Published on June 15, 2021

Grandpa Ruffo discovers electricity; but what’s that smell?

By Roy Edwards
The Bulletin


After the New London School tragedy, the state cracked down on tapping into natural gas lines to heat or illuminate homes and buildings, so Grandpa Ruffo needed another source of energy.

But before we get to that part, a short story about me and ethyl mercaptan, the chemical that gives natural gas its odor.

If you smell that awful rotten egg odor, get out of the house because that means there is a gas leak. Without that chemical, natural gas has no smell.

I had applied for and been accepted to Baylor University, but I knew that I had to fund most of my college expenses. The summer of 1959, after graduating high school, I got a job as a dock hand with J.H. Rose Trucking.

At that time, Rose was the largest non-union truck line in the U.S.A. They specialized in transporting oil field equipment and supplies. One day, Red Rose, the dock foreman, gave me a list of pick-ups and told me to get the yard bob-tail truck and My first stop was a chemical plant on the Harris/Montgomery County line. I picked up 15 55-gallon drums of liquid ethyl mercaptan. I didn’t know what it was, but I was told that one drop would make several thousand cubic feet of natural gas stink.

I had to move the drums from the dock to the front of the truck’s cargo bay by hand, using a two- wheeled truck. The plant workers were not very careful when they filled the drums, and I splashed some on myself. The bobtail did not have closeable rear doors - only a tailgate about three feet high. As I made the rest of my pick-ups, I noticed that no one was tailgating me.

When I got off work that day, I was going to take the bus home. As I got on the bus, the driver put his hand over the coin drop box and said, “Back of the bus. Move to the back of the bus.”

As I moved down the aisle, the other riders got out of their seats and moved to the front. I had the rear half of the bus all to myself. Buses back then were not air conditioned. Fortunately, all the side windows were open.

When I got home, my mother took one whiff of me and told me to go around the house to the back porch and take off all my clothes except my shorts and to wait until she had a tub of hot water. When I got into the bathroom, she cracked the door open and stuck a broom handle through the door. She told me to put my shorts on the end of the broom handle.

My orders were to bathe for 30 minutes, drain the tub, refill the tub and bathe for another 30 minutes. It took me three and a half hours to smell good enough that she gave me my pj’s and told me to go to bed.

During that time, my Dad took a rake and moved my clothes into a pile in the vacant lot next to the house. He doused them with gasoline and burned everything I wore that day except my work boots. For three weeks, I had to leave my boots outside, downwind from the house.

That was my introduction to ethyl mercaptan.

Sometime during the 1930s, electricity finally came to rural Anderson County. Ruffo and the boys wired the house, had the wiring inspected and were hooked up to the county grid.

The copper plumbing that had worked for the carbide gas system and the natural gas system were removed and sold for scrap.

A new electric water heater was installed, and the pitcher pump to the well was replaced with an electric pump and a galvanized water pressure tank. Electric space heaters were placed in all the rooms except the living room. Ruffo still preferred his fireplace for heat.

Grandma Ruby would not give up her great wood-burning cookstove. She cooked on that stove the rest of her life.

That old house went through four lighting systems in less than 50 years.

And all because Grandpa Ruffo said, “Let there be light.”

(Write Roy in care of The Bulletin. Email: john.bulletin@gmail.com. Snail mail: The Bulletin, PO Box 2426, Angleton TX, 77516.)