Saturday, March 1, 2014

Idyl of the P.S. Corp.

On the general theme of family history, I thought I'd post one of my grandfather's articles from the Atlantic Monthly in the 1950's, when he was living on a farm in Vermont. This is a favourite story, and one that nicely captures the Knight family ethos.

Idyl of the P.S. Corp

by Rixford Knight

When pressure from the family decided me to have electricity brought up to the farm, I was told by the Public Service Corporation that since I was not on a power line I would have to put five poles. I could do this myself, or they would do it for me at a cost of $18 a pole. I did it myself, using spruce trees from the wood lot. My only cash outlay was the $5 deposit required by the company before they would wire the poles and install the meter.

I found it pleasant to have electric lights on the farm, and it was convenient when a cow got sick or anything, but I was irked about the company's having the use of my $5 deposit, which might have been drawing interest for me at the savings bank at the rate of 1½ percent or seven and one-half cents a year. So when the first month's electric light bill came I tucked it back of the kitchen clock. I did the same with the bills for the two following months.

So long as the total of these bills did not exceed the amount of my deposit the Public Service Corporation did not worry much; but five days after receiving the third month's bill I got a notice from the company, printed in blue ink, noting the amount of my arrears, and warning that if my account was not settled within ten days they would have to remove my meter. "The cost of re-installation will be $2" was their supercilious postscript. I paid this notice on the eighth day.

By doing this I saved a three-cent stamp and a half-cent envelope on each of first two bills.Three and one-half cents time two is seven cents. The other half cent I was willing to forgo on account of the extra three and one-half cents it cost the company to mail me the blue-ink notice and the annoyance it undoubtedly caused them. We carried on on this basis for five years till the spruce poles I had set up rotted at the base.

But three years and seven months before this a neighbor, three poles farther up the road, had had electricity installed. He used my poles, of course. Also a second neighbor, five poles past the first, was using my five and the first neighbor's three.
I now represented to the light company that since my first neighbor was using eight poles, five of which were mine, he ought to stand five eighths of the expense of my five new poles. And my second neighbor, who was using a total of thirteen poles, ought to pay five thirteenths of the cost. This would make their combined contributions 105/104ths of the total cost of my new poles.
I told the electric light company that this time I might wish to have them set up the poles themselves, at so much a pole, and asked them to submit an estimate, at their earliest convenience, of the probable amount of their remittance to me per pole upon completion of the transaction. They replied that the simplest way would be for them to consider me as now being on a power line and to erect the poles at their own expense.

I agreed to the company's proposition, but at the same time I could not ignore the implication that if I was a power line now, I had also been a power line three years and seven months earlier when my neighbor had started using my poles. In effect the power company had been using my poles to their profit for that length of time and should have reimbursed me for a proportionate amount of the original labor cost of my five poles. I estimated that at the rate of seven cents every three months it would take a lifetime to liquidate the indebtedness and I felt justified in putting my Fabian tactics in connection with the bills on a year-round basis.

My next extra-routine dealings with the Public Service Corporation came three years later, at a time when the matter of rates was up before the state utilities commission. I received a form letter from the company saying that because of our long and mutually profitable relationship and my consistently prompt payment of my bills they were pleased to refund me my original deposit of $5.

I felt more amicably inclined toward the light company after this, but since they still owed me for their share of the original poles after I became a power line, I saw no reason to change my habit with regard to the bills. However, something must have gone wrong in the mails, because two months and fifteen days later the Service Corporation drove up and removed my meter. I offered to pay the two bills, but they insisted on the $2 re-installation fee in addition. This I refused to pay and they drove off with my meter.

They thought, of course, that pretty soon I would come hurrying to them with $2 in my outstretched hand, begging for re-installation of my meter. But I'm not one to be pushed around by these big monopolies and I determined to teach them a lesson.

I had always felt -- and had explained to my family many times -- that these electric gadgets the monopolies press you to buy, and then sell you current for, are not really necessary anyhow, and that in the end we lose by having them. The electric washing machine is a case in point.

Before the advent of the electric washing machine the women washed what needed to be washed and that ended it. But now that the P.S. Corp. does the work for them, everything in the house needs washing. Once a week regularly the house is thrown into a turmoil of frantic search for anything with a woof or a warp. Sheets are yanked from beds, and cases from pillows. Curtains are pulled down, exposing finger marks on windows which augur poorly for peace the following day. Closets are ransacked; bags of garments are dumped and sorted into whites and non-whites. Socks are held up between thumb and fastidious forefinger for an inspection they never pass.

If a wind is blowing and the sun is warm, blankets, portieres, rugs, couch covers, and mattress covers are all deemed in need of cleansing and add their quota to the profits of the P.S. Corp. Children are run after and their pockets searched for the last handkerchief that is not neatly folded into a square and devoid of all wrinkles. Gentlemen stealing into pantries for a glass of milk and a cracker, as substitute for their midday meal, are harried with such questions as "When did you last change your underwear?" Everywhere is a melee of lather, suds, splashings, arguments, and soggy clothes hanging face-high on sagging lines.

All this, to the loss of the P.S. Corp., would be over with. We would return to the days of sanity. I mapped out our household regimen. We would rise with the sun and would toast our bread as it ought to be toasted -- on the back of the good wood stove. During the day we would do such chores as needed to be done, and in the evenings, instead of enduring the blaring radio and glaring light bulbs, I would entertain by reading aloud pertinent chapters from Thoreau by the soft light of the kerosene lamp. Then we would retire for a long and peaceful rest.

Now began for my family and myself a series of idyllic days and nights free from the domination of the machine age and the exactions of the P.S. Corp.

Because the electric pump was no longer operating, the flush toilets could not function, so I began immediately the construction of an outdoor privy. I enjoyed every minute of designing and working on this structure. I believe, from my experience on it, that an entirely new economy could be built up around the individual incentives derived from frustrating the P.S. Corp., and that it would work far better than one based on the profit motive.

Because water had to be fetched in pails from the well, washday lost all of its fearsome character. Washing became a matter of boiling an occasional handkerchief or the lower end of a pair of socks in a cup of water.

With the radio out of commission it became possible to get the children to do a little work in the garden and a little studying in the evening. Studying made them sleepy, so it was possible to get them to bed and out of the way for that quiet hour that is the delight and support of parents.
With the refrigerator no longer in use, odd saucers and bowls that had been missing for months began to re-appear. Butter became spreadable. Frozen junkets flavored with vanilla, lemon extract, or even almond, were replaced by honest pies and cakes.

Also the whine of the vacuum cleaner was no longer heard in the land.

It is in this connection that I have to report a certain measure of non-cooperation on the part of members of the family. An inordinate amount of rug-beating seemed to be required, and it always seemed to happen that I was the only one around at the time it had to be done. However, I was supported in this work by knowing that the board of directors of the P.S. Corp. were sitting around their mahogany table worrying about the decline in profits I was causing them and wondering what to do about it. One hundred and twenty-five good thwacks for each of the twelve directors and the rug-beating job was done.

No small part of the satisfaction I got from defeating the P.S. Corp. came from estimating the amount of their loss and of my own savings. At the end of every month I spent a happy hour figuring these amounts in detail. Then I placed that amount of money in an envelope marked "for flashlight batteries" and tucked it back of the kitchen clock.

This happy situation might have continued indefinitely if I had not been called away for a few days on business. When I returned I was met by the blare of the radio, the whine of the cleaner, the slopping of suds, and the smiles of the members of my family. I was not unconsolable. During my absence the P.S. Corp. had acknowledged defeat and re-installed my meter.