Tuesday, July 7, 2020

Flashback - I'm a Prepper

The following is an essay that appeared on Surviving the Suburbs blog (my original blog) in 2017.  Given the current COVID-19 pandemic with the shortages in so many surprising and not surprising resources, I felt that highlighting those of us who've been doing this for a long time was appropriate.

Enjoy the flashback ... and feel free to comment ... and invite your friends to comment ;).


I'm a Prepper.

I'm accustomed to that suspicious, sideways glance from people who learn that I'm a Prepper.  I'm accustomed to being judged for writing about the very real possibility that some catastrophic, life-changing event will happen in my lifetime - what we preppers like to call TEOTWAWKI (the end of the world as we know it) or when the SHTF (shit hits the fan).

What I haven't gotten used to, however, is being openly ridiculed, called names like "mouth breather", labeled a luddite, or accused of having only a 5th grade education, simply because of my certainty that our way of life is neither sustainable nor non-negotiable, and because I refuse to become a victim, but rather choose to be proactive, and yes, prepared.  

In 2015, Canadian writer, Leslie Anthony, who clearly believes himself to be of a superior stock, wrote exactly those things about the Prepper community.  In what was little more than a insult-laced, lazily researched essay full of nothing more than degrading epithets meant to characterize anyone who believes that things might be going to shit, Mr. Anthony derided an entire group of people - people who run the gamut from, as he calls them "meth-fueled, neo-Christian, anarchist bow-hunters" to professionals in all fields from accountants and teachers to doctors and engineers.  I'd also like to point out that some of the folks in the latter group are also bow-hunters ... and some in the former are also college-educated professionals.  

Former President G.W. Bush owns an off-grid ranch in Texas that includes a 25,000 gallon cistern for storing water.  I'd call him a prepper.  

Yours truly is just shy of a graduate degree (significantly more than a 5th grade education) and is married to an engineer with a degree from an Ivy League college.  I feel like Mr. Anthony doesn't really know what a prepper is, in spite of his insistence that he has a full understanding of what that term means and the kinds of people who wear the label. 

So, let's discuss who preppers really are, and why more people should strive to be like us. 

First let's start with the definition from the Oxford English Dictionary, which Mr. Anthony refers to as "that most authoritative tome."  The definition of a prepper, as published by Mr. Anthony, from the OED is:  "a person who believes a catastrophic disaster or emergency [edited to add: *cough* COVID-19 *cough] is likely to occur in the future and makes active preparations for it, typically by stockpiling food, ammunition, and other supplies." 

I don't disagree with that definition, and I would also like to point out that no where, in that definition, is a prepper defined as someone with no education who hopes for disaster.  Rather, by definition, a prepper is someone who is pretty sure that something bad is going to happen, and strives to be ready for it ... whatever the *it* is. 

So, let's talk about some of the "its" that have occurred recently.

Hurricane Harvey hit Houston, Texas causing severe flooding and massive damage, and Hurricane Irma, after thoroughly thrashing all of the islands in that area of the world where the Caribbean Sea, the Gulf of Mexico and the Atlantic Ocean meet, descended on southern Florida with a fury only matched by a little league parent who is certain the referee has slighted his little star.

Both of those events could be described as "catastrophic disasters."  Prepping in the sense of stockpiling goods might not have done many people in the path of those hurricanes a lot of good, but Mr. Anthony also pokes fun at the "Bug-Out Bag", which is, usually a backpack filled with provisions and ready to be grabbed as one runs out the door.  

There were many areas in Florida that were under mandatory evacuation.  So, you tell me, when is it better to plan for an evacuation - when you're being shouted at by the police to leave the area, or now, when you're sitting, calmly, in your living room reading this article?  When are you more likely to be able to think, rationally, about what you might need in the event of an emergency?

When I was in college, the university provided low-cost housing to students who were married and/or had children.  It was a trailer park, and I lived there.  One evening when I was home alone with my two children, the police rolled through my neighborhood telling all of us that we needed to get out ... now!  A tornado had touched down nearby.  We were being evacuated.   I grabbed my kids, shoved a couple of diapers and a quick snack in my purse, and snatched up a ball - as something for my kids to play with.  It was a warm late spring day when we evacuated to the basement of a nearby building. Inside the bowels of that building, sitting on the marble floors, it was cold.  My children and I weren't dressed for the chill of the cold floor in the air conditioned building.  I didn't have a blanket.  I didn't have extra clothes for any of us.  Heck, my daughter didn't even have on shoes or socks (she was still a baby).  I didn't have water.  I didn't have any money.  

