The Time the Power Went Out in Birchwood Village

When an intense squall took out the electricity in Birchwood Village on the Fourth of July, it looked to be a disaster at first. Then something wonderful happened.

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The storm formed out of nowhere. One moment, the sky above Birchwood Village was an impeccable azure, tranquil, peaceful, serene, a picture-perfect early July afternoon, and the next, utterly without warning, dark, ominous clouds billowed in and the heavens erupted, unleashing a torrent of wind and thunder and blinding rain, as the waylaid residents were readying for the annual Independence Day celebration, what Hank Rogers O’Bryant, the ranking member of the village council, had already promised would be the best ever (although he was prone to hyperbole so folks reserved judgment). The tempest was short-lived but potent, touching down at 1:45 and petering out a little past 2:00. By 2:20, all was again calm, and the neighbors cautiously emerged from shelter to find their streets, their yards, their driveways, everything beset beneath a hodgepodge of debris — scattered leaves and tree limbs, the ripe remains of toppled trash cans, assorted other miscellany blown apart and strewn about. But most alarming perhaps: There was no electricity!

Mary Ellen Pomeroy made this inauspicious discovery while doing a load of laundry, bath towels and bed sheets and pillow cases, sundry linens, that she washed in hot water every other Wednesday and dried on the permanent press cycle. When the latter rattled to a premature halt, Mary Ellen figured it was simply her dryer finally giving out, as it was quite old, 20 years or so, a holdover, along with the washer, from the prior homeowner. But when she flipped the light switch in the utility room to take a closer look and nothing happened, despite flipping up-and-down, up-and-down in rapid succession, as it was quite an old light switch as well, she realized, with a slow, sinking feeling that left a pit in her stomach, what was wrong. “No power,” she murmured, dumbfounded, staring at her still dryer, a desultory flip of the light switch, wondering how widespread the outage was.

The outage was indeed widespread, encompassing the entire community, as similarly stunned neighbors assessed the damage. “It’s a warzone!” exclaimed Hank. The Thingston’s recycling bin that they were always dilatory in retrieving from the curb had been launched 50 feet onto the roof of Chris Frances’ carport. Harris Maggiano’s grill, cleaned and primed for an assembly line of hamburgers, hot dogs, and brats, was precariously perched on the Schumacher’s porch across the street. And a branch from Lila Durham’s sugar hackberry had crashed onto Max Chetak’s Honda Civic next door, knocking off the side mirror and dinging the hood, causing Lila to utter with a gasp, hands pressed to her face, “Oh dear, not again.” Lila recalled the unpleasant episode after the ice storm in February, a near carbon copy of today’s calamity, when yet another branch from that same sugar hackberry effected equivalent harm on said vehicle, leading to litigation and mediation and eventually a confidential settlement that made for stilted exchanges between the two at the Kroger deli where Max worked as a cold cut slicer and Lila bought her cold cuts.

There were various additional repercussions from this summer squall, as Young Billy Milner — 11 years, 2 months, 4 days, 4 hours, and 36 minutes of age, according to Billy, who had a fascination with calculations and aspired to someday be a CPA like his delighted mother — viewed firsthand pedaling through the neighborhood with his trusty sidekick, Chubz the cat, the Johnson family pet, never one to shy away from adventure, riding shotgun in the bicycle basket. There were fallen trees, broken branches, a mishmash of misplaced greenery and shrubbery. Mrs. Patterson’s front bay window, where her ill-tempered (although some referred to the animal as simply plain hateful) Maltese, Koukla, would sit and vehemently bark at anyone who dared to pass, had been shattered by a projectile of undetermined origin. Koukla, though, was fine, having since switched to another window through which she vehemently barked at Billy and Chubz until her yappy voice cracked. At the corner of Swan and Forest lay a pile of picked-through oyster shells and crab legs that caused many to ponder just how powerful this storm had been and how far exactly it had traveled, since Birchwood Village was certainly landlocked, before Lennie LaRue proffered that those were merely the remains of his extended family’s traditional low country boil, which he then proceeded to gather, using his wife’s garden trowel, and deposit into a plastic bucket.

