Saturday, July 7, 2012

Simpler Times?

Shortly after ten PM on Friday evening, 29 June 2012, 80 mile per hour winds of the June 2012 Derecho knocked out electrical power in our community and those around us. We awoke on Saturday morning to a world decidedly different than the one we had awakened to a scant 24 hours before.

There would be no fresh brewed coffee; the coffee maker requires electricity.  Neither would there be any fresh perked coffee since the stove is also electric.  Unless I chose to drag out the camp stove, there would there be no bacon, eggs, or even oatmeal due to lack of a heat source. Thank goodness city water and sewer allowed the water to continue to run and the toilets to continue to flush.

Land line phones were out and cellular service spotty due to storm damage.  Wireless phones require electricity even even when attached to the land line.  Internet service via the iPad was so slow and unreliable that I shut it down to save battery.

In short, our thoroughly modern community five miles from Washington Dulles Airport and thirty miles outside our nation's capital was forced to cope with the limitations of what our nineteenth and early twentieth-century ancestors would have called every day life.  Without power, our options were limited.

The community in which I grew up had been electrified less than fifteen years when I was born.  During my boyhood, we had neighbors who lived without electricity, mostly for fear of fire and electrocution.  Somehow, they never quite made the connection between coal oil lamps and fire hazards.  Oil lamps were a familiar hazard. Electricity was a great unknown and prone to fail during summer and winter storms.

My grandmother cooked on a wood stove four seasons of the year.  So did my mother until 1953 when Dad bought her a stove that used liquid propane as its fuel.  He chose gas because electric power was unreliable and cooking and eating were important even when the power was out.

At my Grand Dad's house, water was pumped by hand and carried to the kitchen in a bucket.  A good friend's family dipped their water from a nearby spring.  Our electric pump provided cold water to the kitchen as long as the power was on; during power outages, we hauled water pumped from my grand parents' well in ten gallon milk cans.


Water for washing was heated on the kitchen stove summer and winter.  There was no shower; the bathtub was made by Wheeling Steel, hung on a nail on the back porch and was dragged in at bath time.  We learned early how to take a sponge bath. 


There was no bathroom. The "necessary facility" was an outhouse which required a walk, or else a chamber pot that had to be emptied daily.  People back then dealt with a lot of mess and smells with which people today are entirely unfamiliar. 


There was no central heat and no air conditioning, but houses were designed with windows to take advantage of whatever cooling breezes there were.  When it was hot, we slowed down, drank lots of water, and stayed in the shade as much as possible. When it was cold, we put on extra layers, piled extra quilts on the bed, and built the fire a bit hotter in the stove.

Some would say that times were simpler back then.  And, when viewed through one lens, they were.  But that simplicity required more knowledge, more skills, and more labor than we are used to expending today.  In those times, these now antiquated skills were a normal part of life, necessary for comfort and survival, learned and practiced almost from the time one could walk.  


Today, we learn, practice, and rely on different skills for our comfort and survival.  Today, our twenty-first century houses and facilities are ill designed or equipped to support a nineteenth century lifestyle for more than a short time.  Yet, when the power goes out, we are returned to the capabilities of the nineteenth century and must make do with that which is. 


When the power goes out, I wonder how well my life skills match up to those of my grand parents and great grand parents.

How well do yours?

How would you make do and survive an extended period without power?

What would you have to do differently in order to thrive in such an environment?