Alex Fraser has made plenty of good new year’s resolutions during his nearly nine decades on this planet. He also made one phenomenally bad one. It was when he resolved to spend Dec. 31, 1999, hunkering.
Alex is an interesting guy. You don’t live to be 88 without having some interesting experiences. He spent part of his youth on a dairy farm in Texas. While serving in the U.S. Army in World War II, he was captured by the Germans. Longtime Washingtonians may remember the Open University. He founded that funky continuing-education outfit. He made a fair chunk of change buying oil wells in Pennsylvania. He’s a poet, a playwright and an actor. He’s been married once, divorced once and annulled twice. All of those transactions involved the same woman.
And so the events of the millennium are just one thread in the vast tapestry of Alex’s life. For obvious reasons, it’s the one I’m tugging at today.
Cast your memory back 13 years to the so-called Y2K bug. Many “experts” predicted that because computers couldn’t handle the switch from “99” to “00,” they were going to freak out. Banks would fail. Water treatment plants would stop working. Airplanes would fall from the sky. Nuclear power plants would erupt in sheets of radioactive flame.
“One catastrophe after another would be waiting for us,” Alex said.
At the time, Alex was involved with a woman with whom he had a young son. She and her brother worked for a government agency and were privy to briefings full of gloom and doom. Alex owned a nice house in the District’s Forest Hills neighborhood in upper Northwest. Convinced that the end of the world was coming, Alex sold it and bought a 50-acre farm in Arkansas.
“We put a lot of thought into where we wanted to go,” he said. He and his extended family wanted to be in a sparsely populated area with a climate suitable for raising crops. They wanted a spring on their land so they would have fresh water.
“We found all that,” he said. “But after we were there a few months, the light bulb went on over our heads. We realized we were always going to be the outsiders. Even though the population was not dense, they were all armed. They all knew each other. They were all related to each other. We would be the first to go if calamity had struck.”
Alex was armed, too, but it didn’t help when he was out of the house one day — on a trip to Branson, Mo., to learn to operate a steam engine — and someone sneaked into the compound and stole half his guns.
“I found it interesting they left half,” he said.
In any event, Alex and his survivalist band didn’t think an Arkansas farm surrounded by thieving locals was the safest place to be when the apocalypse came. He heard of someone who was offering spots on an island off the coast of New Zealand. The cost: $100,000 per person. Alex ponied up and sent his girlfriend, her brother and her mother down there. He also sent his son.
But Alex didn’t go. Why not?
He has a daughter here, and she thought he was perhaps overreacting. She refused to go, and he didn’t want to leave her behind. He found a rental house in Potomac that had well water, solar panels and a wood-burning stove. On Dec. 31, 1999, Alex hunkered down there and waited for the end of the world as we know it.
The world as we know it did not end.
“It took me well over a year to adjust,” he said sheepishly. “I was ready for life in the 13th century but not the 21st. It was an emotional situation, as you might guess.”
He donated the dozens of boxes of freeze-dried meals he had stockpiled to a food bank. He moved to Kensington. He lost a lot of money and something else besides: His girlfriend and son never returned from New Zealand.
I wondered if Alex’s wartime experiences had left him susceptible to the idea that humans are capable of the worst sort of things. He figured that was probably true.
“In combat, you’re riding along, shooting the breeze with buddies,” he said. “Next minute, a German machine gun opens up on you. An hour later, the village you’ve captured is burned down and you’re a [prisoner of war].”
To put it mildly, life can knock you for a loop.
“So I’m delighted, and a bit surprised,” Alex said, “to find each morning that civilization continues to exist.”
Here’s hoping it stays that way for a little bit longer.
Start 2013 in a spirit of generosity, and there’s a good chance karma will smile upon you. Our annual fundraising campaign for Children’s National Medical Center fits the bill perfectly.
You can make a tax-deductible donation by going to www.childrensnational.org/washingtonpost or sending a check (payable to Children’s Hospital) to Washington Post Campaign, P.O. Box 17390, Baltimore, Md. 21297-1390. All gifts help pay the medical bills of poor children. Our campaign ends Friday.
For previous columns, go to washingtonpost.com/johnkelly.