Wednesday, January 7, 1998: Sleet and freezing rain all day long
Day 1.) If anyone happened to look through the windows of our home that evening, one would have witnessed an idyllic scene. At that time, our family consisted of a seventy-six year old mother, my husband Leo, me and our dog, Chu. We resided in a log home on Woodard Mountain in the small town of Minot in the foothills of south, central Maine. On most any given night, we could be found in the living room, gathered around our wood burning stove, watching television.
Mother has spent nearly her entire life in the far reaches of Aroostook County in northern Maine and is down from the county for an extended visit. Because she has an ongoing emphysema problem, she is attached to a portable oxygen tank and is ensconced in her favorite chair next to the blazing wood fire. Her feet are propped up on an ottoman and a small electric throw is spread across her legs. Her ever-present cup of tea is on the table beside her and she is happily munching on a "Little Debbie" and working intently on a crossword puzzle.
I was busily knitting woolen socks for my husband. Leo, who is responsible for the phrase "couch potato" and a total electronic junkie, was snuggled into the down-filled sofa cushions with Chu snoring at his feet.
He clicked a button on the remote and the big screen television lit up the room. The Channel Eight weather channel out of Portland had just concluded and we listened closely as our favorite weatherman, Tom Cochrane, informed us that a "Winter Storm Watch" is in effect for our part of the state. He went on with charts and graphs elaborating on how this "nor'easter" was going to affect our part of the state. He foretold of immense power outages along with downed power lines and impassable roads and he concluded with the warning to have alternative light and heat sources available.
After listening intently to the lengthy forecast, I turned to my husband. "Honey, I think that I'll fill the washer with clean water, just in case." My husband, ever the optimist, looked over at me and said in a slightly condescending tone, "You know how these guys always exaggerate dear. Every little snow flurry turns into a blizzard in their minds."
Having grown-up in Aroostook County, I knew a real storm when I saw one and I also knew that one should never underestimate a winter storm in Maine. I proceeded to fill the washer and both bathtubs with clean, cold water.
Every now and then, a heavy gust of wind and rain from the northeast, slammed against the front of our log house. Mother, startled by the sound of the wind-driven rain, grabbed the electric cord to her blanket, peered in my husband's direction and said, "Plug in my blanket, will you sonny." Leo laughed and looked at the cord. "Don't worry mother, it's all ready plugged in." Mother turned the control a little higher and then settled back into her chair where she dozed fitfully until bedtime.
Thursday, January 8
Day 2.) I slid out of bed at four-thirty after a night of little sleep. I'd lain awake hour after hour throughout the night. Amidst the snores emanating from husband, mother and dog, I'd gotten up every two and a half hours to refill the wood stove so that it wouldn't go completely out. Our fire alarms and fax machine beeped continuously throughout the night due to the frequent electrical interruptions.
Going into the kitchen I saw that the eastern windows were completely encased in an icy residue and a quick look out the western window showed an ice covered, surreal landscape. The rain laden northeasterly wind hit the corner of the house with such force that the house trembled slightly with each onslaught.
I hurriedly refilled the wood stove to warm the living room for mother and then I cooked breakfast. Leo took Chu and they went sliding down our long driveway to get the Sun Journal. When he finally made it back inside, Leo had a strange look on his face. "Honey, you won't believe it! There's so much ice frozen to the trees that the branches are breaking right off! It sounds just like gunshots!" He exclaimed in a shocked voice.
I hurried to the bedroom window and looked out at my beloved white birch that lined our driveway. They were no longer standing straight and proud. They were so heavily laden with ice that they were bent double and one had actually split down the middle. I, too, stood frozen at the sight.
Once again, the lights flickered ominously and I reminded my husband that he'd better shower before the lights went out permanently. I knew it was useless to argue with a workaholic husband that he should call in. So, at five thirty, I kissed him goodbye just as the lights flickered for the last time and went out. I hurried to the bedroom and watched as he careened down our winding, ice covered drive to the road.
As it got later in the day, I was finally able to see the devastation all around us. The trees, as far as I could see, were decapitated and nearly limbless. I watched in horror as one after another of the large hundred year-old trees began to break under the weight of the ice. Freezing rain and sleet continued all day and by three that afternoon, the once proud trees in our back yard were reduced to shameful sentinels in the army of the forest. Mother, who was seventy-six, kept saying that she'd never seen anything like it in her lifetime.
Around four, my husband called to say that he was leaving for home. His usual drive of twenty minutes turned into a harrowing drive of nearly two hours. When he finally arrived, he was white-faced and in a state of shock. "Honey, there are miles and miles of electrical wires down all over the roads and the trees are still breaking. Some of the electrical poles are down too." His voice broke and trailed off.
