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Jack Smith

January 31, 1985

Technological man lit a candle but still cursed the darkness when it dropped to the floor

We were directly in the path of that devastating January windstorm.

It left us without power for almost two days and nights. Nothing worked. The lights. The microwave. The electric range. The central heating system. The television. It was like living in a cave, and we were soon reduced to caveman and woman--thinking of nothing but eating and staying warm..

It took us hours to disconnect our habit patterns. Every time we entered a room we'd automatically flip the light switch, only to curse when nothing happened. We started to make coffee, only to realize that, like every other appliance in the house, the coffee maker would no longer do our bidding.

By the second night it was too cold in the house even to read. There was nothing to do but go to bed. But, curse it, the electric blankets wouldn't work, either, and we had to get out the old comforters.

We read by candlelight, which is possible if you hold the candle close to the book. I dropped my candle on the floor. It set fire to a carelessly discarded Kleenex. I tried to whip it out with a carelessly discarded sock, but the sock caught fire, and it scorched the rug before I could get out of bed and pick up a shoe and stamp it out.

We knew crews were working all around the hill, but our neighborhood was one of the last restored to service. Finally, at 8:30 on the second night, the lights went on, but only in part of the house; and no sooner had they gone on than I saw flames in the front yard and ran out to find that a live power line had fallen clear across the street, from the far corner, and down across our yard, igniting a small tree and some plants. Across the street it had set fire to a loquat tree near a wooden house.

My wife called 911 to report it. She was getting used to making emergency calls.

The loquat tree was burning furiously, igniting other bushes beside it. The wire still sizzled and flamed in our front yard and hung ominously down through the branches of our catoneaster tree.

In a few minutes the fire truck came and the men soon had the fires out. Then they traced the wire across our yard and cut it, leaving a short end hanging in the tree.

"That's a hot wire there," a fireman told us. "You'd better call Water and Power and tell them about it."

He said they had told their dispatcher to advise Water and Power, but we ought to call them too. My wife called them.

In a very few minutes a Water and Power truck arrived and the men got out and surveyed the scene.

My wife told them how it had happened right after our lights had come back on, and that only some of our lights were on, not all.

"Don't worry," one of the men told her, "this time we'll fix it right."

I was standing in the doorway freezing; the helpless male caught in the breakdown of the technological society.

At about 9:30 the power went off altogether. We could see men working out in the street. Linemen were up at the top of poles by our house and across the street, stringing up a heavy new cable.

"I wonder," my wife said, "if any of those men ever get killed?"

I don't know. I suppose they do, now and then. I remember reading of linemen being electrocuted, and dangling helplessly up there.

In any case, it isn't easy work, sloshing around with high-power lines in all kinds of weather, climbing up to the loneliness at the top of poles, so that our televisions will work, and our microwaves, and our electric blankets.

At 11:30 the power went on. Fully restored. Almost every light in the house was on, and I had to go about turning them off. In our old habit patterns, we had kept turning switches on, hoping something would happen, and not turning them off.

The last time our power went out I believe I maundered about how dependent we were on our technology; man is a bundle of habit patterns finely programmed to function in a push-button world--and consequently vulnerable to the very technology that sustains him; when it breaks down he is suddenly as helpless as an insect deprived of its instincts.

But I saw something different this time. Technological man is still a man, not an insect. The robots haven't yet quite taken us over, and neither have the dropouts.

The streets might be full of muggers and rapists and burglars and psychos holding up restaurants and shooting the customers; but there are still men out there making things work.

There are the firemen, who had got to our house in a few minutes and put out the fire; and the Water and Power men, working through the night, who had given us back our power, so our feet wouldn't be cold; and there are those paramedics who had come up the hill to our house and got me to the hospital in time, and there are the doctors and nurses and orderlies who were doing their jobs, around the clock.

Yes, they were still out there, the competent men and women who did something for a living that was hard to do and that served others.

They were not only out there, they were in the majority.

And they did it because they were free.

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