NEW YORK - The first thing that crossed my mind when the lights went out on the 22nd floor of my Times Square Hotel last Thursday afternoon was, "Klaatu warned us." OK, it wasn't the first thing, but it makes for a more interesting lead sentence.
Sci-fi film fans will recognize the name Klaatu from the 1951 film "The Day the Earth Stood Still." The alien and his robot, Gort, land their flying saucer in Washington in the middle of the Cold War to warn earthlings that we had better get along or suffer consequences of galactic proportions. Now isn't that a better way to explain the nation's biggest power outage than listening to insufferable politicians blame each other: "The power failure was your fault." "Was not." "Was too." "Was not."
President Bush said the power outage was a "wake-up call," begging the question whether you can receive one if there is no power. House Majority Leader Tom Delay promises we will now get that long-awaited and revised energy policy. I doubt it. We'll be back to Laci Peterson and Arnold Schwarzenegger before you can say "drilling for oil in Alaska" or "energy independence."
Power failures bring mixed blessings, but blessings nonetheless. They force us to consider our ultimate powerlessness. The grid we have constructed is one of self-deception. We pour our time, attention and money into so many things that, when the power behind our inventions lets us down (computers, cell phones, Blackberrys and TV), there is an overwhelming sense of resignation and realization. Resignation, because we are all caught in the rarest of circumstances, namely, the same boat. Realization, because we aren't as smart as we arrogantly think we are.
Looking out my hotel-room window after calling my wife in Ireland before the cell-phone connection went down (she was watching Fox News and told me that terrorists were not being blamed), I recalled my past associations with Times Square. How many times had I stood in that place over the years - in poverty and in plenty, in success and in failure, in uniform and in civilian clothes, in love and out of love?
I was living in New York at the time of the 1965 blackout (another massive power-grid failure that should have been a "wake-up call," but we went back to sleep) and remember the street merchants hustling transistor radios, flashlights and candles at disaster mark-up prices within minutes of the city's descent into darkness. I was an Army private, fighting Commies through Armed Forces Radio from offices at Broadway and West 57th Street, making $99 a month and working a second full-time job as a WOR-TV engineer to make ends meet.