Lessons Learned / Mike Turpin
The night of the bureaucrat
The first omen was a door that was practically ripped from my hands as I attempted to enter Zumbachs Coffee for my noonday vanilla latte. Although it was midday, a sinister pall of slate gray twilight had descended over the south side of town. A plastic bag whirled in tight circles and fat rain-drops began to splatter across the hoods of parked cars. It seemed as if everything was suddenly holding its breath.
After a winter of discontent, an uneventful two days of rain seemed a modest down payment towards spring. The Doppler radar on the Weather Channel had shown bright bands of swirling concentric green and orange driving up the eastern seaboard and circling counter clockwise from west to east. It was a classic late winter nor'easter but with forecasted wind gusts of 40 mph it was hardly March roaring like a lion. It would be a fine day to make a fire, be worthless in my favorite chair and annoy my spouse.
As it was the weekend, I was assigned drop-offs and pick-ups. Around 3:45 p.m., I shuttled my youngest son over to a sleep-over, a mere milk-run mile from our home. The wind had picked up and the road was littered with the dead leaves, rotten sticks and broken branches pruned by a mysterious hand lurking west in nearby woods. I noticed a tree had fallen in my neighbor's yard -- its roots completely uplifted in a great, gaping circle of sod. It looked like one of those HO Scale trees that would fall over on your electrical train set when the glue finally lost its adhesive.
A little further up the road, I saw another shattered white pine with its branches weighing down a power-line to within a few feet of the ground. White sparks flew from the wire.
As I slowed to rubberneck -- indulging both mine and my son's inner male pyromaniac, a 20-foot branch rushed down from the heavens crashing across the hood of my soft top convertible, shattering the side mirror and careening off to the driver's side. I slid to a stop and turned to my son asking him if he was OK. We realized that we had just missed being crushed through the canvas top.
As I gathered myself, another tree fell across the road. Exhilaration and adrenaline suddenly arced into electric fear as my adventure was quickly disintegrating into the movie 2012. I was angry I had not checked my Mayan calendar that morning. I would have seen it was a dress rehearsal for the end of the world. I would have at least told the boys to wear clean underwear.
And so I became a hapless protagonist in some disaster film. Would I be listed in the credits by name or merely as Driver No. 3 -- who is electrocuted into a burnt chicken about two minutes into the disaster sequence. I hit the gas and over the next 100 yards was pelted with flying debris, horizontal rain and even thought I saw a flying cow. I kept looking for the Four Horseman of the Apocalypse but realized they were in Washington trying to get the health care bill passed.
After getting my son safely to his destination, I spent the next 45 minutes trying to find an open road to my home. Every street was blocked. Certified Emergency Response Team volunteers, already mobilized with chain saws and yellow crime scene tape, were trying to redirect determined drivers from recklessly forging through the debris and possibly into downed electrical wires.
It did not seem to register with people that this situation was serious and beyond their control. In fact, some drivers were visibly outraged at the volunteers as if the CERTS had somehow been off behind a barn playing with a Ouija board and caused all this to happen. I could almost hear the words from the angry man in the Mercedes. "I need to get through," he shouted. It was the same guy I see at the airport trying to cut to the head of the line because he is more important than the rest of us. The volunteer was infinitely patient but I am sure was thinking: "Unless you are from Cablevision and on your way to my house to reconnect my cable, you're out of luck pal."
My neighbor Charlie is one of those brave souls who gets calls in the middle of the night saying, "Please go stand in the middle of some dark road and help inconsiderate people get home safely -- oh, and be nice. Nice towns have higher property values." Personally, I'd rather stay in bed and be judged on my good intentions. I am sure some people actually think these emergency response volunteers are on some kind of power trip. Actually, it's the opposite. When there is no power, they get to take a trip -- to some lonely ebony intersection and wait. It's cold, thankless and dangerous as numbskulls drive right up to within 2 feet of your soon to be severed legs and ask impertinently "How do I get home?" or "How come I was not informed that a storm might prevent me from getting home?" What do I look like a Garmin to you ?
