John Ballem's The Barons

by Shaun Hunter


Calgary Through the Eyes of Writers

The lobby of the Palliser Hotel, sometime after 1930. According to one character in John Ballem's novel The Barons, "the Palliser is the real reason why Calgary ended up being the oil capital of Canada instead of that other place up the road." (Photo: University of Alberta Peel's Prairie Provinces)

The lobby of the Palliser Hotel, sometime after 1930. According to one character in John Ballem's novel The Barons, "the Palliser is the real reason why Calgary ended up being the oil capital of Canada instead of that other place up the road." (Photo: University of Alberta Peel's Prairie Provinces)

It’s 1956 and junior geologist Mark Hunter is looking for drilling money. His landman roommate, Dave invites him to lunch with business associates at the Palliser Hotel. “The Paralyzer,” as Dave calls it, is one of the hubs of the city’s nascent oil business – a place thick with Texan accents. “If a brass band came in here and struck up the Star Spangled Banner,” Dave says, “I’d be the only one who wouldn’t have to stand up.” Before the men head into the Rimrock Room for lunch, they linger in the lobby with their host, a Louisiana oilman. Louis LaPierre is happy to show his young Canadian colleagues “the ropes.” As they watch “the parade of oilmen” walk through the hotel’s revolving doors, LaPierre alerts them to Jesse Johnson and one of his signature techniques.

 

“Place is filling up nicely,” he murmured. “Time for ol’ Jesse to go into his act.” He had barely finished speaking when a bellboy walked through the lobby, singing out, “Call for Mr. Johnson. Call for Mr. Johnson.”

“Over here, boy.” A tall man with a senatorial head of silver hair rose impressively to his feet. The bellboy told him he could take the call at one of the public phones near the lobby entrance.

“Jesse Johnson at your service,” he boomed into the mouthpiece in a voice that could be heard throughout the lobby. “An oil well, you say? What was the name of that company again? Silver Star Petroleums? Hang on a minute while I write that down – Silver Star Petroleums. Got it. How many barrels a day? Say, that’s great. I’m much obliged to you, sir. I truly am. That’s very encouraging news.”

While the two old pros exchanged knowing smiles, several businessmen sidled across to the pay phones and began to dial. Brewster winked at Mark. “They’re calling their brokers. That should be good for a couple of points before the market closes. Like the man says, there’s one born every minute. Thank the good Lord,” he added with a pious glance heavenward.

“I’ve never heard of this Silver Star company,” said Mark. “Do you know anything about it”

“Only that Jesse will be long on its stock.”

“Oh? That’s how it works, eh? Still, it sounded like a pretty exciting well.”

“You called that one right, boy. It sounded like a good well. It’s probably as dry as a popcorn fart.”

John Ballem, The Barons (Hanna, AB: Gorman & Gorman, 1991)