I live in the infamous Northeast Corridor, where men are so civilized that they no longer have the ability to make fire. Last night at around 3 AM, our electricity went out, with the outdoor temperatures hovering around zero. Believe me, a post-apocalyptic world is ten seconds on the other side of a downed powerline.
There are plenty of people who live without electricity, either on purpose or because of some socioeconomic calamity. I count myself very fortunate that I am not one of them. I am addicted to only three things--regular meals, electric lighting, and indoor plumbing.
This morning was Not My Day.
In a blink of an eye, everything, gone--computers, telephones, lights, stove, water, heat, and the ability to flush the toilet. This is the point where civilization breaks down real quick. You can probably skate by with eating cold beans out of a can, or pile on a few more quilts, but believe you me, you do not want to be forced to live with a toilet that you can't flush.
I noticed the power was out when I got up to answer Nature's little bell, thought "Gee, it's awfully dark..." and then got that sinking sensation when I realized why. As I crawled back into bed, I said to my wife as I felt her rolling out on her side to answer her own collect call, "Power's out. Don't flush the toilet or we won't have any water pressure at all." She groggily acknowledged this, and four minutes later, I heard the toilet flush.
Some of us are designed to cope with emergencies. Usually my wife is one of these. Not at 3 AM, though.
"Crap, honey!" I said, barely able to hide my annoyance, "I told you not to flush!"
"Yeah, crap is right, that's why I flushed." she shot back.
I found my hands-free head lamp and called the power company, telling my dilemma to the insufferably chirpy robot on the other end of the line. Then I crawled back into bed to await the dawn, when either the power would be back on, or I would be better able to start up the tiny woodstove in our family room.
There is something primal about the ability to make a fire, to create a little pyramid of paper and wood and to start the draft with a torch of twisted newsprint, then to watch the hungry red plasma devour your kindling, greedily licking its chops as you add larger pieces of wood until you have a satisfying warmth emanating from your woodstove. It's a skill and an almost lost art, one that I had learned at my father's knee. When I was a kid, we heated our house with wood, and I'm glad I both learned how to tend a stove, and that I no longer really need one. Electric baseboard heat can be addictive after years of cutting, splitting, and hauling firewood to feed to an insatiable iron dragon every two hours, around the clock.
Now it's someone else's duty to keep my home warm, someone far away who stokes a furnace or turns a turbine or watches atoms buzz around, and I am eternally grateful to them, and to the intrepid guys who muster out in the dead of night to re-string the broken lines that force me to huddle closer to my dog and my wife to stave off the chill hand of Certain Death that came stealing into my house the moment the power went off.
The taming of fire was Man's first great technological leap. And the taming of electricity is probably Man's greatest achievement. With electricity we can conquer the stars--without it, we are no better than beasts, especially now that we have abandoned or forgotten the ability to live without it. We are so dependent upon electricity that our world comes crashing down if we lose it for even a few minutes.
Look around you, right now, and count all the devices that rely on electricity. Some people's lives depend on electricity, like my mother-in-law, who needs an oxygen compressor. Fortunately her town still had power. I hated to have to call her at three-thirty AM and wake her up, but it was a good thing I did, because by seven all the telephones were dead--land-line and cell phones, too. We were totally cut off from the world.
The outside dogs and the cats have heated drinking bowls, which of course had frozen over. And to make matters worse, I hadn't expected to lose electric, so I hadn't stocked up any water. I save sturdy gallon jugs for just such an emergency, because I've learned that you can flush the toilet and then refill the tank, and life is almost like normal. Things were rapidly going downhill.
We had bought a generator after the last big storm, but of course I never got around to getting the panel box wired so that I could actually use it to run the pump or anything. So as the house gradually got colder and I could feel the pets hating me, I donned my insulated coveralls and went out to gather some firewood. It was so cold outside, I thought my face would freeze in the grimace I was wearing, and I wished I'd had the forethought to grow a beard back in November.
Our woodstove is more like a toy than an actual working heating unit, but this morning it was all that stood between us and a reenactment of that scene in Apollo 13 where the astronauts have to shut off almost all the systems in the LEM in order to survive, and are slowly freezing to death. I would never live in a house without a woodstove, or at least, a gas heater, because I've gone through too many winter outages. Even our little ornamental woodstove could have its usefulness. We need to cut dollhouse-sized logs to fit into it, but it was literally better than nothing. The thermometer didn't get out of the single digits all day.
As I carefully built my kindling, I mentally ran over the other preparations I'd need to make--go out to the garage and find the camp stove and propane so we can cook, find the candles and lanterns, and try to borrow a few jugs of water from our neighbors, who actually do have a whole-house generator. I struck the match and watched the first few tendrils of smoke waft up the chimney, then adjusted the door so that the wood caught. I sighed with relief as I felt the warmth begin to gain strength.
We did the best we could as far as breakfast was concerned, convinced that the power would be restored shortly after we got out the camping gear. It didn't actually come back on until quarter-past twelve, and then it kept flicking on and off all afternoon, causing a cold pang of dread to stab my stomach each time the lights cut out. I am here to tell you that one of the nicest sounds in the world is the whir of a refrigerator compressor after your power's been out for a few hours. And one of the worst is the shriek of the smoke detectors because they can't tell the difference between a tame, intentional fire and an deadly, unintentional one. Eventually I switched off the breaker on those bad boys. Must remember to put them back on.
So now I'm writing about the razor edge between civilization and apocalypse, and I'm doing so in a house that is at last feeling snug again, on a computer that's purring away, sipping a cup of hot coco made wth an electric kettle, as the incandescent lamps shed a comforting glow over my office.
But the woodstove is still going. Just in case.