There really wasn’t much to do in my Dad’s home town. The town was small. Not small like a hundred people – all of them related – small. But small enough that everyone knew everyone else (which, needless to say, wasn’t always a good thing).
The town essentially had one intersection, whose four corners were the combined pharmacy/post office, the church, the abandoned building, and the corner of a vacant lot. Other than Perley’s one-pumper service station down the road there really wasn’t any other place to “hang out,” at least not anywhere that you could see anything move. Weeknights were pretty much for doing chores after school until you were dead tired. But weekends were another matter. Friday night was usually the football game at the high school, and Sunday night was usually booked doing the weekend homework we had avoided doing up to that point. Which left Saturday night as the only night for “excitement.”
By the end of the game people started thinking about the weekend, even though the weekend didn’t start until whatever point on Saturday afternoon you had finished feeding the farm animals or cut the four-foot high weeds out of what was supposed to be the family garden. But Saturday night was the night to party.
But party is such as relative concept, don’t you think. To some, party means music and dancing, or at least drinking and flirting with both of the girls not already spoken for by the invariably large members of the football team. To others, party meant a handful of kids hanging out and talking about stuff (this was before iPhones, iPods, or even Walkmen). The local constable and his deputies would herd any teenager out after dark into the center of town where they could keep an eye on them (and drag any “free thinkers” by the ear back to their parents for a whooping). Usually the gang would congregate while it was still light because the main event happened at dusk, that period of the day where natural light starts to fade as the sun dips below the horizon (or old man Johnson’s general store during certain times of year).
And that’s when the street lights come on.
Yes, the town had street lights. The state made the town fathers (no women allowed) install lights because the main road was a pass-through from the slightly bigger small towns on either side of this one. A line of street lights led into town up to the intersection, and another line led out of town going out the other side. The lead-in stretch was straight for a good ½ mile and the road going out was almost twice that. Thanks to the state edict, street lights lined the whole way. It was a beautiful sight.
For those of you who may have more interesting things to do on Saturday night, like go to the real movie theater, you may not have noticed that street lights don’t just come on all at once. These were fluorescent back in their unperfected days and thus seemed to have a mind of their own. They did have these cool photoelectric sensors that sensed ambient brightness and turned the light on when darkness reached some predetermined level. Because the sunlight was uneven (lights to the east received less sunlight than those closer to the west as the sun set), the lights would tend to come on in linear sequence. More or less. That’s not to say that the sensors were all calibrated to the same sensitivity, and other factors like cloudiness and the flashing neon light from Johnson’s store (“Open every day but Sunday”) could throw the sequence out of whack. So every budding scientist (or bored teenager) would take bets on which lights would come on out of order.
But the excitement didn’t stop there. When the sensor triggered the lighting sequence it didn’t just come on like flipping a switch on your overhead lights in the house. No, these lights would come on tentatively, like they were waking up from a long day’s sleep. Groggily opening their eyes to the night but blinded by the remaining flickers of the day, each individual light would awaken at its own pace. So as everyone watched, the street lights would blink.
Blink, Blink, Blink…….
Blink, Blink, Blink…….
That Bzzzzzz was the humming. Mostly the light would stop humming after it got up to full temperature, but some would hum all night. Unless, of course, someone was able to take one out with a well thrown rock.
Not that we ever did that.
David J. Kent is a science traveler and the author of Lincoln: The Man Who Saved America, in Barnes and Noble stores now. His previous books include Tesla: The Wizard of Electricity (2013) and Edison: The Inventor of the Modern World (2016) and two e-books: Nikola Tesla: Renewable Energy Ahead of Its Time and Abraham Lincoln and Nikola Tesla: Connected by Fate.