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Spring 2001, Volume 18.3

Fiction

 

Gene Washington

Rotation

photo of Gene Washington.

Gene Washington (Ph.D., U of Missouri_Columbia) is Professor Emeritus of English at Utah State University. He has published essays on eighteenth-century English writers, especially Swift and Sterne. His fiction and poetry have appeared in Weber Studies, Rough Draft, New Mexico Humanities Review, Yefief and Petroglyph.

See other work by Gene Washington in Weber Studies: Vol. 6.2 (essay),  Vol. 22.1 (fiction),  Vol. 13.1 (fiction)

 

Here I am, scratching a tick bite, dodging the mosquitoes, waiting for Reed. It's early in the A.M. and the grass is still wet from the rain we had yesterday. Reed said he'd be here soon as he could. It's cool for May in this part of the Ozarks and when you stand away from the spring that powers the mill you can hear the trees down by the river coaxing the wind through their leaves.

A group of us millowners have invited George Holcomb, last year's winner of the Elvis Presley Look-Alike Contest, to come here to put on a show. In our invitation we emphasized the benefits of performing at a mill instead of before a flat, featureless, background. We suggested that George appear first at my mill and then move on east to Hampton Ford, on Bryant River, to perform at Sam Greene's undershot operation. His schedule, we said, would be published in the New Ozarks Times. The editors would list only the mills he's to appear at and when.

I hope he'll come in a hurry. Respect for Elvis has never been higher, but millowners are going broke like Mexico. I'd lost my mill. I'm about to move to Colorado where I'd been promised a job selling skis, ski-boots and a new line of suntan oil. Vernon Giles, who's setting it up, says I'll be good at selling to rich Mexicans on vacation. I feel ready for the job. Shirley, my wife, wants me to apply for something in the service industry in Branson. But I'm in the mood for something out of state.

I drop my cigarette, grind it out with the sole of my boot, and walk up the ramp to the mill house. Inside it's dark as anything is at 3:30 A.M., though there's a little moonlight. I stand there awhile, trying to get warm, thinking about better times. I start to get depressed. I may even be close to shedding tears for the loss of my mill. Or moving from the Ozarks. I smell the smoke from a burning candle and I start to feel bad about being affected that way. The mood comes from nowhere and goes fast. Afterwards I wipe my face with a Brawny paper towel I first soak in some water. I'm glad Shirley's not here. Being an only girl, she expects better of her men. I know I won't get much useful done before Reed gets here. I'd missed my coffee this morning. Without it, I feet sluggish. I can't make any in the mill. I took all the relevant materials out a couple of days ago.

I light one of the candles I keep in the millhouse and look around. It's a small room. In one corner there's a closet where we keep the miller-style clothes we wear for the tourists. Somebody's thrown an empty Coke can among the sacks of flour, which is the real stuff. I'm looking for the book that's been here forever, David Craik's The Practical American Millwright and Miller. I figure while I was waiting for Reed, I can read about how my kind of mill, a water-turbine type, is put together. There's a table in the sacking-room with a cream-colored refrigerator on top of it. It's where Laval, my former associate (his official title for the tourists is "undermiller"), and I used to keep beer, Twinkies, and Cokes we sell to tourists who came to see the mill.

As I walk over to open the door to the refrigerator, I feel the floor sag. I remember that there's a beer or two in it. There's a little light sugar diabetes in our family. So I've stopped eating Twinkies. I appreciate the fact that Craik has illustrated his book with pictures of how you disassemble a mill like mine. It turns out, something I suppose I knew earlier, that there are exactly eleven, easy to follow, steps. While I finish the beer, I start reading again step three, the one that tells you about the bolts that hold the turbine to the power shaft. When Nixon was president and there was a lot of money in circulation, I wouldn't have bothered to read about how you take a mill apart. But that was before the bottom fell out of mill tourism. If a man owns a watermill, then he has to make up for the hard times by doing whatever he can with his property. Even if he doesn't own it any longer.

The mill now belongs to a man from Texas, Loren Travers. Loren bought it, everything in it and five acres that goes with it. He says he'll be coming by tomorrow to take over. I'm moving west with Shirley. We've sold the house, minus some furniture, to Marge and Jim Taylor, from up around Rolla. They say they want to be closer to Branson. They've heard that Mel Torme will be appearing there next month. Loren's given me time to sell the house, the furniture, and settle things with the government that's been paying me farm subsidies on my five acres. Shirley and I'll keep the Cadillac. We expect it'll do fine, with a different carburetor adjustment, in the high altitude of the West. It'll be a good selling point with skiers looking for something to buy.

