Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

When the power goes out June 7, 2011

Filed under: Uncategorized — Audrey Kletscher Helbling @ 8:50 AM
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WHEN THE POWER goes out on a Monday evening, say at exactly 6:50 p.m., on one of the first oppressively hot days of a Minnesota summer, what do you do?

Here’s a recap of my 4 ½ hours without electricity.

Finish a late grilled chicken supper with the husband and teenage son, followed by the routine clearing of the table, washing dishes (there’s a reason I don’t own a dishwasher) and then taking out the garbage, which is typically the husband’s job, but he is mowing the lawn.

Notice that the under-sink garbage container reeks and is growing black something-or-other. Scrub off the unknown black growth and blast the garbage can with disinfectant.

Sweep the kitchen floor.

Pretty routine so far, right?

Water the plants on the patio.

Now what? Can’t get on the computer to check email or work on chapter one of the book you are editing.

Grab the stack of invoices and statements from the local lumber yard and try to figure out whether you’ve been billed and/or credited properly for materials purchased for the house project that has been a stressful, six-month undertaking. Mutter a few words that cannot be printed here.

Ask the son where his father has disappeared to and then spot him across the street talking to the neighbors, whom we’ve never met. Observe other neighbors outdoors, including those next door, who have stepped outside for a smoke. Apparently when the power goes out, smoking in a closed-up, without air conditioning, house becomes intolerable, or perhaps suffocating.

Grab a book and a notebook to read and take notes on a book you are reviewing for a magazine. In the fading light of day, that plan lasts through two pages.

Text the daughter in Wisconsin, who doesn’t text back.

Join the husband who decides, around 9 p.m., that a tour of the town is necessary to determine the source and extent of the power outage. A few blocks away, several Xcel Energy trucks ring an electrical substation.

This electrical substation near the viaduct in Faribault was the apparent location of Monday evening's power outage. I took this photo in March, as the city prepared for spring flooding.

Through-out downtown, street lights are dark,  store fronts lit. Figure that one out. Temporary stop signs replace non-functioning stoplights along Minnesota Highway 60, the main drag through Faribault. A grocery store, gas station and fast food restaurant stand dark and shuttered.

Realize that driving along unlit city streets ranks as unsafe given pedestrians and bikers think you can see them, but you can’t. No encounters. Just a realization that a city without street lights and with darkened homes and businesses appears eerie and dangerous. Wonder what strangers to Faribault think of driving into a darkened city.

Return home. Finally accept that power likely will not be restored for awhile. Light candles. Dig out the camping lantern, which hasn’t seen a tent in decades and serves as the primary light source during electrical outages.

Ask the teen, who has been reading a book all evening and who is lounging on the living room floor, to find some news on his cell phone. Still don’t understand how he can listen to the radio on his cell. No news found. However, he tunes into classical music and tries to convince his father to listen to Beethoven and Bach at work rather than classical rock. Son is working in his dad’s automotive machine shop for the summer. Dad isn’t convinced. Suggest a compromise—morning with the Moody Blues, afternoon with Beethoven.

Question the boy more about first day back at work, whether he’s been welcomed. Yeah. Encourage more conversation because usually the teen has head buried in the computer and such opportunities are rare. Learn that he lunched at the picnic table behind the automotive store. Ask whether conditions have improved in the outdoor dining area. Nope. Still a dumpster and trailer and scrap metal pile next to the picnic table. Suggest the boss give me a decorating budget to spruce up the place. Ain’t gonna happen. Son says he and Dad should bring lawn chairs.

Phone Xcel Energy for the second time. Hear that power should be back on by 11 p.m. It is 10:30 p.m. Earlier recording stated lights on at 8:50 p.m. Don’t believe smooth-talking woman. Decide to head to bed.

But, first, join son for star gazing in backyard. Listen to him complain about light pollution. Find the Big Dipper when he asks. Thinks parents cannot find it, are dumb. Suggest he take star gazing chart to southwestern Minnesota. He requests one night worldwide when all lights are turned off. Tell him that won’t happen. Looting. Other crimes.

Advise him to lock door and turn off lantern when done sky watching. Candles extinguished earlier. Off to bed. Just drifting off. Door rattles. Teen clomps. Wide awake. Power back on: 11:15 p.m.

ACCORDING TO AN ONLINE Faribault Daily News article, 2,700 homes were without power in northern Faribault, stretching to Cannon City Township. The apparent cause of the outage was a failure at a regional substation.

© Copyright 2011 Audrey Kletscher Helbling