In my memory it was late winter. But in my memory, in this part of North Dakota, it is always late winter. Bleak, wind blasted winter, where the icy wind tears at your cuffs like an ornery dog.
I was in the lignite fields of North Dakota working at the Leland Olds Station, just east of Stanton. We had a vendor there with us, who had invented an isokinetic sampling probe for drawing coal samples from the coal lines leading from the pulverizer to the burners. This was a bit of an experimental project for us, and our local guru from the Denver office, a white haired mid 30’s engineer named Scott, was running the show to try to figure out if it would be worth our while to sign up to buy and distribute this invention. My friend Kent and I were just along for the ride, as it was a slack time in the office and we figured we’d try to make ourselves useful in the field.
The vendor was from Germany, and had brought along his teenage son to help with the demonstration. A sure sign we were dealing with the classic nutty professor entrepreneur. Spend enough time in any engineering field and you will come across these guys. Usually they are brilliant scientists and engineers, who were born with a lack of common sense, and personal hygiene. Most eek out a living as consultants, and spend their down time working in their basements and garages, dreaming up new inventions.
The nearest hotel was over in Washburn, which we made the decision to stay at for only a few days. It was a clean enough place, but eating at the same diner every night, and drinking 3.2 Bud & Bud Light at the local on/off sale bar got old in a hurry. Our lunches were spent at the Golden Fleischkuechle in Stanton, which was an interesting little café on the main street. Interesting because the proprietors, and their teenage daughter, spoke German. A language that oddly enough still exists in small towns sprinkled around Missouri and North Dakota, so isolated from the outside world that their inhabitants have been able to maintain their immigrant traditions far longer than those that settled in more populous places.
The first week was entertaining enough. I had taken a liking to fleischkuechle, which is a sort of deep fried ground beef patty that traces its origins back to the Fatherland, and really, what is there not to like about that? But I think the enjoyment of life in Stanton and Washburn went out of us one evening when our German visitor screwed up his nose, held his glass of 3.2 beer at arms length and said accusingly “Zis iz beir????” There wasn’t much point in defending it, so I just sighed, shrugged my shoulders and said, “well, that’s what they’re calling it here”. Shortly thereafter, we decided the 2 hour drive from Bismarck wasn’t such a bad commute after all.
After the Nutty German Inventor had returned to the Fatherland, we relocated back down to Bismarck. I always wondered what the German thought flying into a town named after Bismarck. If he beamed with Teutonic pride, it sure didn’t show. Mostly he exuded incredulity, and disgust at his surroundings. Fair enough, North Dakota, like fleischkuechle, is a bit of an acquired taste. The wind out there on the prairie was evil. It cut against your skin like blades of grass. Try as they might to keep the dust down from the coal pile, in that cold dry season, it found it’s way into everything.
Each day when work ended, we’d pick up a six pack at the gas station in Washburn, for the drive down Hwy 83 to Bismarck. We decided that our time in Washburn had qualified us to live the high life at the Bismarck Radisson, right next to the convention center in downtown Bismarck. I think it cost us a princely $59 / night at the time, but they had Killian’s on top in the bar, and after a week of 3.2 Bud, that alone was worth the price of admission.
It was just three of us on the project, after that. Scott, my friend Kent, and I. We were spending days drawing samples from the coal pipes, chasing our tails trying to adjust the air flow, and balance the coal flow between the lines. It was maddening work, and being three overly intellectual types with too much time on our hands, we spent a great deal of our time in the car arguing about the philosophic and scientific merits of our efforts. I contended that the pulverized coal was a two phase, compressible flow, the little solid particles being carried within the air stream, and that any attempt to balance out the coal flow by adjusting the airflow was pointless.
Each pulverizer had four pipes leading out the top of it, running varying distances, and twisting turns, to the four corners of the furnace. The goal was to balance the flow of the coal so that we could control the fuel / air mixture at the burners, and better reduce the emissions of Nitrogen Oxide. Scott and Kent both argued that with enough science, it was possible, they only needed to fine tune the isokinetic probe to be able to accurately measure the coal flow within the pipes, then adjust accordingly. I argued that even if they could achieve that, the data would just be a snapshot in time, dependent on many variables beyond their control, each one of which would throw off the balance as soon as their backs were turned. Most days we were back in Bismarck long before the argument was finished.
We’d shower, scrub the coal dust from under our fingers, inside of our ears, and around the collar of our shirts, and then meet in the bar for a drink before dinner. After a beer or two we’d head out to the Ground Round, or some other chain restaurant for dinner. Scott would look at Kent and I, both in our early 20’s, and ask “Should we get a pitcher?”, and so the long beer soaked evenings would begin. For our part, we always said yes. We knew that Scott really wanted it, and who were we to deny him? This scene repeated itself for days, until one morning Scott met us in the lobby for the drive out to the plant and told us “Sorry guys, but I am just going to stay in tonight. I woke up this morning, fully clothed, sitting on the bed with my laptop open. I just can’t keep up with you young guys, so I’m going to stop trying.”
I don’t think I had ever been more relieved to not drink beer. Kent agreed, we both had been quietly amazed by Scott’s apparent drinking problem and we were wondering how much longer we could continue to keep up with him.
The job continued for a few more days before the phone rang, and my boss in Denver informed me he’d found me a paying gig out in Pennsylvania. So I packed up the Jeep, and started the drive back to the Twin Cities, across the long bumpy expanse of I94, to fly out to Scranton. Such is the life of the service engineer. You never know when the call will come, or where your next stop will be. Driving that interminable highway home, with the wind pushing me along, I wondered how much longer I could keep it up. I was into my 3rd year of this life, and had already worked in close to 40 states. Pennsylvania held some hope and promise of paying a visit to friends and family. But for the most part, I think I just looked forward to seeing the color green again. For years after that trip to Stanton, little flecks of coal dust would settle onto my dashboard whenever I turned the defroster on.