The Pioneer Woman

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By Carolyn Ten Broeck, Editor

I’m accustomed to power outages.

In February 1985 while living in the Kentucky mountains, a freak storm dumped 18 inches of snow in a short time and paralyzed the entire region.

Not only was driving a risk, I was a young mother with a two-year-old, a two-month-old baby and no electricity.

Our house was drafty on a good day and with an infant, I had to evacuate my home in order to keep the babies warm.

My Uncle Edgil picked the three of us up in his monster truck (my then-husband was stranded at work 25 miles away) and took us a quarter of a mile to his house, where he had a Buck Stove insert in his fireplace.

His house, well over 3,000 square feet suddenly became small as the three of us and his family of three huddled in the den for the next 48 hours. My aunt made soup and coffee on top of the insert. We ate sandwiches for lunch and dinner. We brought in snow and melted it because we were also waterless, since the pipes were frozen.

As evening fell, early because it was winter, we talked in hushed whispers while the children slept and by eight o’clock, talked out with no lights, we, too fell into restless slumber.

That storm came without warning.

We were put on notice about Irma early.

Tom and I did everything we knew to do to prepare. For a week, we filled every vessel in our house with water – some for flushing, some for drinking. We did a test of the bathtub to ensure it would hold water for an extended period, and when it did, we filled it up.

I emptied the icemaker’s offering every day into plastic bags and froze Zip-loc bags. All were put into our chest freezer, which was packed tightly in the hope our food would stay frozen.

I baked bread, since none was to be found in any grocery store. As I sliced it, I proclaimed, “I am a pioneer woman.” Those words were echoed for the next five days.

We removed everything from the yard, turned the sunroom furniture upside down and got ready to hunker down, as did almost everyone we knew.

We did not have a generator nor did we have the funds to purchase one, even with 10 days notice.

Tom had gas in his car; I had a little less than half tank. We figured we’d be OK. Of course I was shortsighted in that presumption, not realizing that half of Florida would evacuate through Williston and soon our gas would be non-existent.

I tried on four separate occasions to get gas beginning six days before Irma, but the lines were long and either the station ran out before I got to the pump or the line would be wrapped around the block and I didn’t have gas, or an hour, to idle away.

So I prayed that what gas I had would get me where I needed to go, as long as I needed to go.

I was awake, lying on the sofa reading, when the power went out. Tom had retired a few hours earlier, telling me to awaken him if “anything exciting happens.” He got up 30 minutes later to take the dog out and then joined me on the sofa. The wind howled but by dawn, the worst was over, we’d come out virtually unscathed – except no electricity.

Monday was a blur. I logged into social media at the top of every hour to check on what was going on and keep readers informed on Facebook via my phone. I had a battery bank and recharged often, but I knew it, too, would eventually give out. “I am the Pioneer woman,” I proclaimed to Tom with each post.

Coffee. If you know me, you know it’s one of my passions. We dug out the French press, turned on our propane grill and after two cups finally got the recipe perfected to make a decent cup of java.

We ate sandwiches; we cooked on the grill. I read a lot: a real book by day when there was sunlight; my Kindle at night. We napped during the day and went to bed on the sofa earlier than we would have had we had TV and Internet for distractions.

We lit candles and reminisced about our “old days” and I told Tom of the primitive conditions I was reared in growing up in Appalachia. As we talked, I realized that what I experienced during a hurricane was similar to my childhood.

We didn’t have running water or an indoor bathroom until I was 12 years old. We carried every drop of water we used, drawn from a well, up a hill to the house. We did have electricity but there were many summer nights when we sat outside talking until bedtime with only the glow of a naked light bulb illuminating us.

My mother made coffee on a coal stove in the days before an electric percolator transformed her life. We heated water on that same stove for sponge bathing in the winter and filling a Number 3 washtub in the summer. During the hurricane week, I stood in the shower and Tom poured a cold bucket of water over me so I could wash my hair and myself. Invigorating!

“I am a pioneer woman,” I said once again to Tom after seeing so many people complain, or worse whine, on Facebook about their inconveniences. “That life prepared me for this life.”

I also vowed to not complain because while we were inconvenienced, so many more had it worse. People’s lives were changed forever due to a storm named Irma. My life was slightly altered, but not changed permanently.

The days wore on. I went to Dunnellon to put together the week’s newspaper and I watched my gas gauge with a cautious eye. Still no gas to be found but my beat up Honda Civic kept moving.

I came to work each day, leaving earlier than usual so I could get home and prepare for the night before it got dark. Chores done, stomachs filled, each night was the same: coffee from the French press, conversation, reading, bed time.

Thursday, I knew I had enough gas to get to work on Friday and back home then I would be out. Kaput. And then at last I saw an opening at a station and I took it. I filled the tank and was surprised to learn I still had three gallons of gas – enough for about 110 miles. More surprising: my last fill-up was Aug. 27 in Valdosta. My car is old, sun blistered and not pretty to look at but she’s loyal and dependable. I have to love her.

As we were preparing for yet another night in the dark, we heard the familiar sound of the microwave. “Could it be?” Tom asked from the darkened sunroom.

And yes, our power was restored. We waited a full five minutes before rejoicing and then I went to disinfect the empty refrigerator while Tom made real coffee. Priorities.

After celebratory showers, we sucked up the AC then reflected back on the week.

We were safe. Our damage was only food loss and one old dead tree and a lot of little branches.

And this – my first real hurricane since moving to Florida – also answered the hypothetical question so many of us have been asked.

“If you have to suddenly leave your house, what will you grab?”

In my foyer, packed to go was my laptop, my picture albums and boxes of family photos.

“This is it,” I said to Tom last Saturday as I returned everything to its proper place.

“As much as I love my house. As much as I love the things we’ve put into our home, in the end this is what’s important and the rest is just stuff.”

Like a real pioneer woman, I could start over with nothing if I had to, I said.

Tom held me close and chuckled, “ You already are the Pioneer woman,” he said.

And I knew he was right. In more than one way.