Epic storms in the midwest and mid-Atlantic states this week make me recall one of the great adventures of my life.
I was 10 or 11. I got off the school bus late one February afternoon with the light failing and a steady cold rain falling. We lived about five miles outside of town and, though the road had been paved some years before, it was still pretty rural. Yes, we had electricity, but we were on our own for water and sewer (see my story about rural water, HERE).
The sleeting rain kept falling as I walked up the short gravel driveway to our house. Everything looked odd. I remember it to this day, almost 50 years later. The trees, the roof of the house, the entire world had a sort of glistening diffused gray sheen. By the time darkness fell, we knew that it was an ice storm: a combination of rain falling from a warmer layer of air above into a cold layer of air that made the rain freeze on everything instead of running off: trees roofs, roads, power lines and Holstein cows — anything that wasn’t under cover.
Some time in the middle of the night, power lines between us and a substation broke down under the burden of ice. Tree limbs cracked. Roads were impassable. The thermometer dropped, locking the ice into impenetrability. We awoke to a shiny gray world under leaden clouds in a house with no electricity, no furnace, refrigerator, water pump, telephone or lights.
By the time I woke up, Mom and Dad had conceived their strategy.
They had a couple of advantages. Even without a municipal water supply, we weren’t at a loss without the water pump to supply the house with water from the cistern. The hand pump at the well would provide water. Even more important, the stove was fueled by propane gas from tanks outside the kitchen, so we had a source of heat and could cook. They had curtained off the kitchen (which was the biggest room in the 2-bedroom place) from the rest of the house, hanging blankets and quilts to create a small living space. This little curtained cubicle, heated by the gas oven set on low with the oven door left slightly ajar would be our living space until electric power came back. That proved to be three days.
Having no refrigerator was not an emergency in winter, since Nature had provided a vast cold chamber — outdoors. There was also a big chest freezer in an outbuilding called The Rainbow House (subject for another post) with half a side of beef and other frozen stuff that certainly was NOT going to thaw.
This was the sort of moment in which my mother excelled. Then about 33, every element of her upbringing coalesced to equip her to deal with any untoward event: her tough-as-leather English coal-mining parents, a Depression childhood and wartime adolescence, her training as a nurse and work in the emergency ward, plus her unflagging dedication to always behaving in an orderly, rational way all came to the fore. She enlisted all five of us kids into the idea that this was something we’d have to overcome, and that all of us had certain responsibilities. We would all Pitch In.
Seven of us in the little kitchen for 3 days. How did Mom and Dad manage that?
However they did it, I don’t remember any bad part of the experience. I’m sure they were concerned: would the pipes freeze, would the propane run out, would the plumbing freeze and back up, would someone get sick (nurses can summon up the specter of illnesses and ailments ordinary mortals cannot imagine!).
I do remember being disappointed that Dad got the cool jobs like going to the pump for more water. I am certain that he welcomed a chance to get out and DO something active and productive for a few minutes.
He probably also did things like moving mattresses into the kitchen for the night and then back out again in the morning. He may also have been out in the dark in the small hours of those terrible nights with a propane torch heating the water lines to keep them from freezing. I have vivid memories of him doing that in nights of deep, hard Arctic cold. There was a little round thermometer mounted on the right side of the kitchen window. During this storm, it got to 20 or 22 during the day, and down to 12 or 14 degrees at night.
I don’t think we played outside, for two reasons: first, it would have generated a pile of wet clothes that would not have dried and, more compelling, this was an ice storm, not snow. No fun. Outside it was something like the frozen surface of one of Jupiter’s moons: crusty, harsh crackling ice everywhere, with the constant threat of an overweighted locust tree branch crashing down on us. I know we did venture out beyond the barrier of quilts into the dining room to play, but it was cold there, and we didn’t last long. We stayed in the kitchen. We played Monopoly and other games and read books.
We did have company. The Britts, Greta and Finney from next door plus four kids, all older than me, only had an electric stove, so they came over to share the heated space. Mom and Greta cooked on our stove for both families.
[One of my colleagues in the D.C. area this week uses the term “prisoner exchange” to describe having kids rotate around houses in the neighborhood so that parents each get a break from all the pent-up energy. I love that term.]
I think at night we had the trusty Coleman camp lantern for light, but I’m sure that bedtime came very early.
There were the seven of us tucked into blankets on the kitchen floor in the ice-bound little house. The only light came from the tiny blue glow of the oven. My mom probably bridged the gap between waking and sleeping by telling us stories or having us sing songs. As we went to sleep, there was no one out on the treacherous back roads and no sound of traffic. No lights. No telephone or TV. Only the cracking of tree limbs and the icy silence broken only by the sound of the wind. The sound of the wind through ice-covered branches is something one can never forget.
But I was safe, there with my mom and dad who, as always, had mastered this challenge and even made us feel it was an adventure.
Lucky. I’ve always been lucky. Thanks, Mom. Thanks, Dad.
© 2013 Brad Nixon