I prepared tomato soup and grilled cheese sandwiches on the top of the wood stove for supper and as darkness descended we lit a few candles and gathered a little closer to the glowing stove. Then, we turned on our portable radio and listened to the reports of the storm and its devastation in our area.
Mother, who was on oxygen, kept complaining that she was cold but we couldn't move her any closer to the wood stove. Visions of a Lewiston Sun Journal headline kept sliding through my mind, "Woman Blows Up Mother!" I kept telling her not to sit so close to the stove but she didn't pay attention to what I said. Every so often I had to go and move her back a little.
We all went to bed early after devising a plan about how we were going to keep the stove going all night. As we snuggled into our bed that second night, I commented to my husband, "It could be worse, you know. We have food, heat and some water. There are others who aren't so lucky. This emergency can't last too much longer." Little did I know.
Friday, January 9
Day 3.) Today, I didn't have to argue with my husband to stay home. His plant shutdown for the first time since I could remember. He spent the day chopping ice to melt for our baths and toilets and sawing wood for the stove. I kept busy feeding the stove and thinking of ways to cook different foods on top of it. After all, I was a "woman from the county." I was a "pioneer woman." I was the perfect Girl Scout. "Anticipation, Preparation and Awareness" were my motto. There wasn't anything that I couldn't handle. I was totally convinced of this.
The world, as we know it, is not the same. No electricity not only means no lights, it also means, no heat, no water, no bathroom, no washer, no dryer, no television, no computer, no fax, no refrigerator, no stereo and no saws. All the things the normal American family takes for granted are gone. The roads are barely passable and we've used most of the batteries for the flashlights and radio. Now by day three, our freezer is completely unthawed. I put the rest of the frozen food in a plastic bag out on the front porch to keep it from spoiling. We still had plenty of food and wood for the stove but we really needed water for drinking and flushing the toilets.
The day passed quickly and before we knew it, it was time to light the kerosene lamp and what few candles we had left. I had bought the lamp the previous summer not because we needed a kerosene lamp but because I really liked the raspberry color of the lamp base. Now it wasn't the color of the base that was important, it was the light that it emitted, that drew me to it this time.
By the end of the third day of the storm, mother became a first rate fire watcher. She'd sit in her rocker next to the stove and watch the glowing embers and when the thermostat on the stovepipe fell below four hundred degrees, she'd yell to me that the stove needed more wood. Every forty-five minutes or so I was called to refill the stove. Little by little, I began to hate that stove. I knew that we needed it to survive but I began to hate it just the same! I was tethered to that stove just like a horse to a wagon! There wasn't any place that I could go to get away from it.
Saturday, January 10
Day 4.) Something happens to "normal" everyday people when things get tough. The weak give up or cave in and the strong always persevere, or so we're told, but by the fourth day of the ice storm things began to unravel at our peaceful abode. I wasn't calling my otherwise lovely husband "darling" so much anymore and he wasn't calling me "honey" or "dear" quite so often either. Mother wasn't as placid as she used to be and she certainly wasn't smiling much anymore. Even the dog was stressed. If Chu asked to go out, he'd take one look at the ice-laden front steps and scurry right back inside where he'd sneak off and relieve himself on my rugs and he didn't pick the inexpensive ones either!
I leafed through one cookbook after another that day, trying to find a recipe for anything that could be cooked on the top of a wood stove. A movement outside our kitchen window caught my eye. Leo had taken our broom and was hitting the satellite dish with it, trying to knock off all the caked on ice and snow. After watching him a couple of minutes, I opened the kitchen window and asked him what he was doing. He looked at me like I was stupid for a long moment and then replied, "Just in case." "Just in case of what?" I asked. "Well, you never know," was all he'd say. He was having severe electrical withdrawal.
Suddenly, the air all around us was permeated with a sound that was totally new to us. Where there used to be the sounds of birds singing or complete silence, or a southern wind sighing through the trees, there now was the drone of generators as neighbor after neighbor succumbed to the need for electricity.
Sunday, January 11
Day 5.) The days of non-routine almost became routine. I'd slide out of bed by four PM after trying to get a little sleep between the two and a half-hour stove feedings. It didn't seem so disgusting anymore to don the same clothes that I'd already worn the previous three days. Mother was becoming more and more agitated and Chu had totally lost it. Leo was about as non-communicative as one could get. All my energy was spent on keeping the stove going, melting snow, preparing food and trying to keep ourselves and our surroundings clean. We are completely surrounded by all our luxuries but we are unable to use them and they sit where they are and silently taunt us.
