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Posts Tagged ‘outage’

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.

Nov. 9, 1965

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. 

I just asked your Uncle Steve, and he said he was on his way home from his commute to/from college in Brooklyn on the eve of the blackout. I hadn’t met him yet. How’s that for synchronicity!

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:

This was a simpler time in history.  Yeh, Kennedy had been killed and Vietnam was heating up, but it was still essentially the extension of the prosperous, peaceful Eisenhower years.  There was absolutely no fear, just a techie discussion of what could have happened to take the whole power grid down (more than one of us were electrical engineering majors, I think).  Thought of terrorism never occurred to us, or – I don’t think – to anyone else in the country. 
We drove over to the Sigma Chi house at one point, where we joined other brothers walking door to door in the neighborhood handing out candles and matches (no idea where they came from – we must have had them).  Sigma Chi needed all the good PR in the ‘hood we could muster, and so we did stuff like this when the opportunity arose.  I stopped enjoying the riding around when someone figured out that you couldn’t pump gas without power, and I wanted to save some.  I honestly don’t remember when the power came back on; I THINK it was later that night.

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.

My mom specifically noted that she had school as usual the next day, even though no one had gotten any work done.

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.)

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Just in case you missed ’em, we’ve had one or two special posts here since last Monday’s entry. Nice pix and honeyed words. Do check ’em out if you haven’t already.

By some reckonings, lightning strikes the Earth roughly 3.6 trillion times in the average year.

Given that volume, it’s a matter of course that a few of those bolts will make contact with something man-made, whether it be the Pru, Martin Tower or a church steeple.

Or — to the discomfort of residents on a muggy summer afternoon — a utility pole.

July 31, 1971

There’s probably no one alive who remembers this incident — not the firefighters and utility crews who responded to it, nor the guy who owned the Dairy Queen, nor the local residents briefly left without power.

(That’s not to say these people are all dead. What I mean is, given the mundane nature of summer lightning strikes and power outages, there’s nothing out of the ordinary to make this one memorable to the people who lived through it.)

For my grandfather, though, this lightning strike served as an unusual, personal kind of energy charge. And that’s why I’m writing about it this week, remembering it where no one else does.

Here’s the story:

On May 1, 1971, my grandfather suffered a heart attack of moderate severity. Or at least, it might have been moderate in severity, except that my grandpa’s doctor — who examined him while he was having the heart attack — told him to go home and take some Milk of Magnesia. By the time my grandmother grew concerned enough to call an ambulance, my grandfather was scarcely able to move or breathe.

He spent a long time recovering, both in the hospital and back at home, and was more frail and less physically active for the rest of his life. (You should have seen the clown who used to mow his lawn, many years later.)

I’m not sure how much my grandfather was even at home that month of May. The family calendar for the month is sparsely populated with entries. Most are in my grandmother’s hand, and most involve doctor’s appointments and family visits. My aunt graduated from Boston University in mid-month; I think my grandpa was still in the hospital then, and unable to attend her commencement.

My grandfather’s calendars for June and July show a mild uptick in the number of non-medical entries — a weather report here and there, for instance.

Still, entire weeks went by in which my grandfather did not touch his calendar. Faced with mortality, the puckishness and anal-retentiveness of the past seemed to disappear.

June 1971. Mostly my grandmother's handwriting, and not a lot of that. (Click for larger image.)

Things stayed quiet for most of July.

And then, on the last day of the month, a seasonal cataclysm in his neighborhood — right near the Dairy Queen — somehow rekindled my grandpa’s desire to record the details of his life on his calendar.

In August, my grandfather’s once-stilled pencil was again making note of everything from air pollution alerts, to haircuts, to plumber’s visits, to … well, still other random scraps of information I’ll be posting about in a couple of weeks. (Wouldn’t want to spoil the suspense.)

And once he started writing again, he didn’t stop. If anything, he might have become even more garrulous. (You’ll notice that many of the calendar entries I’ve featured on this blog so far were written after July 31, 1971.)

I’m sure my grandpa would eventually have rediscovered his calendar, even if that lightning bolt had landed a couple of feet to the right and torched a newspaper streetbox instead of a power transformer.

Still, I’m glad things worked out the way they did. Forty-five minutes without power, and a couple fewer burgers and shakes sold at Dairy Queen, is a small price to pay in return for a sick man’s renewed creativity.

For my grandpa — an artist, a photographer, a doodler, a tinkerer — creativity was an important part of life.  And on the afternoon of July 31, 1971, a part of my grandfather came back to life.

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