How I Might Have Caused the Blackout of November 1965
Going away to college today seems truly an electrifying experience.
Or maybe that should just be electrical.
According to the survey I recently conducted, a typical two-person dorm room can now contain the following: one microwave, one fridge, at least one music system, laptops and/or tablets, printers, phones, iPods, and lamps. Perhaps also a TV, DVD, or Blu-ray, camera, fan, heater, and an electric blanket or two. Then, depending on gender, blow dryers, hair straighteners, and curling irons, or electric shavers and various game consoles. Maybe even guitar amps and pedals, facial exfoliators, night lights, pencil sharpener, and toothbrushes.
What? No flux capacitor?
A far cry from those “good old days” when I matriculated.
“Where were you in ‘62?” they asked in American Graffiti. Well, Holy Cross College in Worcester, Massachusetts, is my answer.
My freshman year there was spent in an antiquated two-man room that wound up holding three. With a new dorm still under construction, it was necessary to put a regular bed, a double bunk, and three desks, chairs, and dressers into not very much space. Oh—and a lamp for each desk.
It was so crowded in that room that in order to create some floor space we put the double bunk on top of two dressers. Heady stuff indeed for me, who slept on top. I quickly learned not to sit up straight when awakened.
Anyway, the three lamps were almost the sum total of our electronic devices.
I seem to remember something in the college catalog from those days about roommates being carefully selected for similarity of interests and compatibility of habits. Thus Tom Versocki, starting center on the freshman football team, Gene Garrity, diminutive adrenalin addict, and yours truly, perfect nerd.
It was Gene, soon to be known as Pixie, who brought in one more plug-inable. The heating coil. An answer to the not-yet-extant microwave, this little twist of exposed metal, when immersed in a cup of any liquid, would bring it to an almost immediate boil. Soup, hot chocolate, coffee, tea, instant oatmeal; the world was ours.
And, as Pixie soon discovered, if exposed to open air, the coil would self-destruct in a glittering shower of molten aluminum.
Wake up to that happening inches from your head and you will suddenly sit up straight regardless of the consequences.
Sophomore year was calmer. My friend Pete Timperman and I landed a room in the just-finished new building. Better than a number of hotel rooms I’ve stayed in, this one had comfortable beds, big desks, chairs with lamps, floor space, an overhead fixture, and two closets with adjoining built-in dressers, mirrors, and vanity lights. Plus, enough wiring that Pete had a radio and that I could use my electric shaver without going to the communal bathroom.
As a junior, I moved off campus to a school-approved boarding house.
Here my room could easily handle illumination, alarm clock, radio, shaver, and more. Next to me resided Dennis Larmour and he actually had a sunlamp. Perhaps not wanting to appear that vain, he convinced me it was a hot dog cooker.
Down the hall lived Charlie Adams and Pat O’Hare. The latter wasn’t worried about outlets. His idea of fun more involved intake. He used to drive Charlie nuts by staggering in late on weekend nights, collapsing fully clothed onto his bed, going right to sleep, and then . . .
. . . about an hour later, he would sit straight up—no ceiling problem here—laugh uproariously, and instantly resume sleeping. Charlie always tried to find out what had been so funny but Pat, whether awakened at once or the next morning, could never remember.
Except for the one time that involved him trying to steal an ambulance from the police station garage.
Fortunately for Pat, the ID that he used to acquire the alcohol was good enough that the police booked him as the kid he’d borrowed it from. (Note to college-age readers: Don’t loan your license to underage drinkers.)
Anyway, the taste of freedom that the boarding house offered led to even more independent living quarters in my senior year, as well as the greatest disaster I have ever caused.
They say that confession is good for the soul. I don’t know. In fact, I don’t even know who they are. But since I’m told that my soul could use some serious work, here goes. Besides, the statute of limitations is on my side.
November 9, 1965. The Great Northeastern Power Failure. For those of you who were in another country, or didn’t yet exist, here’s a quick summary: grid down from New Jersey through most of New England. Even a bigger area of Canada in the dark. Lights out for as much as seven hours. Millions trapped in subways and elevators. Traffic jams and fender benders everywhere.
The story begins, as did many during my senior year, in the kitchen of our apartment. By “our” I’m referring to Billy Dowling, the aforementioned Charlie Adams, and myself, who rented a five-room flat in Worcester, Massachusetts, for $45 a month.