The rest of the residents joined in on the daunting task of clearing the streets of tree parts and litter and retrieving stray stuff. There was chatter amongst these volunteers, sullen and muted to start given the gravity of the situation, but soon rising to lively and engaged as they came to accept their fate. “It is what it is,” shrugged Old Man Williams, propped by his cane, the one with the brass horse head he would sometimes allow his grandchildren to gallop around on, depending on his mood, assuming a supervisory role. Lizzie Armstrong, priding herself on possessing a fully charged cellphone, as she rarely used it, preferring instead to speak to people face-to-face notwithstanding her objectionable halitosis due to her affinity for garlic, rang the electric company and was informed by a pre-recorded message that the outage had already been reported, alas with an estimated restoration time of “currently under review.” Learning of this, Tom Canari tossed aside his rake in disgust and called the electric company himself on the off-chance that perchance he would be connected to a real live human being. When Tom received the identical pre-recorded message, he vowed, thrusting both fists high into the air, that he would demand a pro rata credit to his electric bill as restitution.

By late afternoon, the villagers had done an impressive job of tidying up. Limbs and branches that could easily be removed without risking strained muscles or sprained ligaments were neatly stacked to the side. Walter Bozeman, a hulking man, 60ish, with a crisp buzz cut, recently retired from the county cooperage where he had built bourbon barrels by hand, offered to chop up the unwieldy pieces with his chainsaw — after he had been thoroughly vetted by the police officer from Ridgeland who was contracted out by Birchwood Village to patrol the streets in his off-hours who found it highly alarming that a giant with no shirt and bib overalls was “roaming amok” with a chainsaw. Yet anyone who knew Walter knew that he was as gentle as they came and simply was not much for wearing a shirt, particularly with how humid July could be.

With no electricity, it was eerily quiet, save the distant buzzing from Walter’s chainsaw and the humming of the emergency generator the Chichesters had installed at their house after the last power outage left them with a warm freezer full of spoiled venison that Chuck Chichester had field dressed himself in what had been a successful deer season — successful for Chuck, not the deer. Deciding to buy that generator had not been without some consternation as the Chichesters worried their neighbors might perceive them as “uppity” for having such a luxury, so to dispel any notion of the kind they gladly passed out cold beverages, glistening bottles of water and cans of soda, that they stored in the spare refrigerator in their basement. Shortly thereafter, Hank Rogers O’Bryant pulled up in a golf cart boldly emblazoned with the letters “B.V.” that he swore he only used for “official business,” with two enormous tubs of ice cream, chocolate and strawberry (purchased with taxpayer money by the way), for the Independence Day celebration, but which were in jeopardy of melting into chocolate and strawberry soup. Hank scooped heaping portions into Styrofoam bowls that Young Billy Milner helped to distribute, each with a flat wooden spoon, mainly because Billy was genuinely helpful like that but also because having such unfettered access to the ice cream allowed him to partake in more than his allotted share, albeit he was willing to divvy with Chubz since they were buds.

Around 7:00, the first electric company truck rumbled in, to the cheers and applause from the eager and appreciative denizens in a manner worthy of welcoming a visiting dignitary. When the truck continued rumbling on through, probably to the more populous parts like Prospect Hills and Limerock, everyone’s emotions sadly shifted to the negative, with booing and hissing and gestures of general contempt. Tom Canari was so incensed by the slight that he tossed aside his rake in disgust and pursued the truck on foot for several paces before he became short of breath and had to stop. The renters who shared a two-bedroom suite at the Stonemill Apartments at the end of Blanchard tried to lighten the mood by performing peppy tunes with their guitars and bongo drums and tambourines. The starting lineup of the St. Martins Dragons, the reigning regional Little League champs, set off firecrackers and ground spinners that they were saving for later until Mrs. Shuttleford, who did not suffer fools gladly, made them stop, scolding that “someone’s gonna lose a finger,” and adding “what’s with you kids anyway, I swear to goodness.”

With the preponderance of the detritus collected, and it being an otherwise agreeable evening, all things considered, as the sole upside to the storm was that it had brought the temperature down to an unseasonable low, and with a nice breeze, there was not a whole lot left to do but wait. Folks tried to make the most of it, setting out blankets and lawn chairs, and a pair of college graduates who were spending the summer traveling to music and art festivals while deciding how to apply their liberal arts degrees (“resist law school,” advised, unsolicited, P.J. Cross, a lawyer) inflated a portable hammock by running to and fro with an elongated vinyl bladder until it filled with enough air to comfortably seat three or four, depending on their weight. A fire pit was lit, s’mores were assembled, and people mingled and mixed. There was talk of “doing this more often” — minus the area-wide blackout of course.

