I recently finished re-reading Alas, Babylon, a best seller from the late fifties/early sixties. The author is Pat Frank whose career included being an “information handler” for several newspapers as well as being a government consultant.
If you are old enough to recall those times, you will also recall that the global threat then was an atomic/nuclear war from Russia and her allies.
We were living in the time of the “Cold War”. Every evening newscast warned us of the latest threats to our homes and way of life. It could get a tad serious. My home at this time was in a small town in northeast Louisiana, Delhi was its name, right on US 80, situated halfway between Vicksburg and Monroe, La.
I can remember staying up way too late reading it (as well as any good book!) but too absorbed in the story to find a good stopping place. I had two kids at the time, a full-time job, and a husband who made two trips a week delivering young feeder calves to the John Norton Feed Yard in Blythe, Cal. (Sometimes the details we remember are weird when we can’t remember what we said an hour ago.)
It all happens in a fictional town called Fort Repose, Fla. The story begins with two adult brothers. Randy, a Korean War veteran, is now a laid-back guy living on the old home place and living off the proceeds of the orange groves located there. Randy is single, sort of a hippy type, just doing his thing without too much concern about his future.
He has his sip or two of bourbon first thing in the morning. He is an avid bird watcher and about the biggest worry Randy has is an elusive Carolina Parakeet that just won’t cooperate.
The older brother, Mark, is a colonel in the Air Force Intelligence Office. Mark is stationed at Offutt Air Base, in Nebraska, headquarters for the US Strategic Air Command, or the SAC base command center.
His wife and two children live near the base. As youngsters the two brothers had devised a code between themselves to alert the other that there was an ominous event about to descend on them, from “mama has found out what we did last night” to “I don’t have my homework and you know what Mrs. so-and-so will do to me.” The code was, of course, “Alas, Babylon” from the book of Revelations which reads “Alas, alas, that great city Babylon, that mighty city! For in one hour is that judgment come!”
On a regular day, the last he will ever see, Randy gets an unexpected telegram from Mark giving him arrival times for his wife and children who are flying in, quite unplanned, from Nebraska.
The telegram ends with “Alas, Babylon”. And so, it begins. Seems that a hotshot Navy pilot was following an enemy jet, which, in his opinion, had come way too close to the US fleet in the Mediterranean.
The U.S. pilot hits the button and “the” bomb was ejected from his plane. Unfortunately, the enemy plane had ducked down to the horizon and the bomb hits an ammunition depot located in Syria instead.
Mark, being high in rank at the underground SAC base, and knowing what was coming, sent his family to Randy’s. Mark felt chances for their survival were better in Florida as opposed to being near the SAC command center.
Can you imagine what life is like? Since Randy has been warned ahead of time, he begins to make a list of essentials he needs to buy before his sister-in-law and the two children arrive and before “The Day”, as it comes to be called. It’s no longer BC and AD, but before and after The Day.
Where to start? He thinks of batteries, matches, coffee, salt, canned food, gasoline in every five-gallon container he can round up, transistor radios and on and on. The visitors arrive at his home and Helen, the sister-in-law, makes another list of items they will need that Randy hasn’t thought of since two young children and another adult are now in the mix.
For a day or so there is total silence from the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. And then, The Day. Tremors in the earth, horrifying and deadly orange clouds appear in almost every direction as any large city or military base is bombed to smithereens.
Cities all across the US are obliterated, as in they no longer exist except as a radiation contaminated pile of brick, concrete, steel and dead bodies. The acting President is a lady who happened to be out of D.C. at the time it was bombed, causing her to be elevated from her former position of Secretary of HEW.
The consequences of a nuclear war soon make themselves known. Prisoners are out of jail and stroll up and down the highways with guns, taking whatever they want from unarmed citizens.
Immediately after the bombing, cash registers quickly became full as everyone dashes out for food and supplies, but soon the money is worthless. Stores are looted and quickly. Your cash is of no use to you or anyone else.
With the Federal Reserve System gone, cash is no longer the grease in the wheels of commerce. Barter becomes the means of survival. Soon Randy is ready to trade a bottle of the finest bourbon for two pounds of coffee – if he can find any takers.
There is no gasoline. There is no electricity, no running water. Unless you have previously salted down your meat, or pickled it or canned it, you can’t keep it from ruining, and speaking of salt, it soon becomes evident that it is a necessary part of your daily diet, and you have none.
The vegetables in your garden are of no use – in fact, they kill you. As the clouds of radiation move in, practically everything in your world as you knew it is of no worth – in fact it is deadly. The diamonds and gold someone stole from a busted-out jewelry store in Miami are now making the thieves’ fingers, wrist, and ears turn black as radiation sickness does its thing.
There is no school for the children. There are droves of looters, some with weapons, making their way from one town to another and nothing is sacred, not your life, not your possessions. Drug addicts loot and steal all the pain killing medicines from drug stores and doctors’ offices so don’t expect any relief from your pain – no matter what is causing it. And in Fort Repose, the only physician is almost killed by drug addicts who beat him unmercifully for possession of his black bag.
Many choose suicide rather than face a future they cannot tolerate as they envision the bare, bleak days ahead and with perhaps loved ones dying one by one from the insidious radiation.
There are a few others like Randy who look out for their neighbors and try to keep them from starving or being killed. Randy’s home is opened to others who are important to him personally or are almost helpless. Neighbors whom he feels responsible for, like the old maid lady who was the Western Union clerk for decades but has no one except her dear old friend, the small town’s librarian. A place is made in the house for them.
Someone has a battery- operated ham radio and news begins to trickle in: None of it good. The acting President addresses the nation for 2 minutes at a time, from a different place each time so the enemy cannot know her location and bomb it.
On the Conelrad stations, she gives a long list of cities all across the country that no longer exist. Millions of Americans die within a brief time span. When have you last heard the term “Conelrad station”? I was reminded of a voice on the radio during this time saying “640 1240 Conelrad” so you would know that station would broadcast information during a national emergency. It was a common occurrence during the sixties and we thought nothing of it.
Reading the book brings so many questions to mind. If such a thing happened in your lifetime, what items would you put on your ‘list’ that you would risk life and limb to acquire? What relationship would you need to mend before either you or the other party perhaps existed no more?
Who would you bring into your home to keep them safe? How would you determine who’s on that list when there wasn’t room for everyone? How would you spend your last days or hours if you knew death was imminent and it was not going to be pretty? I am grateful I don’t have to ponder my answers to these questions, yet it does make one take stock of their lives and recognize the important things in life when we think of “Alas, Babylon!”
Having read this book before, I know that Randy is able to survive as well as most of the people he moves into his home. Civilization starts anew with an almost clean slate and there comes a day when there is once again hope.