When we moved to our little farm, Chareva pointed out that everything runs on electricity – including our stove and our heating system – and suggested we should think about what we’d do if the power lines ever went down. After all, when a major storm takes out a chunk of the power grid, power companies usually focus on the populated areas first, then get to those of us in the sticks later.
I agreed with her and put “prepare for power outage” on my things-to-do-someday list.
On Saturday morning, a guitar-picking friend of mine came over to lay down some tracks on a song I’m trying to finish up. I spent Saturday afternoon and early evening working on a web site for one of my software clients. With that finished, I gave myself permission to chill. I require permission from myself because there are always unfinished (or unstarted) tasks nagging at me … books to read and review, speeches to write, emails to answer, etc.
I flipped on the TV and started watching Apocalypto, which I think is a terrific film. Whenever I watch bits of it, I’m reminded of a point Lierre Keith made in The Vegetarian Myth: farming is what gave us cities, social structures, territorial wars, and government authorities. It’s the crop-growing city dwellers who send their soldiers into the forest to capture the hunter-gatherers and bring them back to become slaves or human sacrifices.
Right around the time the film’s main character was running for his life from a jaguar, the TV went dead. About a second later, I realized everything was dead. No lights, no heaters blowing, nothing. The girls yelled from downstairs, where they were sitting in complete darkness. Chareva told them to sit perfectly still until she could get a flashlight and lead them upstairs. (If they moved in the dark, the odds were pretty good they’d trip over one of the many toys they prefer to leave on the floor.)
None of this would have been particularly alarming if not for the fact that it was the coldest night of the year so far – 19 degrees. We checked the circuit breakers in the garage, but none of them had tripped. Chareva called Middle Tennessee Electric and punched in the I have a power outage code when prompted.
We have a fireplace in Chareva’s office. That’s the good news. The bad news is that the chimney needs work – another of those to-get-to-later items – and we were sitting there with no grate, no screen, and no wood. So Chareva lit several candles in the fireplace — which actually produced a wee bit of heat – and suggested one of us may need to run out for a kerosene heater. Someone from Middle Tennessee Electric called back and said a technician would come by soon. Chareva said perhaps I shouldn’t waste a trip going out for a heater.
“What if the technician gets here after Home Depot is closed and tells us he can’t fix the problem?”
Good point, she replied. So I drove all the way into town and to buy the heater. As I approached the checkout, I reached for my wallet and found that my back pocket felt strangely empty. Rats! (That’s not exactly the world I used.) That meant my wallet was sitting on my desk. Fortunately, the clerk let me call Chareva at home and get the numbers for my debit card. They’re trusting folks around these parts. I didn’t have any ID, and I could have been calling anybody.
Sure enough, the technician couldn’t fix the problem that night. When he flipped the main switch back on, it buzzed and smoked. We weren’t about to risk an electrical fire in the middle of the night, so he shut it back off and told us we’d need an electrician to replace it. Chareva called her contractor buddies from the renovation project and got some recommendations, then set an appointment for a service call on Sunday.
I turned my attention to the kerosene heater and quickly learned that when you’re limited to working under the weenie illumination of candles and flashlights, the three most annoying words in the English language are Some Assembly Required. By the time I got the @#$%ing thing all put together, Chareva had already explained to the girls that Daddy sometimes says bad words when he has to put things together, but they shouldn’t do likewise.
I had to take the heater outside to fill it, which was a good reminder of why I’d just bought a heater even though some assembly was required. It was friggin’ cold out there. (That’s not the exact description I used.)
The same manual that informed me of Some Assembly Required also warned – in BIG letters – not to leave the kerosene heater running while you’re asleep. Great. So I put it in the kitchen, cranked it up, and let the heat drift up to Chareva’s office. In fact, most of the house soon felt warmer. After two hours of kerosene-fueled warming (much of it spent with me sitting by the heater, listening to a book), I shut it off.
We’d dragged two mattresses into Chareva’s office earlier, and the girls were already asleep. Chareva and I squeezed onto another mattress that’s just big enough to accommodate two small children comfortably. I ended up kicking her, and she responded by trying to gouge my eyes out.
Well, that’s not quite what happened. I twitched in my sleep, then she rolled over to get away from me and accidentally caught me in the eye with a fingernail. (That’s her story, anyway.) At that point, I decided to go sleep in the guest bed, cold or not. There were enough blankets on the bed and enough residual heat in the house that I managed to sleep without waking up because of excess teeth chattering.
The next morning, I cranked up the kerosene heater again and violated one of the manual’s many safety warnings by heating a pot of water over it. Chareva had an old cast-iron grinder in the pantry – Some Assembly Required – so I put that together and ground coffee beans, then made coffee. Chareva was a bit tired of the whole back-to-basics experience by this time and drove off to McDonald’s to get more coffee and some breakfast.
Once the power was back on in the afternoon, we graded ourselves on our first off-the-grid experience. It wasn’t a passing grade. We’ve been talking for months about going more low-tech –a wood-burning stove for some of our heat, cooking over a fire more often, that sort of thing – but when our first power outage hit, we weren’t prepared at all.
We were lucky it was only a day-long dry run. When I was a teenager, a major ice storm hit our town and most of the residents didn’t have electricity for a week. My parents lived in front of their fireplace, and I went to stay with a friend whose apartment had gas heat. We don’t get many ice storms in Tennessee, but we do get tornadoes, and a twister can certainly rip up power lines.
So yesterday afternoon, we went out and stocked up on LED lanterns and flashlights, a camping stove, and bottles of fuel. We’re going to get the fireplace in working order and keep some wood around … heck, there’s plenty of it in the forest behind us (in the form of some big fallen trees) just waiting to be chopped up and stacked.
I hope we don’t go off the grid again anytime soon, but we’ll certainly be more prepared if we do.