The list of what I didn't have was pretty long, and thankfully, after two hours, we were sent back to our homes.  Nothing happened.  We were fine.  The house was still intact.  I hadn't lost anything except two hours of study time.  

It could have been worse, though.  It could have been a lot worse.  That tornado could have destroyed my home, and I and my children could have been left with nothing more than the clothes on our backs, and the few silly things I hastily grabbed on my way out the door.  I didn't even have any identification for them, and I certainly didn't have any of my important papers.  

If back then, I'd had a bug-out bag, we would have had everything we needed, plus a lot more, and those other people who were stuck in that cold basement would have been really grateful when I pulled out blankets and snacks.    

Later in my life, I experienced other SHTF events.  These, like the tornado evacuation, were always short-lived, but the fact that I was prepared those times made my life a heck of a lot easier.

In 2008, much of the northeast was hit with a significant ice storm.  It was the second such storm I'd experienced since I'd moved to Maine a decade earlier.  The worst part of this storm, for my family, was that we were without electricity for a few days.  So, imagine.  It's the middle of winter.  There is no electricity in your house.  Quick!  What do you do?

Can you heat your house?  Can you cook meals?  Do you have candles, flashlights, or oil lamps? Would you even be able to stay in your house for the duration of the event?  Would your pipes freeze? Would you be able to care for your pets or, like too many people did during the recent hurricane emergencies, would you be forced to abandon them?

Some folks ended up in a hotel or a motel ... if they could find one that still had power and vacancies.

We stayed home.

We played games.

We read books.

We even rigged up the FM transmitter that we keep in our car (and is usually powered by the car lighter) so that we could listen to an audiobook through the solar-powered radio.

On day two of our power outage, Deus Ex Machina's nephew came over to our house to spend the day, because there was no school.  He asked us what we did all day with no television, and so my daughters showed him.  They played some games.  They made origami animals.  They colored.  They danced and sang.  

I made lunch on the wood stove.

In the mornings, I heated water on the wood stove.  We had hot baths.  We had coffee.  We were able to wash dishes.

In the evenings, we had plenty of light with my stockpile of candles, oil lamps, and flashlights.  Dinner, including fresh baked bread, was cooked on the wood stove.

On day three of our power outage, Deus Ex Machina went to work in the morning, just like usual, and I hooked my computer and transcriber up to the car jump-starter and did my job, too.

The day the power company crew came to my neighborhood to restore our electric service, I was hanging my freshly laundered clothes on the line outside.

Not much about our lives changed significantly ... because we are prepared.  We don't have a generator, but we know for a fact that we can survive without electricity without any hardship at all.

And without scrambling to buy a generator or running to the store for supplies, because, thanks to our prepper mind-set, we usually have most of what we need.

There are some Prepper-fantasy scenarios that are a little far-fetched - more likely to occur in fiction than in real life.  All sorts of novels cover the possibility of a solar flare or an EMP attack that completely destroys all electronics, or a viral plague that wipes out 90% of the human race. Mostly those events are fiction, but both of them can happen, and have-ish.

To wit:  a solar storm (coronal mass ejection or CME) known as the Carrington Event knocked out telegraph transmissions in 1859.  If a similar event occurred in the US today, it could destroy significant parts of the electrical grid, and knock out power in some parts of the country for months ... maybe longer.  Such an event could happen and would be catastrophic.  It probably won't, though.  And, while an EMP, which would have a similar effect, can be accomplished by detonating a nuclear bomb up in the stratosphere (or, you know, up in the clouds, up there someplace), it probably won't happen, either.  You know, it's not like North Korea has nuclear bombs or anything, or that they don't like us.  Oh ... wait.

