Almost 50 years ago this month, I experienced my first major blackout. My Mom had just lit the candles for my brother Jimmy’s first birthday cake, and another brother, Eric, dutifully turned off the kitchen lights. After we blew out the candles, Mom asked Eric to turn the lights back on, but he couldn’t. At that moment, 30 million people in the Northeast and Canada plunged into darkness due to the great power outage of 1965.
Human error caused that disruption, which lasted about 12 hours. Mother Nature offered a more devastating sequel to roughly the same region, and we are still struggling to obtain some degree of normalcy 12 days later. The scope and scale of Hurricane Sandy overwhelmed everyone, exposing the vulnerabilities of our complex world and forcing many of us to take control of things that we usually delegate to others.
A no-nonsense electrician from Keyport shared that philosophy with me as we stood in line in the Toys R Us parking lot in Hazlet, waiting to fill our regulatory-red plastic gas cans.
“We’re all out here, because we’re survivors. We can’t sit inside and wait for someone to help us. We have to do it ourselves,” he noted with conviction. A contractor from Keansburg nodded in agreement.
Fairness is one of the first causalities in a calamity, and both men believed that how we respond to the randomness of nature’s fury defines us. Tired of seeing the laundry pile up at the house, I drove down to West Long Branch to find a working laundromat on Route 36. I waited 45 minutes for a washing machine, and enjoyed the warmth of the dryers and the pleasant company of others striving to get by during a difficult time. The manager organized the human overflow with a quiet firmness, even though she candidly admitted she wasn’t a “people person” and didn’t like crowds. She put aside her phobia because she had a job to do.
At the Sears parking lot in Middletown, the rising sun made the brisk morning seem just a little bit warmer as more than a dozen Texan crews gathered in their borrowed trucks to await their assignments for the day.
My ill-fated and ultimately unsuccessful attempt to find a TV antenna had led me into the company of these Lone Star linemen, who were friendly, eager, and confident in their abilities. I chatted with a long, lean Dallas native with a handlebar moustache that would have made Wild Bill Hickok envious, when a shorter man with scruffy black beard greeted me with handshake, an indecipherable accent, and undeniable good cheer.
“The folks here have treated us real good. A lot of friendly people here,” he said with a smile and a few missing syllables.
That same day I met workers from Ohio, Georgia and Virginia, too. Most of them drove or flew thousands of miles to reduce in weeks a task that would have taken our own local power crews months to complete. They were eager to finish the job; they had families waiting for them back home.
So, these days, I roll down my car window as I drive past power trucks and offer my thanks and an occasional handshake. They didn’t have to come here to help us. I’m glad they did.