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Compassion Thaws Maine's Great Freeze

Yesterday, diamonds fell from a clear blue sky. That was my impression as I stood by my living-room window, watching the immense silver maple in my front yard. For four days, Maine had endured a winter storm the likes of which did not exist in modern memory. It left power lines, eaves, and especially trees jacketed in ice.

Then came yesterday's respite: The clouds cleared, and the sun baked the ice free of the branches. It fell for hours with an incessant clatter that had people scurrying through the streets with their hands covering their heads.

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Maine is, by nature, a civil place to live. But this civility was put to the test when the storm downed power lines and 400,000 households were suddenly without electricity; which meant, most frighteningly, that they were without heat as well.

In the north country, warmth is everything. It is perhaps the central dogma of life here, the one shared understanding: Being cold is unacceptable. When the greater part of an entire state goes dark and cold, people's true natures come out in spades. Calamity is the great leveler. Poor and rich, young and old, strong and weak - all are suddenly in the same boat, taking the same steps to provide for comfort as well as dignity.

Thus began the most poignant outpouring of mutual concern. Radios became extended, battery-powered town halls, providing a special warmth of their own as people called in with questions, pleas, advice, and offers of material and emotional support.

My son and I found it necessary to abandon all of our house except for its humblest corner: the mudroom. This unadorned space had always served as a general depository for tools, cross-country skis, muddy boots, and old newspapers. Its heart was a vintage Sears cast-iron wood stove, which became our pilot light in a landscape that seemed, to a great extent, forsaken. And so, dragging a mattress down from an upstairs room, Alyosha and I fired up the wood stove, turned on the radio, and hunkered down for the duration.

Even as we endured the long days, a certain human grandeur grew out of the protracted ordeal. Stripped of all but the most elementary technology, the world shrinks and becomes a very small place indeed. There were many compelling moments when one person's experience resonated for everybody.

Listening to the radio in our mudroom redoubt at night, I realized that people harbor a compelling need to be good. A woman from some remote corner of the state called with a plea for lamp oil. The next caller offered not only an ample supply, but was willing to deliver it as well. Someone else needed to know how to start a fire without matches. An engineer called in with a recipe for a battery-and-steel-wool gadget guaranteed to do the trick. A woman called to say that the cold was becoming too much for her and her children. A family invited her to their home, and then added, "And anyone else who needs to can come, too!"

There were moments of lighter drama as well, such as the boy who desperately needed to know how to keep his pet iguana warm. The response was immediate: "Put it under your shirt."

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The radio station that mediated all this citizen interaction is called, appropriately, "The Voice of Maine." As its power waned day by day, it went to heroic lengths to keep transmitting. Eventually, it had to turn to a propane-fired generator on Passadumkeag Mountain. A lone good Samaritan on a snowmobile traveled up the mountain through the dead of night to deliver the gas cylinders.

My son and I took great heart in the continuous broadcast. For if there is one thing more terrible than the cold, it is the fear of being alone. I thought about this as we lay in the dark next to the steadily pulsing wood stove. Only when I was sure Alyosha's sleep was profound did I venture out to the woodpile to gather more fuel. Slipping across the ice and snow, though, I was compelled to linger and gaze up at a sky of unbroken clouds. Not a star to be seen. But when I looked across the road, I saw the flickering of solitary candles in the windows of otherwise darkened homes. The stars had come to earth, then, and their message was, "We're still here; we're all in this together."

Then, my arms full of wood, I hurried back to my son, who had not stirred in my absence. The wanting to care for another person in a time of crisis can be overwhelming. On the night before power was restored, Alyosha and I traveled to the house of some friends in the next town. They had already taken in two families. A third, for supper, seemed only to heighten the joy they felt in sharing what they had. Each room was anointed with candlelight, the children were playing card games in the living room, and a shrimp stir-fry sizzled on the wood stove. As we sat down to eat, I realized that this scene was being repeated all over the state - a thanksgiving born of necessity.

WHEN we returned home that night, the first thing I noticed was that the wood stove had ceased to sputter. I laid my hand on its surface and found it had cooled, having yielded its task to the now-humming furnace.

We had power again. I quickly called the friends we had just left. They were still making do with candles, wood, and blankets. In time their electrical power would come, too; but for the moment I felt cheated. I envied them their community. And then I looked into the living room and saw my son perched in front of the TV, staring at the flickering image. The good old days had roared back upon us with the flick of a switch.

I know I should have rejoiced in my son's return to the affirming normalcy of routine, but it wasn't that easy. All I could think of was the lone snowmobiler ascending Passadumkeag with his precious cargo. And so, in tribute to that courageous soul, I went out to the mudroom, stoked the wood stove, and began to read a book by candlelight. I wanted to hang on just a bit longer, before the reanimation of time and technology reclaimed me, too.

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