Sunday, November 20, 2011

The Dark Hours of the Night

In my part of the world, we recently ended daylight saving time. This change, combined with the shortness of the winter days, result in mornings and evenings that are unusually dark. With my life being spent more in the dark because of these seasonal changes, I have noticed details about the lives of earlier people who spent time in the blackness as well.

In 1743 there were four men who were left by their crew in the Arctic and spent six years there before being rescued. This was not a malicious act, on the part of the crew aboard the ship. It was simply an attempt to save the ship, its cargo and crew already on board from being crushed by the swiftly freezing ice. Being at the top of the world meant that during certain parts of the year the sun did not appear above the horizon for weeks at a time. These forsaken men mostly remained in their double walled hut during these endlessly dark days to keep from freezing outside and to avoid being attacked by polar bears. They believed if they slept too much, they would be more susceptible to scurvy so their “goal of health” was to keep themselves awake nineteen hours out of each 24-hour period. To keep them awake during the unimaginably long, dark days and nights, their choice of activity was knot tying. They each had a lengthy rope and sat near a dim light, tying knots in their rope, one after the other after the other. Once they had tied their entire rope in knots, they would untie each individual knot until the rope was back to its usable form. Then . . . they started tying knots in the rope again and the entire process repeated over and over again.  Just the thought of tying and untying knots in a rope in darkness makes me drowsy.

During the mid-1600s in the Colony of New Netherland there was job that was conducted entirely in the dark by the night watchmen. Each night at 9:00, they rang a bell, which was a signal for people to retire to their homes for the evening; then these men remained in the dark streets. At the beginning of every hour they stood at the corner of each street, shook a rattle and loudly called out the time. Their final call was made at 4:00 a.m. when they were done with their night’s work.

World War II brought blackouts across Europe. When enemy aircraft was detected, sirens would blast a warning and within a matter of minutes, all lights had to be extinguished, even lighting a match to a cigarette was prohibited. This requirement for instant darkness caused some dangerous circumstances. For example, if you were walking home in the evening and the alarms sounded, you would have to make your way home in complete darkness. This was no small feat, considering there may also be cars attempting to get to their destinations as well. By law, cars could not use headlights of any kind or even have lighted dashboards during blackouts. Besides keeping out of the way of moving vehicles, pedestrians also stumbled along unlit sidewalks, and walked into trees, lampposts and street furniture. During the first four months of the war, 4,133 people were killed in Britain, not by enemy fire, but as a result of the darkness of the streets during the blackouts.

Today when we open our refrigerator doors, we are able to effortlessly beckon more light then was available to an entire 18th century home.  Previous to my learning about life in the dark, I often pictured families going to bed early each evening because it was too dark to accomplish anything by candlelight. This notion is simply not true. It was a lot darker then but this did not stop people from gathering around their candle at the table each night. Although they were engaged in individual pursuits, they were seated close together, side-by-side in the same room, enjoying the flame of the same candle. A mother might be re-sewing a patch on the elbow of her husband’s shirtsleeve sitting next to her young son who is playing with his wooden horse. The husband may be calculating the amount of seed needed for the spring crop and how profitable last years yield was while his daughter is working on a piece of embroidery beside him. Surrounding the candlelight, this family is not squinting or hunched over the candle to get adequate light from the small flame, because this is the light they expect and the one they are used to; they probably cannot really imagine anything brighter. Instead they enjoy their simple candle, their time to sit down and rest from their day’s labors and the chance to be by each other and share the events of the day and prepare for the next one.