Perspective: Power Child 

by Jennifer King, Contributing Writer

Jennifer King

Because my father worked for the largest power company in Maine , my family revolved around energy the way some families do around farming or religion. We went to company outings at Maine Yankee nuclear power plant, and my brother and I ran three-legged races with a nuclear reactor in the background. I wrote school reports about how storms interfere with power lines, and my father spent such stormy nights on the phone with linemen and customers. And from the time I was tall enough to reach a light switch, I was continually reminded that a kilowatt saved is a kilowatt earned.

When I was six, my father gave me a Kilowatt Savings Time bumper sticker. It was a reminder encouraging customers to conserve electricity at heavy-use times so that energy stores would not be depleted all at once. At the age of six I never really understood Kilowatt Savings Time. When I asked my father what it meant, he told me we should run the dishwasher late at night. I ended up sticking the bumper sticker to the outside of my Barbie doll case. I had little use for Barbie or a sticker regarding dishwasher use, and in that sense they seemed to go together.

A few years later my father invented the Fuelish Freddie Award. It wasnít really an award, but a shameful moniker given to the child who left his or her bedroom light on after getting ready for school. At first my father gathered my brother and me together for the judging, which didnít take long given our adjacent bedrooms and the speed of light. I probably got the award once or twice, but when it became clear that my brother was unapologetically the most fuelish, the competition itself was a waste of energy.

My teenage years were probably my least fuel efficient. I did not believe one could shower too often or for too long. I know my brother and I were not the only teenagers ever to hear a bang on the door and mumbling about wasting hot water. But I bet no one else can say they heard the knock from the patron saint of hot water conservation. When my father said, ďIíll take a shower and then we can go,Ē for practical purposes that meant, ďget your shoes on.Ē Itís impossible to justify a 10-minute shower to a man who is always in and out before the water even has time to heat up.

In addition to taking long showers, I rebelled against my motherís practice of hanging the laundry out to dry. The stiff, wrinkled clothes that had recently been flapping shamelessly in the breeze were just too embarrassing to wear outside the house. Fortunately my mother was sympathetic: When presented with t-shirts that stood up on their own, she agreed to put things in the dryer long enough to soften them up.

Unlike other, hipper households, in our household saving energy was not directly tied to saving the planet. The fact that energy was precious and cost money was reason enough to save it. While my fatherís employment planted the seeds for saving energy, those seeds were nourished by the energy crisis in the seventies and good old-fashioned Yankee thriftiness.

In my mind such frugality has descended straight from the Puritans, who would undoubtedly regard long, hot showers as the devilís work.

Of course, my parentsí energy-saving admonitions didnít take effect until after I left home. It was in college that I first saw people who dared to keep the refrigerator door open long enough to see everything that was inside. They stared as if they were looking at a painting in a museum, and I reacted as if they were stealing the painting. With a hint of hysteria Iíd ask them what they were doing, and they would usually say something about being hungry but not sure for what. Then I swallowed the words my father seemed to be channeling through me, ďDecide what you want before you open the door. Think about all the energy youíre wasting.Ē

In college I learned that not every family has the Fuelish Freddie Award, and that in general drunk people tend to waste a lot of energy. I met students who spoke passionately about saving the earth, only to leave water running and televisions     and lights on.

I told them it wasted a lot of energy when

they changed the thermostat by 10 degrees, and they looked at me as if I picked through the trash to find my dinner.

But by that time it was too late for me ó by then I could practically see energy waves. When someone would leave a door open, the wasted energy undulated into the atmosphere. Often there were dollar signs riding the waves.

Today Iím not as diligent as my father is about saving energy, but I do honor my roots. When I hang laundry out to dry I can hear my mother saying, ďThose towels use a lot of energy in the dryer.Ē And when my husband and I were shopping for our first home, I wanted to know about the insulation in every house we looked at. We bought a newly built house, and on my fatherís first visit he inspected the windows, commented every time the heat pump came on, and took me to the hardware store to get insulation for the hot-water pipes. As we crawled under the house with a dozen giant foam worms, I didnít complain.

For Christmas this past year my father gave my husband and me a Willie Wiredhand tree ornament. Willie Wiredhand is Dadís current companyís mascot, a happy cartoon electric plug. In the picture on the ornament, Willie is wearing red mittens and a Santa cap. Next year, when the real Santa comes down our chimney, Willie will be there to remind him to turn the lights out before he leaves.

Jennifer King is the daughter of Bruce King, general manager of BARC Electric Cooperative headquartered in Millboro , Va. She is a freelance writer who lives with her family in Durham , N.C.  

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