The night the lights went out: rare moments to be savored


Random musings as we slog sweatingly through the dog days of August:

Have you ever wondered how our civilization would have evolved had there been (1) no oil and (2) no electricity?

Had all those umpty-billions of microscopic plants and creatures in oceans millions of years ago not been heated and compressed in layers of rock and clay, eventually becoming oil, would we today have all the forms of transportation we take for granted, all the myriad of machinery, equipment, and products that have some petroleum component?

Were it not for the ancient Greeks rubbing fur on amber to create static electricity, on through the work of Joseph Swan, Michael Faraday, Thomas Edison, and Nicolas Tesla, would we have had the light bulb, telephone, radio, TV, air conditioning, computer, cell phone, heart pacemaker, all the other electric-powered wonders that are a commonplace part of today’s world?

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Oil, electricity: Perhaps the two most important discoveries since the dawn of time — each of vast significance, each intricately tied to the other.

All this came to mind when, recently, our town had a planned shutdown of the electrical grid from midnight Saturday until 5 a.m. Sunday to make critical upgrades. Except for hospital, police, and a few other key services, the town would be electricity-less for five hours.

It was an odd feeling to awaken at my normal (?) 3:30 a.m. in a dark-as-a-tomb house: no streetlight shining through the window, no nightlights glowing, no winking LEDs on the TV, computers, other gadgets. And complete silence: no refrigerator hum, no AC whir.

Undaunted, flashlight in hand, I set out on my three-mile walk through the neighborhood. The flashlight was unnecessary — a brilliant full moon provided ample illumination. On the far horizon, the only semblance of electricity: a flashing red beacon atop a cell phone tower. Drooping white flower clusters on crape myrtles glowed in the moon’s light. The citrusy scent of magnolias and nectar-sweet honeysuckle wafted on the pleasantly cool air. Crickets chirped, owls whooed, other birds were beginning their morning wakening songs. A gaggle of deer munched away on the flowers in a lushly landscaped yard, and only half-heartedly ambled away as I approached.

At a house few blocks away, there was the noisy chatter of a small generator, perhaps powering a CPAP breathing machine or other medical device. About the halfway point of my walk, in an adjacent subdivision, there emanated from a McMansion a shrill roar akin to a small jet airplane’s engine — an industrial strength generator lit the place like a shopping mall. With enough money, one supposes, one does not have to contend with power interruptions. At another house, the residents were apparently spending the night in their huge diesel RV parked in their driveway, the AC unit humming merrily.

As I neared home, rosy glow of dawn beginning to brighten the eastern sky, the power came on. I had not encountered the first vehicle in my hour-plus walk — not even the newspaper delivery persons who are usually out at that time of morning.

I’m thankful for electricity and all it makes possible. But for that short while without it, it was a different world, reminiscent of my early childhood days visiting relatives "out in the country," where there were no streetlights, cars seldom passed, and at night — in that era pre-greenhouse gases and other gloppy atmospheric pollutants — the sky was a velvety, inky black and stars popped out like a million coruscating jewels.

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