Flash in the Pan
A Quarterly Posting at Tiny Lights
by Bruce Lucas
Reddy Kilowatt stood over the huge, coal-burning power plant smiling at me in red and white neon. His head was a giant light bulb; his body was red lightning bolts somehow tied together. Another lightning bolt flashed from his hand as he waved. This was 1960. Reddy was a beacon of power and progress. He forced you to look at him instead of the grimy complex of conveyor belts, steel beams, ductwork, pipes, and wires.
In the center of his labyrinth was a huge, windowless monolithic building. A single chimney rose hundreds of feet and pumped out a black, dusty effluence that smothered the surrounding landscape. A steady stream of coal cars perpetually maintained a mountain of fuel for the boilers. The Shenango River flowed behind the plant, carrying away excess heat.
If you stood near the main gate, you could hear the pulsating power flowing out to most of Western Pennsylvania. West Pittsburgh hovered nearby like an unprotected village near a castle; most of the men from there worked in the plant. Penn Power and Reddy Kilowatt owned it. Every day, I rode past in a school bus and wondered what secrets were hidden behind those bleak facades and barbed wired fences.
West Pittsburgh was another nineteenth century boomtown. The streets were laid out in a grid of blocks with curbs, sidewalks and fire hydrants. It was a planned community that never prospered and, eventually, uninhabited streets reverted back to dense woods. When I visited my friend, Lanny, we would explore the abandoned remains.
One day, we stumbled onto the banks of the Shenango, right below the plant. As we gazed in awe at the complex, two teenage boys in a wooden canoe appeared. "Want to go behind the plant?"
Penn Power had sealed off all access except for the river. After daring each other for a few seconds, we ended up in the center of the canoe moving upriver. We passed a jumble of concrete blocks. One boy commented, "That's part of the old Erie Canal locks."
They paddled past warning signs. We could see the huge cooling towers with water tumbling down the sides. The noise was deafening. The boy in front pointed toward a vortex. "That's where water gets sucked in. It gets real dangerous there." Then he pointed to a huge pipe where steaming water spewed out. "Put your hand in the water." It was hot to the touch. "We better go back. It's not good to stay long."
Water sloshed in the bottom of the canoe as it rocked in the turbulence. I remembered my mother's warnings: The river's dangerous. It's filthy and it has forty-foot holes. Stay away from it. But the current quickly took the boat back to where we started. We jumped out, thanked the boys, and hiked backed to Lanny's house in our soggy socks and sneakers. We ate PJ sandwiches in his kitchen and smiled at each other. With some help, we had penetrated Reddy's fortress and returned.
Bruce Lucas is plugging away on his novel and has a website:
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