Sunday, January 30, 2011

Those Thrilling Days of Yesteryear

I’m departing from my usual weekly posting about Challenge-related stuff to talk about lifestyles of the rich and famous, and the not so famous. This past week, we were hit with a snow storm that created as much chaos, if not more than the aftermath of the 9.11 attack on the Pentagon. That event resulted in my brother taking about 8 hours to get across the 14th Street Bridge. (He hasn’t reported his experiences of Wednesday yet, but I know I’m in for a treat.)

This past week’s event was equally devastating because the temperature was hovering just below freezing, instantly making highways icy, coupled with the mad rush of hundreds of thousands of federal civil servants dashing for the exits. I, on the other hand, have beaten the masses- as I’m working from the home office. But, I did have a short errand to run- just a mile away and so, what the heck. It didn’t take long, but confirmed the advice of the sagacious: if you don’t have to go anywhere, don’t.

Around 9PM, I heard what sounded like the clap of a 155mm round. And, instantly, darkness. Actually, not darkness inside because the TV is on a UPS. But, I knew in an instant that a transformer had shut off. However, I knew that this was not a mere interruption, but more likely the real deal: major outage. PEPCo, the supplier to DC and most of Montgomery County has been excoriated in the Washington Post for their poor performance in restoring power. They went from one of the best in the nation to a place near the bottom. This started about the time that they stopped their preventive tree-trimming program, and I live in a forest.

Temperatures have been well below normal for the past 8 weeks and I was reasonably prepared for the siege. A black walnut tree that was near death had been taken down, aged and split and stacked in preparation. Twenty gallons of water was staged in the closet, and about 10 gallons of gasoline stored with the reliable Honda generator in the garden shed.

The first thing you do in this situation is call PEPCo and get into the cue. But, with 200,000 households, that’s pretty much a futile exercise. Most of these people were well ahead of me. The lesson learned from the three days without power is that we have it so easy today. Central heating, indoor plumbing, etc. Think about what our ancestors did to survive. Food, fuel and water dominated their consciousness. I’m sure someone has done the research on the time spent on sustenance activities. I could see where it could occupy over half of your waking hours.

The absence of electricity changes everything. The Internet does not work. And since all my TV content comes through the router, you’re out of luck there. This is a total electric house, so even the family room fireplace has a heat-a-lator which runs on 110v. So that fireplace is pretty useless. The downstairs one, however is an insert and will crank out a lot of BTUs, but has to be fed about every 35 minutes!

The other essential household product is the Honda snowblower. Forget the shoveling exercises; this is the “must have” man toy! It makes short work of the seemingly acres of driveway and sidewalks- and adds a great feeling of superiority when you drive by 40 of the neighbor’s houses, with their kids hand shoveling the tons of snow. Throwing snow 50 feet is way cool. But after last year’s 5 plus feet, it has lost some of its allure.

We’re on a well; you can use the toilets, but you must flush them with the backup, 5-gallon water bottles. The Honda generator serves the important role of keeping the refrigerator running. It can handle a few other tasks, based upon an assemblage of extension cords strewn through out the house. This is hardly primitive living; after all, with the insulation rating, the house retains heat for a very long time. But yesterday when I heard the HVAC unit kick on, it was like a miracle, as though you fast-forwarded through 150 years in an instant.

In the 1800’s, if you were very wealthy, you had servants who stoked the fires, drew the water, and did all the menial tasks. Today, we have electricity that does all this and so much more. Being reduced for a few days to survival mode is a great learning experience, making me more appreciative for the modern miracles that are a part of my everyday life. We’re doing things today that I could never have imagined while in college, or even a few years ago. In the height of the storm, with the power out, I was still checking my email- on my iPad!

I had a professor who had to be 80+. He used to talk constantly about the “good old days.” I think this guy had attended Lincoln’s Gettysburg address. His take on things: “You want the good old days? You can have them. I like my shirts that come back from the laundry all wrapped up.” That was 40 years ago. Now, you just take them out of the dryer, ready to go!

Taken in context, these small crises make us reflect on how much we have and how good we’ve got it!

1 comment:

Unknown said...

Paul, It is good to realize how much we do have. We all can get through a few hours or days of primative living (i.e. no electricity). However, what occured to me as I read your blog is just how many souls would survive a permanent lack of electrical power. I have a feeling that many, much more than we realize, would actually pass away. Some of us would learn to survive, but I fear many would persih.

Thanks for the post, it was great food for thought. -- Bill Besenyei