The silence that speaks loudest in power outages

It wasn't the cold that got to you. It was the quiet. The drone of the refrigerator, the buzz of the soft-glowing night light, the clicking sound that came every now and then from the fish filter. Sounds that I took for granted. I would normally not have given them another thought. That is, until the power outage.

At 3:15 a.m., we awake to silence. Dead, dark, deep silence. We listen to the emptiness, and the driving sleet. Suddenly, somewhere down the road there comes a loud explosion. Too big for a rifle shot, too long for a car crash, echoing through the night the sound of burning wires and crumbling metal. An arc of light flashes as the transformer atop the power pole explodes into a torrent of sparks and sizzles. Like a giant sparkler, a frenzied fireworks display, a final shot of light into glory before the wind breaks the pole and the world falls into darkness.

The next morning the sun breaks through and we can at least look at the devastation. We gather water and courage. Hubby leaves for work, to the heated world of offices and working toilets. I stay home in the country in the daybreak of a powerless dawn, with a daughter, two terrified cats, and a dog who hates wind.

We read a lot while there is still light. I answer letters and organize papers, find the propane stove and the canned food. At noon we plunge out into no man's land to walk the distance to the mailbox. The mail is hardly worth the walk except for a new TV Guide Weekly. My daughter grabs it like a drowning man thrown a life preserver. "I guess if I can't watch TV I can at least read about it" she laments. I prepare lunch, warmed up on the propane stove that makes me jump when the flame first catches. It has two temperature settings - almost out and boiling over. We choose the latter, stirring fast.

The phone still works. Most of my day is spent trying to find a real person to give me real answers. It's a push-button world unfortunately, and the voice is mechanical. After 10 tries I have it memorized:

If your power is out, press 1.

If your neighbor's power is out, press 2.

If you heard a loud noise, press 3.

If there are lines down, press 4.

If they are sparking, press 5.

If you want to hear the options again, press 6.

First, the promised restoration time is 12:30 p.m., then 3. All promises broken as the cold seeps in. I flick switches, breakers, offer up prayers and curses, but nothing clicks on.

At 5 p.m. we assemble the candles, the propane heater, oil lamp, lighters, flashlights, and batteries. We find the extra quilts and huddle. It is too dark to read. Hubby returns with news of the outside world. He is not happy.

"The neighbors have power on on either side!" he says accusingly. Why hadn't I noticed? The acres of thrashing forest, a desire not to look out into the darkness? I stand by the window and now I see, a trickle of light, warm and glowing, from the neighbors.

Hubby walks down and discovers a break in our line. He calls the power company. The operator gulps with promises to phone back within a few minutes with an "estimate."

A few minutes later the operator calls. "You are now," he reports happily, "on the waiting list for repairs."

"Waiting list!" my husband screams. "What the heck have we been on all along? The before waiting list?"

The evening is spent in the glow of candles. Snow falls outside, making light reflect on the ground. The only sounds are the whish of the propane heater as its one glowing eye ignites, and the gust of the wind. We listen to the hockey game on the radio, staring into the blackness outside.

"It's like a cross between camping out and a gothic novel," I say encouragingly, but my daughter is not amused. We stare enviously at the neighbor's house. He calls, offering a hot meal and shower.

"We're fine," we say, and add laughing, "is this a test for new country folk?"

"You gotta be tough to live out here," he agrees.

Night falls fast. We crawl into bed with extra quilts and flashlights, and boiled cooled water. We toss and turn.

5 a.m., the power truck arrives. Big lights, large buckets, huge hero men.

At 6:15 the hum begins. The fridge rumbles back into life, the pump starts grumbling, the propane fan hisses. The house sings with buzzing power, sweet noisy power! We go back to sleep for an hour before we have to rise for work.

Hey, like I say, you gotta be tough to live in the country. Smugly we smile, knowing we have passed the first test.

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