In 1967 we lived in Klungkung, East Bali, a sleepy town with shop houses lining the one main street. Behind the bus station was the power station, a dilapidated building housing a wheezy generator, a relic from the Dutch colonial era, the power grid consisting of sagging lines to perhaps a hundred shops and homes. The electricity was supposed to come on at dusk for several hours, but often didn’t, the generator having broken down yet again. When the generator did work, our twenty-watt bulbs flickered with the uncertain voltage. Electricity was such a rare thing that the Indonesian word for it was “stroom”, borrowed from the Dutch. Only much later would it be called “listrik.”
What most folks used to illuminate the night were kerosene lanterns, and those who could afford it used pressurized lanterns, which were called “stroom king” after the top of the line brand of “Storm King.” Lighting one each evening was a ritual. The bulb-like element was a cotton-like fabric when new, but after it was tied and attached and lit once, it turned into a delicate web of ash, easily damaged. You’d put kerosene in the tank, pump it up, pour blue alcohol into the little pan, light that, let things warm up, and then turn the valve that fed the kerosene mist into the element. The light it produced blazed white and hot.
(Many early surf boat pioneers anchored in a channel at night would see dozens of coastal villagers scavenging a low-tide reef by light of “stroom kings”).
We used pressure lanterns to light up the small church sanctuary for evening services. It is a tradition among Indonesian Christians, Catholic and Protestant, to greet New Year’s with a mass or solemn service. New Year’s Eve of 1967 my siblings and I sat on the hard wooden pews, trying not to sweat. It’d rained all afternoon, and the humidity hung thick, the pressure lanterns dangling from ceiling hooks hissing hot white light.
The Christmas Tree was still up. My father had driven up to Bedugul to the old Dutch pine tree plantation and cut down a couple (one for our house). You could get away with doing things like that back then. The tree was decorated with tinsel and gold paper stars and tassels and cotton for snow. Carefully clipped onto outer branches were candle holders for miniature candles, whose flames flickered happily. The season of presents was over, but that tree was still a pretty sight.
As we sang hymns, flying ants began to swarm, clouds of them billowing around the lanterns and flying into the singing open mouths of the faithful, getting into our hair. Many strayed into the Christmas Tree candle flames, their wings catching fire, and they spiraled to the floor like World War Two fighters shot down by AA batteries. Several ibus sprang into action and brought in tubs of water they placed under the lanterns. Attracted to the light’s reflection, the ants swarmed downwards and got stuck on the water’s surface. This greatly lessened the volume.
While all this was going on and attracting everyone’s attention, nobody noticed that a couple of the Christmas tree’s candle holders had slipped out of place. I noticed and nudged my brother and before we could react (or perhaps we didn’t want to react, you know, being kids) one of the branches caught on fire. A small fire at first, but that tree was about two weeks dry, and full of inflammable sap. Within seconds the whole tree was up in flames. The song leader stopped singing to yell in alarm, several quick-witted congregants sprang into action heave the pans of water at the tree, which caused dense smoke. We all fled, coughing and choking.
Fortunately, the only damage would only be a scorched wall, but the drama brought an end to the service.
For a kid, the best New Year’s Eve ever.