Sunday, May 26, 2013

Fifty Shades of Cold

The weather forecasters were calling for the arrival of the first real blizzard of winter, and I was putting my first batch of Christmas cookies in the oven that morning. The holiday was less than a week away, and I figured that if I really focused, I could spend the next three days doing last-minute shopping, baking and wrapping, and still come up for air on Christmas Eve.

As usual, I had taken it right down to the wire, counting on and parsing out the last few days before Christmas, calculating that with three days “free” from the office before the first of the kids came home, I would have plenty of time for last-minute stuff like shopping for trinkets and chocolates to fill Christmas stockings, wrapping presents, making cookies, making the kitchen presentable.

And as usual, the best laid plans…

The snow started falling heavily by mid-day while the cookies baked and I finished decorating the balsam fir in the living room. My little Honda only clears the ground by four and a half inches, so I’m always cautious about driving over large snowballs, much less piles and drifts of the stuff. Early into the storm, I figured on staying put until the driveway was plowed. I blithely calculated that that I had plenty of food in the house and plenty of stuff to keep me busy in case I was snowed in…but an actual emergency still seemed like an exercise in abstract thinking.

But…living out in the country, one gets used to the idea that the power could go out when the weather gets bad, and by mid-afternoon I started the drill I had become familiar with after years of tornado warnings and high winds and ice storms. Really, the kids had grown up knowing that any time there was a hint of bad weather, I would insist on filling the bathtub “just in case.” And these always turned out to be false alarms.

Old habits die hard, though, and after the cookies had cooled and been put away, I began to methodically prep for hypothetical disaster. I ran the bathtub tap first, filling the tub more than half full. As the water gurgled out, I set to hauling in several bags of firewood, stacking them in the wrought iron rack beside the fireplace. I even detached one of the garage doors from its automatic electric opener “just in case.” I scrubbed and polished the glass fireplace doors until they squeaked, and then got the fire ready to start, with pine “fatwood” sticks balanced on strips of cardboard, then covered by small pieces of firewood that would catch a flame easily. What the heck, it would still be there to light on Christmas Eve when the kids came home!

I made sure that most of the candles were on the fireplace mantlepiece, away from where the cats could tip them over or set their tails on fire (don’t get me started on that story or how I could even think it a possibility…). I even dug out a tall glass and metal pillar candle arrangement I’d bought at a hostess party and never used, placing it in the middle of the kitchen table. There was no way the cats could get close to that flame, I reasoned. I put fresh batteries in flashlights, and made sure that my favorite “boat flashlight” was also on the kitchen table where I could find it in a hurry. I don’t own a boat, but for under five bucks at Walmart you can buy one of these huge plastic lamps that can light up half the yard, and the battery is included. And it’s so big it’s impossible to misplace.

Prepped for disaster, I relaxed and took another look outside. The floodlights cast circles of light into the darkness, and the snow blew in swirls and sheets from the rooftop down past the bay window. Without looking at the reflective fiberglass stakes stuck in the grass to guide the guy who plows my driveway, it was impossible to tell where concrete ended and lawn began. Judging by the white swells and drifts, there was no way I was driving anywhere until the plow came through.

The cookies packed away and the tree finished, it was finally time to relax! I turned off the lights in the kitchen, and turned on the lights of the Christmas tree. They glittered off the pretty iridescent plastic icicles that had been a holiday fixture for years, and softly illuminated the ceramic birds and other woodland creatures jockeying for space with familiar blown glass fruits and the assortment of antique glass ornaments I’d recently scored at a garage sale. I settled into my “couch groove” on the left side of the recliner sofa, as deep as anything Homer Simpson could brag about. Then I pulled a fluffy blanket across my lap, and reached for the TV remote on a nearby table. As I began to channel surf, both cats jumped into my lap and settled in contentedly for a nap. And then, with no sound or flicker or warning, the power went out and the house and the world went utterly dark.

“Crap!” was my first thought. Though, I then thought smugly, I was ready for it, wasn’t I? I tipped the cats out of my lap, and found my way around to the candles and books of matches on the mantle nearby. I lit the candles one by one, and the room once more came into view. I even lit the pillar candle in the kitchen, and it proved to be a charming sight. It was nothing you could read by, but the silhouettes of moose and pine trees that surrounded the tall candle gave off a rustic, woodsy air. Then I lit the fire, tossed in a few more logs, and settled back on the sofa until rescue could come in one form or another.

