THE LAST GREAT POWER OUTAGE



Electricity is a mysterious phenomenon that we rely heavily upon. Most of present technology is based on it. Telephones, computers, elevators, kitchen appliances--all use electricity. There are no gas or oil lights; they are all electric. We have electricity to thank for our way of life, our convenience, our standard of living. Or is it really such a standard?

It was October, 1997. At that time, I was a freshman in college. I lived in a high rise building, namely the dorm, which offered a fair view of the campus rear and power plant. Day and night, my roommate and I could hear the elevator start up and coast down within the building. (I would still swear that when it started up the lights in our room would dim.) When it was night, an outdoor security light made it difficult to achieve darkness in our room for sleeping. During the "day," as defined by college life, we could both be found with mundane regularity, studying on our respective beds under reading lamps. All the while, an electric heater cycled on and off to compensate for heat lost through the outside wall.
Now the thing to understand about Nebraska winters is that they are severe. They aren't always so, but can be when they want to be. The one in 1997 REALLY wanted to be. By rights, it was still fall. But the leaves didn't have a chance to fall. It snowed early and profusely. Snow clung to leaves as well as to branches, and trees broke under the additional weight of the snow-covered leaves. All over town, branches fell, broke power lines, and formed debris on the ground.
On this particular occasion, it was still around noonday. Sunday, I think it was. My roommate and I sat on our beds, as usual, doing our homework. The power suddenly blinked off, then on. I believe it happened again. Then, for the second or third time, the power went off. We waited for it to come back. Nothing. A cloud of black smoke rose over the power plant. The emergency power generator had started up, but it's only use was to sustain a precious few items on campus for safety--some exit signs and some lights in the stairwells. The campus was otherwise dark.
At first, the is-ought gap between no power and power seemed like an inconvenience, something that limited progress where electricity was normally involved. But as hours passed, we came to know that it was more: it was something to which we had to adapt. Since refrigerators were off, it seemed prudent to increase milk consumption. I had a box of corn flakes, and my roommate, whose name was John, had milk. We shared.
It eventually became cold and crisp in our room. The room seemed cleaner and more interesting, somehow, than when it was "room" temperature; the feeling was as it is when one looks at a sharp black and white photograph and shapes become oddly significant. Outside, the snow added a Christmassy appeal to whatever was there.
The snow was several feet deep on the ground and several feet deeper in drifts that formed around anomalies such as trees and buildings. Walking across campus was a bit too ambitious to be classed with a casual stroll, and driving was out of the question. The campus being thus adequately muffled, the dorm lobby was among the few places where human life and activity could be detected. John and I sat around watching as if with nothing to do, the lack of electricity seeming like reason enough to cast off academic responsibility. The academic dean arrived as if he were the president of the United States at a disaster area. He announced that he might cancel classes for Monday. We only hoped. Our wishes later came true, and we knew that we had at least one more day to celebrate Jubilee.
Life without electricity was also challenge. Flashlights were necessary for everything whether you had hands free to hold them or not. Visits to dark restrooms were as unpleasant and inconvenient as using an outhouse. Those brave souls who somehow journeyed to the outside world brought back reports that flashlights were sold out. Everyone kept his flashlight close.
Some resourceful people cut the plugs off extension cords and connected the wires inside the exit signs powered by the emergency generator to siphon some power down the hall to their room. Their mistake was connecting a bright fluorescent light to the other end of their cord near a window, thus advertising their breach of electrical code for all to see. Persons who later ventured out into town to buy extension cords forfeited them to the dormitory dean as he greeted them back at the front door. Presumably, this went unchallenged as it must have been difficult to hide their intentions for buying electrical cords in copious numbers during a power outage.
Back in my room, I picked up the phone. It made no more the sound of a dial tone than were it a rock. I put it down again. There was no talking to anyone unless you saw them in person. There was something elegant about that. But in the absence of the mundane, socialization had become essential. When the novelty of powerlessness wore off, people (male people) made the arduous journey through the deep snow drifts to the women's residence hall.
The pedestrian highway from dorm to dorm was skirted by points of interest. The park-like front lawn of campus, whose worth was typically unknown except in its seasonal beauty, was graced with structures and corridors made in snow, some naturally occurring, some created by liberated college students.
The girls' dorm proved to be the warmest place on campus, socially speaking. Neither were electric lights functional in the girls' lobby, but the girls' lobby was much larger and it was the place where it seemed everyone on campus had congregated. A Coleman lantern or two were shining from the front desk. There, the deans were thoughtfully making tea for everyone using a camp stove or similar device. My tea was apple flavored, and I believed that it was cider when I allowed the dean to make it for me. Being a non-fan of tea myself and being that it was very hot, I finished it politely over the next hour. The women's deans seemed to have shed their matriarchal authority, although I thought I overheard one say that she had posted some kind of guards to prevent the socialization from spreading up the stairs.
The girls' dorm lobby was a well-composed snapshot of life, taken at a time when life would be remembered favorably and probably as being better than it actually was. People sat all around the lobby, mostly on the floor, in circles of three or four. By the dim light of the Coleman, they talked and played card games. A few guys sneaked up the stairs to get caught, perhaps, by the nebulous forces that lurked there. All was well. Everyone experienced the beauty of simple life. Adversity was a blessing in disguise.
At some point, my roommate and I were sitting in our rooms thinking about how to make use of our time. I believe that we had been sitting in the dark about forty-eight hours or so. We were rudely interrupted. Lights came on. Perhaps a computer or something beeped and the heater came on; I don't really remember. What I do know is that it was sad, like coming to the end of a great book. It was over, all over. Bright lights without batteries flooded rooms. Phones worked. Heaters heated. We were back to the status quo. There was nothing left to save us from the mundane except the snow which would soon be cleared. There was homework to do.

Since that incident, the people who made decisions at the college decided to prepare for the next disaster. Battery powered backup lights were installed around campus were there were none before. The campus telephone exchange was connected through emergency power circuits fed by the generator in the power plant. Backup power was extended to the women's residence hall.
I can't help but wonder if it was all an improvement. I think that it wasn't. The next disaster will be the most comfortable one yet. True, only a few more things have generator power than before. But the most important change has happened to people's minds. There was a time when electrical power was convenient but not essential. Electricity wasn't reliable, and people didn't expect it to be. That time is past. As far as possible, we have worked to keep from skipping a beat. And as a consequence, life goes on--just the same way it always does.
Today, complete blackouts are rare. In the future, I will not be surprised to have some occasional, little glitches in power now and then. I still expect those. But I suspect that I already lived through the last great power outage.




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