Put Out the Light
Conservationist Teddy Roosevelt’s last words still guide us
The four final words of the great Bull Moose, one of my favorite presidents, on January 6, 1919, were bywords for my generation. Comedian Fred Allen said the words most spoken in his generation were “Go easy on the butter; it’s 10 cents a pound.” But at our farm, there was a cow or two, and Grandma Burton churned the butter.
So we heard Put out the light.
It was during the Great Depression, and we were poor, though we didn’t know it.
How can one be poor and not know it you wonder?
At Grandma’s New England farm where I spent much of my youth and at my home a mini part-time farm a couple miles away via hoofing it though the woods we had three square meals a day, clothes (some made by Grandma, who bleached old chicken-feed bags), a warm place to sleep, an automobile and some books and magazines like Colliers, Liberty and The Saturday Evening Post.
We had the necessities of life though they required much work, with us kids chipping in with chores such as filling the wood box, feeding the chickens and cows and weeding the garden. We were better off than many a neighbor, but pennies were pinched, and by the standards of today, we were poor.
Hooking Up to the Juice
At home we had electricity, but at the farm there was none. The farmhouse was set back from the dirt road the length of a couple football gridirons. To hook up, as they said back then, was expensive. So electricity didn’t come to the farm until I was about 10. What an occasion that was!
To cut costs, Aunts Caroline and MiMi helped Uncles Jack and Larry dig holes to support what we called telephone poles to carry the juice to the farmhouse. I was enlisted. My job was to rise early and, with a hoe, rescue frogs and toads that had hopped into the pole holes overnight. I also toted water from the well to the diggers.
When we finally got hooked up, Grandma and Auntie gathered most of the lamps to store in the milk room, part of the big woodshed. Aunt Caroline, a school teacher, used a lamp pressurized to churn out more light. All the others were traditional kerosene lamps with wicks: less light, less fuel consumed. A couple lamps were left in the house; no one knew how dependable the juice was.
I recall Aunt Caroline and Aunt MiMi, who was a home economics teacher, discussing how many watts the light bulbs should be. MiMi advised 60 watts to get the most lighting for the buck. We had two electrical outlets for the entire six rooms. At first all we needed juice for was lighting and a radio; no refrigerator, no electric mixer or other gadgetry.
It was about the same on the farm. But there electricity also brought a new and smaller fridge so the big old wooden icebox could take a ride to the dump. Elated, Grandma cautioned me not to leave the new fridge’s door open to save the juice: “Don’t let the cold out.” The electric bill was a few dollars a month. When at home we finally got a refrigerator, I got the same message. It was close the refrigerator door or put out the light.
In days of yore, when you left a room, you were expected to turn off the light; no wasting the juice. Not infrequently in a country home there would be only one light bulb burning: the one in the room where the family gathered. We were greenies, not to save the Earth, but to save money.
Fluorescent for Mother Earth
Today, it’s the other way around. Few think of the costs wasted. It’s Save energy to save Mother Earth. The wizards in Washington tell us Thomas Alva Edison’s incandescent light bulb must go. It generates heat as well as light and thus wastes energy. Making needless heat and energy can mean doomsday for our planet.
We’re asked to switch to what I call the squirrel-tail fluorescent bulb, a white tube that bends circular like a bushy tail’s tail when it’s feasting on a peanut. It burns cool to the touch. Experts say it reduces greenhouse gases and energy use appreciably while saving us money. Being frugal New Englanders and survivors of the Great Depression, Mother and Grandma would appreciate the latter. They never imagined that Edison’s incandescent light bulb could be one of many things that threaten our planet.
So as we move into the fluorescent age, light without heat, I ponder what poor old Ella Steere would do. The town’s original entrepreneur, she kept cows to sell milk, ran a small crossroads 7-Eleven-like store, held square dances, made and sold clam cakes, delivered newspapers and every 10 years worked the fed’s census. Anything to make a buck.
She drove an ancient Model T Ford, and on days when temperatures were in double digits below zero, village folks with cars that wouldn’t start were amazed to hear her old jalopy pass by. How could she literally crank that old flivver to life on such a frigid morning?
She never told, but one late winter day when I stopped in her old store, she wasn’t inside. Noticing her garage door open, I entered. There she was, extension cord in hand, placing a 100-watt bulb in the engine compartment of the Model T. Then she put the hood down and covered it with a blanket. In such a confined place, the bulb generated enough heat to keep the block of the engine startable. It was the first headbolt or oil-pan heater arrangement I ever saw and came in handy when I newspapered in Alaska years later.
Today’s cars are more dependable, and the climate is more tolerable in winter, so I no longer need a heat-generating light bulb. I’m signing up on the cool squirrel-tail concept. They say I’ll get seven times more life from a bulb, use less electricity and, above all, help save the Earth.
Hope you’re doing the same. Before long, you might not have a choice. Enough said.