Gone and back with the wind
In 1968 I was stationed in San Angelo, Texas, to attend a school to intercept enemy radio messages in Vietnamese. I had completed the year-long course in Vietnamese in the southern dialect, and it was supposed that I would sit somewhere in Vietnam and listen for compromising transmissions from the enemy.
@Body Ragged Right:Some will remember that by 1968 most of the serious fighting was being done against the North Vietnamese, who spoke a different dialect. That development eluded the Pentagon whiz kids, as did most things then, so that the language I had learned was, and remains to this day useful only in ordering pho.
I never did complete the radio intercept course because orders arrived announcing that the Army, having made all the other mistakes available to it, decided to make one last error of judgment — making me an officer. This meant that I would receive extra months of training stateside, which was fine with me. The process would also take about two additional months of sitting around in San Angelo.
The language school had been in El Paso, at Fort Bliss, sometimes known as Fort Ignorance, so in all I had been in Texas for over a year. That’s probably enough time in any life, but the odd thing about Texas is that if you live there long enough it sort of grows on you. The people have their faults, but generally they are tolerant of idiocy and other human failings. They work hard and, other than the oil crowd, are pretty smart, forced to extract a living from a fairly harsh economy.
Around the city of San Angelo the land stretched flat and dry for endless miles. The crops included some irrigated produce, but for the most part it was sheep and goats. The goats were long-haired, something like Angoras, cute little things, who could stay alive on the meager grass that grew in central Texas.
San Angelo was a town of medium size for Texas, about 10,000 at that time. It had a sense of itself, with some movie theaters, a library, some hotels and a civic opera house. Orchestras came to give concerts, which I attended due to free tickets for servicemen. Each concert began with the trooping of the colors and the upright singing of “The Star-Spangled Banner,” to which everyone knew the words, including the later verses. I was impressed by the patriotism of the place.
The landowners and the ranchers lived in apartment buildings. They went out to check on their herds every so often, but not regularly if they could help it. Taking care of the flocks of goats and sheep was done by itinerant cowboys, who lived mostly in trailers, and who ate from real chuck wagons, such as you may have seen in movies.
From years of living in the open with only the herds and other lonely cowboys, these men developed a certain look. They were rail-thin, sunburnt, garrulous and taciturn as it suited them, and without many exceptions a little on the weird side. They had over the years come to terms with their chosen life and its demands. They were not fit to live anywhere else. They rolled their own cigarettes and lived in a world almost absent of any media.
The only radio available, if anyone wanted to listen to it, was from Del Rio, with its infamous antenna located just across the Mexican border. It was mostly Tejano music and people screaming about Jesus.
I had nothing to do. The company commander put me on duty as clerk one full day on and two days off. I buffed the floors and made coffee and answered the phone and mostly just sat there. I told someone I had met in a local church about this strange schedule and how stultifying it was. They suggested some part-time work out in the countryside doing maintenance on windmills.
I had a car, a DeSoto, the Firedome model, a vehicle which leaked every known fluid and some others as well. I would drive out, about 30 miles from town and meet up with the windmill guy, a cowboy with a specialty.
The job was climbing up the rather rickety towers, none very tall, but rickety even so, balancing on the tiny platform or what was left of it, and fixing and lubricating the windmill. Sometimes we had to replace a blade, or put in some missing screws in the tail. Amazingly, replacement windmill blades were still being made somewhere, usually of wood, but the industry standard, as they say, was in transition. Some new blades were made of sheet metal.
The wind blew, in that part of Texas, as it probably does in the rest of Texas, all the time. These windmills worked ceaselessly, pumping water up from the aquifer into stock tanks. The mill body was cast iron with a crank coming out the back that pulled the attached chain up and down every time the blades went around. The chain was attached to a series of pipes, screwed together, that hung down in the well. Each pipe had a sort of one-way flapper valve in it so that going down it grabbed some water and coming up it lifted the water.
Rocket science this was not. The water spilled out at the top and ran down into the stock tank. If the tank got too full the overflow ran back down into the well. This first struck me as wasteful, and then I saw that since the wind was free, and endless, there was nothing to be saved or gained, and besides who cared? The sheep didn’t complain.
I worked with my windmill maintenance foreman guy for not quite two months. I can’t remember his name, and I can’t remember if he ever offered it. He was skinny, about 50 years old, though it was hard to tell, and dressed entirely in faded denim with a red checked wool vest. The skin of his face was deeply wrinkled and brown. He wore a cowboy hat all the time so that his scalp, where his thinning hair revealed it, was baby white. He could also roll a cigarette with one hand. You try it.
When my orders finally came through, I told him I wouldn’t be available any more to maintain the windmills. He said that was too bad since I was really getting the hang of this work, and if I ever needed a job when I got out of the service I should look him up.
At about that time the old DeSoto Firedome went into a death spiral. I sold it to another soldier for $10 with the proviso that if it lasted a month he owed me an additional $15. He either still does owe me or he doesn’t. I never found out.
I do remember sitting on the top of one of the windmill towers, applying a shot of grease and listening to the changing tone of the bearing. As it quieted, the noise of the wind was more noticeable. This simple machinery, able to collect energy and motion to perform productive work, struck me, even that long ago, as pretty much perfect.
And the idea hung around in my mind for years, so that today, as wind-generated electricity is pumping water among other tasks, I can see a bit more clearly how basic ideas still run the world.
Texas has few hills, and no mountains, and yet it produces more electricity from the wind than any other state. It would seem that the decision to put mammoth wind turbines on top of Vermont’s mountains was a real error of judgment, making people angry at the underlying idea in return for nothing more than a slightly higher degree of efficiency on investment.
Obviously wind turbines work quite well on flat open spaces and cost far less to install there. The power companies have injured themselves, probably more out of spite and intransigence than from any economic analysis. The wind is free. The idea of turning it into electricity is genius. The economics of free fuel are inescapable. Yet the power corporations have managed to snatch stupidity from the jaws of intelligence. That takes real skill.
Our wind policy in Vermont should borrow from Texas. Put the towers in the flat areas, in agricultural land, where they can more easily be serviced and where they can help Vermont’s agricultural base. I am not an engineer, nor an economist, but I know that when the basic fuel of any process is free, an entirely new sort of thinking is needed.
In the time that the disputes over industrial wind turbines have wasted, countless towers could have been erected in places no one would object to. The screwing up of this issue has been almost perverse. A real possibility exists that the reaction by legislation will be just as goofy.
So for those now in position to make regulations and restrictions to correct the current squabbling, I offer a nontechnical argument. Most of the wind in Vermont blows from the west. If we don’t use it, the wind continues over to New Hampshire where they will steal it or use it to avoid paying taxes. You know how those people are.
And if that’s not enough, remember that without wind we wouldn’t be here. After all, this country was discovered by wind power.
Jeff Danziger is a former Rutland Herald / Times Argus cartoonist, now syndicated nationally and living in Chicago.