A power outage empowers Bostonians

My wife and I were rummaging through our Y2K closet recently. It's filled with bottled water, canned food, flashlights, a kerosene heater, and other emergency needs. We maintain it to stave off power failures. Haven't had one since 1999, and we don't intend to.

On the closet's top shelf, next to the paper plates, sits our 40-year-old transistor radio. Mute for a year, it spoke as soon as I flipped the switch, just as it has during power failures past, especially the Great Northeast Blackout of 1965, when it brought incredible news.

Working for this newspaper in Boston, I stayed late on Nov. 9 that year to process a flood of incoming Christmas ads. The transistor radio in my desk came out only after others had gone home. It was playing softly as I sorted and filed, and kept playing when the electric typewriter stopped humming and the overhead lights went off.

Assuming the whole building was dark, I called my parents six blocks away to tell them I'd be home early - but their power was off too. Could it be citywide?

Fellow employee Dick Stratton thought so. He'd left the office before me, and was standing on the Massachusetts Avenue Bridge at 5:18 p.m., watching students from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology gracefully row a racing shell on the river below. As it glided under the bridge, he saw the shell's light mirrored in the smooth water.

When it emerged on the other side, it was the only light for miles.

"From Kenmore Square to Beacon Hill, the lights of Boston blinked twice and flickered out," he said later. That left only the shine of a full hunter's moon.

Dick called me from a telephone booth, and we decided to walk downtown together. As we dodged and sidestepped our way along crowded sidewalks, my transistor radio became a magnet, drawing knots of curious listeners at each corner.

It told us we weren't alone. A faulty relay in a power station near Niagara Falls had triggered a blackout that rolled from Ontario all the way to New York City, plunging 30 million people into darkness. But what happened next was even more unexpected.

To everyone's surprise, there was no widespread fear or panic. Strangers on the sidewalk chatted amiably. They seemed contented, almost amused by their plight. Drivers were another story. Without electric signals, rush-hour traffic was gridlocked. Many motorists turned off their engines in despair. Until police arrived, nobody expected to go anywhere. But then, as if by magic, the cars began moving.

University students living nearby had spilled outside to untangle the mess. We watched them commandeer intersections, waving their arms to direct traffic and synchronizing their signals over several blocks. Drivers gladly obeyed the students as traffic picked up speed.

The New York Knicks called off their game against the Boston Celtics that night, but it didn't matter. Boston played a game against the blackout, and won. Dick and I were sorry when power was restored by morning. We'd hoped it'd be off for a week. Without electricity, strangers became friends, and anything seemed possible.

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