Just when I thought that nothing else could possibly go wrong, Mother called to me from the living room. She handed me her cross-word puzzle book and looked at me expectantly. There was a long streak of water clear across the page she was working on. "Did you spill your water?" I asked innocently as I wiped it on my apron. She pointed to the living room ceiling and then I saw something that I didn't want to see. Water was dripping everywhere, on the piano, the sofa, the television and most of all, on Mother!
I ran around moving everything that I could out of the path of the dripping water. I'd never known that water could make so many different sounds, kerplunk, kerpling, plop, pling, and plang. It was the symphony of leaks that permeated the air that afternoon. Mother kept up a non-silent vigil and every time she spied another drip, she'd update the count. "There, over there!" she'd yell. "That makes fourteen!" Leo rushed outside and climbed up on the steel roof to try and scrape off some of the ice covered snow but it was an impossible job. We just had to live with the leaks.
It was heart-warming to know that we weren't alone in our misery. My sister Norma, who lived in Lewiston, called several times with horror stories that matched ours. She said that she'd had a twenty minute argument with her husband regarding what was more efficient, dumping water directly into the toilet bowl to flush it or dumping the water into the tank and then flushing it. They couldn't agree. Her closing comment was, "Now I know why God makes some men more handsome than others." "What do you mean by that?' I asked. "Well, some men are so stupid, that if they weren't so handsome, nobody would marry them!" She screamed. I laughed and said goodbye. I had more pressing worries. Mother was about to run out of oxygen.
I called for refills and was told that she'd have to wait her turn. New deliveries were being made on an "as needed basis," whatever that meant. I really wasn't sure. After all, when you're out of oxygen, you're out of oxygen!
Monday, January 12
Day 6.) Leo, glad to go off to work, to get away from all the work at home, flew down the ice-covered road at breakneck speed. Our situation is basically the same. The radio is full of news regarding the ice storm and the havoc that it has created throughout the lower part of our state but there is no end in sight.
Mother's oxygen is finally delivered and the young deliveryman tells of his horrifying ordeal trying to get to us. His truck had slid off the Brighton Hill Road into a ditch because driving conditions and the roads are so terrible. I fix him a hot, cup of tea to calm him before he leaves for the long, harrowing ride back to Portland. I was happy to see a new face and I put up a brave front but I'm growing tired of being a "pioneer woman" even if I am a woman from "Tha County."
Tuesday, January 13
Day 7: Desperate to hear that we will be back on line soon, I dialed the CMP "Hotline." I wanted to be sure that they were aware that we are still out here in the unlighted hinterlands. Their number rang several times and then it was answered by a recording of a lady with a slightly "chirpy" voice. The voice went on at great length; detailing all the ways Central Maine Power is trying to help us.
Then, I was instructed to punch one if I knew our thirteen digit account number. I didn't. Next, I was instructed to punch in our seven digit telephone number. I did as instructed and waited several seconds and then was told by another automated voice that CMP had "no record" of us and then the line went dead. "How ironic," I thought to myself. "If they've never heard of us, how do they know where to send tha friggin bill?" I redialed and went through the whole process again with the same result. Determined to get through, I dialed again and waited through their whole public service announcement until I got to number four which was a "hold for a real person."
A young man came on the line and quickly reassured me that one, they did know that we existed and two, they would get to us as soon as possible. When I explained about mother and her oxygen needs that didn't cut any ice, pardon the pun, with him either. He merely recited complete details of his own personal hardships brought on by the ice storm. "Pretty good reverse psychology," I thought to myself. "When a customer calls to complain, simply relate to them all your own personal woes and you'll shame them into non-complaining submission."
He stated that though they had no "official record" of mother's oxygen problem, they'd try to hook us up before they hooked up any of our neighbors. "So, that means that we'll get electricity approximately two seconds before our neighbors." I muttered to myself.
When pressed about how much longer it might actually be before the electricity was on again, I discovered that CMP had mastered the art of vagueness too. "We're not really sure. It might be as long as another week or so. We haven't even begun to look at your grid yet," he said. Then I pressed five for their final recorded message and it said, "If you are calling CMP regarding your "Disconnect Notice," not to worry, we won't be disconnecting anybody for the next few days." That was the understatement of the year!
Wednesday, January 14
Day 8.) It has turned extremely cold and with the wind chill, it is minus twenty degrees. I called my sister and her situation remains the same as ours. She complains of sleep deprivation. She is sleeping downstairs on the sofa and like me, is getting up every two or three hours to refill the wood stove. She complained that her husband came into the living room and looked from her to the glowing wood stove and said that she seemed to have the situation under control. Then, he took a sleeping pill and went upstairs to bed. She asked me how I was doing on my knitting. "Fine," I bragged "I'm now starting my second pair of socks." "Well," she said. "It's a darn good thing that I never learned to knit!" "Why?" I asked. "Well, it would be pretty hard to explain to the coroner why my husband has all those knitting needles sticking out of him!" She replied.
