the cooling tower [jun5 21]


since i'm starting this out i'm thinking about my own beginning-- the memories that feel significant to who i am now.


in 8th grade our social studies class had an end of the year project where we all planned a city together with little groups of us acting as municipal departments. me and my friend Gina were the energy department, we decided the city would be powered by geothermal and wind power (our mayor javan founded the city on a volcano, we named it Flameburg).


as part of the project our teacher coordinated each group to visit our real life city's corresponding real life department and learn a bit about how they actually function and use that information when making decisions about Flameburg.


at the time the city's power company was undergoing a complete overhaul, they were installing rot saps along the river and dozens of new swifts off the coast. a yellow fissure accident at the reactor years prior had swayed our town to try to keep energy production as low tech-- and low stakes-- as possible.

for me and gina that meant that we didn't get a tour of the regular facilities that were all under construction, reorganizing their systems to manage the new power sources. instead, someone at the power company decided we should see the closed down reactor.


our TA chaperoned us to the site where we met with a guy from the energy company. when we got there the guy gave us each big white hard hats with the brim that went all the way around, "if it all starts coming down". he laughed and it made us laugh.

we walked up the short service trail through the fir trees that made a ring around the facility. i remember my ears started to hurt when we broke through the treeline at the edge of the huge lawn sloping up to the building. as we got closer i was all squinty and gina was too. the guy noticed and said that it was from the magnesium rods.


he explained that the old fissure chamber way below the surface was lined with an array of huge suspended magnesium rods running all the way up to the cooling tower. they flexed with the changing resonance caused by the fissure expanding and contracting, and directed the pulses and waves of energy upward and out of the chamber. he said that sometimes they still rang. he fished in his fanny pack and handed us gum as we went inside.


the facility was out of commission but all the lights were still on. the hallways were long and everything was pink and green tile. we stopped in different monitoring rooms with marks on the walls where screens and readouts used to be mounted. "i wish all the old equipment was still here for you guys to see" the guy explained "but all the screen burn had to be studied after what happened". our TA asked if they ever figured out what caused the fissure to yellow. "with what we know now we understand it could have been a lot of things. the tools we had at the time weren't so sophisticated that we really knew what we were touching when we had it open. all we know for sure is we hit something that made it way too hot and way too loud". we walked through more empty rooms.


our last stop on the tour was the cooling tower. it was separated from the main facility by another stretch of lawn. the gum in my mouth was hard and flavorless from an hour of chewing. as we approached the tower my ears had a hot fuzzy feeling on top of the dull and throbbing pain. we walked up to a big red door and the guy brought out a big red key. i don't remember what he said, all the sound was weird and muffled. he unlocked the door and we followed him inside.


a tower was above us and a pit was below us. we stood in twilight darkness on a steel catwalk mounted on the inside of the tower, lit by the disk of light from the tower's opening high above. it had to have been thirty meters across, an enormous concrete pipe driven into the earth leading downward into darkness.


on either side of the catwalk were the rods. they were huge like old fir trees. spaced at regular intervals all along the wall of the tower they descended deep into the dark below our feet. we stood between a pair of them and i felt waves of force through my ears and my chest. it was hard to breathe.


i turned to the rod on the right and stepped away from gina to the railing. i reached out and with my fingertips and i touched the rod. it was cold and it was vibrating, one voice in a petrified chorus humming endlessly in a dark and empty hall. i pulled my hand back and quickly turned to our guide. he smiled and gestured for us to go back outside.


we walked back down the lawn to the trees. "those things will probably never stop ringing completely" the guy said. Gina asked if they were going to tear it all down. the guy laughed and said "we still don't know if we can. there's a lot we don't know about what's going on down there. this place could be standing for a long time still". that place never left my mind.


i went to the reactor again when i was home for a summer during college. there was a concrete barricade at the entry to the service trail. i got out of my car and hopped over it. the trail was overgrown with ferns and ground vines, and it was a longer hike than i had remembered. it was dusk and the forest around me was losing its color in the fading light. my ears started to ache and i broke through the treeline.


up the sloping lawn the main facility sat dark and slumped. the few windows on its grey face were all broken and no light came from inside. i looked to the tower. the concrete was all streaked and stained, bruised grey flesh that could not heal. i walked toward it and the ache in my ears became a throb. i circled it and found the door, faded, its metal hinges frozen with rust. my ears felt warm and like they were stuffed with cotton and my chest was tightening and untightening with the deep pulses coming from behind the door.


i placed my hand on the door. it was cold and it was vibrating. it hummed in sympathy; the choir inside was still singing. i imagine if the tower stayed standing they would keep singing forever



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