Powering Up when the Power’s Out

Uncomfortable as it is, I’m trying to find the silver lining in the power outage currently afflicting close to three million people in the Northeast. The best I can come up with is that we quasi-survivalists will have an advantage should terrorists disrupt the power grid, which I understand they are trying very hard to do.

The freak October snowstorm which dumped a foot of snow in our rural neighborhood turned the landscape into a picture postcard, creating a stark frozen bas-relief in black and white, the stillness broken by cracking sounds of trees crashing onto power lines.

Massive power outages are serious business as people die from traffic accidents, cold, failed medical equipment, inability to get help in emergency circumstances.

But there is something tragically comic about power outages, too. You spend day and night reflexively flipping light switches and turning faucets, neither of which are functioning if you live in the country.

Usually, there is a trickle of water you can use to wash your hands or brush your teeth, that is, if you remember to hold some in the basin or pour some into a glass. Or you can forget the toothbrush and go for the mouthwash.

Some men secretly enjoy power outages, and find in not shaving an excuse to go for that much coveted grizzled look. Power outages are tougher on women who must face the competition air-brushed, impeccable, and immaculately clean.

All day long you keep flipping switches reflectively, as if you are one of Pavlov’s dogs bar-pressing for food, but all you get for your troubles is negative reinforcement.

You hop into the pickup, slap it into 4-wheel drive, and head down to the Quick-Shot at 4:30 A.M. to beat the crowd of shivering people you know are soon going to be there draining the coffee urns.

Inside the Quick-Shot at 4:30 a.m., there is a chubby teen-ager who goes hog-hunting with her dad in Arkansas every year, and 90 year old Rose who got rich off the convenience store, plus the landmark Harley-Davidson shop her relatives run for her next door and alongside the freeway.

Rose shows me a newspaper front page photo of a head-on freeway collision which killed two local people..

“They shouldn’t have been out in it, they should’ve gone home,” she says.

As I’m draining the coffee urn, one of my wealthy neighbors comes in, trim and proper, and in high dudgeon, but still not ready to see me or anyone else at 4:30 a.m. I feel suddenly virtuous, bringing coffee to my wife. Mrs. Prim’s husband, a despotic satrap, sends her out into the cold and the snow for his coffee.

After the coffee, I pump five gallons of gas into gas into a container, enough to run our generator for ten to twelve hours. With a generator, you have heat, light, refrigeration, whatever you like and as big as you can afford.

Our generator will run the refrigerator, lights, TV, the blower on our wood stove, and a laptop computer. But it won’t run the water-heater, and it’s not connected to the water pump, so I carry upstairs the five gallon water cans I’ve stored in the basement, and pour some of that water into the toilet tanks for another flush.

It’s a grizzly business, and I’m thankful to Ben Franklin for having discovered electricity. But even as pioneering Americans struggled to harness electrical energy, the colonials who would go on to lead the American Revolution struggled daily with the kind of challenges that many of us face today.

Are we the better with our creature comforts and our reliance on others for what we used to do for ourselves? Perhaps not.

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