Merrily dusting books the other day, I happened on John Wyndham's great sci-fi classic, "The Day of the Triffids," which opens when a guy wakes up one morning in a London hospital -- he's had eye surgery and can't see because of the bandages -- and notices a curious fact: There's no sound, none.
Then the city's clock towers toll 8 -- yet the familiar buzz of morning traffic is missing. Finally, in the distance, the man hears a scream; he realizes the party may be over.
Hmmm, I thought. Maybe it's time for my Y2K shopping trip.
Until recently, I've tended to dismiss the whole thing, to tell you the truth. Bunch of weirdos taking to the hills with their womenfolk and their canned goods and all that.
Yet maybe, just maybe, I realized, it's a bit unwise to take the position that nothing is going to happen. After all, if the grid actually goes down and the roving bands start roving, those weirdos in the hills are going to be looking prescient as all get-out.
Or even if things just get a little tough for a while -- as they would, say, in a major snowstorm -- it might be good to be prepared. After all, responsible parties such as the president of the United States, the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the Red Cross recommend a certain level of readiness.
American enterprise being what it is, of course, you run into hucksterism. Brinks Home Security, alluding to "a bizarre phenomenon . . . home safes are disappearing faster than retailers can stock them," urges Y2K buyers to acquire a "fire chest" that "protects paper to 1,550 degrees . . . Steel reinforced handle and key lock for greater security."
Hey, Ma, where'd I put that key?
Even the Red Cross seems to have gone slightly bonkers. I noticed on its Web site [www.redcross.org] that they've got a "Disaster Preparedness Coloring Book" for kids, plus a video for grades 4-6 called, "Adventures of the Disaster Dudes."
My dad, Ken, was a Disaster Dude. He always had some scenario or other curling around in the back of his mind. He built wood carrying cases for gold coins, for instance, of which he kept a supply on hand -- along with his guns and ammo. It could be in reaction to this type of thinking that I tend to believe nothing really bad will happen.
Who am I to dismiss the forebodings of a man born in 1916 in a tar paper shack on the plains of Montana during a blizzard, whose own father had fled the hills and hollers of Kentucky to escape the feuding Hatfields and McCoys, who came of age in the Great Depression and put his body on the line in a World War against forces of evil that had, among other things, fueled the furnaces of Central Europe with human flesh?
For that matter, I remember stocking up on guns and ammo myself while covering the fall of Saigon in 1975 -- a futile gesture, at best; the main thing was, I caught a chopper out.
This Y2K thing seems different; it doesn't have that desperate, war-zone feel to it. I think we'll probably get through all right -- provided, of course, that those ratty old pre-Y2K launch codes on the Russian missiles don't suddenly decide to cook off.
By the way, did you notice that stunning Richard Preston piece in the July 12 New Yorker, about how a "soft kill" of 90 percent of the U.S. population could be accomplished simply by opening a vial of smallpox virus in any mid-size American airport?
Apparently, while the fantastically contagious disease has killed 300 million people this century -- a time when most have been immunized against it -- virtually nobody today is immune. And, Preston says, the Russians are secretly manufacturing it.
Maybe it's time to send in the Disaster Dudes.
Meanwhile, I'm developing my Y2K shopping list -- batteries, bottled water, antibiotics . . . Gotta get those Rxs up to snuff . . . And coffee! Tobacco! Peanut butter! Spam! Beans! Hmmm, that about covers the major food groups . . . Better have some extra firewood around, too.
A friend said her husband recommended toast tongs.
"Toast tongs?" she'd asked.
"Toast tongs!" he'd said.
I called him. "I was joking at first," he said, "then I realized it's not a bad idea. Think about it. There's no electricity, so you're cooking bread in the fireplace, and you need something metal to turn it with . . . "
He's thinking outside the box, this guy; they're the ones who'll probably survive longest. "There's a huge PR mafia out there trying to calm everyone's fears," he added, quite reasonably, "but the fact of the matter is that something bad could happen."
To find out how bad, I dropped in for a chat with Ken Scott, who runs a little shop called Article II Unlimited (for you Constitution buffs) around the corner from my modest homestead. "YOUR Y2K HQ FOR FOOD-GUNS-AMMO," says a bright red-and-yellow sign out front.
Great sense of humor, that Ken.
"You prepare for the worst, and hope for the best," he told me. Lady came in recently, said she'd been a pretty good shooter in the Army 20 years ago, hadn't touched a weapon since. Ken fixed her up with a nice little six-shooter in .22-caliber magnum.
"Business is picking up," he reports. "I've sold more guns in the last two months than in the previous two years."
Still, Ken doesn't really think Y2K will amount to a hill of beans.
"Don't panic," he grins. "Stock up on a little food, a little water, a little money. If you're really worried, buy a shotgun for home defense."
I also plan to lay in a good supply of books -- in case the festivities drag on. Another great John Wyndham title comes to mind.
"The Midwich Cuckoos."