The Power of No Power

Early Friday morning, there was a storm-related blackout in and around “the Hub,” as the downtown Cos Cob neighborhood is known locally. “Back country Cos Cob” (as townies call the area adjacent to North Mianus on the west side of the river) was uncharacteristically unaffected.   

Typically, life in back country Cos Cob is regularly punctuated with power outages – more often the brief “semi-colon” type, than the full-stop “period” kind or the even more rare “ellipsis” multi-day type like we endured a few winters ago. Poetically, it is 15-second “comma” outages which seem to result in “exclamation points” immediately preceded by four-letter interjections. This is especially true when, like a phrase in apposition offset by a matched set of commas, a second comma outage strikes promptly after you’ve reset all the digital clocks which regressed during the first.

CL&P claims there is a correlation between the frequency of blackouts and the population of old trees in an area. Whether or not trees are the cause, blackouts seem to be Mother Nature’s way of periodically reminding us of her dominion. I can almost hear Nature’s laugh each time I enter a room during an outage and mindlessly flip the light switch arrogantly expecting immediate artificial illumination, as if it were a birthright. Ah, the double entendre of “powerless.”

No electricity thrusts silence upon us – forcing even high-end audio systems and HDTVs into comas. No Internet. For some, no phones. The forgotten blessing of silence is a treat for only so long. Then man’s inquisitive predisposition impels the use of a battery operated radio to learn who else is affected, and how long the situation is expected to continue. Once his appetite for information is satiated, the modern being is left to find different ways to entertain himself.

One blackout a few years back, our family decided to camp-out in sleeping bags, in the family room with a fireplace substituting for a campfire. With my clan unable to come to a consensus on a radio station on which to waste our batteries, I invoked “Dad’s force majeure” and searched the dial for something agreeable to all – something different. I was fortunate enough to find a way to quell the storm in the family room with the help of the storm outside.

You see, at night, without the sun’s interference, AM radio waves can travel incredible distances. And with a low cloud cover off which to bounce, the amplitude modulation waves can sometimes traverse hundreds of miles, especially if they are beamed from one of the 50,000 watt “clear channel” commercial radio stations the government authorized during the cold war as civil defense beacons.

That night, with storm clouds blanketing half of North America, our tiny transistor receiver was able to reel-in a signal from a station half a continent away which was transmitting radio plays. Our family listened attentively, enthralled by the rebroadcasts of CBS Mystery Theatre and the modern adaptations of over-the-air dramas replete with fabricated sound effects and with two or threes actors using disguised voices to play several characters. That blackout will stay with me (and I believe with my children) for many years to come.

Surprisingly, even though I had only fleeting exposure to it, Friday’s blackout will also be one I’ll long remember– for the Christmas feeling it instilled. The sun just rising, “the Hub” was dimly illuminated like a scene from “It’s a Wonderful Life” and like a George Bailey time warp, the clock on the People’s Bank was frozen at the precise moment of the outage — 5:12. A few blocks away Greenwich’s version of “Bailey Building and Loan,” the Members Credit Union, defiantly stood lit by its emergency lights.

On the Post Road, the red and green of traffic signals was sporadic, with only the battery-back-up traffic lights provided by the State DOT dotting the thoroughfare. The other signals, every second or third light, were not functioning – reminiscent of the burnt out Christmas lights ornamenting my childhood home.

But the Kodak-moment Christmas card burnt into my mind’s eye on Friday is the scene at the Cos Cob Firehouse. Twenty-three years ago there was a different sort of blackout at that firehouse, when a federal court caused the lighted cross which traditionally adorned the building at Christmas-time to be removed. This past Friday, the landmark was again in total darkness, yet the pine tree in front was ablaze with Christmas lights almost miraculously and peacefully aglow — light cutting the darkness, pointing heavenward.

A tree may not have caused Friday’s blackout, but a secular Christmas tree still shining during that blackout sure seems like God’s way of reminding this believer of His dominion.