That was at six o’clock. The fire needed feeding about every hour. By eight, it was rip-roaring blazing, and I was starting to get bored. I hadn’t planned far enough ahead to charge up my Kindle and the little book-light that went with it, and I didn’t want to waste flashlight batteries on reading a book with actual pages. The cats were pleased as could be and purring loudly, with a warm fire and a warm lap. The dog, Lucky, stretched out under the recliner footrest where he could keep a watchful eye on us all. I, on the other hand, felt more and more irritated and restless and cranky by the minute.

How the heck did the early settlers do it, I thought? Needlework by candlelight? Early bedtimes? Math lessons scratched out on the back of shovel with a lump of charcoal by an oil lamp? I’ve always said that I would have made a lousy pioneer and would have been kicked out of the wagon train for whining at the first river crossing…but this totally sealed my conviction.

On the plus side, I discovered that my cell phone still worked. I checked in with the man in my life who happened to be caught in the same storm twenty-five miles away. He gallantly volunteered to drive his small car through the blizzard to keep me company and bring me supplies. I protested, and insisted that he stay put—not only were the highway conditions absolutely treacherous, even if he got to my house in once piece, there would be no way his car could cut through the drifts in my long driveway. I was absolutely sure that I’d be fine.

We hunkered down to wait things out in our respective digs. The decorative ceramic clock on an antique shelf in the living room chimed nine o’clock. I threw some more wood in the fire, and decided to call it a night. I couldn’t read, I couldn’t watch TV, I didn’t have a battery-operated radio to listen to…and with the snow and wind still pounding against the house, odds were that the power wouldn’t be restored very soon.

I set the alarm on my cell phone for an hour and fifteen minutes, stretched the recliner as far back as it would go, and pulled a couple of lap blankets up to my chin. Two cats immediately jostled for space on my mid-section, and I was glad for the warmth. I drifted off to sleep.

When the alarm went off, I saw immediately that the fire had burned down nearly to embers. I stoked it up again, and then repeated the alarm-recliner-blankets-cats cycle. The next time I woke up, I saw again that the fire had burned down to the point that it took a good effort to stoke it back up. This time I tweaked the system, and set the alarm to go off just an hour later. Recliner, blankets, cats, snooze…

By three in the morning, my good humor was starting to wear thin. And despite my best fire-tending efforts, the temperature in the living room was starting to drop a degree or two. After I stoked up the fire yet again, I made my way to the bedroom to find some warmer clothes. I dressed by flashlight in my warmest sweatpants and pulled a fleece high-necked sweater over a couple of shirts. Then, turning to find my shoes, I accidentally knocked the boat flashlight from the bed. I heard glass break as it hit the floor, and the flashlight was dead. I made my way back to the living room by the flickering firelight, and shoved a mini-flashlight into my pocket.

At five in the morning, I finally shoved the last stick of wood into the fireplace and closed the glass doors. There was little use in counting on the power being restored in the next hour, and I suited up for a cold trek to the garage. Hat, parka, mukluks, gloves, carry-bag, flashlight. It felt strange to step out into the night without the familiar floodlights on the house and garage. Where it drifted up against the garage, the snow was up to my knees. And the snow just kept falling.

I pulled up the smaller door (finally, foresight proved right!), and began to search the racks for the driest pieces of wood I could find. I hauled two bags inside through the darkness. Across the street, I couldn’t quite make out whether there were lights at my neighbors’ house…or if my tired eyes were playing tricks on me. On my final trek for more wood, I heard the sound of a powerful truck motor, and turned to see the outlines of a snowplow illuminated by headlights. The driver—another neighbor—exchanged a few “lovely weather we’re having” sentiments through the window of the truck cab, and then I trudged back to the house. Indeed, I found in our brief exchange, the power was out for the entire street. And nobody still had any idea of when it would come back on.

Dawn finally came, and the snow finally quit, and the living room started to warm a little in the sunlight. I let the fire die down so that I didn’t leave the house with a fire blazing in the grate, and then—no longer marooned by drifts—made a short run to a nearby Walmart. For one thing, I could recharge my dwindling cell phone battery in the car as I drove. And for another, I wanted to stock up on flashlight batteries…and get another boat lantern. I bought two when I got there, in fact, one of them a “new and improved” LED version that promised to deliver about 44 hours of light using the same sized battery that the conventional model would run on for only four and a half. There are times that I just love technology.

