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Aunt Tess and the solar revolution: Joe Wilkins

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Joe Wilkins

“Look! There’s another one,” Aunt Tess’s buddy Becky Gottlieb pointed to rooftop solar panels soaking up the sunlight. I had picked up the two old dears to take them to lunch and they both had remarked on the proliferation of panels along the way.

Aunt Tess’s favorite lunchtime restaurant, The Tuckahoe Inn, overlooks the Great Egg Harbor Inlet where the powerful ocean tide rushes in and out under the Garden State Parkway Bridge. My son Tim, who knows more about alternative energy than anybody else I know, had long since explained to me the immense and eternal power of those tidal forces, and how best to harness and convert them into electricity. He has studied the efficacy of solar panels in great detail, inspected wind and solar installations from Scotland’s North Sea to Germany’s Heligoland Bight, and given talks to gatherings of industrial experts on the subject. Now he is engaged in advising large-scale resorts on converting from fossil fuels to solar power.

“Yeah,” I answered. “They’re sprouting like mushrooms after a spring rain.”

“Everybody’s into solar power these days,” Aunt Tess said with a touch of family pride. It was true. “Your Tim has been fascinated with renewable energy as long as I can remember. If Tim had his way,” Tess went on, “Underwater turbines would be spinning under every bridge in the country.”

For those of my readers who have not been properly introduced to her, Aunt Tess is the younger sister of my late mother and the nine brothers who came along between her and Tess. All nine brothers saw combat in WWII. Even Tess lied about her age to get into the WACs before the war ended. After that she went on to become the first woman officer of her Teamster’s local, then cash manager for Philadelphia’s largest supermarket chain, Her life had made her equally effective wether at teas with the ladies or verbal donnybrooks in barrooms with disgruntled Teamsters. The was proud of all her nephews and nieces, but had a soft spot for Tim, partly, I suspect, because that was her father’s name.

Tough-minded and free-spoken, Tess was right, as usual: Everybody’s into solar power these days. One of my granddaughters just started a new job keeping track of the installers for a local solar panel installation company. Another granddaughter is the significant other to one of those installers. Last week, with our bathroom under remodeling and the plumbing unusable we accepted an invitation to move in temporarily with my Brigantine brother-in-law and his wife, only to learn they are having solar panels installed on their roof. They expect that will cause a drop in their electric bill of about 30% and keep it low for years to come. A hard-working couple pretending they are retired even as they jump into a new business, they are the type who study the details of solar energy with vigor. Both are eager to do what they can to help the environment.

“All this solar stuff going on reminds me of your Uncle Bud,” Aunt Tess said as settled at the table and studied our menus. Bud Walsh was my favorite Uncle, a tough Irishman with broad shoulders and steel-gray hair. He earned his sergeant’s stripes slogging up the boot of Italy.

When the War ended Uncle Bud took to selling and installing the new home improvement products much desired among the returned vets, including aluminum storm doors and windows, then false stone on the fronts of row houses, then fiberglass awnings over their front porches. A good-looking man with a strong resemblance to movie-star Stewart Granger, the housewives couldn’t resist buying from Uncle Bud. You could tell the streets he had worked by counting the row-houses that had aluminum storm doors, false stone fronts, and yellow and green fiberglass awnings.

As Aunt Tess said, the sudden splurge of solar panel installations was reminiscent of the days when Uncle Bud was hanging those storm doors and awnings. It seemed like every installation led to two or three more until you couldn’t drive through a Philadelphia neighborhood without seeing his work everywhere. That’s what’s happening with solar panels today. Go to the store today and count the solar panels you see on your way. Come back next week and you’ll see more. Uncle Bud would have been in his glory were he still with us.

Joe Wilkins, N.J. Press Association award-winning columnist, is a semi-retired lawyer and former municipal judge who lives in Smithville. His most recent book is 'Kennedy’s Recruit.' He is also author of 'The Speaker Who Locked up the House,' a historical novel about Congress set in the Washington of 1890, and 'The Skin Game,' a comic account of the stick-up of an illegal card game as Atlantic City’s casino era began. They are available on Amazon’s Kindle or in print at Politics and Prose in Washington, D.C. (202-349-1182). Follow him on Twitter @jtwilkins001. Send Joe your comments at See

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