The Prairie Spy

Alan “Lindy” Linda

Virgil M. bought the farm next to ours in Iowa, when I was 13. He didn’t come to farm, and rented the land to dad. He had just sold his large electrical wiring business in another town, trying to slow down a bit as he approached his sixties. He wasn’t slowing down much. He repaired and installed residential and commercial refrigeration, and still did a lot of electrical wiring. He believed in getting his first service call in before 7:00 am. I guess that was his version of “slowing down.”

He used me and my brother as helpers, mostly when wiring jobs were involved, but on the way to jobs, we’d often stop and look at various problems for customers. One early morning we were fumbling around in a dark poorly-lit basement, trying to get some lights on. He told me to reach over and “grab that iron water pipe.” I did. I was puzzled about it, but at 13 years old, just hitting puberty, I obviously had more important things to think about.

So I reached over and grabbed it. Next thing you know, he stuck his heavily-callused right-hand pointer finger in his mouth, wet it, and then he reached over his head and stuck that finger into an empty lightbulb socket. With his other hand, he reached over and grabbed my ear.

I jumped back. Yowie! I got an electrical shock. The socket was hot. “Okay,” he said, “let’s find a light bulb.” I’m rubbing my ear. Sure, it was mostly a tingle, but. He then said, “Don’t worry about being electrocuted touching something over your head, because you’ll fall out of it when your knees buckle.” Good to know.

One day we stopped in town, in Riceville, where he met with a backhoe guy. They wanted Virgil’s help finding a buried water line. Next thing I know, Virgil has two thin wires bent, and he’s walking back and forth along the sidewalk. The wires turn out over the same spot, each time he passes over it. “Right here,” he told the digger.

“Wait a minute,” I somewhat indignantly said, thinking they were pulling my adolescent leg. “How do you know?” Because of the wires, he replied. He showed me how to hold them, and sure enough, they did the same for me. I myself have used that method to find water and sewer lines several times over the years. If it’s a sewer line, I have to have water running in it, like, to find one beneath a concrete floor in a basement. I think that means that I’m not very good at it.

I was in my first year of electrical engineering courses, home for the weekend, when I went with him to work. “I learned how to use a Post Versalog slide rule to convert electrical calculations into logarithmns,” I told him, as we were riding along. I was impressed. This was tough academic stuff. Virgil? Not so much. He looked at me while he was driving, and said: “Yes, but can you draw me how to wire a three-way light switch?”

No. He then drew it on an old envelope with one hand while he was driving with the other one. He hardly had to look. Looking back, I realize that Virgil had pointed out that I had achieved some level of theoretical ineptitude.

It was ten years, college graduation, a war, and a few more years of my life, before I ended up doing pretty much what Virgil did. Refrigeration, plumbing, heating, repairing. Everything I did, all the while I did it, related back to the stuff I “helped” him with as a kid.

And as some of you know, I ended up even teaching HVAC. Virgil might have been proud. He was more impressed with doing. I even taught—or tried to teach—students how to wire a three-way, even though it wasn’t really part of the program.

He and his wife came up to visit, after I had been in business on my own several years. By coincidence, I was just finishing up an oil furnace change-out at the neighbors, and he came to inspect. I think he was a little bit proud with how I’d turned out.

While we were leaving, he complained about a pain in his ribs. “Must have bumped them,” I remember him saying. He was nearly 80 years old, and still out at 7:00 am every morning.

It wasn’t a bruise; it was lung cancer, and he was gone a couple of months later.

Gone but not forgotten.

I taught 15 students a year for 15 years, proud to be passing knowledge along. And if one were to attempt to find a beginning point that placed me where I am now?

It began in a dark basement when Virgil stuck his finger into that light socket.

Kind of a “let there be light” moment, huh?