Thursday, January 15
Day 9.) Our situation is unchanged. President Clinton has declared our part of the state a federal "Disaster Area" with no sign of power being restored for the foreseeable future. Another snowstorm is due by midnight and it's expected to dump another foot of snow and ice in our area.
Vice President Gore arrives in Maine to see the damage first hand. He hops out of his nice, warm plane at the Portland Jetport and in his nice, clean clothes, picks-up a dead electrical wire, poses for the newspapers and television, and then with a little flip of his hand, he hops back aboard his nice warm plane and flies off to warmer climes.
Everyone is tired and irritable. I keep looking at our old wind up clock to check the time. I'm dead tired but I can't really crawl into bed until it gets dark and four o'clock can't come soon enough for me. Leo is testy. "Haven't had a "real" bath since last Wednesday," he whined without looking directly at me. "Well, don't feel like the Lone Ranger, Jack." I snapped. "The governor hasn't changed his underwear in three days and he isn't complaining!"
That afternoon, trying to boost my husband's and mother's spirits, I cooked biscuits and chicken soup on top of the wood stove. I mixed a batch of dough and put each biscuit in a muffin pan and put another muffin pan on top of the first one and when the first side was done, I simply flipped it over. I was so proud of myself and I remembered that old adage, "Necessity is the mother of inventions." When I bragged to Mother about my cooking achievement, she looked up from her crossword puzzle book and said, "I could have told you that." So much for new inventions!
That night, when I dished up the soup, I handed a bowl to Mother. She sniffed it apprehensively and then asked. "What kind of soup is this?" "Its chicken, Mother," I answered. "Chicken!" She snarled, "You know how I hate chicken!" I looked at my husband. Leo, seeing my eyes glaze over, hastened to calm the situation. "No, no Mother, she was just kidding. It's fish!" he said. "Fish," mother smacked, "Well, you know how I love fish!"
My husband was feeling a little better after having eaten my soup and biscuits and that night when we went to bed, he related a funny story that had happened at Pioneer Plastics where he worked. On the first day of the storm, one of his co-worker's mother had passed away. Because of all the ice and snow and the impassable roads, it took the mortician six hours to come to her home and get her. Since the church had no heat or lights, what should have been a "high" Catholic Mass, was a short, miserable, cold affair. My husband's company sent flowers with a card but they weren't delivered until three days after the funeral. The card on the flowers read, "Hope you're feeling better."
Friday, January 16
Day 10.) We woke to another snowstorm and Mother got up at two thirty; thinking it was four am. It's going to be a very long day. I went out to get our paper and it was lying in six inches of new snow. The Sun Journal headline read, "CMP Gaining Ground, Searching Out of State for Wire and Transformers, Supplies Growing Scarce." Just the news I needed to read.
By now, Mother has a litany of stock phrases that she's adapted to fit any situation that arises. "It's cold in here! Plug me in sonny! Your stove needs more wood! Your fire's going out! Better check the stove! Where's my Little Debbie? You always give me too much food! Your doggie's hungry! This oxygen isn't helping me one bit! It's such a cruel, cruel world! It's all in God's hands. We're where God wants us to be. Fun! Fun! Fun! God never gives us more than we can handle." By the end of a long day of hearing this litany over and over again, I was certifiable! Mother never knew how close she came to being strangled by her own oxygen tube!
My husband also didn't know how close he came to meeting his maker when he added his two cents. This morning, before sailing off to work through downed power lines, ice riddled roads and flying snow, he complained that his coffee cup was too big! "So bite me!" I wanted to say. Chu, took one look at my glazed over eyes and slunk under Mother's blanket covered knees and refused to come out.
Saturday, January 17
Day 11.) Saturday dawned cold and windy with our driveway full of hard packed drifts. I abandoned the dog, mother and my husband in favor of the snow and the snow blower. I cleaned the driveway so well that Air Force One could have made an emergency landing there. I stalled to keep from going back in the house. There was no way I was going back inside until I absolutely had to! I even took the snow blower and sauntered down the road and cleaned our neighbor's driveway. Leo cut more wood and then made several trips to the Minot Fire Station for fresh drinking water.
