The Day the Lights Went Out

I am convinced that one of the best usages of the Internet for people of a certain age is nostalgia. With one click, we can find videos or photos or stories that bring back memories from childhood, images that jump out at us and remind us of things we might have forgotten over the years.

I often find that I write about those images on this blog, as an opportunity to pay tribute or just remember the formative or not so important experiences of the 60s and 70s. Often, the moments I choose to write about are somewhat trivial in the long run. But, today’s is not trivial at all. It was one of the most memorable moments of my childhood.

50 years ago today, November 9, 1965, at a little after 5, I was sitting in my Hebrew School class, when the lights in the room flickered for a moment and then went out. We sat for a moment in the dark wondering what was wrong with the electricity in the building when the principal came down the hallway saying: “the lights are out all over town”.

This was the beginning of the great power blackout in the North east with the electricity remaining out until after 9 that night.

It was a night that still leaves me with intense memories.

Our Hebrew school teacher was terribly afraid as it seemed to bring back memories of World War II blackouts she had experienced in Europe. I’ve written about the impact that experience had on me in the book that I’m writing and in other places. For here, I’ll just say that it was a horrilbly scary experience to watch her wrestle with the memories of her past.

When my parents did pick me up from school, we drove through the streets of Brookline and Brighton without traffic lights. I distinctly remember college students standing in the middle of the intersection of Harvard St. and Commonwealth Avenue directing traffic with flashlights. That was a harrowing intersection under the best of circumstnaces. That night, it was a nightmare.

I remember sitting at home eating dinner by candlelight with the transistor radio tuned to the news, hearing the stories of those trapped in subways and in elevators and of emergency surgeries taking place with makeshift generators.

Mostly, I remember my parents reassuring us that all would be well.

But, how did they know? How did anyone know?

This was an era where adults were trying to come to grips with new technology, new dependence on forms of media they didn’t remember from their youth, watching the world change in ways they would never have predicted with astronauts orbiting the earth and so many other changes. For us, as kids, we were used to everything and would never remember times without TV or when landing on the moon was a plan rather than a fantasy. I remember asking my parents over and over again: “Did this ever happen before?” And, never receiving an answer.

It may not seem like much now. But, then it was just plain scary.

Sometimes, these days, as much as I do email and write this blog and do my banking on line and text (grudingly) with my family and occasionally for work, I know the whole world is moving faster than I can deal with. But, I’m part of it, I have to be part of it and I recognize the good that it does.  But, we are dependent and when the internet “goes down”, when we’re out of cell phone range,  we panic a bit and then try to reassure those younger than we are that: “it will be all right”.

But, all of us know the truth. With the vast improvements in technology which have changed our world, mostly for the better, there is always that sense inside of us that we are not in control. That’s what it felt like in 1965. Sometimes, I think that today, even when the lights don’t go out.

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