Before Loren bought this place I agreed to keep everything as it is, not allow anything to be taken out. Loren said, "Good, good." Shirley heard us. We were all in the kitchen, joking, drinking a beer. It was the waterwheel that first got Loren's interest in my mill. I didn't tell him it was a fake, something to attract tourists. People, especially the kids, kept asking, "Where's the wheel? Where's the wheel?" The real power of the mill, when it was a real mill, is its turbine. Down under about three feet of water, at the bottom of the mill race, in its pit, doing its thing. I looked Loren right in the eye when we were talking. I figured he might take that as a sign of straight talk, the way millers have been understood traditionally to conduct business.

When he first came to visit my mill, I could see he was disappointed in the way it looked. Some of the beams holding up the sacking room were sagging and the fake waterwheel wobbled. Loren perked up though when I told him about the visit of the Elvis Look-Alike. I told Loren that the Times might even send a reporter to interview him about George. Their circulation, I pointed out, benefited from famous people visiting interesting tourist sites.

A couple of weeks before the Colorado deal a man from a big history of technology museum in France was here. I'd had other museum people come by, from Kansas City or Springfield usually, wanting to buy something off the mill. Most of them want the waterwheel, or a gear I had left laying around. But the Frenchman is the first one to inquire about the turbine. I ask him how he knows it's a turbine-style mill. He says, rubbing his bald head, that it's mostly the size of the power-shaft and the number of transfer gears. I suspect that he can see the turbine, under water. Maybe he's trained to. Or somebody's told him what to look for. While he's looking things over, he tells me about his work and he hands me this card. It turns out he works for something called the Société d'Encouragement pour l'Industrie Nationale. He's on a working vacation with his family, going through the Ozarks, looking at old mills. He walks into the mill race and looks my turbine over. He says I have one of the late Fourneyron model turbines. One that dates from the mid nineteenth-century. He goes on to tell me that Fourneyron was something of a dandy, dressing mostly in silk and what the French call "smallclothes."

"Fourneyron," he says, "was interested in more than the power a turbine gave, as a prime mover."

"A `prime mover'?" I ask. He puts his hand on one of the beams supporting the sacking room and explained that "prime mover" is a term engineers use for things, like wind or water, that produce power. It was a little after this that Shirley notices me using the term with tourists to refer to my waterwheel.

When I ask him what he meant by the "more" that Fourneyron saw in a water turbine, he says that Fourneyron was something of a mystic, from an engineering point of view. I ask him to explain. I'd made sure to put some Muskol on that morning to keep the mosquitoes off. But I'm still getting bit. I move off to the Frenchman's left, like I want to go inside.

"Fourneyron," he says, "thought that the turbine was a good example of rotation, of everything, the stars, whirlwinds, the seasons."

"Really?" I say. "What did he mean by that?"

"We're not sure," the Frenchman says, "it's only in a short statement in a letter he wrote to his wife. Right before he died."

I think the Frenchman ought to dry out some, so I take him into the millhouse for a beer, my preferred antidote to the elements. Shirley's there, watching us, trying to locate the accent. Ramon Couchet, the Frenchman, invites us to come and visit him in Toulouse, France. I tell Shirley if things work out in Colorado, that's exactly what we'll do. I can see this makes Shirley feel better about moving that far from her family.

That's about the time I decide to do a little research on my mill. Maybe I have something worth real money. I start with the county library. It's a slow day and Maxine, the librarian, is looking for something to do. "I am not sure we have much on mills, Tom." Maxine's looking around the room. "We can try the Encyclopedia Britannica or Southern Living."

"Fine," I say. "What'll we look under? `Mill?' `Turbine'?" "I'd look at all of them," Maxine says. "It's best to be thorough." Maxine gives me a cup of coffee and asks me to sit down. I watch her as she bends over, looking down at a bottom shelf. Still an attractive woman. The Utsen women have always been good about keeping their figure. "You know, Tom, you're the first millowner to ask for information about mills."

"Is that right?"

"How's Shirley these days?"

"Good." I take another sip of coffee and think about the turbine, under all that water for so many years. How many times it turned, how many grains of corn ground. Maxine comes back with some books.

"On this one," Maxine says, looking in one of them, "we may have to do some interlibrary loaning."

She slides the book over to me. "You can see, there's not much on mills or your turbine."

"Nothing about how much a turbine's worth," I ask, putting my coffee cup down and my glasses on.

"No. Just some technical information," she says. "You've heard about Mel Torme coming to Branson next month? I think his voice sounds better after the operation."

"Operation?"

"Cysts on the vocal cords," she says.

