On Saturday evening I lost power. I do get a lot of brownouts around here, but this was different. It was around 7pm, and all of a sudden I found myself in total darkness. Fortunately I always keep a LED flashlight on my desk. Most times I use it when I crawl under my desk and try to sort things out in the sprawling jungle of unkempt cables down there. But every once in a while it comes in handy during power outage.
It’s interesting, but once the power is gone the different appliances do not shut down at the same time. It is like a strange sequence of events that lasts a split second, but your brain registers it as a set of well defined stages. First the house lights dimmed down. Then the desk lamp made a short buzzing sound and flickered off. The CRT followed with the characteristic”krrrr-ponk” sound echoing deep within the cathode ray tube behind the display. The video output collapsing down to a single line in the middle of the screen then fading into black. The faint wheezing sound of the desktop fans spinning down to an abrupt halt came next. Behind me I could hear the static swish of the TV and cable box dying in unison – a very different sound than that of the dying monitor, and yet the two use the very same technology to display moving pictures on their screens. After that, there was only a def and mute blackness. As if I was thrown into a black void of nothingness. Both the sense of sight and hearing suddenly went into overdrive trying to overcompensate of the sudden loss of abundant stimuli. The only sound I could hear was creaking of my own chair, and my own breathing. Sometimes, the power would come right back. I sat there waiting for few seconds.
One… Two… Three… Was it going to come back?
Five… Six… Seven… I guess not. I fumbled for my flashlight which was standing between an empty soda can a stack of letters and a coffee mug full of old pens and markers.
I climbed up the stairs from my underground lair, through the kitchen into the living room only to be greeted by a distant howling sound. A bit like sirens – maybe it was a passing ambulance, or a police car… But the pitch was wrong. It didn’t oscillate the way emergency signals do. It didn’t move closer or farther away as it’s the case with the a moving vehicle signaling it’s passage. Perhaps these were distant fire sirens? But my town doesn’t have them – we have a professional fire department, not volunteers. Besides, these sirens rise and fall in pitch. The howling sound I heard did not – it was fairly constant. What was it then? It took me a minute or two to identify the sound. It was the wind! A high pitched distant howl, and my house was creaking as the violent gusts sweep over it. I could hear it so well, because of the deathly silence in the house. There was no radio, no TV, no noise from the spinning fans on my desktop. Nothing to down out the sounds of nature.
I peeked outside through the glass deck door. I saw only darkness – as if someone coated the glass with a thick layer of black paint. I could hardly make out the outline of my deck, as my eyes adjusted to the sharp contrasts around me. The bright LED flashlight was wreaking havoc to my night vision. Judging from the absence of light outside I summarized that the whole neighborhood got hit. The nearby houses were just dark silhouettes far beyond the range of my flashlight. Not a single window was lit in any of them. They were like black, cardboard cutouts backdropped against the sky – two dimensional outlines devoid of detail. The only sources of light were glimmering high up above me the night sky. The stars and the moon – they were incredibly clear. Clearer than I have seen them in years. No wonder – suddenly all the reflected light feedback that usually obscures them was gone in the area. Now the only thing trying to obscure them were the naked winter crowns of the trees swaying violently in the wind. Like withered claws of some strange primordial Lovercaftian beast born of darkness, clawing madly at the sky.
I made my way to the front of the house, and peered outside the front door. The streetlights were off, but the headlights of a passing car bathed everything in bleak artificial white. The house across the street was dark as well. In this sudden brightness it’s windows appeared to me as dark gaping voids – bizarre black holes which collapsed upon themselves and opened passages to strange dark dimension. But illusion only lasted for a brief second. As the car passed, the house became a dark shadowy silhouette again. The red tail lights didn’t really give off much light – not enough to see the details of the house across the street. Instead they made the shadows of the trees and streetlights come alive. They seemed to dance and move in the cars wake as some unsettling procession of twirling stick figures. Soon all I could see were two red dots going of into distance, heading for a shiny green beckon!
