I mentioned last week that my grandfather had lived through some of the darkest days of 20th-century America.
I guess this week’s calendar entry counts as another one.
Unlike some other events I’ve covered in this space, I can guesstimate what my grandfather would have been up to when the lights went out.
He would have been at home unwinding in the time between work and dinner, possibly reading the afternoon Stamford Advocate.
My grandfather lived a short distance from work — I believe he walked there and back, and also walked home for lunch. So he would have been safely home at 5:28 p.m., not stuck in traffic or on a commuter train.
I would also be willing to bet that, until 5:28 p.m. on Nov. 9, 1965, my grandfather had never thought too deeply about the workings of the Northeastern regional power grid. My grandpa and millions of others got an education in the days following Nov. 9, when news stories explained how a human error by a power-plant worker in Ontario left 30 million people without electricity on a chill autumn evening.
As it turned out, a safety relay at the Canadian plant — designed to protect a transmission line against overloading — had been set too low. A surge of power on the grid tripped the relay, which took out the transmission line as a protective step. The surge of power then traveled onto other transmission lines throughout the Northeast, overloading them and tripping their relays as well. Within 15 minutes of the first problem in Ontario, millions of people on the Eastern Seaboard were in the dark.
My grandfather might not have gotten a warm dinner that night, but he did better than a lot of other people: His power was restored in time to heat the house before bed. Some parts of New York City were not returned to normal until 7 a.m. the following day.
My Aunt Elaine was commuting to college in New Haven, and remembers the blackout as follows:
I carpooled with a group of girls and when we were driving back home in the evening, there were no lights on the streets or houses! A kid (who was a couple years older than me), who lived across the street, was directing traffic with flashlights. This was interesting in that he usually got into trouble, but now he had taken on this responsibility. When I returned home, your Grandma & Grandpa and Grossee were using candles for light. As we sat around the table and ate dinner, it somehow became apparent that the blackout was widespread, but none of us knew why. I think we were tossing around ideas of the cause, half in jest and half in anxiety, like attack from another country or extraterrestrials. I don’t remember when we learned about what was really happening.
I’m quite sure it was your grandfather who came up with the idea that it could be extraterrestrials that caused the blackout. He was reserved but could come up with some humorously wild ideas.
My dad, meanwhile, was a grad student at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, N.Y. He gathered a couple of friends and drove up as high as he could in his car:
We turned the radio (AM) on, found a few stations broadcasting on emergency power, and because of the absence of other stations, were able to pick up Big Dan Ingram from WABC in New York City. Because Big Dan was working with minimal electricity, all the special boost effects on his voice weren’t operating and he sounded surprisingly thin and normal!
(Someone, incidentally, was making tape of WABC while the power dwindled and finally petered out. A recording of Ingram gamely ad-libbing while his studio equipment runs gradually slower and slower can be heard here.)
My dad continues:
My mom, meanwhile, was also in college at Boston University. One of her floormates tied up the only available phone by calling her family in South Carolina and talking at length about her social life. That irritated the others on the floor, who wanted to call their own families and let them know they were OK.
For all the impact the blackout made at the time, and all the memories it engendered, it seems in retrospect like life went back to normal pretty quickly.
(Contrary to popular legend, there was not a mini-baby boom nine months after the blackout. The aphrodisiac powers of being without electricity tend to be greatly overrated.)