The Great Blackout -- 11/09/04

Today is the 39th anniversary of the Great Northeast Blackout of 1965.

That was a JackBenny ago.

For those of you with less gray than me, one of Jack Benny's running gags was his age. He would always claim that he was 39 years old and the studio audience would laugh and folks at home would chuckle along... and I (as a little kid) was always puzzled. What was so funny about claiming you were that old? I mean 39 That was really, really old!

The passing of time does give us a bit of perspective, doesn't it.

November of 1965 -- I was twenty-two years old -- the age my daughter is now -- in college, in my last term as an undergraduate, in January my status would change to graduate student. I was commuting to school from a house I shared with two friends. (That VW Beetle picture on my index page was taken in the front yard of that house.) That week, however, I was home at my parent's house in Kingston, NY -- down with some bug, I'd spent the past couple of days sick in bed. It was Tuesday, November 9, 1965 (that November matches this year's November). This was the first day I'd felt well enough to come downstairs and actually eat dinner.

We were seated around the dining room table -- my mother and father, my brother, and me. [It just struck me now that my father would have just celebrated his 59th birthday three days earlier -- talk about the passing of time -- I'm 61.] My father had been a blue collar worker most of his life -- steam-fitter and pipe-fitter, although he sometimes did ordinary plumbing -- sometimes for a shipyard, but mostly working construction -- and although since starting work at IBM at age fifty he had moved away from hands-on effort to wearing a suit to work, that white shirt and tie did not change his blue collar outlook. The evening meal was something that you sat down to eat shortly past five o'clock. At this time of year sunset came well before five o'clock and it was night outside as we ate.

I thought I was passing out.

The lights dimmed, yellowing down... and my first thought was that I wasn't as fully recovered as I had believed, that it was my vision dimming down... I grabbed the edge of the table with both hands... and everyone was saying something about the lights. Whew! I wasn't on the verge of passing out afterall. The lights brightened momentarily, flickered briefly, began to dim again and then just went dark.

And then the other side of the river disappeared.

One end of our dining room had bay windows with a view across the Hudson. At night you could see the lights of Rhinecliff and Rhinebeck, a mile or so away on the opposite shore. Those lights had also all just gone out.

There can be any number of reasons for a power failure. It could be just one room, a blown fuse. It could just be your house, maybe the main circuit house fuse blew. It could be your entire street, even your whole neighborhood, maybe somebody crashed into a pole. It could be your whole town, maybe a squirrel chewed on a cable and shorted out a main transmission line. But not only was our whole neighborhood dark -- it was dark on the opposite side of the river -- this was obviously more than just a localized problem.

Someone turned on a battery-powered radio.

The local stations were not on the air.

The New York City stations were silent. There were no signals from the Albany area stations. No radio stations in the entire Hudson Valley, from Albany to New York City!

We tuned in WKBW, Buffalo, which had a signal powerful enough to reach us all the way from the western end of the state ("The 50,000 Watt Giant on the Niagara Frontier!" was one of their slogans.), a rock and roll station we had listened to throughout high school and still frequently tuned in at night on our car radios. Surely whatever problem we had would not affect them.

Their signal was weak, static-filled -- their announcer acknowledged that, said something about broadcasting from their emergency studio located at their transmission tower. Omigod, what is going on?

This was three years after the Cuban Missile Crisis.

This was just two years after JFK's assassination.

We all looked at each other. The Russians. Could it be that the Russians were attacking. There were no sirens screaming, no CONELRAD broadcasts. (I think CONELRAD had already been replaced by the Emergency Broadcast System by then, but we checked the CONELRAD spots on the dial anyway.)

WKBW was broadcasting music, no news. In searching across the radio dial we then came upon a Washington, DC station, one that usually could only be picked up late at night, but with most of the radio dial silent, it was coming in now... "Traffic is crawling on the DC Beltway..." The announcer went on to list a traffic backup at a bridge, a standstill at an intersection...

Oh my God! They're evacuating the capital.


The Russians must have already hit some targets, that's why all the power was out and most radios stations were off the air. It's finally happened -- what we had been dreading for year after year -- the bombers were flying, the missiles were launched, some had obviously already struck...

The announcer was going on to say that traffic woes in the DC area were probably mild compared to those in the northeast where reports were coming in of a massive power outage that had darkened New York City and an area reaching from New Jersey through New England.


That had just been their normal evening rush hour commuter traffic report, not an evacuation.

Ah.... nevermind...

Our power soon came back on, but I'm not likely to forget the Great Blackout of 1965.

For those of you who are younger than, say 45 or 50: CONELRAD = CONtrol of ELectromagnetic RADiation (or something like that). In the event of an emergency (i.e., World War III), all commercial radio stations were to stop broadcasting so that Soviet bombers could not use their signals for navigation. Instead there were two special frequencies set aside -- 640 and 1240 on AM dial -- all radios had to have little triangle markers or CD (for Civil Defense) marking those dial positions. I think the signals were made to vary in power and to move from transmitter to transmitter (or something like that) to confuse enemy bombers. The net result, of course, was a very weak and garbled signal, very difficult to tune in and even more difficult to understand. After a dozen years of so of that, it was decided that bombers and missiles no longer needed to home in on commercial broadcast signals, so CONELRAD was dropped in favor of the Emergency Broadcast System. Remember? "This is a test. This is only a test. This a test of the Emergency Broadcast System. In the event of an actual emergency you would receive instructions on how to proceed. This is only a test eeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeee"

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