Wednesday, July 28, 1999
The night the lights went our on Terrace Tay

Lifestyle Columnist

When the lights went out for a few hours last week, I discovered that things have changed since March 1958.

At least I have — changed, I mean. I remember that “crisis” as a bit of a lark.

We lived in New Jersey, and an ice storm plunged us into darkness for nearly a week. I had a new baby, my first, and Dave was on the evening shift, leaving for work about 3:30 and getting home about 11:30.

That far north, darkness fell soon after he left. It was a long and rather lonely time for a young mom coping with household chores, with only a Coleman lantern for light and a gas oven to keep us from freezing.

But I scoffed at a neighbor, who tucked tail and moved back in with her folks in Philadelphia. I felt like a pioneer overcoming the rigors of primitive life, resourceful enough to share hot drinks with linemen who had come from as far away as Massachusetts to put our wires back up.

By day, my baby girl kicked bare legs in the sun streaming through our picture window; at night she slept, wrapped snugly, in room temperatures in the 50s — a concept I espoused even when our furnace was functional.

Since I breast-fed, her meals were no problem, and with a gas range, neither were Dave's.

Daytime highs in the low 40s meant we could keep perishables in a milk box on the stoop (remember milk boxes?) — although some food for which there was no room in the box fell prey to neighborhood dogs, bad luck for a couple on a grocery budget of $10 a week.

But that and loneliness during the long dark evenings were the worst problems I had to deal with. I could even continue my endless sewing projects by lamp light, since the sewing machine had a treadle.

I remember feeling vaguely disappointed when the lights came on again. A week is long enough to appreciate solitude and challenge; having light and TV to all hours again seemed intrusive.

Not so when last week's storm took out power for nearly ten hours. It quit in the middle of Tom Brokaw and the sad recovery of three bodies from the Atlantic, and stayed off until 4:30 next morning.

My first thought — “Oh well, we can see all this on Peter Jennings in a few minutes” — soon became, “I guess I'll have to go on-line to find out the latest.” Then a petulant, “Whoa. No power for the computer either, and the lap top is not fully charged.”

That led to, “But what will I do all evening?”

Fine reaction from one who likes to think of herself as able to cope under any circumstances. Who sniffs at survivalists panicking over Y2K fantasies. Who is confident the generator in the motor home will get her through any exigency (that is, if she didn't care about the neighbors' open windows).

It was light enough to clean up after supper — one big difference between a summer and a winter outage — but instead of loading the dishwasher for who-knew-when, I emptied it and hand-washed the lot.

Dave spent the rest of the evening on the couch with a Braves game on portable radio, rather his usual evening agenda. I missed my computer sorely, but did enjoy reading a Jan Karon “Mitford” book under the greenhouse glass.

As the light waned, I pulled a couple of candlesticks through the cobwebs that had swathed them since they were last used for the holidays. They gave enough light to read surprisingly easily, then lit our showers and teeth-brushing. But they made a warm evening warmer.

After 10, however, it was cool enough outside to open the doors and let in air and the frogs' evensong. Refreshed by our showers, we slept well in utter darkness, absent even the soft whir of the ceiling fan.

Earlier, feeling somehow that a walk up the street might solve our plight, I had a revelation.

It's the vogue now among city planners to blame our loss of community on the lack of porches and sidewalks where neighbors can interact.

On a torrid summer night, porches and sidewalks aren't going to provide community. But a lack of air conditioning might.

Walking toward the former home of a friend gone two years now — an old habit from days when we leaned on each other in “crises” — I was pleased to encounter no fewer than eight neighbors. A family was heading out for a golf cart ride, two men paced their driveways as though they were cooler out than in, and Ann Collins rocked on the porch next door with her elderly father.

Roy Rotz said he and Jack Williams had conferred by phone, dismayed that EMC does not publicize an emergency number. They checked with the police, and still had no number to call.

Ann commented that this was the longest we had been without power since construction was completed in the area. We chatted about her recent trip to Hawaii and her upcoming plans to visit her daughter now living in Texas.

I hate to admit it, but the night the lights went out on Terrace Tay, we had more sense of neighborhood than we'd had since the water main broke and flooded the cul de sac.

And that was a long time ago.

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