It took an entire day to get everything worked out and procedures written up. I could write a long detail list of all the problems encountered but that would probably send poor Greg into hysterics.
In any case, ntfs-3g wanted a kernel 2.6.20 or later and Debian Etch comes with 2.6.18. I found references for later kernels on a Debian backport server but that server was apparently off-line. I downloaded from www.kernel.org.
It would have prevented hundreds of man-hours of frustration and heavy Internet traffic had the kernel guys taken care of just a few little details. At 2.6.20 they moved the SATA/PATA stuff to a new location while leaving the old stuff in place in the .config, and with inadequate notes.
Now that wouldn't have caused so much trouble, except they left SATA/PATA disabled and all drivers disabled!
Many guys couldn't reboot their systems at all and they were not getting good answers in the discussion groups either. I always keep the original 2.6.18 "kitchen sink" kernel for emergencies so I was in a much better position.
I also noted the .config that comes with each version and subversion I tried is radically different, apparently just whatever a developer happened to have on his system at the time. That's kinda sloppy.
I first tried the "latest stable" kernel, 126.96.36.199 but it didn't make an installable .deb file for some reason. I succeeded with 188.8.131.52 (compiled with --initrd - the old method making the initrd separately didn't seem to work any more).
That would have been sufficient to the task but I tried again with 184.108.40.206 which worked fine too (once I fixed up the .config).
All better now, external USB drive mounts, reads, writes, and umounts without problems or complaints - however this job is now in no way profitable.