Friday, January 16, 2009

Pilgrimages to the Source of Power

The Sunday Scribblings prompt is Pilgrimage.


I met Otto, my future husband, in 1939, when we were at Stanford University, he as a graduate student of electrical engineering, I as an undergraduate majoring in art. It didn't take long for me to learn that one of his great interests was the generation of electricity from what we would now call "green" technology. No one at that time was thinking of global warming or climate change but rather of new sources to meet the burgeoning need for electricity to provide power to industry and also to homes with their increasing use of electricity not only for lighting but for electric appliances such as washing machines, irons, toasters and vacuum cleaners. Students in electrical engineering classes took frequent field trips into the Sierras to visit the hydro-electric dams and generating plants of Pacific Gas and Electric company, and I accompanied Otto.

High Sierras, fragrant evergreens, granite outcroppings, dramatic canyons in which the dams held back shimmering lakes and accompanying Otto (properly chaperoned by a faculty wife): these are memories I cherish.

Me on penstock of P.G. and E hydroelectric power plant. The penstock is the pipe through which water from the dam is dropped from the dam to the generators in the buildings you see down behind me.

On September 3, 1941, Otto and I were married and we moved east to Boston where he started as an instructor at Tufts College (now Tufts University). We moved into a tiny one-room fifth-floor walk-up apartment that looked out on the tops of the trees of Brooks Park from the living (and sleeping, studying, entertaining and dining) room.

We were soon taken under the wings of the parents of M.E. Smith, a girl who had been one of our fellow students at Stanford. M.E.'s father, C.G. Smith was also an electrical engineer and an inventor, one of the pioneers of Raytheon corporation. The Smiths invited us to Thanksgiving dinner, and when I suffered a bout of flu Mrs. Smith brought chicken soup, sympathy, aspirin, and also washed the dirty dishes piling up in the sink. C.G., like Otto, was an enthusiastic advocate of new sources of electric energy, especially from generation that didn't, as coal-fired plants did, spew dirty plumes that darkened the sky and dropped as sticky black residue.

The local papers
ran stories of the world's first large-scale electricity-producing windmill built on Grandpa's knob, a 2000 foot peak near W. Rutland Vermont. It was a 1.5 megawatt turbine atop 110 foot tower, and moving the 240 ton structure up the winding turns of the road to the summit had been a difficult process with many setbacks, as when a 43-ton girder rolled off its trailer at a hairpin turn and wedged in a rock crevasse. The wind-turbine had been put into service on October 1 of that year.

And, of course, Otto and C.G. determined that they should make a pilgrimage to the site. They obtained the proper permission papers to visit the installation, and, even though it was early December with snow on the ground, the two Smith couples packed a picnic lunch of sandwiches and deviled eggs and thermoses of soup and hot chocolate and set out in the car of the elder Smiths. (Otto and I had no car.) We wrapped ourselves in blankets, since cars did not yet have heaters in 1941. The date was December 7.

The trip took longer than we had anticipated. We had stopped for
our picnic lunch at a scenic spot, happy to be clad in heavy coats and scarves and mittens. By the time our car had climbed the winding road to the wire-fenced wind-turbine installation, the sky was darkening and of course the wind was blowing. We could see the ponderous blades turning. But when we approached the gates with our permission papers in hand we were met by soldiers waving us away with guns. When we tried to get closer to show them our papers, the guns were turned toward us. Otto and C. G. shouted, trying to make it clear to the dumb clucks that we had permission. Otto and C.G. shouted their qualifications as engineers, as educator (Otto), as company executive (C.G.). The only response of the impassive guards was to order us to leave.

We argued no more with the gun-pointing soldiers, but drove back down the winding road, fuming about the idiocy of the guards. Now it was growing not only dark but colder, and we shivered in the unheated car in spite of our blankets. Mrs. Smith, moreover, was suffering from the beginning of a migraine headache. She had no aspirin with her, so we stopped at a roadside restaurant for bowls of hot soup, and Otto went to request from the manager - successfully - aspirin for Mrs. Smith. A group of patrons were huddled excitedly over a radio on the other side of the room.

"What's the excitement about?" C.G. asked.

"I think that there was another freighter sunk by a U-boat," Otto said, not a bad guess considering that it had been happening with increasing frequency.

Mrs. Smith took her aspirin, we continued the cold journey and rejoiced to finally reach home and our own beds. Otto left for the college as usual the next morning, and I was preparing lunch when he burst through the door and yelled, "Quick! Turn on the radio! The president is about to declare war!"

Were we the last people in America to learn about Pearl Harbor?

22 comments:

Rinkly Rimes said...

That was certainly a pilgrimage to remember!

b said...

This post took me back to the days when my father, a journeyman electrician, drove us miles out of the way on our vacations to see a glorious dam and the turbines hidden within.

I was born on November 5, 1941. I was much too young to remember that day but still it seems to be seared into my memory.

Thank you for sharing your story.

b

Devil Mood said...

Oh you have the greatest stories! I could sit there listening to you all night, I bet :)

Winifred said...

What a wonderful posting, you write so clearly I can almost see the places. Your memory is brilliant too, the details you can recall.

That photograph of you is amazing, you look so high up on that pipe.

anthonynorth said...

Your life and history are so closely entwined. Wonderful.

Tumblewords: said...

The detail is so vivid...surely a trip you'll not forget.

present said...

I enjoy reading about your many exciting adventures! You have seen our world change so dramatically in your lifetime! I think we are still often the last to know, even with, and maybe sometimes in spite of, the technologies at hand.

bunnygirl said...

I love stories like this. Thanks for sharing it!

GreenishLady said...

I love reading about those points where your life met up with history. This was another wonderful post.

Tammie Lee said...

What an amazing journey you took. It must have made no sense as to why you were being turned away. Your words took me on your journey.

Wendy said...

I love your sunday scribblings contributions. I always look forward to getting to yours because I know it will be good.

Linda Jacobs said...

When I saw the date I started getting goosebumps. Your story-telling ability is top notch! Very interesting post!

danni said...

wonderful reminiscing and a great story - war is so covert and we, the people, always seem to be the last to know - sweeping our intuitiveness under the rug, as it were!!!

anno said...

What an amazing encounter with time and place -- another great story!

inlandempiregirl said...

I really found this post interesting. We are now so spoiled. I can't imagine traveling in a car without heat! Think how quickly we learn of news now... a click of a mouse on the internet. I love the details and the photo on this post also.

keith hillman said...

What wonderful memories. And what a wonderful memory you have. Another very enjoyable read from one of my favourite Scribblers!

SweetTalkingGuy said...

What a wonderful and momentous story!

linda may said...

What a memory. Isn't it strange how we can remember vividly just what we were doing when such significant events in history occurred.

GeL (Emerald Eyes) said...

Incredible memories and so interesting! I'm entranced seeing your photos, reading details, and soaking up your stories.

Bren said...

This is an amazing blog! Thank you for sharing a cherished point in your life. You are truly one of my favorite blogs.

I tagged you today on my blog at :
http://momingarden.blogspot.com/2009/01/ive-been-tagged.html
Because I just adore you and your blog. THANK YOU for sharing all that you are with us. You are an amazing American WOMAN... GOD BLESS YOU dear Garden Friend.

Kristin said...

Another family history collectible. Thanks. Also I love your scanned dragon. He looks GREAT with that lighting.

Teach said...

The older I get, the more I long to hear the back stories of those who experienced a time long before I was born. thanks for sharing your personal pilgrimage and your truth. until next time-Teach