Times Without Power
By Jeff Salter
Though some of us are remarkably resourceful, most of us Americans have become so dependent upon power – particularly electricity – that we hardly know what to do when it goes out for any length of time. But it wasn’t always that way.
When I was growing up in the 1950s and early 1960s, our lives didn’t revolve around electricity nearly as much as it does now. Except for our television and my mom’s radio, nothing else in our house used electricity except the ceiling lights. So, if it was fair weather and daytime, we were probably playing outside anyhow. And during the day while indoors – unless there was a dark storm – we probably didn’t even have the room lights on. All this is to say, if the power had gone out on our block during daylight hours, we might not have even noticed! Fact is, I don’t remember our house ever losing power when I was a kid.
Stuck in Death Valley Desert
In about 1963, on a trip out west, our VW bus died as we drove through an intense sandstorm in the Greater Mojave Desert, southwest of Death Valley. We finally flagged down a trucker, who had room for my mom, little sister, and cousin Deana — and drove them into the next little town of Trona CA so my mom could call AAA. But Dad and I stayed with our vehicle. Needless to say, there was no power in the middle of Death Valley. But the storm eventually stopped, the sand finally settled, and we had a few hours of daylight left. The desert was actually rather peaceful — in that desolate sense of seeming a million miles from nowhere. There was some food in the cooler chest and I had a canteen with water. When night came, our single flashlight was already dimming so we kept it off… saving it for when the next vehicle came by. After some hours – seemed like the middle of the night – the AAA truck rolled up, set about to get our VW running again, and (I believe) followed us into Trona. There weren’t any cell phones back then so we drove to the town’s little hospital and my dad set about trying to call places like the police station and wherever else he and Mom may have guessed could be alternative points of contact in that little berg. During our long wait at the hospital, one of the sweet nurses gave me a sandwich and something to drink. I’ll always remember her act of kindness. Eventually (somehow) Dad reached Mom – or Mom reached Dad – and we all hooked back up. Funny thing is, I don’t recall where we slept that night… or if the night was over by the time we finally reunited.
As a young teen, I had a small group of friends who often had campouts, the earliest of which were in tree houses on the property of David Dwight, who lived on a large piece of land with river frontage. When it got dark, all we had for light was perhaps a small campfire and later a few flashlights. That’s pretty well powered-down… and being so primitive was (of course) part of the fun.
Later on, we ventured to outlying areas, at times camping many miles away in areas accessible by boat. In those cases, we were even more primitive, using tents and lean-tos. No power out there except fires and flashlights. In the most memorable of those remote campouts, we’d had no group menu planning and four of the boys each brought only a large bag of Cheetos to share.
But the actual focus this week is how we cope – in home or business – when the grid is down for whatever reason. After Hurricane Camille, in 1969, Covington and Hammond LA were not in its direct path, so we didn’t sustain any more damage than a few trees down. I’m sure we lost power at least briefly, but when I got up the next morning, I drove to my job at the daily newspaper in Hammond and got to work.
In 1975, in that same area, we had a bad storm with at least one twister which took out several trees in the neighborhood where my in-laws lived. We jumped in our VW bus and drove out there — dodging fallen trees and limbs for much of the way. My in-laws had a tree trunk on their roof and branches poking through the ceiling into the back bedrooms. We heated coffee on a Sterno camp stove and opened all the curtains for light.
Conveniences that Became Essentials
At some point, I guess around late 1970s, things like air-conditioning had transitioned from a convenience to an essential. In Jonesville LA one hot summer, the HVAC of our rental house went out and we had all the windows open. Still sweltering, we opened the front door (no screen) and the skeeters nearly carried us away. Eventually, we hung up some mosquito netting which I’d been issued from the Army National Guard armory and we survived until our landlord finally got somebody over to fix the A/C.
Fast forward about a decade or so and we reach the point at which our microwave oven and home computer had become essentials. Power goes down and we lose our ability to cook (all electric kitchen) and there’s no entertainment because both cable TV and internet are down. We had some antique kerosene hurricane lamps and plenty of candles and flashlights. We had two young children — I no longer remember how we passed the time. I don’t recall it happening often during our 26 years in northwest LA, but it certainly did occur.
When we moved to the colder clime of KY and were planning the only house we’ve ever built, my wife insisted on a kitchen with dual fuel — no more all-electric. So when the power goes out, we still have propane to cook with on the stove top. And, knowing how much snow KY gets (compared to LA), we were equally insistent on having a propane furnace alternative to the electric heat pump HVAC system. I don’t recall any instances, here, where power was out for more than about half a day — and usually only for a couple of hours. But when it happens, it always seems to be when I’m in the middle of a writing project and I desperately need my computer and internet!
My Mom Adds Complication
Since my mom currently lives in her own cottage just down the hill from us – she’s age 93 and nearly totally deaf – when power goes out, it gets complicated. If only fending for ourselves, we could find sources of light and heat and food and just “chill” until power comes back up. But my mom tends to freak out, so one of us has to go racing over there to let her know that we know her power is out (and it’s being worked on). When power comes back up, one of us races over there to get her TV back in operation because she cannot survive without her TV. So what could otherwise be a relaxing change of pace in which I catch up on a little reading … instead becomes a bunch of running back and forth and trying to calm my elderly mom.
What do YOU do when the power goes out? Chill and cope? Or freak and frazzle?
St. Patrick’s Day
Today, folks, is also St. Patrick’s Day. I don’t know if I have any Irish blood, but I do have some Scottish and that’s in the same island group, so I throw in with the Irish and celebrate. At this time in 2012 and 2011, I had blogs which reflected my thoughts on Ireland. Here are the links, if you’ve got a few extra minutes:
[JLS # 271]