Monday, October 4, 2010

Cowboys and Windmills, Part II

October 4, 2010 © Thomas J. Kollenborn. All Rights Reserved.

Read Part I here.

As many an old rancher or Midwest fanner can tell you, windmills can be damn dangerous to the inexperienced. The old Barkley Ranch had several working (or partially working) windmills in the summer of 1955.

Windmill repair was still a necessary job on the ranch and required some skill. I was young and capable of climbing the windmill frame to service and work on these Aeromotors.

Wind was beginning to kick up a little and the thought of climbing up a windmill tower did not set to well with me. However, I wanted to please the boss and do my job as best I could. By the time I arrived at the base of the windmill the blades were spinning wildly. I pulled the release lever for the wind vane that kept the blades pointed away from the wind. The wind vane slammed into the blades, but finally the mill blades stopped turning.

The wind was still blowing quite hard when I climbed up the windmill frame. That was my first big mistake! By the time I reached the top windmill frame the wind was gusting and dust was so thick I couldn't see the ground. All of a sudden I realized how serious and hopeless my situation had become in just seconds. It was like riding a wild bull in an arena at night and the lights going out. Within seconds I was hanging on for dear life.

The wind must have been gusting up to about fifty miles per hour. Then all of a sudden thunder and lightning were crashing all around. The electrostatic discharge in the atmosphere raised the hair on my arms and on the back of my neck. I was told later that I served as great antenna for lightning on the top of that windmill tower. Raindrops pounded my bare flesh as soon as the dust storm subsided. My Mexican straw had probably blown back to Mexico. As I hung on for dear life and said a few prayers I couldn't see much of a future atop of the windmill frame, but I couldn't get down until the storm let up.

The storm roared on for about thirty minutes and finally the wind began to subside. I now knew how birds might have felt while riding out a windstorm in a tree. I had just ridden out a severe windstorm anchored to the top of windmill almost three and a half stories off the ground. My life of me I don't know how Stan Jones wrote the words for Ghost Rider's in the Sky while hanging on to a windmill during a thunderstorm in southern Arizona.

My experience that day taught me not to work on windmills during a windstorms or an electrical storm. The experience had made me far more conscience of the weather and its impact on humans. As a matter of fact, I learned to stay off windmills during any kind of storm. I could have been electrocuted or blown off the framework of the windmill and critically injured.

All of these experiences were about learning to be a cowboy and that was what I wanted most of all. As I continued to learn these various jobs I wondered if I would ever sit astride a horse and work cattle. That's what I thought cowboys did for a living. I soon found out that cowboys dug post holes, mended fences, built fence, cooked, worked on windmills, repair water holes, stacked hay, grained horses and none of these jobs required a man astride a horse. My vision of a cowboy had been shattered after all these ground jobs.

Recently I returned to the Quarter Circle U ranch, thanks to Chuck and Judy Backus, and as I rode by the upper windmill I reminisced about my experience there more than fifty years ago as a young, inexperienced, fearless, foolish buckaroo.

Yes, fear was an element in my senses, however it often didn't kick in until I was in grave danger of being injured or killed. As I grew older I began to respond to my senses and recognized dangerous situations, if for no other reason just out of fear.

Many of us were young and reckless once. We have been lucky to survive. Now as we grow older it is time to apply common sense and hopefully keep ourselves out of harms way. I wouldn't trade those days on the old Quarter U Ranch or those years in the service of my country for any other experiences in life. However, as I look back I can see why young men and women eagerly step forward to join the military and defend our country.

Most young people still don't know the meaning of fear until they experience it in the military or by a dangerous life-threatening experience. Learning to work on windmills was just another routine job on the old Quarter Circle U Ranch. You could always ask, "Was working as a cowboy really that dangerous?" I will always agree it can be hazardous if you're inexperienced.