Prophecies of dire hardship are hellacious gambles, he knows now. Grave embarrassment always lurks close at hand for the would-be soothsayer. Quite publicly for more than a year, Ray Strackbein and his wife, Sally, warned of Y2K catastrophes: power outages, dead telephones, barren supermarket shelves and dry gas tanks.
"COMPUTER VIRUS TO INFECT THE WORLD IN 400 DAYS--ASK ME WHY YOU SHOULD CARE," read the banner that adorned their Reston den for all of 1999.
A veteran computer programmer, Sally Strackbein even wrote and published a preparedness handbook, "Y2K Kitchen," with tips on surviving the apocalypse. The couple sat for TV interviews and became darlings of the local media, telling anyone who would listen of the salvation to be found in a cache of canned Spam and a good wood-burning stove like theirs.
"People need to be ready, no matter the government's absurd assurances," Sally said fiercely just one week before 2000 dawned.
And then December 31 became January 1, and the Strackbeins' computers, which worked just fine along with everything else in their house, hummed with the sarcastic missives of people wanting to know how they could have been so . . . dead wrong. After a day or two in which, in Ray's words, "nothing terrible had happened," he strolled over to his home computer to read a short, mocking e-mail from a former technology colleague: "Ray, you can come out now."
Angrier correspondents demanded to know why the couple, members of the Northern Virginia Year 2000 Community Action Group, had scared others. "Okay, we didn't think it would go like this," 51-year-old Ray says, managing a brave laugh.
Like other preparedness disciples, he finds himself cast as Chicken Little, forced to explain why he thought the sky was falling.
The hint of jibes to come struck Strackbein many hours before thousands watched the Washington Monument light up New Year's Eve, when he heard on TV that minutes into its new year, Sydney, Australia, was chugging along perfectly normal.
Something in his own existence went black at that moment. "It was clear that what we had thought might happen wasn't going to happen," Strackbein, former technical chief of a mobile phone service, says slowly. "It was a complex feeling that I had: You're grateful that bad things aren't happening to people, but at the same time, you're questioning your judgment. . . . The total lack of apparent infrastructure problems in Sydney indicated that this probably wouldn't be a serious event anywhere. How do I put this? Sure, we were surprised. . . . But you go on."
Others were not so sanguine. The Strackbeins' preparedness allies were stunned, like prophets anywhere who'd hinged pieces of their self-worth on a prediction that sprouted into a raison d'etre.
"We're still hearing from some of the people we worked with," says 53-year-old Sally. "Some are in complete shock. These were people who had put their whole identities on the line and who are now wondering how they could have done it. I've experienced a bit of that myself the last few days, like, 'How could I have misjudged things so badly?' "
In recent days, she hasn't touched her 25 cans of Spam, much of which her 19-year-old son will be taking back to college with him along with some of her bricks of Velveeta. "But we're still holding on to some of it," she cautions. "We're not going back to a state of unpreparedness. I'm trying to tell our friends who are feeling bad . . . that at least we got people to raise preparedness for this and for the future, for whatever happens. We do have ice storms out here. And there still are people . . . worried about unforeseeable catastrophes."
Count Melvin Bowers among them. A Virginia Beach golf course greenskeeper who retired a year ago to devote himself full time to getting ready for the biblically forecast apocalypse, Bowers continues preparing for the cataclysm he still believes is coming.
Fearful of water shortages, braced for urban chaos that might spill into the swamps around his house trailer, the 55-year-old Bowers continues to siphon rainwater from his gutters, having already amassed 300 gallons in 50-gallon drums. He daily checks his food supply, which includes the peas and sweet potatoes he grew last summer and enough freeze-dried food to last an entire year--should he stick to his one-meal-every-other-day emergency regimen.
"I'm not letting down my guard. I got the handle on it," he says. "This isn't over, not by a long shot. A computer glitch here and there, and we're in trouble. . . . Got those South American countries with their computer-controlled oil pipelines--one mistake with a computer chip and it's ka-blooey."
During the final week of 1999, Bowers, who lives alone, had announced that his plans for New Year's Eve would be no different any other night. Let the world party like heathens; he would be in bed before 8. "I'll read some Scripture, say my prayers and listen to a little talk-radio," he said. "I'm ready, even if no else might be. Somebody's going off the grid. A new world order may be coming."
He awakened on New Year's to a sunny, bountiful day, light snow dusting the ground. With the lights and refrigerator working in his trailer, and the world around him lighted with the silvery flickerings of neighbors' TV sets and whirring appliances, "I was relieved," he said, "but I wasn't too, too, TOO surprised 'cause nobody said the bad stuff had to come on this one day. Gotta be ready. Got my guns. I might start hunting again, just in case. Can't feel safe at least for a year and a half. Protect your stuff, I say. Especially your food."
The first two days of the new year, he limited himself to a can of peaches and yogurt.
"I still see this problem coming at us somehow," he says. "I heard there was a hurricane that just veered off course away from us. . . . If we make it to 2001, maybe we're safe. I'll keep in touch with Scripture and the People-in-the-Know. They're all saying, 'Take a look at the whole year, and don't let the government fool you.' "
Although that message has quieted among mainstream preparedness advocates, it still resonates with those tending toward conspiratorial perspectives. Having spent a "nice and peaceful" New Year's at home in Noxon, Mont., John Trochmann, founder of the Militia of Montana, says that the current tranquillity might leave the complacent more vulnerable to horrific Y2K disruptions.
"There is a reason why they have the 'Y' in Y2K," he says. " 'Y' means 'year.' A whole year. We're through only 5 percent of Y2K, which means 95 percent of the possible problems remain. The globalists want you to believe they've solved it so we'll all shut up, but the glitches could be waiting, and if they happen, watch out."
All along, Trochmann agrees, people's outlook on Y2K has been a Rorschach test of sorts: The worried and the indifferent saw what they wished to see. For some, Y2K merely served as the impetus to do what they would have done anyway. In Virginia Beach, newly worried of hurricanes, Melvin Bowers continues gathering his water. Meanwhile, the Strackbeins are looking at a new angle for Sally's Y2K cookbook--with its "Beannie Spammie" recipe and Velveeta Reuben sandwiches--which to date has sold fewer than 40 copies.
"A book reviewer told me I could easily rewrite it as a general preparedness book," she says happily. "Because you know, there'll be a use for it someday. Disaster never goes away. A storm's gotta come."