ODESSA, Tex. — For 45 years, they've roamed from coast to coast to work long hours for no pay and usually footed the bill to do so. They've partied with peons and presidents and roughnecks and nobility, all in the name of barbecue, boosterism, fun and fellowship.
They're the Odessa Chuck Wagon Gang, a well-heeled, civic-minded group of businessmen who have traveled millions of miles on behalf of this rough-and-tumble western Texas oil and gas mecca of 100,000 people.
Resplendent in gold and brown uniforms with Western hats and boots, gang members prepare and serve pit-cooked barbecue for groups ranging from 35 to 35,000, as far away as Scotland and Norway.
$50,000 Out of Pocket
"It's a unique organization," said "boss" Bill Cooper, who is riding herd over the 1985 Chuck Wagon Gang at a personal cost estimated by colleagues at around $50,000.
And Cooper campaigned hard for the job.
Formed in 1940 and patterned after the chuck wagon cooks who traveled the cow trails of the Old West, the gang has 250 members who elect a "boss" instead of a president each year.
Because of monetary and time demands, gang members, and especially bosses, often are oilmen, doctors, business executives, attorneys, bankers and the like.
Membership remains constant with 125 active and 125 non-active members, and there is a waiting list.
Oil to Banking
In real life, Bill Cooper's business interests range from oil to banking, but most of his 1985 activities center around the Chuck Wagon Gang.
Those activities include 50 or 60 "feeds" from Muleshoe, Tex., to Nashville, Tenn., and could involve a trip to China at the request of an Odessa-based oil field supply company. The price of a dinner at one of these feeds averages $4 to $5.
"We're a nonprofit organization, and we charge only enough to cover expenses and keep our equipment up," Cooper said. "We've been doing it for 45 years now, so we've got it down to a pretty good art."
The gang has barbecued for 10,000 at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington and for 30,000 at the Klondike Days festival in Canada. It has fed 18,000 and more at the annual Permian Basin Oil Show in Odessa and 5,000 at an oil show in Aberdeen, Scotland.
Its members have stood before governors, congressmen, legislators, Indian chiefs and the late President Lyndon B. Johnson. They have served up benefits for the United Way, the Permian Basin Rehabilitation Center and any number of youth organizations.
They struggled through the lean times of World War II and swallowed a $30,000 loss from a Wisconsin group that failed to pay for a feed.
Under normal conditions, the gang prepares 20- to 25-pound cuts of choice beef in 4-by-6-foot underground pits covered with steel lids.
"We can cook 350 pounds in each pit," Cooper said. And sometimes they use lots of pits.
The gang served more than 35,000 people at the Grand Old Opry Fan Fair in Nashville last June. At that appearance, Cooper said, the gang pit-cooked 18,000 pounds of beef, sausage and ham and served 500 gallons of barbecue sauce, 3,600 pounds of beans, 1,800 loaves of bread, 5,000 pounds of cole slaw, 3,000 pounds of onions, 1,800 gallons of ice tea and "buckets and buckets of pickles."
Nashville a 'Must'
The Nashville caper is a "must" for the 125 active gang members. They travel to Tennessee on a chartered plane after sending their 18-wheeler with pots and pit equipment on ahead.
"This was our 14th year to cook in Nashville," said Cooper, recalling a number of memorable moments while rubbing shoulders with the likes of Charley Pride, Dolly Parton, Loretta Lynn and Barbara and Louise Mandrell.
According to gang legend, it was in Nashville one year that a friendly drunk wandered into the campsite and inquired about a drink.
"Over there," replied a gang member, nodding toward a bottle of bourbon. The drunk instead picked up a jug of liquid smoke, a meat basting sauce full of spices and condensed wood smoke flavor, and took a long pull.
"Damn," he cried, "you Texans are tough!"
Millionaires Peel Onions
These men are more accustomed to giving orders than to taking them, but it is not uncommon to find a millionaire peeling onions, dishing up cole slaw and then scrubbing pots.
"I never worked as hard in my life as I did at Nashville," said Dave Lyons, publisher of the Odessa American and a rookie gang member this year. He said his feet were so sore one night that it took him 20 minutes to remove his boots.
Cooper and Lyons said the sole purpose of the gang is to promote Odessa, but a pleasant bonus is the camaraderie among members.
'A Lot of Laughs'
"We work hard and we play hard," Cooper said.
"It's a fellowship kind of thing, and a lot of laughs," Lyons said.
A woman in the food line once observed a member wearing an expensive watch and said: "I don't know how you people can afford a Rolex watch with the money you make."
"Lady," the member, a millionaire oilman, said with a sigh, "we make it on overtime."