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Roger Simon

A Power Failure Highlights a Real Loss

June 26, 1986|ROGER SIMON

My favorite old "Twilight Zone" episode is the one where the lights suddenly start going on and off in this typical American town.

The people are mystified and then a rumor starts, nobody knows from where, that aliens have landed, have disguised themselves to look just like us and have taken control of the electricity.

Soon, the townspeople turn on each other trying to figure out who the aliens are. The suspicion and distrust build and, eventually, they begin killing one another.

But the last thing we see is a hillside overlooking the town where two real aliens are standing. One says to the other something like: "You see, we don't have to bring an army to invade. Just by turning the lights on and off, we can get them to kill each other."

Like many "Twilight Zones," this one had a message. Seeing reruns of it now as an adult I realize it was supposed to say something about McCarthyism and xenophobia and things like that.

But, as a kid, I just thought it was really neat how you could cause all this trouble by turning the lights on and off.

And that episode always flashes through my mind whenever there are power failures. But, recently, something happened to make me change my mind about them.

It was Memorial Day, a Monday, at 2:55 p.m. I know the exact time because all the clocks stopped at my house.

I am ashamed to admit what I was doing when the power went off. I would like to be able to say I was out building low-cost housing for the poor and my electric drill fell silent.

But, instead, I was sitting in front of my home computer playing Frogger, a game in which you must guide a frog across a busy highway without getting it squished. Suddenly, the screen flickered and went blank. I went through the usual ritual: flicking it on and off, then trying the light switches, then listening to the refrigerator to see if it was still humming. But everything was out.

I went down to the basement to see if I had popped a circuit breaker (the modern version of blowing a fuse) but they were all fine.

So I knew there was either a power failure or there were two aliens up on a hill laughing at me.

I settled down to examine the dimensions of the crisis. It was daytime so there was no problem about lighting candles or bumping around in the dark. The stuff in the refrigerator would not be in trouble for a long time.

But still I was vaguely uneasy. And I finally figured out why: What was I supposed to do until the power went back on?

The television wouldn't work and neither would the radio or the stereo. I couldn't use the computer.

And it occurred to me that many of our leisure activities were now geared to electricity.

Some years ago, there was a movement in America to reduce our dependence on electric power.

Jimmy Carter said energy conservation was the moral equivalent of war. I never figured out what that meant, but he wanted us to dial down the thermostats and be warmer in the summer and colder in winter.

None of this ever caught on, of course. America went the other way, in fact. We use a lot more electricity now than we used to. I have friends who actually own electric woks.

On the afternoon the power went out, the streets of my neighborhood were empty, even though it was a beautiful day. There were both baseball and basketball games on TV and I'm sure this was part of the reason.

But, without electricity, I went out on my front porch because there was nothing to do inside. And down the block I saw a father and his three kids, two sons and daughter, come out of their house with a soccer ball.

They began kicking it around and pretty soon some other kids joined them and some other adults stood around watching and everyone began shouting and cheering and having a good time.

A few houses down, a couple came out and sat on their front steps. This is rare for my neighborhood, but they looked very nice sitting there and just talking to each other.

And I'll bet more actual conversation went on during the power failure than had gone on for months.

It only lasted 35 minutes. I know because I had to reset all the clocks when the power came back.

When I was done, I went back outside. But the streets were empty. The soccer game was over. The couple had gone in from their front stoop. And, through a few front windows, I could see the familiar blue flicker of the TV sets.

Power failures can be terribly inconvenient.

But, every now and then, we can use a few.

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