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Posts Tagged ‘Austin’

On top of the world

For a few short hours on the morning of March 19, I got to do my job 262 feet up in the air.

That was the high-point of the Austin-area wind turbine I climbed around 10 a.m., following two turbine technicians up into the sky as part of a unique jobs feature I am working on. (It’s right here.)

The climb was tiring, but fortunately the interior of the turbine was divided into platforms, allowing climbers to stop for a quick rest. For an experienced pro, the 80-meter climb takes about 10 minutes, but I went a little more leisurely, allowing tired muscles to regain strength before taking to the ladder again.

Me on wind tower

That's me, on top of the tower, 262-feet in the sky. Whoa.

However, I did reach the apex — a small, cone-tip compartment only accessible by climbing on the exterior of the turbine more than 200 feet in the air, than shimmying forward (in the picture above, it’s inside the hatch door you can see open directly behind me). Though always fastened down, that final stretch was harrowing, as chilling winds blew by at 20 mph and shook the entire structure.

Turbine technicians typically do maintenance work at various points along their climbs, but a large amount of the work is at the top, where a complex array of gears, breakers and pumps keep the large blades functional. A typical turbine check-up is a two-day job, and given the efficient design of the tower, this requires working in many tight, cramped positions.

Me, very safely attired, before the climb

Both guys I climbed with — 20-somethings Eric Andersen and Matt Penkava — said getting used to the height doesn’t happen overnight, but rather takes a few climbs. However, the seasoned pros said they now don’t really even think about the height and have no problem looking down while they climb.

“Yeah, you have a little bit of nerves the first time,” Penkava told me. “But it’s safe. That gives you a lot of peace of mind.”

More interesting tidbits:

  • Many of the platforms inside the tower are not bolted into the wall, but rather are secured by very strong magnets. Scary thought, I know.
  • Some towers, including the one I was in, have small but functional elevators that can take technicians up. However, some of the towers only have service lifts, which carry equipment but not people.
  • The company Matt and Eric work for has roughly 240 towers in southeastern Minnesota and across the border in Iowa.
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Friday night was crazy.

First, I got into a fight with my girlfriend, who was calling my brother a dead beat. He lives on the couch, but it’s just until he gets back on his feet. I tried to tell the stupid girl that, but she wouldn’t listen and called the cops.

Later, I was at a party and the cops got called again. Turns out a buddy of mine was wanted on a warrant, so they came in and booked him. We tried to stop the cops, and I ended up getting cuffed. Pigs…

After that, I was driving and me and Mike got pulled over. We weren’t even going that fast, but the cop got all serious. Then I guess he saw the bag of weed on the dash. I was arrested outside of the vehicle, and Mike tried to toss the rest of the drugs and his gun out the window. Too bad the cop saw it on the side of the road.

When that was all done, class was over.

New officer Ross Johnson, left, deals with Sgt. Jeff McCormack, who is acting as a suspect here. I took this with my BlackBerry, which was knocked out of my hand. Guess you can't interfere at a crime scene.


All that mayhem was part of new-officer training for Ross Johnson, who is the newest member of the Austin Police Department. Ross was sworn in two weeks ago, and Friday marked the end of his two-week “in-house” training. Starting Wednesday, he’ll shadow a fellow officer on the streets. He’ll do that for about three months before going solo.

Beyond the live-action scenarios (which involved me as well as a few other veteran officers), Ross trained with a virtual-scenario program that threw a number of different perps at him on the screen. The coolest thing about that was the interactivity — Ross could “shoot” if necessary, as well as use a flashlight, which “lit up” parts of the dark screen at “night.”

In charge of the training was Lt. Rene Phan, who said he looks for officers to treat the situations as realistically as possible.

I fought with officer Johnson before my last arrest. Yeah, he roughed me up a bit and cuffed me. Awesome.


Phan emphasized officer safety throughout the night, but also went over things like arrest tactics and the proper (and legal) times to enter a home.

After the last big arrest of the night (I tried pulling a gun on officer Johnson while in my car, then wrestled with him when he got out the cuffs), Phan said his student was making a lot of progress.

“I think he’s doing really well,” the lieutenant said. “We accomplished a lot.”

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To finish that headline, let me just say citizens and reporters alike would be abuzz. I’m referring to the fact that the city’s police chief and fire chief both retired in the last two months — both amid internal investigations that have raised serious questions regarding the departments.

Let me repeat: the city of Austin, Minn., is without a full-time police or fire chief at the moment, and each department has somewhat of a black eye, at least from the public’s perspective.

Imagine Tim Dolan announcing tomorrow he plans to quit, with rumors circulating about an alleged sex scandal (a pure hypothetical on my part). Then, a week later, Alex Jackson says he’s gone because of a fight with another firefighter (again, hypothetical). What would Minnepolitans be saying?

And all of this is happening in Austin on top of a police captain being ousted on a drug conviction, ongoing tension between some citizens and Hormel for a questionable hiring process (see: undocumented workers) and the threat of huge state cuts via another unallotment.

But Austin isn’t Minneapolis, so these concerns will never make the same kind of headlines as they would in the big city. However, just ask yourself how the story would play in the metro.

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