Friday, March 25, 2016

Resting On Her Laurels (Carrot Ranch Flash Fiction Challenge)

DC-Powered Mine Locomotive (Photo courtesy Ken C.)
British mountaineer George Mallory, who famously said the reason for anyone to want to climb Mount Everest was "Because it's there," was once cornered by a gushing fan, who asked him how he came to have so many adventures. 

"I do not have adventures," was his icy reply. "I plan too well."

Mallory may have planned well, but his third and final attempt on Everest ended in misadventure. He and his partner Andrew Irvine were last seen in 1924 while they were still on their way to the summit. 

Mallory's remains were finally discovered in 1999, after multiple expeditions who climbed Everest to search for his body, "because it's there."

Certainly the most exciting things that have happened in my life came from a deep well of ignorance and a failure to plan ahead. Often the excitement was in retrospect, as we realized what might have happened, had we been just a tiny bit less lucky. Yet in talking about our experiences, it is the white-knuckle stuff that captures the audience's imagination.

I'm not alone, as many of the stories from Ken Cummings' memoir, Meant To Be Here, attest. Here is one from time he spent as a student working in a CONSOL coal mine in the thick "Pennsylvania" coal seam under West Virginia:

The locomotives in the 
Blacksville #1 mine were electric-powered, from a DC circuit of 600 volts and several hundred amps. The positive line was a thumb-thickness copper bar fastened to the roof four to five feet overhead. Return current moved through the steel tracks under the locomotive. The locomotive's pick-up, a spring-loaded arm,  touched the copper bar to complete the electrical connection. Its springs pressed it against the exposed copper powerline overhead, letting it slide along the contact surface as we moved. 

Unfortunately, whenever there was a joint or bump in the copper bar, the pickup mechanism would bounce away from it, and break contact with the copper. The pickup was still close enough to the powerline for the high-amp current to jump the resulting gap. The arc of DC electricity vaporized some of the copper with a vivid green flash whenever it occurred, and it happened frequently enough to make me very nervous. 

I was lucky, though; the sparks never caused a fire while I was there.

Back at school in the year after I was at the mine, I needed to contact CONSOL for some reason. They were very slow responding, and at last I learned the reason for the delay. The east end of the Blacksville #1 mine had exploded and burned, killing a work crew I'd spent a few days with while I worked there. The day of the explosion, the crew had been trying to get a continuous miner onto a sled to be dragged elsewhere by the attached locomotive, when there had been a ground fault from the power supply to the rails. BLAM!

When the recovery crews finally reached the site of the explosion, many weeks later, all they found was a high-alloy belt buckle that had been worn by one of the men. The rest was ash.

To this day, what makes my skin crawl is the memory of the time I had worked with this now-deceased crew, when they were trying to move the 
continuous miner in the same way—unsuccessfully because the power kept tripping out. 

I was at the rear of the continuous miner as they tried to shift the massive machine one last time before they gave up. I saw a fat arc jump between the machine and a rail, tripping the circuit. I was witnessing the exact same thing that would kill nine men a year later. 

The only difference was, the day I was there, there wasn’t enough coal dust in the mine to make the BLAM happen.

This week's prompt for the Carrot Ranch Flash Fiction Challenge reminded me of the trade-off between excitement and danger, between the chance of having a great story to tell afterward, and having no afterward in which to tell it:

March 23, 2016 prompt: In 99 words (no more, no less) write an adventure, experienced or witnessed. Explore your own ideas about what makes an adventurous spirit. Is it in the doing? Does standing witness count, and if so, how? Be adventurous!

The Chinese made it a curse: May you live in interesting times. Me, I'll settle for a little less adrenaline in my current life. It can stay in the anecdotes. It seems Granny Marta agrees.


Resting On Her Laurels

"Tell us about flying the plane, Granny!" Marta sighed, gathered the youngest into her lap.

She began, "I was a passenger on a little airplane, nineteen, flying off to college. I thought that was the real adventure, you know..., Anyway, something happened to the pilot. They called from the cockpit, can anyone fly a plane? I had flown Pa's crop-duster. No one else volunteered, so I did."

"Were you scared, Granny?"

Almost to death, she thought. "A little," she admitted, "I just did whatever they said."

The memory still made her queasy. Any crash would have been my fault.