Wednesday, May 14, 2008

One dam, one day

The Swan Falls Dam complex sits at the bottom of a rocky basalt canyon that zig-zags through the desert south of Kuna.
Oh, and Kuna, for those of you who do not know Idaho, sits in the desert south of Boise.
This should tell you a lot about the geography in our part of the world.
After the attacks on 9-11, federal officials decided Swan Falls Dam — the first hydroelectric dam on the Snake River, built at the turn of the last century — was vulnerable as a terrorism target. So, while the modern part of the complex is still churning out power, officials closed the dam's hundred-year-old powerhouse and, most unfortunately, the small hydroelectric museum inside.
At least they open the museum one day a year and let the public in. Saturday is that day. I wrote a story for The Statesman about it, and spent the morning touring the site with the Idaho Power spokesman.

Here are some reasons why I think it's worthwhile to go to Swan Falls:

1. The approach to the edge of the canyon, and the first look down at the dam straddling the brown river below is worth the drive all by itself. The Idaho Power guy told me a man tried to commit suicide by driving over the edge. He didn't know a ledge below would stop his fall, and strand him. Dam workers heard the guy howling to be rescued. 
2. The Trade Dollar Mining and Milling Company built the dam in 1901 to supply power for the mines the company built in nearby Silver City. Horses and oxen hauled all the building material for the dam from the railroad line in Kuna, to the bottom of the canyon. The canyon walls are so steep, this seems impossible, but it actually happened.
3. The landscape of dark basalt cliffs, giant boulders and rocky spires on the far edge of the canyon are remarkable against a daytime sky. This morning the sky was grey-blue. The sun was out with a bit of a warm wind coming up off the water. 

4. The dam and its reservoir lie within the Snake River Birds of Prey National Conservation Area. You might see falcons, hawks, owls. You will definitely see swallows. These are among my favorite birds. They’re small. They dart. Their body is a sleek, shiny indigo with a rust-colored belly. I can't see them without thinking of Persian carpets.  

5. Inside the powerhouse, a bright, quiet, industrial space, you can look out casement windows and see up-river and down-river at the same time.  

6. The powerhouse is made of molded concrete, like parts of the Idaho State Capitol in Boise. In both places, you can still see the marks of the wood plank molds.

7. You will never again see so many amusing vintage ads for electric power in one place. An especially notable ad pictures a farmer and a farmwife, “Handy Andy” and “Handy Annie.” Each is drawn having more arms than Shiva. The arms represent the ways electricity can help a person by lightening their load — from curling hair, to grinding meat, to massaging scalps to cooking waffles and grooming animals.
Another ad urges one to “Be a shadow-chaser” by stocking up on light bulbs.
The most adorable ad may be one featuring the "Electrikats," a family of black cats who wear human clothing and appear to have electrified tails. In the ad, a human couple is struggling to cook food on their wood stove. Mrs. Electrikat, who has used an electric stove instead, is already serving dinner to her waiting, forks in hand, family.
8. The old equipment inside the powerhouse, from the steel cranes and giant hooks overhead that moved heavy equipment around the plant, to the turbine shaft that resembles a giant egg-beater, to the “wicket” gates that controlled the amount of water coming into the turbines, is all 100 years old. But it is so solid and so obviously well made, it looks like you could switch it all back on right this minute and power a city. And then, for fun, bring a Frankenstein monster to life.

9. Unfortunately, they wouldn't let me inside the powerhouse’s control room, or "nerve center," as I like to say. But imagine this. The control panel inside is made of solid granite. The end result may be elegance. But the reason was safety. Granite wouldn’t conduct an electric charge that might have shocked the controller.

10. The modern part of the dam, which actually won't be open for touring, is the manliest place I've been for a long time, maybe ever. Hard hats and blue denim work coveralls hang on hooks on the wall. The sole bathroom has a urinal and a big pile of magazines. They aren't girlie magazines like I was expecting, but Mopar, Muscle Car, magazines instead. A couple bars of Lava Soap rested on the counter. 
The place broke with manliness in one way. The dam gets turbines from Austria. The Austrians like to name the turbines after sexy women from a certain pin-up calendar. The Swan Falls men put the kibosh on Ursula and Liesel and renamed the turbines after little girls who have gone missing from small Idaho towns and met a bad end. 

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Trees, suffering and enemies

I used to believe that the world was a balanced and just place. That if I were pained about something, but did my time and paid the pain tab, then something good would happen to me in the same measure to balance out the bad thing. I believed I would get a consolation prize that was just as good as whatever I had lost. My belief that the world worked like that probably came from the transformation stories that were everywhere when I was a kid: the awkward girls who turned into heart-throbs; the underdog wearers of ratty gym clothes who became tennis champions.
My personality and body — melancholy optimism edged with Pollyanna in an unusually tall girl — made me vulnerable to these stories and I believed them. Or, I did, until one of my friends, a poet well read in a dangerous way, shared this line with me from Dostoevsky.
"There is only one thing that I dread," the Russian said, "not to be worthy of my sufferings."
Somehow, until that moment, I had managed to ignore the possibility that I could have a dark time and it would never swing over into light, that I could have trouble or disappointment that would never pay off in a tennis trophy or an engagement ring or some equivalent prize.
Having this realization might sound like the normal learning curve one takes into adulthood, had it not happened this year, when I am 43. Maybe I was lucky to be able to suspend the truth about the world's lack of balance for as long as I did, but the landing into reality felt like a hard one when it finally happened.
Fortunately, a piece of literature from a very different time reminded me of another way to look at pain and pain's pay-offs — the novel "A Tree Grows in Brooklyn," a staple on fifth-grade reading lists everywhere.
I had wanted to re-read this book, because even though a lot of time had passed since I read it when I was a fifth-grader myself, an image from the book had always stayed with me. It was blood, coughed up onto a down pillow by a young man dying of consumption. The family in the story was poor so they didn't throw the bloody pillow in the garbage after the man died. They covered it with new cloth and gave it away as a present. The recipient of the gift never knew about the blood, dried and secret under the soft, white cotton.
I wanted to know if that image were actually as unsettling as I remembered it. Because some images, capable of making you feel as though your gut is tickling up into your lungs the first time you encounter them, have no staying power. I speak, for example, of James Cagney's trussed-up dead body, delivered to his mother's apartment in the 1931 film "The Public Enemy." He tumbles, eyes wide-open, towards the camera and it's horrifying. But the second time you see the movie, dead Jimmy's tumble is a little less shocking. By the third time it's just Hollywood corny.
The consumption pillow, for what it's worth, has staying power. The image is every bit as gruesome as I remembered it.
But what resonated with me as much in my re-read of the book, were passages about Brooklyn kids with head lice.
The children without lice would taunt the children with lice. When the children with lice got kerosened free of the pests, those very children would join the group of lice-free taunters. Their experience, wrote author Betty Smith, humiliating as it was, taught them no empathy.
It's different now, in this relatively easy world that's not so hard-scrabble as turn-of-the-century New York, with all its vermin and coughed-up lung blood, Triangle Shirtwaist fires and airless tenements. "Sufferings" do teach empathy. Maybe Dostoevsky would have considered the acquisition of a sympathetic heart an adequate pay off.