Mudsock Heights

Mudsock Heights

This would be a surprising sight in the city: people just stopping to help when there's a need. (Credit: Dennis E. Powell)


By Dennis E. Powell | Posted at 10:07 PM

This is written as, on the other side of the wall, the generator is roaring away. Fortunately the wall is thick enough and well enough insulated that the sound is not as irritating as you’d expect.

The power — you’ve guessed this part, haven’t you? — is out. So is the internet, the phone (unless I climb the hill above Tom’s house with my cellular phone, which I’ll do once again before nightfall, to see if there are any updates). The road to town is under water. There was a big storm here last night, though it didn’t flood the roads — that was the result of a different storm a couple of days ago — and it didn’t take out the power. The power went out this afternoon. (I hate the non-word “outage”: when the power is on it’s not an “innage,” is it?)

Today has been a beautiful day. Blue skies, cottony white clouds, about 70 degrees, rare for mid-March in Ohio. But is has been windy. Very windy. The scientific meteorological description for it is “whoooeee, look at ‘er blow!” There were times when it was difficult to stand up outside. We’re told there were periods of sustained wind in excess of 60 miles per hour. But, to everyone’s surprise, the power stayed on.

It stayed on, anyway, until early afternoon, when, about 10 minutes into an excellent NHK documentary about Steve Jobs’s fascination in Japanese aesthetics and design, it did finally go off.

I gave it a couple minutes — most blackouts here last only a few seconds — then went out to fire up the generator. That’s when I noticed the 20-foot strip of flashing, formerly there to protect the top board just under the roof, had blown mostly free, still connected only by a nail at one end. It now banged with that muted aluminum sound against the roof. I barely had time to ponder whether I’d be able to fix it — I’ve wondered for a while now whether ladders and I are still friends — when that last nail surrendered and the flashing disappeared over the house.

Back indoors — whatever repairs there were to be done would have to await a less windy day, no matter who affects them — I saw that while the generator had re-powered everything it is supposed to re-power, the router was telling me there was no signal. Not long ago even if the power went out the router would still work under first its battery backup and then the generator. The phone company used to have big batteries keeping the circuit energized. But a few months ago the world’s most disreputable phone company, Frontier Communications, “upgraded” everything and now when the power goes so does any hope of a connection, either telephonic or internet.

After a bit I decided to climb the hill to where there’s cellular service, to see if there was any news. There wasn’t. Tom came out of his house and we did the usual ritual of trying to figure out why there is a fairly strong signal there and none, not a peep, at my house 200 feet away. There’s actually a line, no more than 20 feet wide, where the signal goes from reliable-if-not-strong to nonexistent. We didn’t arrive at an explanation today, either.

A number of years ago I wrote a piece about how the culture in the Appalachian/Allegheny foothills is different from that in the places where the population is more dense. Here, people in their yards wave at passing cars, and sometimes people in cars wave to each other. If your car breaks down or even if you’re just pulled over on the shoulder it won’t be long before someone stops — it’s usually the very next car — and the driver asks if you need any help.

When I had just moved here, the previous owners of my little spread would stop by from time to time. This usually resulted in a neighbor or two, the original owners, and me standing in the intersection of dirt roads at the bottom of my driveway, just discussin’ whatever needed it. Cars would pass and June, one of the former owners, would wave. “I don’t know half the people five miles down the road anymore, but you still have to wave,” she said. I think she was learnin’ me some manners. I explained that in New York you often didn’t know the people who lived across the hall from you.

This way is better than the New York way, and this afternoon I saw yet another demonstration of it.

After we climbed down off the hill I saw that a neighbor’s mailbox, next to mine, had blown open. I went over to shut it. I noticed that there was new land jutting out into the rushing coffee-with-cream-colored creek below, and wondered whether part of the embankment had been cut away or if this was a new deposit on a crook in the creek. As we talked, there was a loud cracking noise and we looked over to see a fairly big walnut tree next to Tom’s driveway, which had been past its prime for a while now, come crashing down. We wandered over, surveying it as we approached. It covered the busiest of the dirt roads emanating from the Y-shaped intersection.

Before we had time to think of the best plan to move the thing out of the way an older red car pulled up, its way now blocked. The driver got out. He didn’t say anything except “hi.”

Back east and in most cities, a person would say something like “tree fall down?” This phenomenon was best codified in a few lines of dialog from an old movie:

Have a wreck?

No thanks, I just had one. Call me a taxi.

Okay, you’re a taxi.

I walked across the street to my house to fetch a couple bow saws; my chainsaw is a Stihl, so it doesn’t work and the Stihl shop here got sold. When I got back another car, a Jeep, had pulled up. Its driver and passenger were dragging away parts that had broken off. The first guy was gone but his car was still there. He’d walked down the road and soon returned with a fellow in a pickup truck, and a chainsaw (a Husqvarna). He went to work sawing up the tree as the rest of us dragged the pieces to the side of the road.

In 10 minutes the road was cleared, barely half an hour after the tree went horizontal. I doubt that a hundred words were said during the whole business. Then everyone went on their way.

No discussion. No planning. No speculating over who could be called. Just a recognition of what needed to be done followed by doing it, as automatically as you’d swat a mosquito.

I’ll go back tomorrow or the next day and saw the remains of the tree into stove-sized bites. It’ll keep me warm next winter. The trunk was unsurprisingly hollow and you might have thought the tree was dead, but the limbs were robust and growing. There’s BTUs in that there wood.

Thinking back I realized that I’d met the first guy who stopped once before. When I moved here 18 years ago all my stuff came in a semi- trailer, which was poorly parked on my steep driveway. Unloading it was not easy but with help of my friend Jill it got accomplished — except for one item. I own a BMW motorcycle, and getting it up to the edge of the trailer, then down the 18-inch-wide ramp to the ground was a real problem.

We were pondering what to do when a guy pulled up. It was short work for the three of us to get the bike off the trailer.

It was the same fellow. Back then, he waved and headed on his way.

People who are from here wouldn’t find anything remarkable in the events I’ve described above. As with the Biblical passage about a prophet not being recognized in his native land, you have to have lived where the way of life is different in order to appreciate the way things are here.

I suppose my friends in more populated places would be horrified at the thought of trees crashing down and the power going out (as it does here fairly frequently here; I don’t think there’s been a month in the last 18 years when it didn’t happen), of the road getting impassably flooded — three or four times a year — and similar occurrences. I admit, I’m not a fan of those things, either. (Nor of the fact that news coverage doesn’t exist here. I originally thought that a town that has a University with journalism school and its own radio stations might put the two together and cover local events. I was entirely wrong.)

But I have something more important, something that if the world in general had it would be a much better place.

I have neighbors.

Dennis E. Powell is crackpot-at-large at Open for Business. Powell was a reporter in New York and elsewhere before moving to Ohio, where he has (mostly) recovered. You can reach him at

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