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Open Bucket Laundromats & Towers

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David Monniaux, CC BY-SA 3.0 , via Wikimedia Commons
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Rope asked Habakuk to explain how he was able to show up in a white shirt, crisp, clean and ironed.

This is Mike Strong, in Hays, for HPPR. The book is “That Old Ace in the Hole” by Annie Proulx.

Years ago, working on the road, traveling, I used to look for laundromats anywhere near the motel our teams stayed in. Our motel rooms and our trucks were our offices, both in the field and in the rooms. Sometimes you would really look hard for a laundromat.

But in “Ace in the Hole” I’ve finally found a solution. A mere five decades or so late for me, though, in our story, the anecdote is set in the 1930s.

The Cutaway ranch needed a good windmill hand. Windmills always needed maintenance and windmills drove the pumps to bring up precious water for the cattle. But cowhands didn’t much care for windmill work.

Habakuk van Melkebeek, described as a crazy Dutchman, came to the Cutaway ranch looking for work. The Cutaway’s foreman, Hermann Slike, gives Melkebeek the job. Turns out that Habakuk van Melkebeek is “an inspired windmill man, brilliant.”

Well, Habakuk, does a full survey, written down, of all the needs of the 41 mills spread across 28 pastures. He can’t do all the work himself. He will need helpers. And that is where Ace, the Ace in the title, starts his working career on the ranch at about 15 or 16. Ace Crouch will be the windmill assistant.

So, our cowboy poet, named Rope Butt, is assigned to bring Ace over to Habakuk as a windmill assistant. Rope Butt and Ace find van Melkebeek, “attired as usual in clean striped overall and ironed white shirt … How he managed to iron his shirts out on the prairie no one could figure.”

“How the hell you keep so neat, Habakuk?” said Rope.

Habakuk answers, “Water. Always around water, so put soap and water in bucket, put dirty clothes in bucket, drive around, like a washing machine, get all clean. Easy. Dutch people like clean.”

If only I had known that soapy water in the bucket in the truck trick, years ago.

And he had a sadiron out there too. A memory there for me. My aunt Lil used sadirons on the farm before they put in electricity. A sadiron is an iron with a removable handle. Lil would have two or three on the wood stove, getting hot while she had the handle on another one to iron her clothes.

These kinds of anecdotes liven the pages of “That Old Ace in the Hole” not to mention the wonderful terms that seem just barely out of use. And they also speak both to Proulx’s inventiveness and her in-person research. Between laughs I constantly wondered how many of these stories she absorbed from local lore in the panhandle.

Along the way you learn tidbits about the mechanics of life in the panhandle. And, in this part of the book, mechanical considerations for windmills.

Habakuk’s tells Ace, “Mr. Rancher does not like a high tower – he is afraid he has to climb upon it. But the higher the better. Turbulence near the ground, breaks up the windmill. If a mill is near a building it got to be high.”

Reading that took me back to my Air Force days and a 1971 job in England where we were doing surveys for the best route and positioning of microwave towers around the UK, then routed to Ipswich on the channel, pointing across to Belgium. NATO HQ had been kicked out of France by de Gaulle and we were setting up new routes to get communications to the new HQ in Brussels.

Our team leader was a bit disgusted because the specs, plus or minus half a meter, were so much less than the accuracy we normally provided. Just the same, we had to find locations so that the bottom of the beam would be cut off by the tops of hills midway between.

Otherwise, because microwave beams spread out, the bottom half of the beam would bounce back from the ground to create slightly out of phase echoes, interfering with the direct line of sight beam. In other words, only the center of the beam was wanted at the receiver, discarding the spread.

So, when I see that kind of normally unknown detail in a story, I can believe the author has done her research.

This is Mike Strong, in Hays, for HPPR Radio Readers Book Club.

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Fall Read 2022: Rural Life Revisited 2022 Fall ReadHPPR Radio Readers Book Club
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