Day the Clocks Stood Still
MARCH 8, 2017. A DATE WHICH will live in infamy. A powerful cold front collided with near-record warmth that had been bathing this area for days, resulting in gusting winds over eighty miles per hour. That’s over one hundred twenty-eight kilometers per hour for you metric fans. Against such forces of nature, power lines are helpless. It must be noted that weeks earlier, the electric company completed a periodical sweep of the neighborhood, trimming back tree branches that were perilously close to power lines. I guess they didn’t do a very good job. I was at my computer and suddenly everything went dead. My radio fell silent. The overhead light turned off. My computers crashed.
My first action was to check the circuit breakers; this has happened before; a quick snap of the mains and all is well. But this time all the switches were properly on. Assuming this was a more regional outage, I went out to the backyard to reconnoiter. My neighbor was in his adjoining backyard and we were then able to determine that the strong winds had dropped a tree branch on a power line, killing half the block’s electrical service.
Turns out this was the case all over the city. More than 215,000 people were without power, due to downed power lines, so this repair was going to take a few days. Five days, to be exact, before my electricity came back on. Five days without light, heat, TV, or home-cooked meals.
Now that the journey through pre-industrial times is over, I have had a chance to reflect upon my survival skills. I think I’d have been better off without many of the miracles of modern science. I’d have been better off with a Troy-Bilt XP 7,000 Series 7,000-Running-Watt Portable Generator, but that is a whole other kettle of electric eels.
I have a remarkable tolerance for cold; it’s the heat I can’t stand. So the first thing I noticed was the entire lack of anything to do at night, except sleep. Even sleeping under normal conditions, I like to have the TV or radio on, focuses my mind, sort of like counting sheep. The first night of my ordeal was tough. I could listen to traffic, but that was pale comparison to my favorite jazz station.
Funny story. Nearly a decade ago I bought a Sony CD Radio Cassette-Corder boom-box-style system. I plugged it in and used it reliably without giving it a second thought. Now it not only provoked a second, but a third and fourth thought, as well. Why in blazes did I buy a plug-in system? Wait a minute. Wasn’t it advertised as a boom-box? Why? Why does it have a handle on the top? For the first time since I purchased the thing, I flipped it over, brushed away the years of dust and cobwebs, and what to my wondering eyes should appear but a battery compartment. And six dead D-cells. Oh, joy! I rushed out to the nearest store and bought six fresh D-cells. (In case you’re asking, it was only Day One of the event. The stores would not be out of batteries already, and definitely not D-cells.)
I had music to soothe the sorry soul.
Still undaunted by the encroaching chill, the next item to check off my frontier-life list was light. Living in the city, I have street lights which run on a different circuit than house current. I can open the window blinds and let in more outside light, but still ... Paraffin wax candles are the obvious Victorian Era solution. I had a few candles, big ones that could burn for days. An even better solution is kerosene-fueled mantle lamps. The difference between those and ordinary oil lamps is that the wick lights up a delicate mantle that incandesces, providing as much light as a 100-watt electric bulb. Unfortunately, I was unaware of the existence of these stellar examples of turn-of-the-century technology. My intrepid Associate Editor, Eric M. Jones, told me about them during one of our many telephone conversations. I was not, therefore, able to employ a mantle lamp during this outage, but I definitely will have one on hand for the next disaster.
How did I talk to Eric? Weren’t the telephones not working, too? If the fallen tree limbs had taken down the telephone lines, yes. But in my neighborhood, only the power lines were down. Nonetheless, most modern phones do require electricity. My cordless phones were as useless as a third nipple. I don’t own a cell phone. Even if I did, eventually cell phones have to be recharged.
Ready for this? Deep in the bowels of my basement, I have an antique, black, rotary telephone. It is entirely mechanical, heavy as a cinder block, and big. But the damned thing works like a charm, without so much as a spark of juice. I swapped out the phone cable from my deaf and dumb modern phone; I could now ring up Eric, pizza delivery, or RG&E. “Please stay on the line. Your call is important to us. A representative will be right with you.” Yeah. Sure.
By the third day, the cold was beginning to make itself known. I could see my breath. My bed was warm and comfortable. Sleeping with my clothes on, under several blankets, with my dog and a hot water bottle, music in the background, candlelight, it was almost cozy. Still, one more day and I’d be in trouble. Cue the hot water bottle. I did have hot water, you see. My boiler is gas-powered. It still worked. For the record, I have baseboard hot water heating, another pre-war technology. But my radiators feed off a separate boiler which uses an electrical pump. The hot water from the working boiler is for the sinks and tub.
(Once upon a time, all homes and buildings used radiators, often coal-fired. My family’s first home had a coal furnace. I can remember my father having to go down to the basement to shovel coal.)
A friend and neighbor of mine is somewhat of an engineer. He designs and markets testing equipment for nuclear power plants. He suggested I bypass the radiator boiler and feed hot water from the other boiler directly into the radiator: a simple procedure that can be accomplished with a pair of pliers and some garden hose. It took him barely twenty minutes. It wasn’t as efficient as the dedicated boiler, but I could feel a little heat coming from the radiator, and it at least took the edge off the chill.
Food was never a problem, by the way. I live in the city. I wasn’t forced to go out and set snares or hunt native fauna. My car worked fine and there was plenty of gas in the tank. Another few days and I would seriously consider packing the dog in the back (I have a 2007 Honda Fit Sport) and head for warmer climes. As it was, frequent trips to Wegmans Food Markets sufficed. They also sell hot meals. One morning, a neighbor brought over some hot coffee. He has a gas range.
“Your next range should be a General Electric.” “How to take the guesswork out of cooking.” “Here’s what mother really wants.” Hah! Hah, I say! My mother had a workhorse gas range. My first apartment had a gas range. Soon as possible, I want to replace my unreliable electric beast with a gas range. With a gas range during a power outage, I’d have access to hot food and drink, as well as a source of heat, carefully monitored, of course.
Charcoal grills are out of the question. Too cold outside. And you don’t bring them inside if you have any interest in surviving a power outage.
I mentioned that my computers went down. This is important because the outage dragged on past the twelfth of March, when I needed to post the 12-MAR-2017 issue of “Perihelion.” I do keep backups of everything on a thumb drive, but I don’t have a laptop. I should get one. Corralling a friend with an available laptop, transferring my files from the thumb drive, and heading over to the library was not a project I looked forward to with any amount of eagerness. Fortunately, there is this great guy down the street with a computer repair shop. I’ve used his services several times before. He also lost power at his home, but his shop was humming away. He offered to drive over to my house, grab my desktop, haul it over to his shop, set it up, and let me proceed with uploading the magazine. (Thanks, Jim, at City Computer!)
On a final note, I have six or seven clocks. All but two of them are plug-in, so they make excellent paperweights during a blackout, nothing more. The two clocks that continued to function are battery-powered. Spring wind-up clocks don’t even require batteries. An old cuckoo clock would have been handy. Better yet, one of those prehistoric grandfather clocks with the oscillating pendulum that you read about in old science fiction stories would look and function great. I have just the spot for one.
The city, to its credit, recruited additional repair crews from private contractors and other municipalities to help get all the power restored. After five days, almost to the hour, a crew truck from Toronto pulled up in front of my house. I was saved. O Canada!
Sam Bellotto Jr.