The traffic lights! They were still on. I watched them turn amber, red, then green again. At least part of the infrastructure had to be working if they were on. If they have power at the intersection, then it shouldn’t take them that long to fix this outage. Perhaps it’s just my street that went down.
I went back inside, chilled to the core by the cold wind and decided to check the view outside the deck door again. This time I saw a faint, shaky flickering in the distance. It was almost like a mysterious swamp light. It would appear for few seconds, in one spot dim down into nothing and flare up somewhere else. My neighbor must have found a flashlight, or a candle at last and I could see it through the windows as he wandered from one room to another.
As I was sweeping the flashlight back and forward over the deck and the garden the shadows were moving eerily following and scattering away from the beam of light. The trees were still clawing at the sky. The whole world seemed to be moving to the tune of some strange music my ears could not hear. An idea about what must have happened started coalescing in my mind. The crazy wind must have downed a tree which in turn damaged a power line. That had to be it. They would just have to find it, and reroute the power. It shouldn’t take that long. Maybe 20-30 minutes tops.
I was watching the shadows scatter in front of the circle of light, only to jump out on the other side, elongate and then join the darkness which has spawned them with a strange sense of fascination. This phantom movement was both mesmerizing and unsettling. The hedges and bushes below the deck and along the fence in the back of the yard were shaking violently in the wind. It was as if there was something that was hiding in them and now decided to stumble out rushing towards the light – or perhaps away from it. On the left side there was no fence at all. On the right, it is only a symbolic waist high chain-link. Only the back of the property is somewhat shielded. Shielded from what? The neighbors? They were all good people. But suddenly it worried me that, someone could come from either direction, waltz straight onto my deck and I would never see them. Not just tonight – on any night. My back yard is never really lit up very well. Anyone could just walk across the lawn unseen almost all the way to to the deck stairs. From there, it would only take five quick steps, and they would be right in my face. And the only thing that protected me from potential intruders was a thin sheet of glass. I felt vulnerable.
I’d have to board it up. That was what popped into my head. If the power never comes back, there would be looting, and the deck door would need to be barricaded to keep people outside and hide the activity in the house.
Why was I thinking about this? Who would come here? This was a small, local power outage and I was in a nice suburban town, which would be the last place on earth you would expect to see the post apocalyptic looting war bands I suddenly imagined. Still, the thought made me uneasy. I made sure the deck door was fastened shut, and was about to shut down the vertical blinds. I figured that not having to look at the gloomy scenery out there will make me feel safer. Ironically, I wouldn’t even be able to see the potential intruders with the blinds shut. But there were no intruders to see around here.
That’s when I saw a shadow darting into the circle of the moving light made by my flashlight. Black as night, elongated and shapless it was moving on it’s own, dancing along the whole length of the deck and moving from left to right until it filled out all available space. This was not the normal shadow dance that I produced by moving the flashlight back and forward. This shadow was attached to something that seemed alive.
The owner of the shadow suddenly appeared right against the glass of the deck. Two charcoal black in black eyes peered at me from the darkness. They were darker than the night, and much deeper than those of a human being. Huge pupils, almost no retina visible – these were the eyes of a nocturnal predator. He looked inside, surveyed the room and finally affixed his gaze upon me crooking his head expectantly. Inquisitive and curious beast – he was hungry. My uneasiness evaporated, and I swung the door open letting him inside. This cat still doesn’t trust me, but he is pretty comfortable eating inside of the house. He has his bowl right by the deck door. Such an odd relationship we have – a man and a wild animal. Domesticating this little guy is an ongoing project, and there is no end in sight yet. This is no lazy house cat – he is proud, individualistic hunter. I suspect he didn’t mind the wind much, and naturally was completely unaffected by the power outage.
