The Carbon Think Tank


Critics have described the sitcom “Seinfeld” as a television show about nothing. That wasn’t true, of course. The show revolved around the interaction among its characters using snappy dialog and perfect pacing.

Sometimes what’s compelling about a column isn’t the visuals, but the interpersonal repartee. The relationships in the room, the sense of life, the loose banter; all of it contributes to what I refer to as a “Seinfeld column” such as this one published April 2, 2013.


CARBON — What’s the big news over in Carbon?

“We killed a hog the other day,” answered John Coble, leaning back into a short plush chair at Carbon Agri-Center feed store.

The chair and its battered twin was clustered with a hodgepodge ring of rockers, stools and the odd end table. A few pieces were metal,  a couple others wooden.

By 7:30 in the morning, lots of folks already had come and gone, but a few still hung around. Others randomly popped in for a moment or two, picking up orders or just seeing who was still hanging around.

“This isn’t one of those doctored pictures, this came out of his place,” said Lynn Talley, waving at Coble. He reached back to lift off the wall a print depicting a small group of hunters standing next to a wild hog longer than the rifle propped against it.

“So, one down and 5,000 to go?” I ask, looking at Hogzilla.

“Oh, at least,” Coble said, chuckling. “Or more.”

“Them things are really bad this year,” muttered Talley. “I’d hate to meet that sucker when he’s mad.”

Copy photos of the area from 100 years earlier covered part of a wall, hanging over a battered floor heater likely older than my mother. The coffeepot sat alone on a shelf near the corner of the room.

“This is the Carbon Think Tank,” Coble declared, pointing to a sign amidst the pictures that stated the same thing.

“What do y’all think about?” I asked

Coble smiled, then answered, “Sometimes we don’t think, we just  …”

He shrugged, trailing off.

“Mostly, we sit around thinking about how many gallons it’ll hold,” said Truett Spruill, cutting in as everyone laughed.

It took me a second, then I laughed too. Think-tank, gallons…, I’m a little slow without the right amount of coffee in the morning.

It’s a feed store, so you’d expect that agriculture in its many permutations gets a lot of attention, from big farming to humble gardening. Talley remarked how a box of onions in front of the store didn’t seem to be selling off as quickly as it should have.

“People don’t put out onions like they used to,” he mumbled.

“People don’t garden like they used to,” Spruill answered.

“It’s just a guess on when to plant something it seems like, anymore,” Coble lamented. “The weather, you can’t depend on when it’s supposed to rain.”

He paused for a moment, staring at the tennis shoes on his outstretched feet.

“It hasn’t rained, so no fertilizer’s going out,” Spruill agreed.

“You haven’t got enough hay to feed,” Talley grumbled.

“Yeah, what do you talk about if it don’t rain or you don’t fertilize?” Coble wondered.

“You talk about how good it’s gonna be,” chimed a voice from across the room. The visitor anonymously grabbed a cup of coffee on his way outside.

“Well, I’ve heard the weather pattern is supposed to change,” I offered.

“Yeah, you come back next week and they’ll be complaining about the rain,” Spruill chuckled, and adopted a faux-cranky tone. “‘Can’t go nowhere’s, it’s too wet!’”

Coble smiled and thought about that for a moment.

“Do you want to bet $5,000 or $8,000 that it’s going to rain?” he asked me.

Turning to Spruill, I asked, “You got five or eight grand you can pass me?”

“Not hardly. But we have bet that much it’s going to rain,” he answered and pointed at Coble.  He was sure his friend had more than once bet at least that much, or more, on the chances of water falling from the sky.

He waved his hand at the feed store’s clerks working behind the counter at the front of the room.

“When you call and tell them to put out five or 10,000 pounds of fertilizer because it’s fixing to rain, you’re bettin’,” he said.

Things went quiet after that. The discourse hit a lull.

“Well, I don’t feel very productive today,” Talley finally announced, fidgeting in his chair.

He looked at Coble, still stretched out, and decided to take a poke at him.

“You going to do something productive or are you going to sit around on the Internet all day?” he asked, then volunteered his own thoughts without waiting for his friend’s answer.

“I’m setting the temperature on my incubator, that’s all I’m doing,” he offered, and proceeded to describe his latest scheme — hatching quail.

His incubator temperature control was marked in Celsius, however, and so a bit of confusion ensued after Talley fumbled his math as he attempted to set out his incubation strategy.

“So you’re going to set that thing at nearly 100 Celsius?” Coble asked. The incredulity in his voice was reflected on his face.

“No, the thermostat is expressed in Celsius, but I’m figuring it in Fahrenheit,” Talley explained.

“He’s fixing to scramble a bunch of eggs,” another visitor teased.

“At 99 and a half Celsius, he’s going to cook them,” Coble added, laughing.

“When we going to have breakfast?” somebody gibed.

“No, it’s 37-and-a-half Celsius,” Talley clarified.

The laughter dies down, more people enter and leave and I stared up at the old photos again.

Carbon was named after the mineral deposits found in the area, according to the Handbook of Texas Online. A few of its streets are likewise labeled for similar reasons Coke, Diamond, Coal and Anthracite. The town’s population claimed 272 people in 2010.

Thurber, in nearby Erath County, was the principal bituminous coal town in Texas a century ago. But when locomotives began the switch from coal to oil, the owners of the Thurber mine switched to oil too, signaling the end of local coal.

But that’s all ancient history now.

“I wish they’d discover some more oil out here,” Coble mused. “I think cattle would do better in the shadow of an oil well.”

“They would. A big, old pump jack out there making shade for them, they’d grow good,” Spruill agreed.

Another farmer walked in and suddenly everyone began debating the subtle nuances of cotton seed. The manufacturer’s technology fee, which I guessed was probably another way of saying “profit,” on a $400 bag of cotton seed was $275. General grumbling ensued over how the same seed can be priced higher in College Station, only 200 miles away, than in Carbon.

Buying the seed in Carbon and driving it south is apparently a big no-no in the eyes of the manufacturer, though it seemed they didn’t mind if you took it the other way.

“Why couldn’t we have thought of something like that?” Coble asked. “We could have been sitting in some fancy place.”

“How much fancier do you want, John?” replied Spruill, laughing and spreading his arms around the circle. “C’mon, you’re on top of the world right here.”