The 160 acres of black dirt was near Stratford, Iowa. Corn and beans and cattle and chickens and a large garden made up my grandpa’s farm back in those days. I would wake before the sun and he would take me to the landing by the side door, where we dressed in coveralls and old coats and billed caps and dirty gloves and heavy rubber boots. Then across the road to the cattle barn. The old windmill creaked and groaned in the dark as my grandpa went to let the cattle out. And my job as a little boy? To break the ice in the water trough that had formed during the night as the windmill pumped the gurgling water.
He was small and grizzled and tough, my grandpa. And when I was older, he talked to me of the beauty of dark-haired, dark-eyed women. A song of joy, which I heard in my head against the creaking and moaning of the old mill as the wind slowly turned the blades high overhead. A cadence to set your life by.
It was like yesterday.
Today I bike along the cobbled streets near the North Sea in Holland, unhappy with the wind. It is a little strong. Okay, more than a little strong. This is not a gentle breeze pushing at your back with the smell of fresh-cut hay. Nope. I know this because my thousand-pound Dutch bike has the amazing ability to act as a wind sock by always pointing directly into a sturdy wind no matter which way I go or how calm the day. It is a scientific wonder that brings tears to my eyes.
No, I’m not happy with the North Sea wind. It sees way too much when it blows around with its inappropriate intimacies and unrelenting advances. And it’s fickle. One moment it’s bracing you up, the next moment it’s pushing you flat on your back. Yup, even on those days when it curls into your ear with a tickle, you know it will soon push you off balance with a whoosh.The North Sea wind is not your friend.
Okay, that might be a little harsh. There is another side, of course.
One-third of Holland’s land is taken from the sea. Yup, it used to be under water. Tulips now grow where the herring swam. Today, the wind blows over sand and black peat and the Red Light District rather than crashing waves and high surf. And why is that?
The picturesque windmill. A man-made device created to do the impossible — capture the wind and tame the water.
A little history. One of the first mills in Holland was in use around 1200 A.D., according to Windmills of Holland. Like most early mills, it was used to mill corn. But before long, the mills were used to drain the land, to move water from canal to canal, and, most importantly, to keep the sea over on its proper side of town.
“You have to be up there before the bad weather starts. Because if you’re up there when it is already happening, then you’re too late.”
Gently smiling. A husky laugh. Measuring eyes. Danielle Boer has worked at this active windmill and museum in Leiden — “Molen Museum De Valk” — for the past 24 years. She speaks three languages fluently, and understands three more. Today she speaks in English of the peril of bad weather hitting the windmill while the sails are out.
“It happened to me once that I was too late. The windmill starts to turn backwards. That isn’t good.”
When Boer speaks of going “up there before the bad weather starts,” she means UP THERE. Seven stages up. She climbs the many steep steps, then she goes out on a platform and grabs a gigantic pirate wheel to turn the sails, lock them down, and roll up the cloth.
“When I applied for the job, I had to climb into one of the wings to see if I was afraid of heights. And that’s what I did. And I’m not, no.”
I am, yes. But at the prodding of my sister-in-law, who’s also afraid of heights but braver than me, we went to investigate.
The stairs between stages are made for a Sherpa. Steep and narrow, a joke for my size 14 shoes. We climb past the ancient hoists, the main axle, the gigantic cogged wheels, the milling stones, the sacks of flour, the tools for repair. Up and up and up. At last we arrive at the platform. Stepping outside the mill, we can see over the city of Leiden. We smile with joy . . . until we both look down through the wide spaces between the floor planks. We can’t breathe. My sister-in-law kindly says, “Don’t look down.” Too late I’m afraid. We are at the highest point in any direction. This is not a comforting thought.
But then I look up at the gigantic framework for the sails. My goodness. The wings, the length of my body several times over, reach up into the sky. A raised arm into the heavens. Ready to take flight at the merest puff.
Those same wings capture the wind. Tie it down in their sails, carry it through the bearings and windshaft, past the brake wheel, down the main axle, to finally force the wind to turn the stone that grinds the meal, or cuts the wood, or makes the cloth, or lifts the very ocean off the land. Victory. The captured wind saves the day.
As I gaze into the sky, I feel something against my cheek. Whispering. Feathery light. A breezy reminder. The wind.
And I am soon lost in the cadence of the slowly turning creak and moan of an old Iowa windmill and my grandpa’s song of the beauty of dark-haired, dark-eyed women. It is a time long gone and a man long dead. But there it is, sneaking up out of the past. An Iowa reverie high in the Dutch air.
Okay, maybe the North Sea wind is your friend.
By the way, you might ask what my grandpa would think about these blond-haired, blue-eyed Dutch women?
Well, it was only years later, when he was 98 and both of us bachelors living together for a short time, that I discovered an important truth. According to my grandpa, all women, no matter the color of their hair or eyes, are dark-haired and dark-eyed. Obviously.
So, enough talk, now how do I get down from here?