ODESSA, TX—As the rose-colored sunrise streaks across the Texas plains, he pulls his tailored pants over the top of his size-17 lily-white snakeskin boots, and pours hot water into his 10-gallon hat to brew another cup of coffee.
"I'd hate to burn my eyes again," he says, "but a man's got to have his caffeine."
Known far and wide as "the biggest oil buffoon in Texas," T. Ludlow Banks earned his unmatched reputation by doing things his way. He pioneered the practice of cutting in as many middlemen as possible. At a time when others were reducing costs, he put employee comfort first, issuing free cigarettes and Zippo lighters to every person working at his refineries, drilling platforms, and filling stations. And, in his most unorthodox move to date, he imported custom-built Italian machinery to pump more than 8,000 barrels of high-grade oil right back into the ground each day.
Banks remains, perhaps, the last true Texas oil buffoon, a breed most thought had died out with the Noodle Deal. But since 1965, he has transformed the Banks family's enormous inheritance into what experts agree is now a small fortune. Some call him the "epitome of a self-unmade man," and petrochemical geologists grudgingly agree that without Banks' unique scheme to get sweet crude oil into his 3,500 acres of rich pastureland, there would be no way to draw oil from soil once believed to be suitable only for grazing cattle.
"I sure as hell didn't get where I am today by listening to what common folk call 'common sense,'" Banks says, his voice booming across the deck of the enormous oil tanker he had towed from the Gulf Coast to the center of Texas, the better to force its viscous cargo deep beneath his ranch. "Or by listening to 'conventional wisdom,' 'intelligence,' 'smart people'—none of that. We've been doing that for years, and all we have to show for it are dry wells clear across Texas."
"But not on my patch!" Banks says, flashing the devil-may-care grin acutely familiar to Banks shareholders the world over. "By the time I'm done here, this'll be the oiliest land in the whole United States. Bet on it," he says, gesturing broadly as another bull keels over from apparent petrochemical poisoning.
The longhorns here are descended from vast herds driven down from Chicago by Banks' great-grandfather, infamous cattle moron Cody Banks. "Curious Cody," was an independent thinker in his own right, and by all accounts, a typical Banks. The earliest recorded member of the family came over as a midshipman on the Mayflower in 1622, again in 1624, twice in 1625, and finally in 1627, when, as he wrote in his diary, he finally realized he was allowed to leave the middle of the ship.
Later generations of Bankses showed similar genius. Historians credit the family with thinking up one-card monty, the inverted-pyramid scheme, and the external combustion engine, and they have taken their rightful places as true Titans of Idiocy.
"My niece Barbara just designed a new mono-ary computer language, which takes up half the memory by using only zeroes. We're switching our entire accounting division over to that tomorrow," Banks says, watching cattle easily push through generously sized holes in his patented elephant-wire fence.
"See, some people look at a new idea, maybe a bad idea—hell, maybe a damn foolish idea—and think 'Why?' Others think, 'What the hell?' Well, while the thinkers are all off thinking, a Banks is out there getting it done."
Banks, for his part, says he is well aware that someday, the earth will run out of oil. He just intends for his part of it to run out last.
"Texas was just lousy with oil once," Banks says. "Texas is the same, but the oil's gone. Where'd it go? Go ahead, ask—I guarantee you no one can tell you in terms simple enough for me to understand. All I know is, when we need that oil, there'll be plenty right here to for me to pump out, just as long as I do my job and put it in there in the first place."