The entire day proceeded on a feed-the-fire-every-hour rhythm, though now I could at least see what I was doing…and could occasionally just sit and read a book in daylight. I ran into my neighbor by the mailbox, and she offered to let me use her house if I needed to, since she and her husband had a generator that they were running. Well, that would explain the lights during the storm the night before!

As the day wore on with still no power, the man in my life made continued pitches for me to bring the animals and myself down to his place for the evening, and avail myself of a hot meal and a warm shower and comfortable bed. It was so utterly deliciously tempting… I finally said that I would…but I still wanted to wait it out until late in the evening, just to keep the place warm and the pipes from freezing. As darkness fell, I took up my familiar spot in the couch groove, but this time I was ready for reading. There was enough battery life left in my Kindle for me to read an entire suspense novel, guilt-free, by the energy-efficient light of my new LED boat lantern. They do say that necessity is the mother of invention.

By nine at night, the house was still dark except for candlelight and the fireplace, and I started to make preparations to leave. And then I stopped short, and called him and refused. If I left the house and the power stayed off, the temps in the house would surely drop, a LOT. I didn’t think I could face walking back into a living room in the mid-forties and shoveling firewood like a train engineer fueling a coal engine until the house warmed up again. Easier to stay put, waking every hour and feeding the fire like a sleep-deprived zombie.

“I’ll be there in forty-five minutes,” he said. And then he was, bearing a warm pizza fresh from his oven, a bottle of wine, and a promise to help tend the fire throughout the night so that I could finally get some sleep. We set up the sleeping bags he’d brought in front of the fireplace, and talked, and finally dozed off, our heads close to the fireplace doors and the wood rack within his arms’ reach.

When I woke up, my face felt cold and it was four hours later. Good intentions had gone awry, and we had both slept through the fire-tending duties. The fire was out, with barely an ember left. I tried to nudge him awake. No luck. I nudged harder. Still no luck again, he was comfortably slumbering and totally out cold. I checked my cell phone. It was three in the morning. I looked at the battery-operated thermometer on the living room wall. It was only eleven degrees outside…and the living room temperature had fallen to a a chilly fifty-eight degrees inside.

I sighed…and then went to work building up the fire again with crumpled newspaper and fatwood sticks and paper towels soaked with alcohol. A half hour later it was roaring, but the wood supply was getting mighty low. And so for the second night in a row, I went trudging through the darkness with a flashlight and a carry-bag, toting in more firewood to keep the critters from freezing and the pipes from bursting. Ah, I thought, there’s just nothin’ like country livin’.

By morning, I had made my third or fourth call to the power company to check on the progress of things. This time, they finally had an estimate, and I was assured that while thousands of people had had their power restored, my forlorn street was one of the last technical holdouts in the area. “By ten o’clock,” the lady on the other end of the line estimated. Though she didn’t know if that actually meant ten in the morning or ten at night.

The man in my life eventually departed for his own house (after hauling in some more wood before he left), and I gritted my teeth in anticipation of yet another day of peanut butter sandwiches and bowls of granola with yogurt and round-the-clock fire tending. We hugged, and made plans for dinner at his house, come hell or high water.

Then, with a wave, he drove off down the driveway, and I shut the door to keep in the precious warmth. He called a minute later to tell me that he’d encountered some linemen working on a transformer up at the end of the road, and that prospects looked good for getting the power back up. Two minutes later, the lights on the Christmas tree suddenly came on, and I could hear the furnace start to hum.

Ah, rescue at last! It had been forty hours since the world suddenly went dark, and my longstanding fill-the-bathtub precautions finally turned out to have some practical value.

I’ve reshelved the pretty pillar candle and stashed the boat lanterns away, and made peace with the fact that I had to throw out just about everything in the fridge. Six months later, roses are starting to bloom where drifts had covered windows, and if the temperatures dip too low, the only thing we worry about these days is frost on tender plants.

You can never predict when something like that is going to happen, you can just hope it won’t, and plan to have enough batteries and candles and firewood to get you through it if does. There is one thing I expect, though, and it doesn’t take a Magic 8 ball or gypsy palm reader to predict it for me. And that is…

I’m pretty sure that I see a portable generator in my future. Forty hours of candlelight is so…1800s!

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