"I remember reading about that in the Times."

"You ought to take Shirley over to hear him. Then take her for a romantic walk around the lake."

"No. Well, I don't know. It's pretty busy at the mill these days." I put my finger on the page and start reading. Operating under heads which varied from 9.8 to 19.7 feet (3.0-6.0 m) the early model turbine could produce 7 to 8 horsepower at close to 80% efficiency. Then there's something about Fourneyron. His first successful turbine was in 1827, on an earlier design by Poncelet, another Frenchman. Fourneyron, it goes on to say, field-tested his turbine at a place called Pont-sur-l'Orgnon. He died in 1867.

It means that the turbine in the mill (I couldn't honestly call it mine anymore.) was over a 100 years old. Maybe, I think, Fourneyron himself installed it. Personal installation by the inventor himself would be a good selling point for the machine. "Find what you need?" Maxine asks.

"Well, I am not sure. Maybe." I don't see the need to sum up what I was reading about Fourneyron and turbines, or the types they come in.

Maxine looks at me. "We need more of your kind, Tom. People who take an interest in the history of the Ozarks."

"You and I are laying in the same shade on that one," I say.

Reed's a millowner. We'd gone to the same High School in Oregon County. He has a small undershot wheel, a real one, on the White River near Dora. Next to his gift shop. His mill's in trouble. He's borrowed over his head to start a theme park and bed and breakfast business. We're sitting in the Midway Nightclub on Highway 61. I can tell he's unhappy. I tell him I'm selling my mill. We agree it's a pity most of the millowners in the area are going out of business.

Reed says he thinks his new operation will keep him going another six months. "If I can keep going it'll be good for the next generation." While we drink the round I've just bought, we laugh about this, since neither one of us has any kids and don't expect to. I tell him about Ramon and we agree it's good to be part of a long milling tradition. The good memories will help me keep going as a ski-salesman. Which, as far as I know, has no tradition at all. I make a note to ask Maxine to look for information about skis and skiing.

At one time the mill business was impressive. We'd get seven, eight, ten people a day coming by with their kids. The profit we made was on the things we sold, mostly beer, pop, candy bars. Sometimes we'd get a contribution, for preservation of the mill. Our beer was always cold. We sold plastic replicas of the mill. Usually to people looking for educational toys for their children. Our version had a wheel on it and a place to pour water in to make it spin. We sold it with a xeroxed page of instructions on how to do that without getting wet. We even had people coming by at night to look. I expect our mill had something to do with the increase of marriages in warm weather. Everybody seemed more friendly around a mill. The sound of the water, the wheel splashing.

My mill is a little faded. But if you look close, you can see the original paint, up underneath. It's especially attractive in the moonlight.

Around four-thirty A. M. I hear the sound of a familiar truck coming down the hill from the east. Laddie, he's my dog, puts up his ears and runs to the edge of the road. He spooks a couple of guineas.

I light a lantern and start unwrapping the tools I know we'll need to get the turbine out. I have the Craik book open at the right page, if we need it. The dog barks, his hair dull brown, like chocolate, in the shadows of the trees near the road. I know we ought to keep him quiet. When Reed swings into the drive up to the mill, I can see he's ready. We'd bought a couple of scuba-diving suits and his fits him just fine. In the back of his truck there's a tarpaulin we plan to cover the turbine with on our escape to West Plains.

We haven't figured out what we'll do with the turbine after we get there. Probably lay low for a few days. Or I'll just go on to Colorado with it in a U-Haul trailer. Find a museum that'll like it. Or I may sell it to Ramon. Loren, the new millowner, doesn't know his mill had a turbine. But he'd sure be pissed off if he finds out we took a key part off it. George Holcomb and his band, we figure, don't care either way, a mill with, or without, its turbine. It's the upper part of the mill, maybe some of the trees behind it, they'll be interested in.

Everything in this part of Ozark County is a little `iffy,' what with the drop in revenues and all the tourist dollars going to Branson and Silver-Dollar City. I'm a little on edge. I'd heard that a man from Dora is in jail in Siloam Springs for taking a pair of wire stretchers from the barn of a farm he'd sold to a bible salesman. Shirley's pastor, Clyde Barnes, says he thinks there's something nuclear going on. There's worse things Reed and I can be doing. Like cheating on our wives or robbing a bank. But if we get caught taking a piece of somebody else's mill, people might start asking what else crooked we'd done.

