Tuesday, August 01, 2006

Lights Out [CCR]

It was a very quite, clear, and sunny Saturday afternoon a couple of weeks ago. The day was not especially warm and we were sitting in the living room enjoying a light breeze through the windows when it happened. The lights went out. As a child it wouldn’t have been a big problem for me. But today it seems our entire existence revolves around electricity. As an electrical engineer my entire career focuses on the ability to tame and control electricity. With that said my daughter and I set out in my truck to explore the town and find the source of our problem.

We have entire generations today that do not know an existence without the benefits of electric power. But there are those amongst us who do know how to survive without what we consider a necessity but they know is a convenience. Family gatherings for them didn’t consist of the entire family sitting around a box soaking in a flickering screen. Cooling off meant sitting on the front porch swing instead of plopping down on the couch in air conditioning. Getting homework done after chores meant lighting a coal oil lamp. So when the power goes off today we become either disoriented or, in my case, curious.

During my younger years we experienced our share of power outages on Moody Lane. Sheffield Utilities did a great job of delivering power and restoring it quickly when it failed, but some power outages are a fact of rural life. Mom kept a lamp ready for those occasions. I always remember hunting for the matches. We took off the chimney glass, raised the wick, and lit the flame. Then you quickly adjusted the wick so you had enough light from the flame without too much flame smoking up the glass. The house was almost magical as the light from the flame seemed to dance in rhythm around the walls of the room. As a child I didn’t realize the food in our electric freezer and refrigerator depended on the return of power. The power outages were sort of exciting and almost magical.

Once the lamp was lit Mom looked for the telephone book. She would look up the telephone number of Sheffield Utilities to call and report the outage. In many cases you knew the power outage was widespread and well known when the line remained busy. On rare occasions even the telephone was not working. My homework didn’t depend on the computer or the Internet and our rural life eradicated our dependence on electronic entertainment. Don’t get me wrong. Today apart of me looks back and longs for those days.

So with the power out at our house in Ohio I quickly check the telephone to make sure it still works because I expect, if the outage is widespread, my company will be calling. My telephone works through the Internet, but I have an uninterruptible power supply on my mass of communications equipment and networks. If the cable stays on my children don’t even lose connection with their friends on a chat session. When all else fails we have the curse of modern life, a cell phone. The power company’s telephone number is stored on the cell phone. With all the gadgets and devices we forget the complexity behind it all and sort of expect the constant supply of power. With the lights out we venture out to a world we rarely see but our grandparents knew every day. We get to meet the neighbors who meet us as well. Maybe this power outage has its own purpose.

Chrissie and I drive around town noticing one side of the street without power and one side with power. We make it down to the major intersection just as the police arrive to direct traffic. It seems everyone is out and looking around. We notice the crews wrapping things up as we pass by the power substation and less than 20 minutes after the lights went out the power is on. Chrissie and I drive back home and return to our keyboards, air conditioning, stereo, and television. But my mind still drifts back to those stormy nights when I finished my homework by the rhythmic dance of the coal oil lamp light.