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Jack Smith

How Quickly Civilization Blacks Out

December 24, 1987|Jack Smith

At 10 minutes to 3 in the afternoon during last week's so-called Alaskan storm, the power went out at our house. In the next 30 minutes I learned how thin our veneer of civilization really is.

I had just finished a couple of hours work at my computer and had saved the text on a storage disk; so at least I was spared having that wiped out.

But a few minutes later I realized that the cloudy sky was quickly darkening. I flipped a switch. No light. I felt a sudden coldness around my heart. In a storm a few years ago our power had been off for nearly 48 hours. Our life became suddenly prehistoric. We were cavemen.

With no electricity to activate it, the central heating system had failed. The house soon became an igloo. We had no fireplace, no gas heaters, no gas range. Except for hot water, we were entirely dependent on electricity. The house grew pitch-dark. We lighted candles and put on sweaters and robes. There was no TV to entertain us. We couldn't read by candlelight. There was nothing to do but go to bed and pile on the comforters.

In the morning we had no hot breakfast. No coffee even. Things were beginning to sweat in our refrigerator. I realized how ill-prepared we were to cope with the loss of something we took for granted. Now it looked as if we were in for another siege of the same misery.

It is curious how slowly I adapted to the loss, even though I had had that previous experience. I tried several lights, thinking maybe the outage was only partial. It was total.

Already it was too dark in the house to read without light. For a moment the thought crossed my mind of watching television. The house was growing cold. I went into the kitchen to make a cup of coffee but stopped before I did anything foolish.

I thought I might as well lie down. The bed was cold. I turned on the electric blanket. We are creatures of habit. Old programs are not easily discarded.

I called my wife at work to give her the bad news. I suggested that she go out to dinner, since the microwave wouldn't work. I reminded her that I had to attend a dress dinner that night. She said she'd drop in on one of our sons.

I was lying down when it occurred to me that I still had to shave, shower and dress and that the house was growing darker every minute. It was already too dark in my bathroom to shave. Besides, my electric razor was useless. I found an old safety razor and took it into my wife's bathroom, which has windows on the west. The razor was dull, and when I showered I could still feel my stubble.

Fortunately my new tuxedo shirt has buttons, not studs. I managed to get into it and get my necktie and cummerbund in place and put on my pants and jacket and socks and shoes in the last glow of the fading day.

Then I found a candle and some matches and lighted it. There was still an hour to go before time to leave for the dinner. I sat in my chair in the living room. I could feel the house growing colder. By the time I got home it would be unbearable. I hated to think of spending the night in an unwarmed bed and waking up to a cold house without coffee.

I tried reading by candlelight. I don't know how Lincoln did it. Or was that firelight?

When it was time to go, I fed the dogs and drove down the hill, confirming that the power was out all down the block. When I came home about 9 o'clock I saw with great relief that my bedroom light was blazing. It was one of those I had switched on. When I walked through the front door the house was already warm.

I called my son's house to learn that my wife had called one of our neighbors, found that the power had been restored, and was on her way home.

When she got home I opened a bottle of wine and we celebrated our return to civilization.

I hate to think what will become of us when the big earthquake comes on Feb. 6.

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