The Prairie Spy

Alan “Lindy” Linda

As memories go, some of my best ones revolve around electricity. One thing about electricity always fascinated me–it was available in so many different forms.

Back in 1949, when I was five years old and our telephone was one of the first–not the first, which was before I was born–of the better party line phones, we kids were warned by ma not to be on or near the phone during any kind of thunderstorm. “Stay away from that phone if it’s storming!” she said many times.

Yeah, yeah, we thought. There’s ma being overly cautious again. (Which she was right to be, with two little boys into everything.)

One evening we were all gathered in the dining room, where the radio was. Dad, mom, my brother, sister, and I. I remember that linoleum floor in the dining room because it had great make-believe roads in it, and I was down there on the floor pushing a small race car around.

Outside was a thunderstorm, which didn’t really register on me at all. I suppose the radio was crackling with the lightning outside, but I was into my push car and wasn’t paying much attention.

Suddenly a crackling ball of electrical plasma—a lot like what the tip of an arc welder generates–about the size of a softball jumped out of the wall phone, dropped down to the linoleum. Linoleum it turns out is a good insulator, especially that old tar-based stuff. The ball of fire dropped down to the floor and sizzled its way across the room, decreasing in size as it went.

Wow! What a sight.

Ma caught my eye about then and raised her eyebrows, in that way moms can to remind you that they’re a lot of things–one of them being that they’re smarter than you. Then she slightly nodded. It was a nod that said: “See?”

One of my next electrical awakenings happened when I was riding on the tractor with dad, who was plowing in the field north of the house. The tractor was a Farmall F-20, one new enough to have a generator and a battery.

Dad, who smoked, stopped the tractor, got out a cigarette and a pair of pliers, climbed off the tractor and made his way over to the battery, at the front side of the tractor. Using his pliers, he grabbed a short chunk of baling wire and shorted the wire across the battery. The wire turned red hot and dad lit his cigarette with it.

Wow! Dad was a genius, I was immediately convinced. There were a lot of sparks when he did this. Some of them fell to the ground and lit a few blades of grass on fire. He casually stomped that out.

Little boys never forget stuff like that.

I was about ten or eleven, I think, when dad had the old leather check-valve pump pulled out of the windmill well. That left several 15-foot chunks of iron lift rod laying around the farm. It was about ⅜ inch in diameter.

Looking at it one summer day after that, it occurred to me that those rods looked a lot like fat versions of the wire dad sparked across the tractor battery. A light bulb went on.

My brother and I grabbed one of the rods, manuvered it over to the tractor sitting in front of the sliding wood doors of the machine shed, and commenced to sparking it across the terminals of the tractor battery.

We were dragging it back and forth when boom! The tractor battery exploded. Chunks of battery casing flew. (For those of you who don’t know, when a battery discharges, it emits hydrogen.) One largish chunk stuck in the wood door of the machine shed. We were impressed. And also scared.

Into the house we went and told ma. “Wait until your dad gets back,” she told us. Which left us hanging, fearing the worst.

Dad came back. Viewed the disaster. Said “huh.” And nothing more was said.

The next day, he was less happy, because the battery acid ate the large back tire on the tractor. Fortunately, time had gone by. It was kind of hard to be upset now.

But ma? When she washed our clothes a day or so later and found out that the water activated the battery acid which had splashed us and ate large holes in our shirts, pants, and shoes.

Boy! She was upset. But again, time had passed. Now she had to spend money! And that was in short supply in those early farming days.

Ah, electricity. No wonder I made a living out of it when I grew up.