Back to Blackout

Over on Facebook, aka Snapchat for Old People, my good friend I’ve never met Marty Walsh opened a post about today being the 40th anniversary of the New York Blackout of 1977. It launched an interesting thread of recollections, and prompted me to delve further into the subject at my new home here.

The Blackout was a seminal moment in a seminal year in the Tri-State area. It punctuated one of the most memorable summers in New York City history, a time when the city was on the brink of insolvency, its residents were suffering through one of its worst heat waves and the boys in the Bronx wearing Satan’s Pajamas were feuding and fighting their way to their first World Series title in 15 years. Oh, and the Son of Sam was absolutely terrorizing the city and surrounding areas, forcing every woman under the age of 25 to flee in horror any time a yellow VW was spotted.

For city residents, the Blackout was the exclamation point on the chaos. When the lights went out, chaos reigned, with rioting and looting becoming the order of the day. It surprised no one. That was New York in 1977. There’s a reason Kurt Russell wasn’t trying to escape from Omaha.

For those of us in the upper reaches of Westchester County, the event hit even closer to home. That’s because it literally hit close to home. The Blackout was caused when a substation at Indian Point was struck by lightning. For me, not born for the JFK assassination and not old enough to recall the moon landing, it was my first “I remember where I was moment,” a fact I obviously shared with many other denizens of the Buchanan-Verplanck-Montrose Metroplex (we were a village, we go first).

When the lightning struck, I was with my family at Steamboat Dock. Now, anyone familiar with the beautiful, well-manicured piece of greenery on the shores of the Hudson, the 1977 version was a little different. For a 10-year-old boy like me strolling the grounds at Steamboat, my recreational options were somewhat limited. If I didn’t want to risk the subprimordial ooze that was the Hudson River circa 1977, I could frolic on the Steamboat beach, perhaps collecting the colorful shards of broken beer bottles or sucking on the creosote-soaked pieces of wood that comprised the tiny sliver of beach. Ah, nothing but the finest in family fun.

But I’ll never forget when the lightning struck. The sky, which had been approaching full darkness, lit up as if were the middle of the day. I’d never seen anything like it before, and I haven’t since. That moment of brilliance was followed by sheer darkness, with power knocked out all throughout the east side of the river.

As I recall, the Markhams did nothing, recognizing that if this was a catastrophe at Indian Point, we weren’t going anywhere. Not living as close to Ground Zero as we did. Others didn’t, with scores of people filling up their cars in a desperate attempt to escape any fallout. It would be another two years until Three Mile Island and nine more until Chernobyl, but we were already aware that if things went completely screwy at a nuclear power plant, those bastards could be quite killy.

But it didn’t happen. Instead, it just left us with memories that we’d be sharing 40 years later.

Postscript: One year after the Blackout, I was out shopping with my mom when we stumbled across veteran NBC newsman Gabe Pressman conducting some interviews in the A&P parking lot, getting locals’ recollection of the events of the previous year. When he was done, I rushed over and got his autograph, a memento I cherished for a good six hours. That was until we turned on the Channel 4 news telecast that night and noticed that when the camera panned over Gabe’s shoulder, there was my mom in the background, casually smoking a More while leaning against the exterior wall of the A&P. Yup, my mom’s visage was being beamed into homes from Darien to Nutley to Patchogue, and all I got was a piece of paper with a crappy signature from a reporter so low on the TV news totem pole he was forced to schlep all the way up to Peekskill to talk about a year-old lightning strike.



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