The morning of February the 22nd in the year of our Lord, 2012 was one of those mornings when it’s not easy being a freelance journalist. It was one of those days when I barely possess the strength it takes to roll out of bed at 10 a.m. and crawl five feet to my desk to try and hammer out five or six words. The kind of day when I just stare out the window at the sideways rain being driven through the neighbors’ house like a fire hose through insolence (or at least that’s what I’d look at if I had a window through which to look).
I had no stories and no prospects.
Bleak would be an understatement. Not that there’s anything wrong with understatement, or over-simplification for that matter. We run 24/7 news-cycles fueled by the dense, clean-burning coal of over-simplification.
Now is no time to stop.
These are dark days, friend-o.
“Hey, is this Patso?” a voice on the other end of my cell phone asked.
“You got it, boy-o this here Patso”, I replied.
I’ve always been a fan of butchering the English language like a common hill person whilst on the phone.
“I was told to give you a call. You doin’ a story on apocalypse-proof underground shelters, right?”
“That is correct.”
Now things had gotten sober…no reason to talk like hill folk…besides, the voice on the other end of the line sounded like that was his natural speech pattern so it was better to drop it right away. Keeping up the accent would be exhausting in the long-term and I didn’t know for how long I was going to embed myself with John Mountebank, the man who owned the voice on the other end of the line. He came by it honestly, his voice. It was one of the few things that that could be said of John.
The Good Doctor had a saying: “When the going gets weird, the weird go pro.”
This guy had gone pro years ago. The world’s foremost producer of survival shelters and the means by which one would stock them, he had expressed an interest in doing an interview as both advertising and proselytizing in light of humanity’s impending perils.
He had reached out to me via the internet and now we were speaking face to face…in a way. His one request was that he not be made to look foolish, a caveat to which I agreed. Hell, I wasn’t going to try and make him look anything. I had no problem telling this story straight.
If he looked foolish in the process my hands would be squeaky. Ah, the low-hanging fruit of naiveté. I also had no reason to make this harbinger of bad mojo look silly, hells-bells it’s 2012; the year the Mayans come back to destroy the ground that was taken from them, said is my understanding of the Mayan apocalypse, an understanding largely informed by John Cusack and Michael Bay…I merely wanted to be the messenger, and I was ready to roll up my sleeves and dive in to some serious reporting about Mr. Mountebank and his company.
I was to meet him at Miller Field, a flat and cold wind-swept airport near Valentine, Nebraska.
I was unfamiliar with this locale. I Google-mapped it. It looked rural.
The unabated flow of bourbon I’d been ingesting since leaving Seattle had put me in a dark mood, and in no shape to board a puddle-jumper in Rapid City, South Dakota and fly (in a manner of speaking) down to Valentine.
I turned weird many moons ago. I turned pro just after that so I knew I could handle it.
The shelter site was actually about 15 miles south of the air field on highway 83. First we were to meet, then go to his Nebraska office, then head out to the site to see what the families of the post-apocalypse were going to use as domiciles.
It seemed natural, waking up from the apocalypse in Nebraska, a landscape already familiar with the trappings of a dystopia…like Daniel Tosh once said; it is “the place where dreams go to die.”
Dreams are more vivid, more worth the race of the chase the closer you get to the coast.
I live near the coast.
Based upon the rate at which I chase my own dreams: not near enough.
Once on the sweet secure soil of Valentine, I saw a man running across the tarmac toward me, from a distance he looked portly, however the speed at which he closed the distance belied his waist size. He was not only more athletic than he looked, but had the energy of a hummingbird on an experimental mixture of Crack cocaine and Mescaline…discontinued on account of the savage madness it inspired in lab rats.
We had a mission he assured me and no time to waste, this was all fine, I’d checked no baggage…I was ready to rock.
“Let’s roll”, he said.
Very 9/11(never forget).
It is a growth industry, the selling of wares to those with the proclivities of preparedness, and growth has been nothing if not exponential in the last couple of years. There are tales of Solar Flares, the switching of magnetic poles (you know North to South and vice-versa), and the grandmammy of them all–December 21st–is happening this year, as she does every year, but this year she was to show up with a bullet, least-wise that’s the word on the street. All of this has given Americans a terminal case of paranoia…well, not terminal in the classic sense, my guess is everyone will feel much better come December the 22nd…I know I will.
While, Mr. Mountebank’s company specializes in shelters and supplies—there are companies that make any number of things from Zombie preparedness kits, to Arcs (derivative much?) meant to stay afloat and support you and a couple hundred of your closest friends for five years. This is, in my opinion, one of the great arguments for dying in the apocalypse. I wouldn’t last five weeks on an arc surrounded by people who could afford a spot on an arc. Add to that the almost inevitable presence of someone who’d caught the Zombie virus, or bug (I’m no medical doctor, I don’t know how these things get passed around; I only know they do), I’d go crazy and take everyone with me.
Sure as shine.
We climbed into his 1981 Chevy Suburban; it was a large black truck, with very little in the way of creature comforts.
There are two schools of thought when it comes to vehicles of the apocalypse. There is the “Robert Kirkman’s Walking Dead” school, that is defined in its pragmatism: you take what is available, what works, and upgrade as necessary.
Then there is the “Hot Wheels” school. This school of thought seems to be predicated on the premise that five year old boys design the best cars and trucks…mainly trucks. It is, after all, the end of the world so it seems only natural that one would need a truck with the look of at least one of the beasts of the four horseman…the truly cool “Preppers” (as they are known to those of us who’ve The Discovery Channel) draw on elements from all four.