I often wondered how he perceives us, humans. He was born out in the suburban wilderness and has never known a human touch. Never lived inside of a house. How strange we must be to him. Awkward towering giants with booming voices, always hoarding food and are curiously willing to share it. What we have is a fragile truce – and he reminds me of it by hissing and baring his fangs as I pass by him to fetch him something to eat. To close for comfort. Sorry pal, didn’t mean to startle you…
As my feline friend was getting his evening meal the family assembled at the kitchen table, speculating about the power outage and fiddling with different battery powered light sources and candles. We sat there for several hours chit-chatting and gathering field reports from friends and relatives in the area. For some time the cell phones were in constant use – calling ringing, connecting. Then it all died down, as we got the low down on everyone’s situation. It seems that the outage affected more than just my town but rather a larger area comprised of 2-3 towns. It seemed serious, but nothing that could not be fixed in few hours. I called the power company, only to get re-routed the automated power outage reporting system every time.
As we sat together the wind dropped off and picked up several times. It’s low pitched howling mixed with actual emergency siren sounds fading in and out from all directions. My brother works at a restaurant 10 minutes away from the house. You cross the bridge, and jump on the highway, make a U turn and you are there. He had power all evening so obviously the damage was local. But sitting in that dark house, and listening to the howling wind, and counting the passing ambulance/police sirens it almost seemed like we were are in some post apocalyptic movie in which the civilization just came crushing but no one has noticed yet.
Around 11pm, I went back downstairs with a big battery powered lamp, and a plastic yellow radio/cassette player we used to take to the beach. I hooked the lamp above my bed, propped the radio on my night stand, and tuned into some music station. Compared to the howling, and creaking I heard upstairs, my room was quiet as some ancient tomb. Initially I wanted to play some mp3’s from the desktop, but naturally this wouldn’t work without electricity – and I don’t have any music on my work laptop. So the radio had to do for the time being. I desperately needed some background noise in this deathly silence. Next to the radio I placed my cell phone which was both my life line to the outside world, and also the only watch I owned that still worked. All of the other time keeping devices in the room, require running power. Next to the cell phone, I placed my trusty LED flashlight. Thus armed I hopped into bed with a book and decided to use this time to catch up on my reading.
It’s funny how even during this blackout I was desperately clinging to technology. My cell phone, the radio, the electric lamp. They were all my crutches. What it this was it, though? What if the power never came back up? What if the world died that night for whatever reason? My cell phone would die unless I found some way to recharge it that didn’t involve plugging it into the power socket. My lamp, my flashlight and my radio would only work as long as I would keep feeding them DD batteries. And then what?
Even worse, was that all of my lives work – everything that I have created, and learned so far would suddenly become irrelevant, and absolutely useless. My MS in Computer Science and sysadmin/software developer background would mean nothing in a world where computers were just a distant memory. I was ill prepared for living in a post apocalyptic world. My professional skill set was narrow and useless – the only useful bits of knowledge would be the stuff I have learned in the science classes. Chemistry would probably be useful if I had to Robinson Crusoe by myself for the rest of my life in the urban jungle. So was math, engineering and biology. But computer science would be all but irrelevant.
I did not really posses any survival skills to speak off – I’d usually just google up just look up stuff like that as needed. I think that if the civilization ended tomorrow, and I was one of the few survivors, one of my priorities would be to loot a library searching for useful urban survival knowledge. But my mind balked at the prospect of searching for knowledge this way. That would be so slow and inefficient – and there would be no guarantees I’d find what I was looking for.
What would I do in this new world? How I would the rest of my life play out? Would I be a drain on my family, and the local society possessing few useful skills? How would I deal with all my hopes, dreams and hobbies being blinked out of existence. How about you? Do you think you would survive in such scenario? Do you think you would be ready?
I must have dozed off with the book, and my dark thoughts about the end of the world. I woke up way past midnight. All the lights in the room were on, and the blaring TV was trying to compete with the radio over who can assault my ears with a louder and harsher cacophony of sounds. I smiled to myself, I switched the radio off, turned the volume down on the TV, shut off the lights and went to check my email. I really needed to finally buy that damn UPS for the desktop.
[tags]power outage, outage, end of the world, post apocalyptic[/tags]