Electricity is a quiet constant in our lives; it’s something so familiar and common that we take it for granted. Without it, the age old fear of the darkness, a terror as old as mankind rears up an ugly head to taunt us. In my all electric home, the loss of power equals minor inconvenience as long as the outage is brief. An extended power outage equals disaster and misery – a lesson I learned all too well during a major ice storm in January.
Although I’m addicted to weather forecasts, predictions for a winter storm didn’t faze me. I expected a few days of nasty weather and temperatures so in preparation I bought extra groceries. Since the weather was due late Friday, I planned for a cozy family weekend. I bought the ingredients to make a pot of chili and thought we could cuddle in the living room to watch movies together while sleet tick-tacked against the windows. The sleet is the one thing that happened as planned; the rest was a miserable and potentially deadly change of plan.
On that Friday evening, my children went to bed on schedule so my husband and I settled down to watch a favorite program. As freezing rain and sleet fell, my mother phoned to tell me that her power had gone out. Since she lives in town and I reside in a rural area that didn’t bode well but I still hoped that the lights would stay on.
Just before we retired, we watched a weathercast which warned of a “major, major ice storm”. Our lights flickered several times and just after I stretched out in bed, we heard a tremendous crack that proved to be the utility pole at the end of the drive. At that moment, the power went out and although we did not know it then, would not be restored for twelve days.
An absolute blackness filled our home, darkness so profound that one of my daughters awoke to think she had gone blind. We stumbled through the dark, called the power company, and waited for morning. When we rose in a cold, gray dawn, the house was becoming cold. There was no way to make my morning coffee or to have a hot breakfast so we slurped cereal by the light of a kerosene lamp. Because our water comes from a well powered by an electric pump we had no water and could even use the bathroom or wash our hands.
I waited in vain for the electric company to restore power but it didn’t happen. With a battery operated television and radio I soon learned that thousands of people in southwest Missouri were without power. As the day wore on, more ice appeared on power lines and tree limbs. Tree branches broke beneath the weight and crashed to the ground with a terrible sound. I held my breath each time hoping that no limbs or trees would crush my home.
That night we huddled in the living room, our entire family piled onto the king-sized mattress my husband pulled from our bedroom but we were cold. Despite layers of clothing – I wore two pairs of pants, three shirts, and a jacket – and piles of blankets, there were degrees of cold but never warmth.
On Sunday morning with temperatures within our home falling into the 30’s, we abandoned our home to seek refuge at my parents’ home. Although they were without power, an ancient wood stove in the back room provided minimal warmth. We slid over ice coated roads, dodged downed tree limbs, and arrived to huddle for the next ten days around their fire.
We lived like pioneers, eight people and one dog, unwashed and in close quarters in a room that measures no more than 9 by 12. Meals were prepared on the top of that old black stove, using my cast iron Dutch oven. On forays out into the frozen world for supplies my husband and I found third world conditions in a small American town. Shelves at one supermarket were all but bare as we shopped in the dim light powered by a generator. At the hardware store, we were met with flashlights but told that they were out of the items that we needed.
Night falls early in a world without electric lighting and the nights were long stretches of bleak blackness. Each day, my husband and I made the long, dangerous trek to our home but despite our efforts, a number of pipes froze and we sustained other damage. We are still putting our home back together, still settling back in after a long siege of Mother Nature’s wrath. All of the perishable food in our refrigerator and freezer spoiled; so did much of the available perishable products in town.
Our ice storm experience yielded several lessons. When there is no electricity, no modern conveniences, family is everything and we clung together to survive the tough days. A new appreciation for simple things like a warm shower or light to read by was born but most vital of all is that we all had a refresher course in my Granny’s philosophy – when life knocks you down, you get up and keep going.
We’re up; we are going but we have changed. A taste of pioneer living was enough to give me a new perspective on the 21st century.