I mentioned to someone the other day that my family had a wind charger when I was a kid, and the person’s eyebrows went up as if I’d said we owned the Fountain of Youth.
“What’s so strange about that?” I asked. “We weren’t the only ones.”
I wondered briefly if he thought I was referring to that Windcharger transformer toy kids play with these days. Transformed into a Pontiac Firebird, the thing goes faster than those cars that try to set land speed records on the Bonneville Salt Flats. He wasn’t thinking of that, though.
“Those things are huge,” he said. “And let’s face it; you haven’t been a kid for 60 or 70 years. I didn’t know they had wind farms that long ago.”
I realized we were talking about two entirely different sorts of wind charger. My friend was thinking of those massive, soaring wind turbines on the wind farms that have spread across the state and region in recent times. Yes, those things are huge. And they’re expensive and impressive. I recall a night flight — home from Sioux City, I think it was — during my time with state government. I hadn’t seen the development of the wind farm over by White Lake until that night. The warning lights atop the towers created a vast, blinking red blanket below the wing of the airplane.
A story recently by South Dakota News Watch, Inc. noted that eight major wind-energy projects had recently been approved and would add 700 turbines and $2.6 billion in investments in South Dakota by the end of 2020. The news series said that South Dakota ranked third in the nation for number of homes powered by wind energy.
OK, so that’s a far different sort of wind generator than I meant when I said our farm had one. Ours was a modest metal tower sunk in concrete next to the door to our back porch. Braces ran in a criss-cross pattern up the tower, and a boy with an adventuresome spirit and smallish feet could find footholds in the braces and climb the tower to reach the roof of the house. That boy couldn’t manage to walk on the roof quietly enough to avoid being heard by his mom or dad; they’d burst out the back door and holler at him to get down from there that instant.
The tower we had was barely higher than the peak of the house roof, certainly nothing like those impressive towers in the wind farms today. It was high enough, though, to allow the wind to reach the blades of the turbine, which would spin madly and somehow — black magic, I figured when I was young — create electricity. A bank of glass-encased batteries under the counter on the back porch (next to the cream separator) stored the electricity and provided welcome, if not always dependable, power for lights and the radio in the living room.
I have a vague notion that we owned a gas-powered generator at one time. That would have come in handy when the electricity failed. I know for a while we had lanterns fed by kerosene or some other liquid. That has a romantic “Little House on the Prairie” feel to it, but honestly I mostly remember flashlights and church candles when the power failed.
I’ve watched President Trump make fun of wind power during rallies. He gets a laugh by saying you can’t watch television when the wind stops. Well, two things. First, when does the wind stop in South Dakota? Second, we didn’t have a wind charger and a TV at the same time. By the time we brought our first set, REA had wired us and we had pretty dependable power.
For some time after REA arrived, the tower of the wind charger sat unused by the back door, as if we might have to fire it up in the event of the zombie apocalypse. One day my dad decided we were safe, I guess. He tore the tower down and tossed it behind the garage onto a pile of angle iron, machine parts and scraps of lumber. Its time had passed.