Maybe it’s the recent wild weather. Maybe it’s the increase in reported cases of Ebola. Or simply the emotional engineering that we are often subjected to when we turn on the news. Which in my case is stacked neatly on top of having lived through a magnitude 9 earthquake, followed by a devastating tsunami and a nuclear melt-down. All just after I had returned from a war zone where we averaged seven rockets a day, landing within 50 meters of our accommodation and work place, and included a direct hit.
A year in Iraq taught me a great deal about self-preservation and long-term survival, not least of which included the virtues of having a comprehensive ‘grab bag’. I also received a useful education in the importance of being fully dressed during dust storms (which is when the UAVs can’t launch and so the rockets do) – day or night, because if you sleep naked… well… you get the picture. I mastered sleeping (perhaps more, ‘dozing’) in hardened zones sans creature comforts, while the earth rumbled beneath me from the shock of rockets and mortars. I learned how to stagger my ablutions so that no matter what point I was at when there was an incoming missile alert, I could make it to a muster point in a relatively decent state of attire (i.e. not with only a towel wrapped around me and shampoo in my hair). I knew the location of every Duck and Cover bunker. And, importantly, I acquired the skill of calmly continuing my brief over the sound of nearby explosions.
Japan further reinforced my growing sense of ‘alert, but not alarmed’. And also helped me understand that having only six rolls of toilet paper in the house was not adequate in the commodities shortage that inevitably follows a natural disaster. Nonetheless, thanks to Iraq, when the big 9 shook open Japan on March 11, I could at least claim ownership to a functional ‘grab bag’. Shame I was nowhere near that bag at the time.
My ‘grab bag’ was no Sunday picnic venture either. It contained seasonally appropriate clothing, only essential toiletries (yes, there was lipgloss), enough food and water to get me through a fortnight, a solid first aid kit, navigational aids and a deck of cards. (My experience being that a disaster usually consists of two parts; a. run for your life and b. wait patiently for the all clear or rescue.) I did, however, fail on the petrol in the tank and mobile fully charged aspect.
Given all that, it was perhaps inevitable that I ended up here – teetering on the verge of becoming of fully fledged Prepper.
I never did like having less that four tins of tomatoes in the pantry at any given time, but fair to say that the above experiences have blown my sense of preparedness out of proportion. I’m not quite ready to appear on a TV show (‘Beginner Prepper Face Off’ / ‘The Prepper Factor’ / ‘The Prepper Within?), but I have to admit to late night youtube sessions in which I indulge my growing fascination with individuals who have gone off the grid in preparation for the “end of days”. In whatever form they most fear that will happen; plague, infrastructure failure, nuclear war, economic melt-down, terror attacks, zombies.
There’s no shortage of Prepping advice on the internet. Courtesy of which I’ve compiled some very useful lists, learned how to build a root cellar and have even created a Pinterest page (although, to be fair, this is mostly focussed on a Zombie apocalypse – and is more a tribute to my love of ‘walking Dead’.).
The difficulty I now face is that it also appears impossible to be both sane and a Prepper. With most of what I’m reading suggesting that you have to let go of one to become the other. You have to fully enter into a psychological state in which the end of the world, as we know, is not just one of the most popular TV shows in decades, but has been declared by your Head of State in a final broadcast and now all you see on the screen is snow.
Having never lived through an actual ‘end of days’ scenario, (to see someone who thought they had, check out the work of Derren Brown), my only guide as to what to expect has come from literature, TV and movies. And the one thing these all seem to have in common is that the people who are depicted as actually surviving, are rarely the Preppers. While occasionally they make an appearance, Preppers are routinely killed off within a few episodes by other survivors or the stupidity of their own actions. (p.s – If your mum becomes a zombie don’t keep her in the barn. She will not appreciate it.) And deep down I think we’re all relieved when a Prepper dies on-screen – because no one wants to be faced with the possibility that survival simply comes down to someone else’s superior preparation skills (and that there are individuals out there who have a head start).
We like to believe (read ‘hope’) that you can’t prepare for every event and it takes more than a year’s supply of Spam to see you through a crisis. And the truth is, it does. It takes determination and courage. A deep sense of self-preservation, that isn’t just based on how fortified your bunker is, and robustness.
It also appears to help if you have some sort of security, self-defence or weapons training, or were once a teacher or librarian. Also, being a reformed criminal or having an unknown superpower is usually helpful. But a year supply of tin tomatoes, not so much.
I remember attending a hostage survival briefing years ago – because, Iraq – in which a negotiator told the story of a soldier held hostage for several months before being liberated. When you’re in a hole in the ground and only see daylight when someone is torturing you, it would make sense to think that you were living your own sort of ‘end of days’. Unless you chose otherwise. Unless you chose, in this case, to begin mentally working on the plans for remodelling your family home. One room at a time. In infinite detail. Including the conversations with your wife about budget, design and load bearing beams. Starting from scratch every day, ensuring the image was clear as a picture and, importantly, something you were going home to. When I think about that soldier, it seems to me that what kills the Preppers in the end is that they fail to plan for what’s on the other side. What happens in the dark days that follow the loss of all you knew?
In Iraq I had the honour of working closely with the locals on a daily basis. Developing relationships required a lot of patience, sipping tea, waiting, sipping more tea, welfaring and listening. There was no point in rushing decisions or pushing for agreements, these people were just coming out of their own ‘end of days’. They had only just turned the tide on the enemy and begun to rebuild. They were just catching their breath, and the rockets hadn’t even stopped.
Towards the end of my time there a two star General shared with me his experience of survival under Saddam’s regime. I had already heard most of the horror stories, seen the blood stains and the shelled buildings for myself. I had visited what I referred to as the ‘tank graveyards’, run my fingertips along the grooves in walls cause by bullets, seen the helmets at the Cross Swords. I was pretty much ready for anything. Or so I thought. The story the General told me was a simple one and perhaps not that uncommon in war-zones. It involved his family. How they had been preparing their evening meal and found a dead rat, decomposing in their rice. Their last rice. There were no shops they could pop out to. There was no reserve of food in the basement. And it was too late and too dangerous to be outside even if you could beg from a neighbour. Even if that neighbour had food, to spare. He told me how his wife’s eyes had met his over the top of the tin containing the rice and the rat, full of despair and anger. Their eyes held, and against the backdrop of their children playing in the next room, without a word, they made a decision. He reached in, plucked out that rat and threw it away, before continuing to prepare their dinner… with that rice. They weren’t Preppers, they were survivors.
I think I knew in that moment that it wouldn’t be my ‘grab bag’ that ultimately kept me alive when the SHTF. It was a useful safety blanket, but in the end it would be what my mother describes as the sort of personality that if told I couldn’t climb Mt Everest, I’d do it, with a donkey on my back, just to prove a point.
We all have our own ‘end of days’. When the fat will be stripped from the bone. It’s then that we will discover the strength of our personal infrastructure. When we will understand that it’s not about worldly possessions and how much we have been hoarding. It’s about the mind, the spirit, the heart of who we are. And how well we have been preparing those. Are they well nourished, honoured, respected? Are they authentic and honest? Are we calm and present? Those are the muscles we all need to flex, the stores we need to gather. The bunker will keep you safe physically, but only so long as your heart and spirit can endure.
Then there’s what Buffy taught me about apocalypses. They can be averted. Annually. And mostly it only takes an all night planning session, with your closest friends, down at the local library. Gather up a few rudimentary weapons, a whiteboard, some coloured markers and order in take-out.
Whatever your plan in the face of adversity, remember this, don’t drink from the Kool-Aid. You don’t need anyone else’s rhetoric to get you through. You are a survivor.