As for plagues, those have also happened.  In the Middle Ages, the Bubonic Plague wiped out much of Europe (although some research is also suggesting that it wasn't just the Black Plague, but a combination of pestilence, including bacillus anthracis, or Anthrax).  Of course, that was a very long time ago, and we have a vaccinations these days.  But ...

Ebola is pretty awful.  There's no vaccine.  It probably won't spread to the rest of the world, but from 2014 to 2016, several West African countries fought to keep the disease from spreading. People were ordered to quarantine themselves in their homes.  So, imagine that you can't leave your house.  Can you feed yourself?  Do you have water?  Can you cook your food?  Can you heat your home?  Ebola probably won't happen HERE, where I live, but it did happen somewhere.  The Preppers in West Africa were living well in their quarantined, well-stocked homes.

Let's talk about some other possibilities that are not just crazy, "out there" ideas that are just never going to happen here, but rather some real scenarios that really could happen, over which we would have absolutely NO control, but for which we could be somewhat prepared.

In the 1990s, the USSR collapsed.  The USSR, or the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, was a massive entity in Eurasia that was formed just after World War I.   Land wise, it was huge.  We collectively referred to them as the Soviet Union, and most of us here in America thought they were all "Russians", but the USSR was actually made up of 15 different countries with several more countries, sort of, being controlled by the government in Moscow.

So, when the USSR collapsed, it was pretty catastrophic for a lot of people.  The Russians retreated back to Russia where there were shortages of everything.  Dmitry Orlov, who grew up in the US, but visited family in Russia, tells great stories about what he saw during his visits behind the curtain of how the people were dealing with the financial collapse.

Argentina, Cuba, Greece, and Venezuela have all recently experienced their own financial collapses, and lest you think it can't happen here, please note that Venezuela is one of the top oil producing countries in this world.  They should have plenty of money to sustain their economy.  Unlike Venezuela, the US does not have its own supply of oil.  If, by some crazy happenstance (oh, I don't know, like the 1970s OPEC-led oil embargo against the US), we lose our oil suppliers, things would be very bad.

If you want a very small glimpse of how it might look to have less oil available, and at a much higher price, do some research on what happened to Cuba when Russia stopped supplying the Cubans with oil.  

Or, perhaps, just harken back to 2008, right here in the good ole US of A, when the price of gasoline skyrocketed, almost overnight, and everyone freaked out.  Truckers went on strike in protest of the high prices.  Goods weren't delivered.  It wasn't too bad, but it could have been.

Shit happens all of the time, and being prepared for the "it" is not a bad thing.

One of the most popular lists for preppers is the 100 items list.  It was originally compiled by a survivor of the Sarajevo siege.  I'm sure you're thinking, why should I care about Sarajevo?

In 1992, Sarajevo was a beautiful, modern city.  It is the capital of Bosnia and hosted the 1984 Olympics.  That year (1992) opposing military factions laid siege to the city, trapping civilians inside the urban confines. The Siege has the distinction of being the longest in the history of modern warfare and lasted almost four years.

Thirteen years ago, I found this graphic novel, Fax from Sarajevo, at my library.  I had no idea what I was borrowing.   The story was horrifying in its harrowing details.  The civilians who lived in the city were constantly being shot at.  These were just regular people.  A man and his wife and their children, struggling not to get killed as these two opposing armies fought each other.  If that wasn't bad enough, they also needed stuff to stay alive, like food and clean water.  No supplies came in.  No one got out. Those cartoon images have stayed with me.

It is unlikely that southern Maine will end up in a siege.  But ... I'm almost positive that if I found Doc Emmett Brown and bartered a ride in his Delorean back to 1984, and I was able to buy a ticket to the Olympics and visit Sarajevo, and talk to the people who lived there, not one of them would express the belief that their beautiful city would be torn asunder by war in eight years.  They'd probably laugh at me.  Loudly.  And point and jeer.

Kind of like Mr. Anthony did in 2015 in his nasty little anti-prepper diatribe.

But the reality - for a lot of people in this world - is that the shit hits the fan all of the time.  War happens, and usually, it happens in places and to people who aren't thinking it could ever happen to them, like most of us living in the US.  War doesn't happen here, right?  In 1991, that is exactly what they were saying in Sarajevo.

I'm also pretty sure that in 2014 no one in Sierra Leone expected that their country would be home to more than 14,000 cases of a deadly and virulent hemorrhagic fever.