By 9:10, miracle of miracles, the power was restored in a patchwork fashion, beginning with a section of housing on Beaumont, as indicated by light bulbs above garages flickering awake and TVs inside dens flashing to life. A row of street lamps down Fox Hollow Lane illuminated to attention, and then another section of housing was revived, and another, and another, and more blocks here, and more blocks there. The atmosphere was charged, like Christmas morning — Christmas in July morning — with hugs and high fives and well-wishes. Even Lila Durham and Max Chetak found themselves in a hasty embrace before swiftly retreating, realizing they likely had another protracted legal battle ahead. When Tom Canari secured electricity to his house, he remained adamant that he would nonetheless demand his pro rata credit, and no one said a word, just sideways glances and smirks.

At 10:37, the entirety of Birchwood Village was back to normal, with the isolated exception of a small section comprising half a dozen quaint Cape Cods aligned along Blenheim Boulevard that were wired to a different grid. This overlooked lot was always the last online since there were so few of them. An awkward silence descended, save the distant buzzing from Walter Bozeman’s chainsaw, as these remaining residents remained seated while the other residents receded to return to their homes, to their television programs and air conditioning and food in the fridge that now would not go bad. It was a bit of a polite standoff, and somewhat of a predicament, as no one really knew what to do, what the proper protocol was in this instance. Then, as everybody sort of looked at each other, waiting for some brave soul to take the initiative, the Johnsons’ house went dark. The Johnsons, those poor Johnsons, it had been one tribulation after another for them, from their house burning twice in one day to their beloved Chubz running away. And now this?

But before anyone could bemoan what was undoubtedly a disastrous development, the Johnsons appeared at their front stoop, grinning, arm-in-arm, their two children in tow. It was quickly apparent that the Johnsons had turned their lights off of their own volition, in support and solidarity for those few villagers still without electricity. And following the Johnsons’ lead, everyone else did the same. Hank Rogers O’Bryant produced a key from his breast pocket that enabled him to unlock a metal circuit box and disable the street lamps. It was truly a touching gesture in all respects, causing Mrs. Shuttleford, typically so stoical, to wipe away a tear, although she would later blame it on allergies, the ragweed and the pollen.

No sooner had the neighborhood gone dark when the heavens erupted once more, not with thunder and lightning and sheets of blinding rain, but with fireworks, glorious, brilliant fireworks, from the Fourth of July festival at Fleur-de-lis Fields, that swanky gated community across the way. The sky exploded and crackled and flashed with vibrant colors of red and green and silver and gold, streaking and bursting through the night, popping and screeching and hissing, leaving everyone (except for a 20-something couple no one could place who kissed passionately beside a pile of freshly cut timber) spellbound and speechless, nothing but soft oohs and subdued aahs, all eyes focused above. It was a magnificent display that synched to a sampling of patriotic standards broadcast on the local public radio station that Mr. Johnson played on a boom box he had borrowed from one of his children, the older one, however old they were. And it went on, and on, and on. After a grand finale that had the mesmerized crowd of onlookers astonished and longing for more, Hank Rogers O’Bryant proclaimed it to be the best Independence Day ever, and everyone had no choice but to agree for how could anyone dispute such a thing, the time the power went out in Birchwood Village.

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Comments

  1. Quite a little 4th of July story you tell here. I love your style and descriptive nature, including the people’s conversations when both civil and angry! I don’t normally associate this Holiday with natural disasters Peter, usually just heat and humidity. Who knew it would be so timely THIS 4th of July weekend aside from God?!

    I’m sorry the people of Birchwood Village had to endure that storm and no power as long as they did. At least it wasn’t two nasty earthquakes on the 4th AND 5th like we just had here in Ca. you’ve seen on the national news. My area (Northwest L.A.) was far enough away to only get the scary enough sliding and rolling motions both times. I was in the Great Wall Chinese Restaurant for the 2nd one which was a 7.1 in Ridgecrest; very bad.

    Birchwood Village is a small town where the people care about each other, despite their frustrations. I love Mrs. Shuttleford with her sensible remarks, and Tom Canari’s remaining adamant about demanding his pro-rata credit. Good for him, even with those sideways smirks and glances. Excellent story Mr. Stavros.

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