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Where Were We, When the Lights Went Out?

You may think you know where your refrigerator and stove are, but can you find them in the dark?

These landmarks have always been a test for my family when we have a power outage, not an uncommon event in a Maine winter. They tend to occur during a blustery windstorm, the kind that rattles the windows and tosses the milk box onto the lawn.

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"Wow! Kansas!" we screamed, referring to Dorothy's escapade with a runaway cyclone. Fortunately for us, we've never been picked up and sent elsewhere by the wind. We just lose lights, sound, and heat for hours on end. However, for that brief period of time (it feels like a lifetime), we get to know our house and ourselves like never before.

Years ago, a particular storm occurred late one winter afternoon when my three young children and I were home. I was stacking wood by our fireplace. It was storming, all right, but we weren't thinking about Kansas. Soon the lights went out, the radio was still, and the refrigerator lost its hum.

I threw my last log on the pile (or where I thought the pile was) and tried to gather everyone around me. Initially, we shouted our whereabouts and then knocked on walls, guiding one another to a central location in the darkened house.

THE rest of the afternoon and evening became a journey through a house we thought we knew.

"Take about four paces, Matt, and you should reach the door. OK? But be careful, because I left the laundry basket somewhere near the staircase." I guided my son by memory to a kitchen drawer I hoped had candles in it. I heard his hands groping along the walls searching for a doorjamb. He found it! (And the laundry basket.)

Then my daughters suggested an expedition - to their upstairs bedroom - so they could get their blankets and curl up near the fire I had just started .

"Be careful," I warned them. "Count how many stairs you climb so you know how many to come down." (I'm the one who, in the middle of the night, miscounts and - oh well, you can imagine the rest.)

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My daughters returned, blankets in tow, and now my son wanted a post. Near the window.

His face glowed in the candlelight. He was the lookout to see how much of the neighborhood had been "hit." He also watched for the truck with the whirling red light on top and "Central Maine Power" emblazoned on the side.

Sounds of a plow provided our only music, their yellow "eyes" blinking around the curb.

Eventually, sleepy-headed, we shuffled our way to bed, holding candles for one another, gripping the banister, and finally snuffing out the last light. "Can that be my job?" my son had pleaded eagerly.

But the day was not over, power-wise. For in the middle of the night came the reveille: The hallway lit up like Broadway, the computer screen glared and buzzed, and the radio blasted. I pulled myself out of bed, blinking back at our blinking clock, and turned off the lights I had forgotten I'd left on.

As I heard the washing machine start its spin cycle and the radiators knock-knocking out heat, I cradled my son's candle, all melted down to a pile of wax and looking woefully inadequate in the glare of full wattage.

It was a last reminder of a journey we'd all shared without leaving home.

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