Turbine Cowboy

An ice storm bowled through the Permian Basin earlier this month downing telephone lines in nearby Midland, stranding motorists along I-20, and temporarily disabling the perimeter motion sensors here at the prison. We spent the better part of three days shuttered in our dorms sleeping, shooting spades, speculating on the weather, placing desperate phone calls to the outside world we couldn’t afford (our own lines held firm). Not that we had anything to talk about, not to our families, certainly not to each other. After the Mexicans had exhausted all politics and gossip, they took to wrestling beneath my bunk. Their limbs struck the underside of my bed, jouncing my biography of John Adams. One man successfully connected his groin with another man’s face and asked him, tauntingly, what it smelled like.

On the second evening of the lockdown, Willy pulled out his photo album. It was not a typical photo album. Its pages were filled not with pictures of children, friends, or family but of stuff—Escalades, fur coats, jewelry, women. It looked like a Robb Report. Curiously, the environs didn’t match the glamour of the subject matter. The luxury cars were parked in front of a dilapidated house, the fur coats were draped over an outmoded floral-print sofa, the women, drawn and glassy-eyed, were draped over a sagging bed. I recalled Willy explaining once the need to keep two houses in his line of work, one on the good side of town in which to live and another on the bad side, near his customers, from which to conduct business.

The Mexicans, tired from wrestling, settled around Willy’s bunk. They pointed at the album, reminisced. “I had me some Vogues like that, too. Gold. Twelve spokes.”

By the third afternoon the weather had cleared and the compound was reopened. Outside on the rec yard the sleet was just beginning to thaw. The concertina wire dripped and shimmered. At the top of the hill, near the gym, I watched a man share his bag of vanilla wafers with the pigeons. Beside the chapel I collected ice shards like matchsticks from the chain link fence and rolled them around in the palm of my glove.

I’d forgotten how gloves have the niggling effect of blunting out the world, making one feel like an insect without his antennae. The last time I wore gloves was when I was a young boy living in the panhandle, bundled in a blue oversized Dallas Cowboys jacket, moling through the snowdrifts that accumulated between our house and the neighbor’s. The coat was a Christmas gift from my grandmother in New York who believed, not incorrectly, that all Texans adored football, the Cowboys especially. For years that coat unwillingly marked me a fan of a sport I happened to loath. Classmates, adults, strangers would single me out for my take on how the season was progressing: Would Troy Aikman recover from that nasty knee injury? Would the Cowboys make it to this year’s Super Bowl? The worst was when some obnoxious child tried to berate my team. “The Cowboys suck!” he might say, to which I, swathed in blue and silver, would shrug unperturbed.

My gloves, these I have now, are actually linemen’s gloves. Mr. Jones gave each of his wind farming students a pair for Christmas, along with foam ear plugs. The prison demands that every inmate either take on a job or enroll in a vocation. Wind farming was not my first choice. Neither the library nor the chapel were hiring, so I signed up for computer aided drafting. That class, however, was repealed over concerns that we might use our newly acquired skills to design and fabricate a device to assist us in escaping. Before I could choose an alternative, the staff assigned me to the first available job opening—general maintenance.

“But I’ve never maintained anything in my life,” I told the foreman.

“Have you ever seen a paint brush?”

I nodded, and thus he placed one in my hand.

My first project (and last, incidentally) was painting the maintenance shop. Helping me in this endeavor was an afflicted man named Gary, from Tucson, who apologized beforehand that he’d likely forget my name. “My short-term memory has been fucked up,” he said, “ever since I got shot in the face with a .38.” Indeed, his face was terribly skewed. One eye was gone completely.

For reasons I wasn’t told, one of the shop’s walls was to be painted in a checkerboard, brown on white. To avoid getting in each other’s way we decided to start at opposite ends of the wall and meet in the middle. Despite my reluctance, the work was deeply absorbing and scratched a creative itch that had long laid dormant since my days as a web designer. It also resurfaced fond memories of my first apartment in the city, the rooms of which I’d painted in various shades of blue—”Oxbow” in the bathroom, “China Tureen” in the kitchen. For the bedroom I chose a dark slate with a green shift called “Beguile.” My neighbor, who I was dating at the time, remarked it was an apt choice, particularly for a bedroom.

It was in this romantic vein, lost amid alternating brown and white patches (and possibly affected by paint fumes), that I began to mine a fantasy of a future in acrylics. I would impress the foreman with my masterfully concealed brushstrokes, my careful cutting in, my keen awareness of light and value. He’d entrust me with more significant projects—refreshing the chow hall’s sallow walls, re-stenciling the red OUT OF BOUNDS warnings on the perimeter sidewalks. Eventually he’d ask me to contribute an original art piece, a sports-themed mural to go alongside the cigar-chomping pool shark painted above the rec center’s fireplace.

But then the efforts of our individual labors converged in the middle of the wall and it became clear that neither of us held any future in painting. Gary was the first to notice it. He sat his brush down and stood back to take in the full effect of our mistake with his one good eye. Our checkerboards didn’t match up. Our brown and white squares, had we finished, would have met as rectangles.

Fortunately Joe informed me of an opening in his wind farming class. I immediately enrolled. The three-month course, contracted through a local community college, teaches inmates the basic principles of wind technology, a fast-growing industry, especially here in West Texas.

Doubts about my suitability for wind farming began to creep in during the first week of class when Mr. Jones, a bearded man with Popeye arms and meaty hands weathered from decades of climbing wind turbines, demonstrated how to properly wear a safety harness. It looked like a dream catcher with buckles, something I’d surely get tangled in. “You want to make sure all these straps are tight, these here especially,” Jones said pointing to the nylon loops that secured his buttocks and ample crotch. “You don’t want to take a fall with these hanging loose. You’ll tear your shit clean off.”

Mr. Jones had requested a ladder for the classroom, so we could get a feel for climbing in full gear, but the prison, for obvious reasons, was unwilling to give inmates a ladder.

Once we had familiarized ourselves with harnesses and trauma suspension straps (a cord that allows you to stand in midair after a fall to relieve circulation in the legs so you don’t pass out), we advanced to OSHA training, a three-day marathon of safety videos designed to inform as much as scare the shit out of us. The videos warned of every peril from compressed gas to improperly stored chemicals to the dangers of failing to wear appropriate personal protection equipment. As a web designer the only thing I had feared was carpal tunnel. In one gruesome reenactment, a woman gets her engagement ring caught on a moving assembly line, tears her finger clean off, just what Mr. Jones said would happen to our franks and beans if our harnesses weren’t sufficiently tightened. Nursing her still-bloodied stump, the woman laments that if she’d only complied with her company’s safety policy prohibiting jewelry she’d still be wearing her engagement ring on her left hand instead of on her right.

I finally conceded to any future in wind farming after watching Turbine Cowboys, a reality television show produced by the Weather Channel that follows the high-drama, high-stakes world of turbine repair, which the narrator never failed to remind us is one of the most dangerous jobs in the world. In one episode a man repels over a nacelle to patch a cracked turbine blade at 400 feet in the air. In another segment a turbine goes AWOL when its braking mechanism malfunctions amid fierce winds. The blades rev so fast that for a moment they appear to be moving backwards before centrifugal force rips them from the hub and catapults them into the next county. All that’s left is the tower looking like a trampled dandelion stalk. I turned to give Joe a look but he was asleep in his seat.

At least we got a pair of gloves out of it.

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