The People You Meet – Chester Straw

By Richard E

About 45 years ago, I was working in Libya. I was the Chief Surveyor for the Oasis Oil Company Inc., actually, I was the only surveyor, but the title felt very important at the time.

The Oil Geologist- Photo Richard E 1975

Now there was a much older engineer there, with the unlikely name of Chester Straw. By now, he has long gone, but I still fondly remember him, and a remarkable thing he taught me.

Chester was from the Deep South in Louisiana, and spoke with an accent which could curdle milk, but when you work in the oil business, you get the hang of it after a while. He walked with a pronounced limp, from an oil field accident (one didn’t ask), and was in constant pain with arthritis and rheumatism. (Something else he bequeathed me) Yet he was kind, gentle and very wise.

Oilfield Accidental Fire – Photo Richard E 1976

One day, Chester dropped round to see me in my shack of an office in Waha, about 150 miles south of the Mediterranean Sea. He wanted me to bring some survey flags to mark out a ‘Flow Line’.

Flow lines are the 4 inch diameter steel surface pipes which carry oil from the wells to the receiving station for process further up the system. They can be quite long (miles), and due to temperature changes, they quite often move about, and they are very rarely straight, they just snake around all the time, so if they become buried in the shifting sand, which is also common, they can be extremely difficult to find.

Belhaden Oil Receiver in Sand Sea – Photo Richard E 1975

So we set off with about 50 flags, which are short wire rods about a foot long, curled at one end and with a little coloured bunting tied on so that they can be easily seen. Surveyors stick them into the ground as ‘rough markers’, they are not precision indicators, but good enough for a 4 inch flow line.

About 10 miles out, we stopped in a huge open featureless sandy area, and Chester took a couple of brass welding rods about 18 inches long, and bent them into a right angle so that the short end was about 4 inches long, and the long end 14 inches. With the two rods held in his fists so the 14 inches were centrally in front he began to criss cross the desert sand, Every so often he would indicate where I was to insert a flag. After an hour or so we had exhausted my flags and we were about a mile from my Land Rover, so leaving him where he was, I hoofed it back to the vehicle, and then brought it up to him, to save his arthritic legs.

Photo of Author by Ali (Student) 1975 Even the work Jeans had flares in the 70’s!

Chester was of course ‘Dowsing’, and full of disbelief, (I’m a true sceptic) I asked him if he was serious about what he was doing. He simply shrugged, and decided to ‘show’ me how to do it, and I was soon very successful, though full of doubt as I still am today.

Now according to Wikipedia, “Dowsing is considered a pseudo science and there is no scientific evidence that it is any more effective than random chance”.

Later that day, Chester had a D8 dozer pushing sand away, and after getting about 10 feet down, we all thought he was mad, but he persisted, (half the engineering team had come to look) and then about 15 feet down, there was the line. So, if Wiki is right, and that was random chance a mile long, I have a bridge to sell you!

A few years later, and now in private practise ‘at home’, I was on a civil engineering site, and the ground working gang were trying to find a water main, so I grabbed a couple of welding rods, just like Chester, and found the water main for them. They treated this first with utter disbelief, but then other contractors would ask me to ‘find’ things, gas, water electric old buried walls, and my best find of all, a Roman Road.

This latter ‘find’ was for a major developer from Maidenhead who had a large site in Andover, which was known to have a Roman Road, and there was a Planning Condition that it should be carefully exposed, so that the topsoil covering it could be examined by the County Archaeologist. The archaeologists are not much bothered about the road itself, they’ve seen plenty, but the topsoil immediately on top of the road, often has many artefacts.

It is very easy to damage ancient remains, and so the contractor was not allowed to do a ‘Time Team’ “Let’s get a JCB” type of operation. These things have to be done carefully, and by hand. So the contractor asked me if I could find it. Now I always tell contractors that I am still a sceptic, even though I have yet to be unsuccessful. So with a great deal of trepidation, I took my trusty rods, and started to criss cross the field. All of a sudden there was a very strong reaction, and moving on 10 feet later, a negative reaction. I marked this out and moved on back and fore, and pretty soon I had two rows of flags 10 feet apart, right across the field. These were the strongest reactions I have ever experienced in my thirty years of dowsing, and I bet old Chester was smiling down on this sceptic. The first bit of my marking out was carefully dug by hand, and about 18 inches down we struck stone, mostly flint cobbles, and it just turned out that the flags were absolutely on the line of the road.

Like many engineers, if you gave me something for Christmas that was mechanical or electrical in some way, I would prefer to take it apart, to see how it works, rather than to use it, and I can feel lots of heads nodding in agreement with that. So when it comes to ‘dowsing’, although I can’t see how it works, I remain highly sceptical, but then again, just because ‘Wiki’ doesn’t know, simply means that so far nobody else has found an explanation either.

I do remember in the 80’s, the RICS Land Survey magazine had a long article on the subject, which was very supportive, and I suppose that once I knew that the RICS was sort of Ok about it, I did feel a bit more comfortable with it.

It’s important to make clear that this ‘skill’ has nothing to do with metal detectors, and people who look for metal objects, but of course, in the more up to date world in which we now live, there are many more sophisticated methods of locating underground objects, and I guess those who remember me ‘dowsing’ for cables would only mention it while reminiscing over ‘The Good Old Days’.

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