Sunday, January 18
Day 12.) Sunday dawned overcast and cold. No wind. Electricity still not in sight. My sister called with good news, for her. She finally has electricity! She went on and on in great detail about how "warm" her first bath was and how great it felt to "really" wash her hair and how "toasty" her house finally was and how "wonderful" it was not to have to use the wood stove anymore. I listened graciously and when she mentioned that she was planning to come over for a visit, I told her that she was welcome to come anytime, but not to come looking too clean!
Leo is really trying to put up a brave front. He isn't aware of it but he often sidles up to the television in the living room and caresses it lovingly. He opens and closes the refrigerator doors just to check. He examines all the other televisions in the house in case one of them is AC/DC. He lifts the handset on his fax machine and listens to the silence and he sits in front of his computer screen and mentally wills it to work.
Monday, January 19
Day 13.) By now, everyone, no matter how strong they think they are, is beginning to crack. Mother is surly and non-communicative. The only one left who is showing he cares for her is Chu and he only cares because he hides under her blanket covered knees and she sneaks him bites from her chocolate covered Little Debbies. We are all sick and tired of hearing that CMP is "racing" to get us back on line. "Racing," Leo snarls, "Sure they're racing, like a herd of turtles!"
That afternoon, Leo took Chu and disappeared for several hours. When they finally came back, he's all smiles for the first time in days. He's caved in and bought a generator! He rushes around and hooks it up. It's like a miracle! We finally have lights and the furnace and the toilets work too! I still can't cook on my cooktop but no more doing all the laundry by hand. It seems like we are now on the downhill side. Life is good!
We run the generator for three hours that night to watch the television version of our disaster. I can't be sure but I'm pretty certain that Leo had tears in his eyes when the CBS Evening News flashed across the screen. We all sat transfixed as though seeing it for the first time. We even watched all the commercials all the way through.
Tuesday, January 20
Day 14.) The next morning, Leo started the generator when we got up at four am and enjoyed a long, hot shower. After he leaves for work, I begin vacuuming for the first time in a week then the generator sputters a few times and dies. I hurry down the cellar stairs to refill it with gasoline, only to discover that the driveway under the generator is soaked with oil. It is not a happy camper who comes home from work that night. Not only are we back to square one with no generated heat, water or lights but we are five hundred dollars poorer to boot!
Leo puts in a call to BJ's where he purchased the generator and is told that they are really very sorry but the generator that they sold us should not be used in very cold weather. In order for it to run in our area, it needs a special adapter which they will happily give us. But we have to take the generator over to one of the local repair shops to have it serviced. The repairs will only take a couple of days they hasten to inform us.
As we are loading the cumbersome machine into the trunk of our car, Leo informs me that an electrician will be coming over the next morning to install an electrical box for the generator. "How much is that going to cost?" I ask my husband as he hastily puts the car in reverse. "I got a real good deal, darling, it's only about four hundred and fifty dollars," he mumbled. "Now we're a thousand dollars poorer and we still have no power," I scream at him over the noise of the quickly reversing engine.
Wednesday, January 21
Day 15.) The old die-hard pioneer from "Tha County" is the one to cave in first. When she came down the stairs this morning, she announced that she is going back to Aroostook County for good. She said that she'd lived in the "sticks" all her life and she'd never had such a terrible time as this. She'd had about as much of this "God-forsaken" place as she can stand. I quickly call my sister to make arrangements for her to be driven up north to the county. Mother hurriedly packs her bags and with her electric blanket plug trailing on the floor behind her, she heads down the cellar stairs for home. As I kiss her goodbye, she mutters something about being happy to be going back to a "civilized" place.
Thursday, January 22
Day 16.) The electricity finally came back on this morning at eleven forty-five. The house is warm and quiet. No more platitudes from Mother. No more building a fire, no more lugging wood and melting snow. No more hand laundry. No more worrying about how and what to cook on the woodstove.
I sit by the living room window and gaze out at our mangled trees. I'm still sitting there when I hear my husband come up the cellar stairs. He takes one look at me and hurries over to where I'm sitting. He reaches out and touches me on the cheek. "All tired out, honey?" he asks. "No dear," I reply. "I'm suffering from PTED." "PTED?" he asked. "What in the world is that?" "It's Post Traumatic Electrical Disruption!" I told him. "Oh, and by the way, the light bill came today."
Martha Stevens-David Column Magic City
The Most Recently Republished Articles include:
The Manure Spreader
Aroostook River Fishin
Vengeance is Mine Pt. 1
Aroostook County Memories
Childrens Stories include:
See also Vengeance is Mine a short mystery novel published at Magic City over 4 days.
All works by Martha Stevens-David published at Magic City Morning Star News are her copyright property and may not be reproduced without her permission.