Even if you’ve only seen movies that take place in Boston, you know what it looked like. A flat-roofed, walk-up, triple-decker in a neighborhood not known for prestigious addresses. Each floor had a “parlour” off the front stairway, a porch off the one in the back, and three bedrooms plus a bathroom, all grouped around the kitchen. The latter being the center of our off-college existence.
Like our individual rooms, it was furnished in Salvation Army contemporary. Specifically a Formica table, four metal chairs with pale green, slightly ripped vinyl seats, and that center of our existence, the stove.
Ah, yes; the stove.
If an extraterrestrial anthropologist had been secretly observing our little chunk of earthling culture, he or she would surely have thought that it was an altar of some kind. And that wouldn’t have been far from correct. After all, it was around this large, rectangular, marvelous hunk of white enameled metal that we regularly gathered to worship over its gas-fired flames.
I wish I still had it.
For one thing, the oven took up only the right side of the part that was under the burners. The left had what was called a “gas log,” a heater that provided the only warmth on our entire third floor. I don’t even remember if it was vented or not, but no matter. On windy nights enough cold air passed through our walls to make candles gutter.
For a second, it was the focal point of our favorite study interruption. “Food break!” Yes, any college student, then or now, recognizes that siren call to put down the books and pick up a snack. With us it occurred pretty much hourly. Well, truth be told, Charlie, Billy, and I managed to remain out of synch for the entire school year. As such, the call to graze could ring out as often as every twenty minutes.
Finally, that stove had a most delightful and useful feature: a griddle on the top. A rectangular metal plate with a fifth burner underneath, it had a groove around its perimeter that channeled any grease into an opening that in turn led to a can strategically located below.
Fantastic. This meant that nothing we could cook on the griddle resulted in our having to wash a single pan. Instead, flip the burgers, chops, eggs, or whatever, onto your plate, use a spatula to scrape any goop down the opening, and clean up was done.
It is probably needless to say that if it didn’t involve boiling water, we managed to cook almost every food we could afford on that griddle. Whole pounds of bacon were a particular favorite. Alas, there was one drawback. No one wanted to empty the grease can. The result, thanks to overflow, was a well-lubricated linoleum floor. True, when the tide threatened to reach one of the bedrooms, whoever was in danger would do a cursory mopping, but the results were perhaps less than hygienic. In stocking feet it was usually possible to do a little skating, sort of like Tom Cruise in Risky Business.
Ok; not very much like.
And now, getting back to the blackout.
We had a toaster. Another thrift shop special; I don’t recall if it was dented or not. I do remember that it resided almost permanently on the fourth chair, the one we’d originally thought could be used by the various cuties who would vie to dine with us.
You know that thing on the front that you push down to make the bread drop and the heat go on? I don’t know what it’s called either. What I do know is that when we pushed it, the results were usually heat, but sometimes only a blown fuse.
I had just turned a few pork chops and decided that they would go great with toast. So while the griddle was sizzling, I took two slices of Wonder Bread, resisted the urge to roll them into the smallest balls possible, dropped them into the slots, and depressed the whatever.
The lights dimmed.
I pulled up again and the bulbs regained their brightness.
“Feel lucky, punk?” Well, I did, so I pushed down again.
No simile can simulate the intense hissing sound that simultaneously surfaced. Take my word for it. Years later, while traveling in the Peruvian Amazon, I almost stepped on an anaconda. That “hiss” wasn’t even close.
Well, truth be told, wetting oneself doesn’t make that much noise.
But the visuals?
I took ten quick steps to the back porch thinking I’d have to make the dreaded descent to the basement where the fuse box was located. But from there, off in the distance, even in the waning twilight I could clearly see immense clouds of steam rising from the power plant. Picture, if you will, the last gasp of the Titanic as its boilers were breached by the sea.
Ten steps, kind of furtive this time, back to the toaster. Pulled up that thing again.
Too late. The lights never brightened.
The pork chops were quite tasty. I ate them by flashlight along with some applesauce and raw bread. Pushed the grease down the opening in the griddle. And then?
Couldn’t do homework in the dark. The weather was very pleasant for early November in New England. My motorcycle was beckoning. I went for a ride to see what I had wrought.
Uh, oh. One little defective appliance had taken out the whole city. And, as I was to discover later, the whole grid.
I never said a word.
I’d bet that if your world went dark that evening you will never forget exactly where you were. If you spent hours between floors, my condolences.
On the other hand, if you were born around August 9, 1966, you’re welcome.
And all that without a flux capacitor.