And if I could go back to a 4th of July party in Houston, not one of my fellow party-goers would believe me if I tried to warn them that they would be under a three-day siege from a Hurricane with the same name as some actor from the Carol Burnett comedy show.

Our mantra as humans is "It won't happen to me."

The difference between the Mr. Anthonys of this world and the Preppers he derides is that we, Preppers, DO believe it can (and probably will) happen to us, and instead of throwing up our hands in defeat, we decide to do something about it.

He can laugh, if he wants, but come winter, if Maine experiences another electricity stealing ice storm, I'll be living life, pretty much, as usual.

A final word:

There are a lot of SHTF scenarios.  Some are huge events that are devastating to a lot of people, like most of the ones I mentioned.  All of the ones I mentioned HAVE happened, and millions of people were adversely affected by them.  With the exception of the catastrophic CME, all of them have happened somewhere in the world in MY lifetime.  I've been a witness, peripherally, to most of the catastrophic events that we, preppers, are hedging against.

But there's one more, and every one of us is likely to experience that SHTF scenario.  The last one is a job loss or some significant financially devastating event (like an illness).

Deus Ex Machina and I went through the job loss event this summer.  It wasn't bad for us, because we have a prepper mindset, because we are always aware that this modern way of life is not sustainable and not non-negotiable, and because we know that things can change on a whim, and do.

Deus Ex Machina found a job.   We didn't lose our home.  No one starved.  We didn't have to sell our kidneys ... or our children.   We didn't sell our cars or our furniture or our clothes to make ends meet. We didn't have to rehome our pets because we couldn't feed them.  We didn't have to take out loans or end up with credit card debt.  We're still happily married and happily together.

In fact, with the exception of having an awesome summer together with no one having to get up early every day to go to work, our lives didn't change all that much.

Honestly, the whole tone of Leslie Anthony's article was condescending, and yes, as a Prepper, I was deeply insulted.  I guess, I just think, as a highly educated "scientist" kind of guy, we should expect  more from him than just a nine paragraph rant about a demographic he clearly doesn't care to understand.

Maybe, instead of just trolling through a couple of Prepper websites, Mr. Anthony should have done some real research ... you know, like an actual scientist or journalist should be doing ... and gone out and actually met some of the real people in the Prepper world.  If he had done his due diligence, I'm certain his article would have had a very different tone.

But then, if he'd met some real preppers, he would have had to hop down off his soap box and admit that real-life Preppers are more than a reality show caricature.


[edited to add]

And now that the world is in the midst of one of those "catastrophic" events, now that billions have been locked down and/or quarantined, millions have lost their jobs, and hundreds of thousands of lives have been lost to this disease, I wonder what naysayers, like Mr. Anthony are saying.

To be clear, this isn't my "I told you so" moment, because we aren't done with this.  COVID-19 and its aftermath will be with us for a while.  We still don't know what the overall economic impact will be.  Things are still scarce.  People are still afraid.  At a minimum, we'll have to keep wearing that god-awful mask, and my job, as an office manager at a community theater, is in jeopardy, since we can't have folks congregating in enclosed spaces and theaters are, as a result, closed.  I don't feel "I told you so."  This is not a laughing time.  

It is a time for us to take stock of where we go from here.

For those of you who were preppers before all of this began:  how do you feel about your preparations?   

For those of you who weren't preppers:  what's your plan for the future?

Here at Chez Brown, we were well prepped.  In fact, because I had to come home to work, but Deus Ex Machina was considered an "essential worker" and still went to his job, our lives actually went back to what they were pre-2018, when I owned a home-based business.  It was nice. 

I had more time - and energy - to tend to my space: housekeeping, garden, cooking - all thrived during my lockdown.

We discovered new ways to get what we needed (curbside pick-up for the win!!).  We discovered new businesses (hooray!  Locally caught fish!).  We found a couple of really cool home delivery services for products we would never have considered having home delivered (there's a wine service that home delivers - I didn't subscribe, but how cool is that!). 

We returned to doing things we'd done before, staying home, spending time, doing things. 

For us, it was nice to be reminded of what is important and to return to those activities.