I encountered more downed trees. Fences were ripped open and a barn was crushed under a massive hemlock that could no longer handle the 60 to 70 mph gusts. I weaved a serpentine route through north Stamford and finally arrived on my street. The wind tugged at my car door handle trying to get me to come out and play.
The entrails of my side mirror hung out like the guts of an injured buddy in some war movie. I could almost hear my car, coughing and sputtering. "It's getting dark. I can't see your face any more. Can you please just give me a little drink of water." I turn to the mechanic. He shakes his head. " You can't give a guy who is gut shot anything to drink."
The shag hickories and pines raged overhead like run-away locomotives. I was now leaning over my front wheel like an octogenarian on a Sunday afternoon drive. I finally rounded the final corner of my road and glided into my garage, a broken skiff barely making it to safe harbor.
As I entered the mud room, the house was flickering like the haunted mansion at Disneyland -- lights were dimming and suddenly glowing brighter. The roar of the generator brought both relief and annoyance as I knew our power had failed.
The generator was an expensive but important investment made more than three years ago when a fierce January blizzard turned our home into a Finnish ice hotel. Pipes burst and I slowly fell out of love with every material possession I owned. I had new respect for the men of the Hudson Bay Company who lived and trapped along Canada's great Hudson Bay often enduring winters where an inch of ice would form on the inside of their winter log lodgings.
I vowed to never again be given a wedgie by Jack Frost and researched generators capable of powering my home for weeks if necessary. When I realized these generators were the size of mid-sized sedans, I settled for one that could power a modest consumption of electricity for three days.
I had endured blackouts before in Southern California. Most were short-lived brown outs during heat waves -- perfect storms of air conditioning units being activated at precisely the same time. It was there I got my first exposure to a public utility.
My father would later sarcastically explain to me that it was a "special" kind of person who chose to work for a utility. I assumed he meant those X-men and daredevils that lived to go out in storms to rage against nature -- wrestling with electrical wires spitting like poison Cobras, mending broken limbs and clearing fractured thoroughfares.
Dad was referring to the management back at the utilities' home office. Seems the field force were rough and tumble, ready-for-action soldiers but there was always someone in the head office who had to deploy the teams. They were, in his words, "bureaucrats."
"Bureaucracy is the art of making the possible impossible," he ranted. It seemed harsh. Perhaps they did not know any better -- being forced to grow up playing little bureaucrat games, "OK, everyone, stand in a circle and the first person who does anything loses."
I picked up the phone, it was dead. The Internet was out and the cable was not functioning. I now understood what it meant to be part of Cablevision's Optimum Triple Play: "Buy three services from us and if nature hits a hard line drive, you are out -- three times." Being a baseball player, I should have remembered a triple play was a bad thing. I called the cable company from a cell that does not get reception. "Welcome ... push number ... English ... service ... answered in the order ... 20 minutes." I hung up.
On Sunday, I surveyed what appeared to be a series of bombs that were detonated all over town. Yet, I did not see a single Connecticut Light & Power truck. I saw the police and volunteers but no utility. Perhaps CL&P were without power and waiting for someone else to come turn on their electricity. I did not realize it but the rumor was some bureaucrat would not release the X-Men and daredevils to clear our driveways and fix our wires because the utility did not want to pay their workers double time for working on a Sunday. Bureaucrats! I knew it.
Well, for the next four days we fell back a century (well, not really). We played board games, built roaring fires, watched rented DVDs on our personal computers -- just like the pilgrims. I read an entire book. We hosted a few friends who were in need of a hot meal and warm shower. It was an adventure.
As I drove to work over the next few days, I saw utilities from Massachusetts, Quebec and Ohio. Someone at work who lives in Stamford accused me and the other "rich" people of New Canaan of redirecting all the utility manpower from Stamford. That one stumped me.
"I actually think all the CL&P guys are in Greenwich eating quiche as the bureaucrats started alphabetically, and everyone knows G comes before N and S," I told her. She was unconvinced.
We survived. The car has $2,000 of damage but everyone is alright. I was lamenting my experience on a sideline at lacrosse last week. On the drive home, my son asked me, "Dad, what's a bureaucrat?"
I thought for a moment and said, "Someone who does not want you to have electricity."
He seemed satisfied with my answer. I mean, what else could I tell him?
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