Emergency: This Book Will Save Your Life - Neil Strauss (2009)
Part IV. SURVIVE
I must find the home of the Faraway.
He is a human being just as I am.
Yet he has found everlasting life…
Surely he can teach me how to live for days without end.
—Gilgamesh, Tablet IX, 2100 B.C.
I like the way you’re thinking,” Spencer said. I was telling him about my epiphany during the blackout in St. Kitts. “You have to make a thorough plan, though.”
“What do you mean?”
“Do you have guns yet?”
“Can you fly a plane?”
“Well, if the system breaks down, you won’t only have to worry about surviving in St. Kitts. You also have to worry about how you’re going to get there.” I could hear the ring of satisfaction in his voice. He could tell my attitude had changed. “There won’t be major airline flights or cell phone reception or probably even working gas pumps.”
“Good point. I’ll try to get out ahead of time then.”
“But what if there’s no warning?”
The so-called system is something we take for granted. We depend on it to give us an inexhaustible supply of electricity, water, food, gas, Internet, phone service, garbage removal, long-distance transportation, civil order, twenty-four-hour convenience stores, and Seinfeld reruns. But what would happen if it stopped working—and, suddenly, there was nothing to depend on?
“My feeling is that instead of evolving constantly toward a more advanced civilization, human history is cyclical,” Spencer was saying. He had me in the palm of his hand now. His anxieties were my anxieties. “And, just like Rome and Egypt and other advanced civilizations before us, we’re past our zenith. We’re growing weak, while the tribes that want to destroy modernity are growing stronger and more committed.”
To Fliesians, civilizations don’t keep evolving. They progress until some reactionary element hits the reset button, and they have to start all over again.
“Someday,” he concluded, “a future civilization is going to find our computers and hard drives and have no idea they contain the entire history of our society. They’ll just think they’re funny-looking rocks and use them as tools.”
After talking to Spencer, I walked to my bookshelf and pulled out the two Bruce Clayton books I’d ordered after dinner with my parents—Life after Doomsday and Life after Terrorism.
As I leafed through them, I began to feel stupid for having thought that being independent of America meant just having a nationality and a bank account somewhere else. I needed to become independent of everything. All my life, I had thought that freedom was something that, as Americans, we were privileged to have, thanks to the Constitution and the Bill of Rights. But those documents didn’t create freedom. They created a system. And systems create dependencies. Real freedom, I realized, meant knowing not just where to go, but how to take care of myself if the system ever broke down.
And since returning from St. Kitts, I didn’t have just myself to look after anymore. I’d started dating someone. Her name was Katie. She was a quick-witted, high-spirited Russian-American heartbreaker with two-tone black-and-blond hair and a penchant for midriff tops, tight blue jeans, and push-up bras. One night I saw her sing Leonard Cohen’s “Famous Blue Raincoat” while her sister, Grace, accompanied her on guitar. From that day forward, I was smitten.
In my survivalist fantasies, I’d imagined dating a rugged GI Jane type of girl who’d grown up on a farm and would teach me how to milk cows and raise chickens. Instead, I’d found someone with even less outdoor experience and more irrational fears than myself.
Katie was scared not just of driving a car and flying in a plane, but of literally everything—from guitars (she was afraid a string would break and lash her in the face) to hotel towels (she’d seen a documentary on microscopic bugs that live in linens) to horses (she was afraid they’d think her nose was a carrot and bite it off). Oh, and also ponds (“They’re like toilets for birds that never get flushed”).
Unlike me, Katie had been popular in high school and, consequently, learning to be self-sufficient had never crossed her mind. If she was too scared to do something, there were always fifty guys around who would gladly do it for her. So she had trouble understanding the growing pile of survivalist books on my table.
“My boyfriend’s going a bit nutty,” she wrote in her journal right after we started dating. “Something must really be going wrong if he’s stocking up on all those books. I hope my hair straightener still works if it does.”
At one point in history, almost everyone was a survivalist. They knew how to hunt, farm, fight, and keep themselves and their families alive without the infrastructure and conveniences we have now.
The modern survivalist movement began as a nostalgic yearning for that way of life. Its grandfather was Harry Browne, one of the libertarian authors Greg had recommended at the Sovereign Society conference. Concerned about inflation, the devaluation of the dollar, and nuclear war with Russia, Browne began leading seminars in the late sixties on how to survive an economic collapse in America. He was soon joined by Don Stephens, an architect who gave the movement’s followers the name retreaters. Worried that cities would erupt into violence in the face of a food, water, power, or other shortage, retreaters advocated building self-sufficient homes and communities in rural areas to flee to.
Then, in the seventies, a man named Kurt Saxon came along. Saxon, an ultra-right-winger who’d grown up during the Great Depression, didn’t have much use for people like Browne. At various points, he was a member of the neo-Nazi party, the John Birch Society, and the Minutemen. In 1970, he appeared before a Senate investigation subcommittee after suggesting liberals be bombed. Considering the word retreater wimpy, he began popularizing the term survivalist in his newsletter, The Survivor.
Around the same time, the other fathers of the movement emerged from the right wing. Among them were Howard Ruff, a financial adviser who wrote Famine and Survival in America in the wake of the 1973 oil crisis, and Mel Tappan, who published his most famous book, Survival Guns, and started a newsletter, Personal Survival Letter, in 1977, the year blackouts in New York led to widespread looting and arson.
“If a social breakdown comes, you may be faced with living under primitive conditions for a year, a decade or even the rest of your life,” Tappan wrote in one of many essays on his favorite subject, “and your basic life support problems will almost certainly be complicated by encounters with desperate, dangerous mobs of people who have made no crisis preparations of their own and who are anxious to avail themselves of yours by force. Instead of compromise or improvisation, such circumstances call for the most specialized and efficient arms available.”
It was these men who both gave birth to survivalism and gave the term its fearsome reputation.
And so I did what any aspiring survivalist would do: I called them to ask where to begin.