By Kathryn Baumgartner
“I really hope the power goes out! How much fun would that be?”
These are the words I kept repeating to my suitemates the night of October 29, as the lights continued to flicker on and off. That night, my wish came true. Just as we were about to pop a movie into the DVD player, prepared to enjoy the break from homework that came with the two days we got off school, the power shut itself off for good. The clock in the cafeteria remained frozen at 7:20, the time the week without power began.
At first, it was just as much fun as I imagined it would be. My five suitemates and I - the other three had gone home for the weekend and would not be returning until after the storm passed - turned the common area into an old-fashioned entertainment center. We built a fort out of sheets, painted our nails, blasted the new Taylor Swift album, and even communicated with other stranded students via what we dubbed “flashlight Morse code.”
People came to visit us in our blanket fort, one guy even bringing us ice cream sandwiches courtesy of his roommate’s freezer. My friend grabbed her acoustic guitar and started a sing-along just as I decided it was time to head to bed. Everything seemed perfect that night - no school and an excuse to hang out with friends instead of doing work? We did not think it could get any better than that. That was before reality set in.
No Power, No Heat, No Hot Water...
The next day, we realized that no power meant no heat. More specifically, it meant no hot water. Five girls and the prospect of a cold shower did not seem promising. Then came the issue of food. The things we were keeping in the fridge were beginning to go bad and the only things the cafeteria had to offer was severely watered-down apple juice, cereal, and peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. That was sure to get old fast. Some of my friends realized they would not be able to survive on campus, so they made plans to head elsewhere.
There were several issues with this, though. The two major ones were the fact that most of their homes also did not have power and the traffic lights were not working, making driving very treacherous. However, one of the girls had power at her home, which is approximately 40 minutes away, and parents willing to give all of us a place to stay for as long as we needed. It seemed like the perfect plan.
Despite the plans for all of us to leave on the 30th, only three of the five of us got in the car with her parents when they came to pick us up. I had called to let my parents know what was going on and they were very adamantly against me being on the road with all the traffic signals not working. Granted, they would not have been able to stop me from going, as they were an hour and a half away, but I did not feel right going against what they had told me. Upon hearing I would be staying alone in the powerless dorm, my friend Melanie also chose to stay. I will be forever grateful to her for this, as I do not know what I would have done there alone.
Staying in the Dark...or Driving on Little Gas
I learned that night, as we prepared to go to sleep, that Melanie is afraid of the dark yet chose to stay where she knew she would have to face that fear, rather than leaving me in order to go to a place with lights. After having charged our phones using the generator set up at the cafeteria, and watching the movies they were also playing there, Melanie called her parents. They lived 30 minutes away and had power. They suggested we leave the next morning - Halloween - to stay at her house for the time being. We went to sleep that night, excited at the prospect of a hot shower and the ability to do laundry. Of course nothing could ever be that simple.
Melanie’s car initially refused to start and, once it finally did, we saw that she had less than a quarter tank of gas left. Would we be able to make the half-hour drive to Bergen County on such a small amount of gas? I sure didn’t think so, but Melanie did and she was the driver. I expressed my concerns, though, and we decided to compromise - if we passed a station on the way, we would stop, but we wouldn’t go out of our way to find one. We passed one on the highway, but the line was so long - the gas crisis was already beginning - we just kept driving. Thankfully, we made it.
A Welcoming Refuge
When we got there, I learned that due to construction being done on her home, Melanie and her family were staying in the upstairs portion of her neighbor’s house. With only two bedrooms, a living room, a pantry room, and a mini kitchen, and five people plus me, her parents were still extraordinarily welcoming and more than willing to accept me into their home. I was taken aback and overwhelmed with gratefulness. I did not think such kindness was still possible in the world today.
So, we inflated an air mattress and took Melanie’s mattress from the room she shared with her siblings, placing them in the pantry room. That is where we slept for the four nights I ended up staying there. We spent our days helping with the renovations on her house, painting various rooms in the basement. We spent the nights hanging out with Melanie’s friends, watching movies and munching on snacks until 4:30 in the morning. Her friends were just as welcoming as her family.
The damage in her town was not terribly severe, but there were many downed trees and wires, blocking off entire roadways in some places. We got into the habit of walking to most of our destinations, due to the dangers on the road and the lack of gas.
When Sunday came, we got word that the school was back in operation. Melanie and I walked to the gas station to fill up gas canisters for her mom’s car, with minimal incident. One man almost started a fight on our behalf, but we assured him it was not worth the trouble it would cause.
As much fun as I had at Melanie’s house, and as much as I missed it when we left, I was happy to be back at STAC. I will never forget the kindness shown to me by her family and friends, and I am thankful neither her hometown nor mine was hit too badly.
Kathryn Baumgartner is a sophomore at St. Thomas Aquinas College, majoring in English and minoring in Communication Arts.