Back in the late eighties, in a state far north of here, there resided in the small town I lived in, a retired engineer, with his wife. It had been their dream to move to that state upon retirement, spending the rest of their days enjoying four seasons, along with all the sports they loved in each of those seasons. They bought a piece of property directly across the road from my mother-in-law's house and country store.
They were an extremely active couple, always staying busy when not enjoying the great outdoors. While she was catching up on all the needlework and reading she had never had time for while managing her career, he built a large out building, next to the small house they had built, for his indoor projects.
At first he set about building the wood-working shop he had always dreamed of, then let everyone in town know that if they needed a particular piece of furniture, he could build it for them. I had him build a bureau with a hutch top for me. He carved a heart in the top trim, it was adorable, but he never graduated to the antique replicas he had always imagined himself making.
Gradually his wood-working tools began to be replaced by engineering tools, the tools of his career. My kids and I would go visit, and he always had several interesting projects going on at once. Definitely Type-A.
But to their dismay, the couple were getting older. Despite their chronic sports activities, and an entirely healthy eating regime in attempts to stave off the inevitable, they both developed a variety of aged-related illnesses that kept them indoors more and more. This began to enable the cold of the brutal winters to start sinking into their bones. And they were uncomfortable in their dream home. They began to think Snow Birds were not quite so wimpy after all.
One gorgeous summer day, when the sun beat down so heavily the furthest thing from any one's mind was the damp, bone-chilling freeze of winter, I took my kids for a visit to the engineer's shop to see what he was up to. That was the fun of it. You just never knew.
What he showed us was THE SECRET. Only it wasn't really a SECRET then. It was just that no one cared enough to go see what he was doing except the insanely curious. That was basically my kids and me. And a few of the couple's closest friends who would visit from New York City and Dallas.
We walked into his work building that day, after not having been there for a few months, and were surprised to see a shiny steel cylinder sitting in the middle of the cement floor. Along side it was some sort of electrical stuff that appeared to be attached. His eyes lit up when he saw the three of us.
"It's taken me years to design this, a month to put the parts I ordered together, I have finally figured out a way to stay in this state, without having our joints screaming at us during the winters." Yes, you could say he was nearly feverish in his excitement.
He went on to try to explain to us plebes, that the large steel cylinder, about the size of a Volkswagen, had inside it, a just as perfectly round, ever so slightly smaller cylinder with a ridiculously teeny clearance between the two. They were moored in the center by an axle of sorts, attached to the cylinders at the bottom by weighted spokes. The whole, shiny contraption took up no more space than a normal size boiler in a house. I know this because we all had boilers in the basement back them. It was the only way to keep the cruel winter out of large New England farmhouses.
Continuing, in words I wish I had transcribed, he described how the clearance was so fine between the inner and outer cylinders, a minimal amount of electricity was needed for force to start the inner cylinder spinning,
and about a half a cup of lubricant in between to keep them spinning to produce heat once he had turned the whole contraption on. He lost me on the centrifugal force thing, and how it was actually circulating heat. I can't for the life of me recall, but he said he was ready to test the thing during the up-coming winter. We said we couldn't wait to see if it worked, as the materials had only cost him something short of nine hundred dollars back then.
Needless to say, the next winter, while driving past his work building I noticed the, usually ice-covered, windows were fogged with moisture. I also noticed the foot of snow that, by now, the rest of us had on our roofs was conspicuously missing.
I took the kids down to visit when they arrived home from school. On snowshoes. He came to the door, ushered us all in, said, "Leave your coats to dry, won't take them a moment." Had to be ninety degrees in there, compared to twenty below with the windchill we had just escaped from outside.
"It WORKS!" he beamed, as he pointed to the contraption we had seen the previous summer. One could hardly tell it was in operation. A slight hum was all one heard. "Gosh, are ya gonna sell these, cause I sure want one," I said. He was beside himself and said of course, as soon as his patent application was approved.
The following summer I stopped in to see him again. The conversation we had was not one I expected. He seemed sort of sad when he told me that some of his friends from New York City had spoken to others in the 'energy field' who of course had been extremely interested in his invention. One thing led to another, and he was offered a enormous pile of money by a huge oil concern to sell the patent rights, or whatever they do in such cases. The sum of money had been so phenomenal he and his wife could not say no.
Toward the end of the summer, while eating breakfast in my mother-in-law's store, I saw an unmarked tractor-trailer across the street at the man's work building. A man operating a small fork-lift was loading the contraption (like, ah, hide the evidence, and give no one a clue who has the perfect heating machine) into the truck. It didn't take long, and before I knew it the man was shaking hands with the truck driver, and it was over.
After finishing my breakfast, I walked across the road. "Well,' I said, at least tell me how much it cost you to heat the building last winter." He smiled. It had been an unusually cruel winter. "Under thirty dollars for the lubricating oil, less than ten dollars for electricity." "What are ya gonna do now?" I asked.
"Go to Florida. Can't even use the prototype. It's in the agreement, they won't let me. Couldn't say no to the money, and what I thought would be fame. Yah know, the hero who created an invention to keep everyone warm in the winter, no matter how little money they had. I sold out to the almighty dollar, and I have a funny feeling they will bury it and never use it. Too much money in oil."
He was right. To this day, when hard frost predictions are broadcast, I remember that machine, what I saw it do, and the fact that not one has ever been made by whomever purchased the rights. And I marvel at how secret it was kept for so long. More secret than government secrets, or FBI files even.
And sooooo, as I sit here turning into a human cold pack, having to wait until Monday for the furnace man to clean the clogged jets on the furnace, while the temperature outside continues to drop, the temperature inside dropping as well, I seem to recall...
No one ever told me I had to keep the contraption I saw a secret.
So now, as I pray to the fairy God-Mother of Old People...
I have to wonder if I would have allowed greed to overpower a moral responsibility. As the temperature continues to drop and I yearn for Bonaire, it still seems like a pretty hard decision.