I take Laddie back behind some trees, tie him up, and give him a box of Twinkies. It's still dark, but you can see a little blue sky over the trees near the river. When I get back to check on Reed, he's down in the pit with the turbine. I'd put a dam up earlier that night to divert the water away from the pit. "Doctor Livingston, I presume," I say as I wave at Reed to put the winching hoist up on a beam. Reed jumps on top of the turbine and throws the hoist-chain over the beam. He's a tall, skinny man, in his early forties. He's wearing, over the top of the headpiece of the scuba-diving suit, a yellow baseball cap. There's just enough room around the turbine for two men to work. Reed jumps off the top of the machine into the mud at the bottom of the turbine pit. He holds a wrench up in one hand, pulls the
flap of his headpiece up, and says, "You ready to begin, good buddy?"

"I am."

"Do you miss the thought of being a millowner?" Reed has to shout because of the noise of the water.

"I'll be skiing with Robert Redford in Colorado while you're scratching chiggers here," I say, trying to smile. It starts to get light. Reed's upper arms and shoulder seem rigid, pressurized. Suddenly, I hear a crack as the dam breaks and the water starts to pour in on us.

"Hotdam, that's cold," Reed shouts, trying to stand up. "Shit. We'd almost finished." I slap Reed on his shoulder and tell him not to get excited about a little casual water.

We climb out of the water and slush back a piece to size up the situation. Reed's holding his folded arms tight to his chest. His body's shaking.

"I am beginning to have a problem with this frigging mill," Reed says, looking at me. "No offence intended."

"None taken." I notice Reed puts the emphasis on the last syllable of "turbine." I wobble over to look at the damage. That's when I heard Laddie bark which causes me to ask Reed to take him another box of Twinkies. We're having enough trouble without the dog giving us away.

"So you'll be selling skis to rich Mexicans? Let's hear your spiel," Reed says. He pulls his baseball cap off and swings at a mosquito.

"Mucho gracias, amigo. This model comes in colors that match your superior personality. Try these boots on, they'll make you ski like Darth Vader." I smile and slap Reed on the shoulder.

"Sounds right to me," he says.

Over the trees down by the river the sky's turning a lighter blue. I see Laddie's quiet again, wagging his tail, his head down. I walk up into the millhouse and get some boards, yellow cedar, and hammer and nails. When I got back, Reed's standing at the edge of the turbine pit, pulling up the bottom of his wet suit.

"I had to go and make a little yellow mud over there." He's pointing to where the drive curves around some trees to an open area. It reminds me to tell Loren he ought to put another Port-a-Potty back there for the tourists. The old one washed away in last year's flood.

Part of the dam to the turbine pit is still in place. The rest of it is hard to fix, trying to stand up in the current, a board in one hand, hammer in the other. We had to work with our hands bare. "The water's freezing," I shout.

"What if we wash away," Reed replies.

"Our luck can't be that bad." There's a whirlpool where the water comes in over the turbine. I nod to Reed to hold the end of the board next to the post that's still in place. I take about a #5 nail and hold it with the
fingers of my left hand. I'd watched my father hammer nails, and I'd helped him drive them in, but the last few years I hadn't had much opportunity to keep my skills up in that area. Reed shouts at me to hurry. I miss on the first swing, which I put down to my knees wobbling from the force of the current and the all-round bad working conditions. Reed turns his body sideways and holds the board with his hips. His knees are locked and he's blowing on his fingers. I swing the hammer again and hit the nail square. I drive the nails in and go on to finish nailing the other end of the board. My back hurts when I stand up. My hand feels like it's frozen to the handle of the hammer. Water's slogging around in the bottom of my wet suit.

"Is that it?" Reed yells, looking at the water still getting through the dam.

"There's still a lot of seepage in the pit."

"Yeah," I yell back. "I'll be fine." We drop into the pit again and start loosing the rest of the bolts. One or two of them take both of us, pulling on the wrench.

"Did you ask that Frenchman how long these bolts had been in here," Reed shouts. I don't have the energy to tell him that Shirley did most of the talking with the Frenchman.

We hook the turbine to the hoist and use some penetrating oil to separate the shaft from the turbine. I lift up on the machine and Reed pulls on the hoist chain. With our hands muddy, and a slippery surface to stand on, it's tricky business. When we get it on the edge of the pit, we take the hoist off and Reed goes to get his truck and a chain he'd brought along. I sit and light a cigarette. I wonder whether it's the cold water or fear that's causing my hands to shake. It's pretty much light by now and anybody coming down the road can see what we're up to. I hear a snap and look over at the dam. It's going again, all that water, running away. I stand up and grind out my cigarette. I fasten the end of Reed's chain to one of the opening in the turbine. I tell Reed not to gun the truck and to keep on eye on me. The ground's wet and the turbine drags good. I'm still worrying about somebody driving in.

