Today’s power outages, often due to demands on the electrical grid during the sweltering days of summer, have most of us gritting our teeth while we wait for the AC and lights to return. In the early ’40s, a member of the Class of ’36 wrote of more sinister blackouts.
The first time it happened it seemed like a remarkably unfunny practical joke. It was a day or two after war began, and we were still in the news-hunting, dial-twirling stage. I had just given up hope of getting any newer news, and had settled down to a radio romance played by a couple of movie stars, when the heroine was cut off in the middle of an “I love you.” More dial twirling followed, in an irritated attempt to find out what was wrong with the radio. Then, suddenly, a commentator on a Seattle station: “San Francisco,” he said, “is in the middle of an air raid; all radio stations have been ordered off the air and the city is blacked out.”
My reaction was complete disbelief and not a little anger. After all, I was in San Francisco, and my home was blazing with lights. And I hadn’t heard any bombs.
I ran to the window just to check up and—I remember saying it aloud—“It is a blackout!” Apartment lights, like those in my own house, were on all over the city, but the street lights were gone, and a uniformed soldier stood in the middle of the street, stopping automobiles and making them turn off their headlights. The soldier was what impressed me; somehow it seemed outrageous then to see the military telling civilians what to do.
Later in the evening we went for a walk to see what San Francisco was like in a blackout. Street lights and auto lights were still out, but aside from that, the city proceeded as usual, a huge neon sign advertising, as brightly as ever, a railroad, crowds of pedestrians joking on the street corners while cars equipped with loud speakers roared fruitless assurances that, “This is not a joke; this is a real blackout; please put out your lights.”
That was the last time SF was either good-humored or uncooperative in a blackout. The newspapers taught us. The army taught us (with a furious general who burst into profanity at a public meeting). Mayor LaGuardia and Eleanor Roosevelt came out here to teach us. Our city fathers in an ineffectual, arm-waving fashion tried to teach us. A stream of soldiers ... on their way to Hawaii and the Philippines, taught us; a stream of refugees from Honolulu, many of them our friends, taught us.
We did not laugh when the next blackout came.
We had just sat down to dinner. There were six—three family members, three guests. The sirens began as we finished the fruit cup. I had a moment of utter panic. We rushed to the window, by now a habit, to look at the street lights. They were out. We were all putting out lights, fumbling with bedspreads too clumsy to cover the windows, indecisively pulling our steaks in and out of the oven, and being thankful for the candles on the dinner table.
We did not keep the candles long, aware of people yelling up from the street, “Put those lights out!” That’s almost the most frightening thing about a blackout. The mild fellow, perhaps your seatmate on the cable car, the pleasant woman buying flowers at one of the street stalls, become transformed into fanatical, self-appointed minions of law and order. There have been cases here of infuriated pedestrians shooting out the windows of homes that remain lighted in a blackout.
After the sirens died away, after we had resigned ourselves to lightlessness and eatlessness, we began to really have a good time. Our dinner guests, moderately dull people under the glare of electricity, revealed entirely unsuspected senses of humor. As a matter of fact, we all began to feel that we were pretty witty people, much as one feels after that extra cocktail...Not one of the six of us remembers what in the world we laughed at, but it certainly served its purpose, for we forgot to listen for airplanes.
Forgot almost entirely. Now and then the talk would die down, and you could hear a steady droning overhead. As if it were not a fit subject for dinner-table conversation, no one mentioned the planes at all. I found myself listening for bombs, and then hastily, someone would say something, and we were off on our marathon of wit.
Someone realized, in a flash of insight, that as long as our house lights were out, it would not help the enemy if we were to raise the venetian blinds and look out. The result of no lights, no autos, no pedestrians, no nothing but the sky and the dark bulk of buildings, is a sight I shall never forget. It was as if every one of the 700,000 San Franciscans had died and left us to keep a lonely vigil over the silent husk of the city. Not that it was really dark. The sky and the stars, whose existence a big-city dweller is apt to forget entirely, had suddenly sprung into prominence; streets were clearly visible, the buildings boldly silhouetted.
The “all clear” sounded at 10 PM; and by 10:15 PM, we were eating those steaks... The six of us felt we had awakened from a dream; the light on our gloom-accustomed eyes helped the illusion.We suddenly found we were too tired and too hungry to be funny any more...