent of the nation's electricity. With the right strategy, he insists, we won't have to be at the mercy of other countries for oil.
An official announcement will come soon, but on Aug. 18 and 19 Pickens will meet separately with Barack Obama and John McCain. He will present details of his energy plan. They will ask questions.
"All I want to do is help," Pickens says. "We're in a crisis. And we can get out of it. And no one knows more about energy than I do."