I start thinking about that theme park Reed's putting in. How could you not feel good about that? Visitors waking up to a good breakfast and the sight of a waterwheel? I follow Reed over to his truck. He starts pushing on the turbine, opening and closing doors to the inside of the machine.

"Look at that. Real cast iron. You can be sure there's no radioactive fallout in that."

"But there's lots of cash," I say. While Reed's positioning the truck, I go to get Laddie. I imagine he'd like to look at the machine too. And maybe at our night's work. He's laying down, his head between his legs. His eyes look funny. I hear Reed calling, telling me to hurry up before someone
comes by.

The turbine's heavy, but its openings make good handholds. We slide it into the bed of the truck and while I fasten up the tailgate, Reed covers the machine with an old grayish-brown tarpaulin. I go back to see if Laddie's awake.

"Come on. It's time to go." Laddie raises his head up and lets out a whine. He looks like he wants to sleep, only different. I yells at Reed to go on, that I'd meet him later at the truck stop. I notice he's anxious to get started. I plan to take Laddie to Colorado with me and wanted him in shape for the high elevations. I sit down next to him and run my hand along the top of his head. He looks up, coughs and then pukes. I wait until he finished, just looking around, feeling him shake. I think it's a good thing we're at a mill, with a lot of available water. We wait a while longer and then go down to the river. I take my wet suit off and buck naked slid-jump with Laddie into the water, about where the mill race runs into it. It's cold, but we enjoy ourselves, paddling around, throwing water, making waves.

I sit on the bank, patting Laddie, looking back at the mill. Without its turbine. I start feeling depressed again. The mood, like before, just comes over me and leaves as fast.

A few days before we're supposed to move to Colorado, Laddie, Shirley and I go to live at the Ramada Inn in West Plains. Reed helps me transfer the turbine to the U-Haul trailer I rented from the Phillips 66 station over on Washington Avenue. "An Adventure in Moving," it says in white letters on its side. Although the turbine weighs over 300 pounds, it's compact, easy to conceal with a few items of clothing. Reed helps me secure the machine to a post in the U-Haul with an extension cord I used at the mill.

"Tom, you're out of your mind," Reed says. "That cord'll break before you get halfway to Rolla." I tell him, laughing, I'm not planning on going that way to Colorado. I use the wet suits to help conceal the turbine. Out of its pit, covered with clothes, the turbine looks smaller.

We sit at a table with an old man wearing a felt hat and a pair of Lee Overalls. When he hears we're in the mill business he starts talking about how he and his dad, and brother, used to haul grain down to mills in Ozark County. When I tell him which one's mine he says it had been the best to do business with. It ran quieter than the others and gave you a better quality flour.

`When daddy was hauling grist to your mill," the old man says, looking at me, "it was a custom-mill."

My chair squeaks as I scoot it closer to the table. "What's a custom-mill?"

"There ain't no more of them," he says. "Instead of payment, they took part of the grist."

I start to ask him what he meant by "grist." But I stop. I don't want him to get the idea my mileage on milling is low.

We agree it's sad, things changing in the Ozarks.

"Things ain't like they used to be," the old man says. "It's up to you young people," he's looking hard over his beer at Reed and me, "to reverse the trend."

"That's what I've been telling my kids," I say. I light a cigarette and lean back in my chair.

The old man says he was living on Social Security and running a few head of cows on some fescue south of town.

"That grass," I say, "has about taken the county."

"I appreciate the fact," the old man says, "that it'll grow in the winter."

"They do wonders today with genetic engineering on beneficial grasses."

He nods and lights another cigarette. His fingers have brown stains on them.

"You have to graze fescue hard," the old man says. I look over at the waitress, trying to get her attention. "Otherwise," he said, "you'll have to cut it with a chainsaw to keep it from taking the place."

"I bet that's right," I say. "Not as bad as Johnson Grass, though."

"Damn near." I notice he has a couple of pens and a tire gauge in a pocket of his overalls. Reed gets up and says he has to get back to his mill. I tell him to keep in touch. He nods and hits me on the shoulder.

I am sitting here patting Laddie and smoking a cigarette. I bought Shirley a new set of earrings, silver and glass, shaped like little chandeliers. I figure they'll make her feel better about moving out West. Naturally, I'll have to clear with her my taking the turbine with us.

I am working on that now, surveying my options. One idea is to buy her something to go with her earrings. Another is to ask her if she'd like to hang around until the Elvis-Look-Alike finishes his tour. Maybe get his autograph. I've heard there's a market for that.

 

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