John is of the latter school. His truck, a five year old’s wet dream, were said possible (again, I’m no doctor). The bottom of the cab is four solid feet off the ground, and the tires are huge, the biggest I’ve seen (and I spent a week following a “Big and Rich” tour in the Pacific Northwest). On the inside it has: an AM radio, a CB radio, a mobile-HAM radio, a Police Scanner, a couple of gun racks, a heater, storage for MREs and water, and not much else. Mad Max could not have designed a more apt mode of conveyance.
“It’s nice to finally put a face to the media persona”, I said to him.
I had been following John’s story for a decade or more, ever since he had made waves in his opinions about Y2K and then again post 9/11 (never forget). His was a media blitz born of the proletariat-empowering internet, and the crazy ideologues of AM radio and cable “news” fame. Even so, I’d never really seen a clear picture of his face. He is a roundish man, with a beard, circle rimmed glasses, and a much sunnier disposition than one might expect, given the nature of his vocation.
“Yeah, I try to stay out of the spot light; you never know who’s keepin’ tabs on you.”
“True”, I reply. I say this even though I feel I don’t know exactly what he’s saying, or whether I think it to be true.
He looks at me very seriously and says: “We are headed to the office to meet up with some clients that I been dealin’ with, Solar Flare folks. I been consultin’ with them ’bout how to get all their vehicles ready for when the sun knocks out every microchip and circuit board from here to Taipei.”
I think, “here to Taipei, is that still a thing people say?” I say, “Solar Flares?”.
“Yeah, they’re nuclear explosions happenin’ on the surface of the sun that send a bunch o’ radiation into the earth’s atmosphere…ain’t good for electronics, that’s for sure.”
“True”, I reply. This is going to be a long assignment.
We arrive at the office just in time for the appointment.
The offices, at least the Nebraska branch offices, of Mountebank International are nothing more than a 23 foot job-site trailer, like one would see on any construction site, sitting off to the side of a paved parking lot, it has a small porch-like protrusion at both of its doors. The parking lot has half a dozen different vehicles, in various stages of repair, and on the other side of the parking lot, facing the trailer, is a small, three-stall, pole building that looks as though it is used as a repair shop.
The Solar Flare folks, who have no intention of giving out their names, seem “on edge” at the very sight of an outsider, probably anybody would put them on edge, but someone like me more so, as it is clear I know how to write…at least I have all the implements that would cause one to believe such nonsense. Media is not welcomed in this community, and only a few—who feel it their duty to disciple the masses on the gospel of preparedness—step out into the lime-light to utter their prophesy. Usually, these prophets are driven by financial gain (what, did you think I was going to write: “profits”? I’m no hack.).
John speaks with them a little while. Their minds are at ease—at least to the point that they’re open to answering some questions as anonymous survival enthusiasts.
“How does one prepare for impending Solar Flares?” I ask. The man answers, as his wife (I think) looks vacantly at a Shell station across the road.
“Well, there are lots of things you could do, we’re makin’ sure our truck’ll run after a flare takes out the world’s electronics. That means removin’ everything in the engine that isn’t a mechanical operation.”
“Ah, so making the car run like they did back in the 50’s and 60’s.”
He’s warming up to me so I decide to ask an obvious question.
“How much fuel are you storing, and what are you doing to keep it preserved indefinitely?”
He is not that warm.
“What the fuck are you talkin’ ‘bout, boy?” He inquires. “We got fillin’ stations all over the county here, and we don’t need to store a drop, we just need the truck to run.”
I regret what next comes from my lips…but alas, I am an arrogant writer, and a smug observer of the human condition…I really can’t help myself.
“Well”, slowly–I start. “Gas these days is almost impossible to keep fresh, especially in large quantities, because of the high ethanol content, add to that that every pump I’ve seen around here so far, around the world really, is an electronic middle-man. Beyond those two things, there remains the issue that if someone did get a mechanical system set up for pumping fuel, eventually the supply would run out, and I imagine the entire system of fuel-transport relies on electronic machinations on every level. How do you get fuel into your rig?”
You don’t have to be a psychoanalyst to parse the mood of this man or his wife or John after that…shit is a little tense. The fuse has arrived at the keg.
“Boy this ain’t no time for you to be comin’ in here tryin’ to make me look like an idiot in front of my friend and wife, by callin’ into question every little rock I ain’t turned over in this here plan. Can’t you see this ain’t no time to study on every situation (I’m not sure how to spell it as he says it)? I think you fail to realize this ain’t no time for your cold-big-city logic, you stupid fuck; logic ain’t relevant, we’re bein’ attacked by our goddamed sun!”
I recognize that it is time to apologize.
“I’m sorry, I don’t know what I was thinking”.
Now the man’s wife is distracted from whatever it was that held her gaze in the parking lot across the road. She seems to realize that her husband is upset. She intuits that it is my doing, and shoots me a look of confused disdain that slides into embarrassment. The look comes easy. She has used it before.
John takes them back into the office, to calm them down. I have nothing left to ask them anyhow, I’m not about to lose my shot at the tree just to roast one fallen nut. Wondering what had held this woman’s gaze for so long, I look over to the Shell station and see a couple of crows fighting over a hotdog wrapper.
It’s a fitting image.
I decide to get a closer look at the station and grab a cup of coffee; mayhaps these neighbors have seen something interesting in the parking-lot of Mountebank International.