The thunderstorms rolled in.
The lights went out.
The rain fell loudly on the roof.
It was only about 5 p.m., but it looked like 9 o’clock.
“Where are the flashlights?” we asked each other.
“And where are the lamps?”
There it was: that moment, at the start of a blackout, when you feel just a hint of panic, but decide to steady yourself. After all, we know where the flashlights and lamps are. We just have to find them. We hope the gas-fuelled lighter is where we last saw it. And that the batteries in the flashlights are still good.
“What did people ever do before electricity?” my husband mused aloud as he hurried into one room and I another, searching for the stuff we’d put away for such emergencies.
I found two oil lamps. The first lit without a problem. The second didn’t. The wick was too short.
I hadn’t lit this lamp in years. I finally tried sticking my fingers down into the lamp to pull the wick out – them realized that the whole thing can be taken apart and the wick pushed up. So I did, and lit the wick. A tall flame shot up, sending a plume of smoke into the ceiling. The wick was now up too high.
No problem, I thought. I’d been raised in the countryside, in a time and place where the lights often went out at night. I swiftly opened a kitchen drawer, grabbed a tablespoon and used it to try to push the wick down.
It didn’t work. The spoon only got hot, my hand nearly singed. Yikes!
And then I remembered: Blow it out! I huffed and puffed and blew the flame out, reviving a memory of my mother or older sisters doing this many times when the lights had come back on in my childhood home and it was time to put out the lamps and candles.
Meanwhile, my husband was rummaging through cupboard doors, looking for the ‘big lamp’ he’d saved for just this purpose.
“I know I put it in this cupboard!” he declared, and, in the lamplight, I could almost see the bemused expression on his face.
Whenever he does this, I usually help him to search, because sometimes a thing is staring you in the face but it takes someone else to see it. But it wasn’t there. We rummaged loudly through some more cupboards, found two flashlights in their usual places, but no Big Lamp.
By now I’m sitting in the living room, two lamps lit. He comes through the doorway, carrying a strange-looking object. The size of a small TV set, this portable multi-media machine was a marvel ten years ago when he bought it on a trip to California.
It’s got everything from a TV, radio, CD player, to a siren, flashing lights and even an electronic mosquito repellent. It’s part of the survival kit our family put together when a blackout hit the Eastern seaboard area just a few years after an ice storm did some damage in our part of the countryside near Toronto.
We responded to these two scary acts of nature by assembling our own Armageddon box. We stocked The Box with everything from water supplies to candles and crackers and canned meat and various sizes of band-aid and surgical supplies. And, of course, batteries — of various sizes.
But it’s been years since we had one of those scary Mother-Nature-having-a-bad-day experience, and we’ve gotten soft. The batteries in this multi-media contraption have also gone soft. It takes nine C-size batteries and we can only find eight. My husband inserts the eight new batteries and reinserts one of the old ones.
We huddle around the coffee table in the living room, trying to coax the thing to life.
The TV screen does not light up. The radio sputters to life, sort of, giving off a strange crackle and spit. The CD player doesn’t play. Even the flashing lights don’t work. Only the siren does. But we are definitely not at that stage yet.
“Maybe the mosquito repellent works,” I tell my husband. “How would we know though?”
“Well, you don’t see any mosquitoes in here do you?” he teases. “So it must be working!”
We sit there and gaze into the darkness. The rain and thunder are still at work, just outside our windows. I walk over to a window to look outside, but the lightning flashes again and I draw back, wondering if anyone has ever been struck by lightning through a window pane.
“What did people ever do before electricity and all these gadgets?” my husband wonders again out loud as I return to my seat on the sofa.
“They used lamps and candles for light,” I answer. “They talked to each other. And they went to bed early.”
“Probably why they had so many kids,” he replies. “If this blackout goes on into the night, there’ll be a spike in the conception rate. It never fails!”
We laugh in the semi-darkness. Without the hum of appliances and other electrically powered machines around us, our laughter sounds louder, somehow, but also more intimate.
“When radio became widely available, people stayed up listening to it,” I said. “Maybe that’s when people started having fewer babies.”
We suddenly remember a tiny, wood-clad transistor radio that my husband’s hosts had presented him after he gave a keynote speech in the Netherlands, and he runs upstairs to get it. In no time, we are listening to one of several available radio stations. It’s loud and clear.
“We remain under a serious thunderstorm warning this evening,” says the weather reporter on one station.
“Incredible, Claire. Thank you,” replies Robert, the radio announcer.
We learn about a commuter train full of passengers “heading home in the rush hour”. Water, the reporter says, has flooded the train “up to the seats”. We worry about the passengers, when we hear that “one passenger jumped out of the train and swam away”.
Elsewhere, the radio tells us, people are stuck in elevators. Gary, an expert, says “For anyone who knows someone who is stuck in an elevator, please keep in touch with them and reassure them.”
One assumes that this reassurance should be given by cell phone.
Claire comes back on the radio to warn that there are “three more storms coming our way, bringing a lot more rain.” We worry about the people trapped in the train, on the flooded roads, in the elevators.
I pick up the hand-held phone but it, too, relies on electricity and there’s no dial tone. I head to the kitchen in the darkness and pick up the receiver of what is now becoming an ‘old-time’ instrument, and call my daughter for the second time this evening. She lives in an apartment in mid-town.
“Are you okay?” I ask anxiously. “How are you coping?”
“Our lights never went out”, she says. “The TV is on and I’m watching the news. But one street over, all the lights are out.”
“Glad you’re safe,” I say, relieved. “But keep a flashlight and candles handy. And stay away from the elevator, just in case.” I can’t resist that motherly piece of advice before I hang up the phone.
Another expert on the radio says people shouldn’t use cell phones unnecessarily in this emergency.
“Push comes to shove, we can always charge our cell phones in the car, you know,” my husband reassures me.
Outside, there’s a lull in the rain. My husband picks up the useless multi-media contraption and leaves the room. Minutes later, he’s back, hauling it with him. “It works,” he says triumphantly. “It runs off the cigarette lighter in the car.”
But I’m glued to the little wooden radio from the Netherlands. There are more interviews with people trapped by the flood, and experts telling us all to stay calm and “be patient”.
Another hour passes. Near the radio is a mystery novel I’d been reading. I flip it open, wondering if I can read in this light.
“No wonder so many people had to get glasses,” I say, as I put the book aside. “If you wanted to read at the end of the day, or knit a scarf or something, this was all the light you had.”
We call the rest of our relatives to make sure they’re okay. Some have electricity and some don’t. But all are coping.
So are we. After all, we’re indoors. We’re not on the road, or in a train, or stuck in an elevator. And, despite this brief reminder of times past, we’re here in the 21st century.
After about three hours, we blow out the lamps, turn off the little radio and go to bed.