By Ken Bradbury
Every time I check into a hotel I think of Al Capp and his L’il Abner cartoon strip, specifically the character of Joe Btfsplk, a sad little character who walked around with a small raincloud over his head. Joe was a well-meaning little jinx who was always followed by catastrophe for all those who would come in contact with him.
In just the past year I’ve checked into a Springfield hotel with a boat load of guests only to be awakened at 2 a.m. by the fire alarm and the Springfield Fire Department when one of our German tourists filled his room with smoke from microwaved popcorn. I first had to run up and down the halls knocking on doors to explain the sound of an American fire alarm then we spent a very chilly evening standing on the streets while the men in yellow hats carried a burnt tin of kernels out of the building. Just months later I roomed next to a girls’ volleyball team that didn’t believe in the benefits of sleep, and just a week earlier I had to try three rooms before I found one that was ready to be inhabited. With a track record like this I shouldn’t have been surprised the night the lights went out in Bloomington.
I’d checked in to the Hampton Inn on the west side of town and just as I was entering the elevator to my third floor room, Boom! A clack, a flash, and the lights went out. Taking just a moment to give thanks that I wasn’t on the elevator I went back to the desk to stupidly report to the clerk standing in the dark that the lights had gone out. Immediately, her phone began lighting up with calls from guests to confirm what we already knew. The entire west side of Bloomington was out of power.
I pulled my suitcase up the three floors to find that at least my key worked, felt around for the bed to make sure that no one else was in it, then proceeded to find the bathroom. After blindly taking aim and I think hitting the target, I felt my way back to the lobby where the very last of the day’s light was leaking in through the front window. By this time the lobby was filled with confused guests listening to our desk clerk explain that she had no idea what was going on. This was mid-January and the predicted low for the night was two degrees. One guest asked for a refund then was stopped short when someone looked out the front door and announced that everything was dark. No need to check out of one dark hotel to find a room in another.
So we settled ourselves into the lobby. I’m not sure why. Perhaps there was comfort in numbers. About thirty tired travelers took seats in the breakfast lounge while a couple of fellows took off walking to see if they could find the source of the blackout. They returned shortly to report that it looked as if the east side of the town had power, so the question remained. . . do we check out and all hustle to the east or wait it out, hoping that the power company would soon find the problem and fix it. I told them that most of the hotels were on our side of town and by the time we’d find a fully-powered hotel most of the travelers in town would be there seeking rooms. I’m old and in a certain light look reasonably wise, so they believed me. I may have been wrong, but it was a masterful performance.
We were blessed with the fact that there was only whiny child in our little tribe and his mother had snacks. His name was Joey and he kept calling me Santa Claus. As it approached 8 p.m. the hungry-grumbles began to creep in. We’d all planned to find a restaurant that night but from the front window we could see a Bob Evans, Steak & Shake, and Cracker Barrel and they were all dark. A fellow volunteered to look around Bloomington in search of a McDonald’s with either power or at least lukewarm hamburgers. I volunteered to drive and the two of us took off. It was an educational journey. When the lights go out in Jacksonville the stoplights start blinking red automatically. In Bloomington they simply go out completely. This makes for very dangerous intersections.
When we returned forty minutes later with the contents of a convenience store’s sandwich cooler, the temperature in the Hampton lobby was downright disagreeable. They’d taken up a collection and I made a couple of bucks on the deal. Sometime around 10 p.m. we started stumbling up to our rooms and found that most had retained enough heat to get undressed and allow us to hop under the comforters. By the time I was awakened by dawn’s early light the power was on and I checked out quietly, no one the wiser to what misery I’d brought them.