News From Terre Haute, Indiana

Mike Lunsford

February 7, 2011

THE OFF SEASON: Lessons learned from the night the ice fell

TERRE HAUTE — The picture window of my cabin is sealed in a perfect glaze of ice as I write this, last Thursday morning, and since it faces due north and sees little direct sunlight, I imagine I will be looking through this shower door glass of mine for a few more days. But since I sit and watch the woods much of the time, instead of writing, I suppose the ice is serving a rare good purpose in keeping me on task.

I’m afraid I am going to have to leave much to the sun in the next few weeks, hoping that it soon melts away the hockey rink of a driveway I have. I have spent much of this day — another away from school — out and about in the cold, but strangely content. We made it through the ice and the snow and the wind of last week with relative ease, and it was just so nice to see the blue sky and the dripping eaves and the light playing with the ice today that I am forgetting about grumbling for a while about the winter weather.

I have no hard luck story to tell about pain and suffering during the big storm. We did lose power at our place for a good while, but we had our fireplace to huddle around, and water and blankets and food to pull us through.

It is ironic, however, that we leave much of what we learn to such traumas. One of those lessons reinforced to me was that we are a citizenry that has come to accept our creature comforts as rights instead of luxuries. I stand guilty of that.

It was no mystery, this storm, this creature that was spawned by mixing cold fronts and warm air and moisture, was coming after us. We knew of its brewing days before its arrival here, yet, like most other folks, I imagine, I waited until the first icy raindrops were falling before I headed out after work last Monday afternoon to make sure my truck’s gas tank was full and that we had extra milk in the house.

Besides the rain, there was a panic in the air as I loaded my supplies into a grocery cart at a local store, a bit miffed that I hadn’t gotten there sooner to snatch up a few extra canisters of propane for my lantern, perhaps an extra can for the kerosene my salamander heater burns, although I hoped I wouldn’t have to run it. I saw a few folks literally raking the contents of shelves into their carts with little regard as to what was on them. Batteries to bread, salt crystals to soup, the place was pillaged.

As I drove home, the ice already clinging to my windshield wipers, I was worried a bit about the tree limbs that hang over my house; I had meant once again to get those trimmed last summer. Now, I could almost hear them crashing down on my roof, driving gaping holes through the shingles into my attic or tearing my new gutters from the eaves. I was thinking about what a thin shell we all have between us and the elements as I tucked my truck under our barn’s overhang, almost certain that the storm, in all probability, would not be as bad as everyone thought it would be. I was wrong.

That evening, as freezing rain pelted us, I padded around the house, glancing through windows, first into the back yard, then to the south toward the barn, and at other times to the west, fidgety, restless. I brought in wood for our fireplace, just in case, and spent considerable time filling our oil lamps, antiques that still have the most practical of purposes. I moved the family wagon to the barn, too, and saw to it that our outdoor cats — both claimed and transient — had straw in their boxes. I noticed that the rain had given way to pellets of a hard sleet, and that they weren’t sticking to anything; that was a good thing, I told myself. I made one last trip out the door to get my camping stove and noticed that it was like walking on pure white, large-grained sand. Until 10 o’clock, until the minute that our lights flickered, then died, I was pretty sure that we’d luck out.

It was just us — my wife, Joanie, and me — in the house that night. We will soon have to get used to not having anyone else there with us, and since we had our supper in us and our baths taken, we decided to sit by the fireplace to read until the power surged back to us. The dry old sycamore and maple logs I had lit were popping and cracking a pleasant tune, but I began to wonder, particularly when we heard the rain begin again and the wind to howl, if it was going to be so pleasant after all. Eventually, we shut off our bedrooms, and she headed to the couch. I laid down near the fireplace to keep the fire tended. The house cooled and clicked and creaked.

I slept miserably, constantly aware I needed to feed the fire. By 4 a.m., the house had cooled into the 50s. My nose was cold, and I rolled into a ball, and waited for the morning’s first light. I awoke at 6:30 when I heard the beeps of the microwave and dishwasher and computer modem as they came to life. I jumped up to adjust the thermostat, shut the fireplace doors, turned off a few stray lights, and headed off to bed, where Joanie had gone a few hours before after the sofa had put a kink in her back.

As I sipped coffee and looked out a back window into our crystal woods at 10 later that morning, the power died again. It would be off for another 8 hours. We recommitted ourselves to books and crosswords and casual conversation. My buddy, Joe, who also had no power, called to see if we needed anything; my brother-in-law, Phil, who did have electricity, did the same. My son came home and headed back out to get gasoline for his future father-in-law’s generator. We had our cell phones, but we saved their battery power since an old rotary telephone we keep worked. With it, we kept in touch with relatives and friends, many of them in the same icy boat in which we were afloat. 

News reports began to come into our news center: The power wouldn’t be restored until midnight … until the next day at noon … until the day after that in the afternoon. 

We were aware that it was to drop to near zero that night, and again, I pictured bursting water lines and fractured roofs and began to worry. At best, since I wouldn’t leave the house unless I just had to, I imagined hours of silence and cold. The house had cooled back into the mid-50s yet again, when as we had just finished a can of stew cooked on that camping stove by lamplight, the lights came on.

It is ironic that while we sat near our fireplace without the companionship of a television or computer last week that I finished reading Bill Bryson’s “At Home.” It is a wonderful book about the development of the house over the centuries. In the closing chapter, not long before our home came to life with lights and sounds and the breezes of furnace heat, I read this passage:

“One of the things not visible from our rooftop is how much energy and other inputs we require now to provide us with the ease and convenience that we have all come to expect in our lives. It’s a lot — a shocking amount. Of the total energy produced on the Earth since the Industrial Revolution began, half has been consumed in just the last twenty years. Disproportionately, it was consumed by us in the rich world; we are an exceedingly privileged fraction.”

Bryson is right. We are fortunate, and we know deep down that we need to take better care of what we have, because someday, when our lights go off, they might not come on again.

Mike Lunsford can be reached by e-mail at hickory913@aol.com or by writing to him c/o The Tribune-Star, P.O. Box 149, Terre Haute, IN 47808. Read more of Mike’s stories at tribstar.com/mike_lunsford, and visit his website at www.mikelunsford.com. He is currently working on his third book.

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