It was dusk, 09 November 1965, when the biggest power failure in U.S. history occurred as all of New York State, portions of seven neighbouring states, and parts of eastern Canada, including Ontario and Quebec are plunged into darkness. The Great Northeast Blackout as it was called began at the height of rush hour delaying millions of commuters, trapping 800,000 people in New York’s subways, and stranding thousands more in office buildings, elevators, and trains. Ten thousand National Guardsmen and 5,000 off-duty policemen were called into service to prevent looting. And it was also on this day that my Grandfather was laid out in a funeral chapel as the first of his three days visitation began.
My grandfather died of a stroke, in his sleep. I recall the Saturday morning that my Dad was called by his mother to come up to the assisted living complex and check out his father. Granny seemed non-plussed about the whole thing. Perhaps that stoicism of hers was a by product of her Irish blood or Irish Catholic background or perhaps it was from the years and years of infighting that occurred between her and her Scottish husband, my Grandfather, as they fought and cussed about who suffered the most from those dastardly Brits. The Irish or the Scots? Bonny Prince Charlie and Culloden or William of Orange, King James II and Derry? Perhaps they were both a tad cranky about the outcome of the Battle of Killiekrankie between the Jacobites and the British Crown. Whatever, my Grandparents on my Dad’s side had the Irish blood and Scot’s whisky in their DNA, and long memories? They could really hold a grudge. Always at war with one another, always another drink and always the peace offering with the accompanying bagpipes to the tune of Scotland the Brave. Whenever they had a party, at our house of course, and the cops were called by the neighbours due to the cat scratching bag-piped noise bellowing out into the street, my Grandfather would greet them at the door, regale them with the secret Highland handshake and invite them in with a shot of crappy Scotch. It always worked. If anything my grandfather was a happy man albeit a tad drunk and continually hung over in his retirement years.
When my Dad arrived at the home he checked on his father, realized he was indeed dead, and then called the police and the funeral home – Catholic funeral home. They did not have any pre-arrangements in those days other than a small life insurance policy that they hoped would cover the costs. It didn’t and the siblings had to come up with the rest. Not to worry as my Grandfather would always say. I’ll be dead!
They laid him out. The whole family had to prepare for and attend the wake. An open casket in a big open living room: 2-4, 7-9 daily for three days. On that first evening, my sister and I became very bored, very quickly. Squirming with restlessness and boredom, we decided to explore our surroundings, that being the funeral home. What we would find in a funeral home one could only guess but one could only imagine especially one with an active imagination like ours. So off we went, dumb as we were, exploring in a funeral home for heaven’s sake.
There were a few other living rooms in that home: some small, some large and some very private. There was also a canteen in the basement that was open for coffee and small snacks. There were other rooms that were locked or out of bounds to all but funeral home staff. There were the offices of the director, the assistant director, and the assistant assistant director: fitting rooms, plush seats, sofas and the like. Then there was a second floor. Our attention was suddenly piqued toward the stairs. Up we went, stair by stair, egged on by mutual self gratifying courage with our strength in numbers. Neither one of us would dare bolt. We could see some light at the top or the stairs, which indicated some open spaces. We had to see what was up here. When we reached the top landing we came to a door that was slightly ajar. We pushed it open and walked right in, but slowly, inspecting our surroundings. We were in a small hallway that opened up into what seemed to be a fairly large room but we could not make out what the room held. At that precise moment in time the lights went out and we were suddenly thrown into total darkness. We couldn’t see the hands in front of our faces. My sister gasped, didn’t scream, just gasped. We held on to each other for moral support. What to do. We better get back.
We found the wall and being totally disoriented used our hands for touch and feel and bearing and began to move, ever so slowly. All of a sudden the walls gave way to nothing, an abyss perhaps, although it did seem to us on reflection that we were in what appeared to be a large cavernous room. We kept moving but in extremely small exploratory steps hoping with all hope that we would find the landing and the stairs. Unbeknownst to us at the time we were going in the opposite direction. We stopped for what seemed to be an eternity and stood there in frightful anticipation of what to do, where we were and what would come next. The only sound that we heard was that that came from our diaphragms, from our deep breathing and from our heartbeats. It was as if our hearts were about to burst forth from our chests. We were bewildered, disoriented, lost. As our eyes adjusted to the darkness we could sense that we were not alone in this room.
“Helloooo?” We cried out in the darkness. Only silence. That there was some form of artefact here with us was without question. We just didn’t know what. Suddenly these weird shapes came into a blurred but darkened outline and focus. Long, and short and stubby cocoon like objects took shape in a spectral like fashion. As our eyes became adjusted and we acquired limited night vision, ghastly apparitions suddenly filled the room and our senses. Recognition of what we were seeing instantly came over us. We gasped in horror. A casket showroom befell upon us. Open caskets, half opened caskets, closed caskets: on the floor, on shelves, on their sides, on their ends, in organized disarray. White pillowed laced interiors. It was ghoulish and very, very frightening to us.
We screamed, turned and ran. Without missing a beat we ran down the short hallway, found the stairs and in what seemed to be two leaps found the bottom. Turning again we found the lobby then stopped dead in our tracks again as we couldn’t quite make out or accept our current reality. In the darkness there was suddenly light. Not the steady, comforting, yellowish, incandescent evening light but the flickering dancing light from a thousand candles that moved along the walls and ceiling as if shadows of large, floating apparitions. Menacingly grotesque shadows that seemed to shrink to smallness then gradually billowing out in bizarre, monstrous forms. These deformed and twisted images were somehow exaggerated when someone moved along the hallways or within the rooms of the funeral home. The dim light, the shadows, the living and the honoured dead plus what seemed to be a thousand candles all added up to one very macabre scene for a 14 year old kid. I was shitting my pants and I ran for the exits.
This was one memory that wish I could forget and one that still send chills down my spine.
By the next day, all was back to normal. Someone had turned Niagara Falls back on!
Besides Darren and my Grandfather, there were many other deaths that occurred when I was young. Some were people that were very close, like my own father who died at the tender age of 54, or others at school who had the misfortune of leaving us at a very young age. Or O’Grunt’s mother who died 6 months after my father. She was only 50. Or the two teenagers I knew as acquaintances that lost their lives by driving over a cliff in a Volkswagen beetle. They’d only had the driver’s licences for about a couple of months. Sixteen for heaven’s sake! I was always reminded of that horrific incident as I passed one of their graves on the way to work each day. His name carved on the granite headstone that was in my field of vision as I passed by the cemetery on the bus.
Or the “Greaser” I knew who died in a street brawl. Motorcycles seem to claim the lives of an inordinate amount of young men that I knew in those days. When I think back to those times I can only shake my head in disbelief that I made it through those years unscathed. For in their particular cases there was really little difference in our circumstances except that: “there but for the Grace of God go I.” Lucky me!
Song of the day. Good old organ music: