When I think about what’s happening around me these days; I mean all of the stuff going on in the wide world, one thing has begun to surface more and more in my memory, the events of one afternoon in Houston a long time ago.
This is a true story.
We were in Houston in 1976. It was September. We had taken a furnished apartment for a month while we waited for our furniture from DC . We would be closing on our house in a couple of weeks and the furniture was due to arrive shortly after that.
There are a lot of serious thunder storms, torrential rains, high winds, tornadoes, down there around that time of year, not to mention the odd hurricane. It was a Friday afternoon, I think.
As the day got older and the heat built up, so did the clouds, higher and darker all around, but especially west of us where we were on the western side of the city. They marched east. From twenty or thirty miles away, it’s hard to tell about cloud mountains 30,000 feet tall, we heard the faint rumble of deep thunder in the clouds and saw lighting stabbing the earth as they ground down on us. The wind picked up a bit, a cool wind.
We got the kids out of the pool a little bit after that, went back to the apartment and made plans to go to a nearby restaurant to eat supper. We all got dressed and the kids sat watching cartoons while the day darkened; that weird pre-storm glow coming into the window, a sickly kind of jaundice yellow-green light that I’ve never liked.
And then the first drops began to fall. Ranger rain I used to call it, advance troops to soften us up before the main attack. We decided to wait until the storm passed. Even tornadoes are here and gone in a couple of dozen minutes of terror. A thunderstorm, loud and windy and wet as it is is scary, but…
Well, as they say out there: “It brung it!” Great lashings of rain smashed against the windows as the storm barreled in. Thunder salvoed and shook the house and the wind seemed like huge hands on the roof trying to lift it off to tear us away. Its gusts shuddered down through the walls as the storm grew like a herd of wild animals over us. Suddenly everything went dark. And, as quickly as it had hit, it faded away.
I looked out our window as the storm peaked and subsided. The other sections in this little complex were lit. Ours? Not so lucky. We’d lost power, and the heat and humidity knew it.
The manager’s office was still open and I called them to tell them we’d lost power. They promised a power company truck would be by in about an hour to fix the transformer, which happened to be just below us in the parking lot. One of those claps of thunder had really been a lightning strike on the transformer.
We were all on the balcony looking down at the poor transformer when the truck arrived and the servicemen got out. They called up to us and some other folks from the nearby apartments who had joined us to reassure us they’d have our power back in no time. It was cool out there, and the “after the deluge” breeze made us feel good. I got a beer and leaned on the rail to watch the guys below do their thing. Would they be as good as the Con Ed guys back home in The City? Sheila and the kids popped in and out to watch. We all hoped it wouldn’t take too long. No one wanted to think about spending a hot and humid night with no air conditioning…or TV.
We were back inside thinking about getting ready to go out for supper when I heard a loud bang from outside. Going to the balcony and looking down I saw one of the repair workers down, just a foot or two from the transformer, a big thing about six feet by four feet and a good six feet high.
“What happened?” I called down to the other fellow working with him, now bending over his partner. “We were trying to jump the current from one of the power lines,” I think he said. “He must have shorted the thing when he did it,” he added. I returned to my apartment and called 911, telling them there had been an accident involving a transformer and told them one man was seriously injured. They promised an emergency response team would be sent right away.
More than an hour and several increasingly worried, angry and frustrated phone calls later a fire truck from the Houston FD pulled up beside the transformer below me. I had told the people in my calls that the man was dying. I had no skills at all in such things. All I could do was watch and beg them to hurry, please.
He was dead when they arrived, though they did try to revive him. When I was working we called things like that Going Through The Motions. I guess it was better than training on a dummy, at least.
An ambulance arrived a while later and took the fellow away. As they drove away, only a minute or so behind the big and late fire truck, I thought how futile the whole exercise had been and imagined the stupidity of the coming autopsy, another government assault. But, rules are rules. I turned to leave and caught the Houston police car arriving on the scene. “Let’s get out of here, ” I said to Sheila. “Officer Krupke just got here to talk to the guy’s partner. I don’t want to be around to answer any questions if he speaks to the neighbors.”
If I was the ME down at the morgue I’d write: Cause of Death: No One Cared.