It was one thing when they blacked out the street lights. It was one thing when they cut out overtime at the Firestone plant.
But when they canceled the basketball game -- that was something else. That's when the power shortage came home to the people of Noblesville.
Like most Indiana communities, this bustling county seat at the state's geographic center loves its high school basketball team with a passion that would shame the most devout Redskins or Bronco fans -- with a devoutness that has come to be called "Hoosier Hysteria."
More than 3,000 people -- a third of the town -- turn out to see each week's game. This week, though, there won't be a game, because there's not enough electricity to light the gym.
The court clash between Noblesville High and arch rival of brownsburg is just one of the local casualties of the nationwide coal strike. Indiana's electric utilities, which rely almost entirely on coal to fire the boilers that drive their generators, have taken steps to conserve their declining fuel stocks. With the supply of electricity suddenly limited, the coal strike has suddenly become something more here than just another new item.
On Monday, the stockpiles at Public Service of Indiana, the power utility that serves about half the state, including Nobles ville, fell below 40 days' supply. Under state law, the firm at that point had to impose mandatory limits on its customers' consumption of electricity.
Three other big Indiana utilities say they may reach the 40-day supply level this weekend. If so, about 95 percent of the state would be under mandatory consumption controls.
To help the utilities administer and police the limits, the state government has established five priorities to determine who can use electricity.
Users serving "human needs" can consume their normal levels of electricity. Residential users must cut consumption 15 percent below normal. Industrial and commercial users are to cut by 25 percent, and educational institutions by 50 percent. The fifth category, "dispensable usage," is to be eliminated entirely.
Those abstract categories, so neat on paper have caused consternation in Noblesville when the utility tried to apply them to the less organized reality of everyday life.
John Young, manager of Young's Packing Co. here, argued that a 25 percent power cut would mean a total shutdown of his plant, which is basically one big refrigerator where cattle carcasses are stored after slaughter. But the firm was told that it may qualify as a "human need" operation, and so no cut would be necessary.
That rule seemed fair enough to the manager of the local McDonald's, who pointed out that he, too, is in the food business. Nonetheless the restaurant had to turn out the floodlights illuminating its huge sign; the Golden ARches has been designated a "dispensable usage."
Notwithstanding the confusion, most people in Noblesville have adjusted to power rationing "without batting an eye," according to Mayor Robert V. Wical. The mayor scoffed gently at Terre Haute, the largest city served by Public Service of Indiana, where almost all stores were closed yesterday and where schools will be open only three days a week until coal starts moving to generating plants again.
Louis Williams, the easygoing school superintendent here, says Noblesville wants to keep schools operating because students already lost 12 days this year because of heavy snow. To stay open while reducing power consumption by 50 percent, Williams has tried to eliminate every nonessential kilowatt.
No audio visual equipment is being used. Typing, shop and home economics classes, which rely on electric machinery, will be terminated for the duration.
A North Elementary School, Ruth Evans, the cook, said the power cutoff has strained her budget and her ingenuity. No hot meals can be prepared, and nothing but "finger food" -- sandwiches, celery sticks, cheese slices and cookies -- can be served because there's no hot water to sterilize silverware.
The school's main corridor yesterday was as cool and dark as a winecellar. Principal Victor Harber has set the furnace at the "night maintenance level" full time. To keep what heat there is inside, he has eliminated outdoor recesses "so we won't have doors flapping cold air in here."
Noblesville's largest employer is a Firestone plant where a work force of 1,200 turns out tires and tank treads. Management has eliminated all overtime, but hopes to avoid layoffs by frugal use of power.
The city government, for its part, has turned off all but 50 of the town's 587 street lights until the shortage is over.
Merchants plan to eliminate the normal late business hours on Fridays, but otherwise the power cuts have not hampered trade. Stores here have turned out neon signs and about two-thirds of their interior lights. Yesterday the lights that were on seemed perfectly adequate.
Perhaps because the impact has not been terribly painful, no one here seems particularly hostile toward either side in the coal strike. The power shortage is just something that happened, like last month's blizzard and last year's natural gas crisis.
But local politicians have not been able to resist the oratorical possibilities the shortage offers.
Richard Dellinger, the town's Republican state representative, has lashed out at Jimmy Carter for waiting until the crunch had come before thinking about what to do.
"I just don't think that's presidential leadership," Dellinger said.