Mendel Letters 50 — 1965 Blackout

October 9, 2021

Dear Mendel,

No overhead or street lights. Volunteers moved traffic.

The November 1965 East Coast Blackout was a disaster when thirty million people lost electric power for over 12 hours, but it was a great bonding opportunity for our new blended family. At 5:30 PM, Warren, age 13, and me, age 15, were at home on Jesup Avenue in the Bronx baby-sitting for my new step-sister Gloria’s six month old daughter Athena while she was going to City College night classes. You were at your luncheonette in Astoria, Queens. Mother, who worked in Manhattan as a legal secretary wasn’t home yet. Fay’s adult children Harold and Sharon were living with us. I think Harold was at work and Sharon was at City College.

When the lights and radio went out, I was pretty sure the Blackout was an early warning notice for a pending nuclear attack. The shortest distance from the Soviet Union to the United States was across the North Pole. NORAD bases in Canada were supposed to give Americans a 20-minute window to get ready before an attack. I set a wind-up alarm clock to ring in 20 minutes so we would know if it was an attack. Warren and I were getting ready to move our emergency supplies down to the basement where the family was supposed to assemble when a neighbor Shirley knocked on the door. She knew we were alone with Gloria’s baby and came to check that we were all okay and to assure us that it was an electrical blackout, not a nuclear attack.

Gradually family members began to wander in. It turns out that Mother and Harold were stuck on the same subway train at IRT 125th Street station in Manhattan and walked home separately. Gloria’s husband Neal drove over with his old Volkswagen Beetle. Once Gloria was there, Neal and I went searching for missing family members. We drove into Manhattan and south on the West Side Highway. There were no street or traffic lights. Volunteers where at corners waving people through. Neal’s car was in pretty bad shape. It kept stalling and I would have to get out and push start it while he popped the clutch. We eventually made it to 14th Street and headed east. There were thousands of people gathered on the sidewalks and no lights, but somehow we found Lenny at Union Square. We then headed to the 59th Street Bridge and over to Queens where we picked you up at the Astoria store. From there we headed back to the Bronx across the Triborough Bridge and home to Jesup Avenue.

There was no school the next morning because the subway wasn’t running which was cause for a minor celebration. But the bigger celebration was the way the Blackout turned us into a family.

Your son

Hard copies of these typed letters were discovered in an old camp trunk in the basement storage facility of one of the few buildings that remain standing in this Brooklyn neighborhood. The building is quite decrepit and is scheduled for demolition. The letters were found in November 2048 by a teenager who believes they were written by his great-grandfather. The letters are addressed to Mendel, the letter writer’s father, who appears to have been dead for at least six years when his son, whose name we are unsure of, started to write him. The son appears very agitated in some of the letters. With permission from the family, we are publishing them on the date they were written, only 28 years later.

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