Saturday, March 17, 2012

The New Geek Empire: Part One

As the radio had started to get quiet my isolation from what was going on out in the world increased. In the beginning of that I did all sorts of things to distract myself from the problem. I pretended my family was still alive and would be coming home and that I needed to keep everything ready for them. Not the least bit constructive emotionally and very depressing after a bit. I shook myself out of that and then started pretending I was a characters in some of the books I read from my father’s library.

There was “Alas, Babylon.” Kind of apropos at first but then it made me lonely because even in Alas there was family and other survivors who could work together to form a kind of community. Then I went to “I Am Legend” only it scared the bejeebers out of me. One I didn’t like the idea of being the only person on earth left and two, every unusual sound in the night screamed at me of vampires, zombies, and other monsters. I definitely put that one back where it came from. On to happier types I went with the well-loved “Swiss Family Robinson” and even went so far as to watch the old Disney version … and promptly cried myself to sleep every night for nearly a week out of loneliness for my own family. Robinson Crusoe came closer to what I was looking for but even Crusoe had Friday. I tried so many different versions of the end of the world … “The Last Man” by Mary Shelley, “Earth Abides” by George Stewart, “The Scarlet Plague” by Jack London, “The Machine Dies” by EM Forster, “Anthem” by Ayn Rand, and many others like “Lucifer’s Hammer,” “On the Beach,” “The Postman,” “The Wild Shore,” and just for kicks “The Planet of the Apes.” They all gave me ideas while at the same time leaving me feeling empty.

I tried to fill at least part of the emptiness with visits to the Houchins Clan but after a while I discovered that I was welcomed less and less by them. They had taken a different road; instead of wanting to fill the loneliness they encouraged their isolation. It started innocently enough; I would get rushed off because they couldn’t shilly-shally around as they had work. Then the few members of that family close enough to my age were no longer around when I came calling. Then I was met at the gate and turned away. The last time I came by Mr. Houchins himself came out and spoke to me.

“Lydie, don’t take this the wrong way but I can only take care of my family. I have to, it is my God-given responsibility; my family has to come first. And I have to have rules and structure. With you coming by it … let’s just say it disrupts things; gives some of our youngin’s bad ideas. I know you don’t mean any harm but it’s becoming a problem. On top of that you make my womenfolk feel bad that you don’t have anyone to take care of you. Now I know you got your emancipation and been living on your own for a while, I figure you know how to take care of yourself by now but they don’t see it that way. And truth be I don’t want you giving any of the boys here at my place ideas that distract ‘em either. So’s … you just need to stay to your side of things.”

It wasn’t a threat. He didn’t wave a gun in my face or get all crazy or anything remotely dramatic in nature; but, there was no doubt that I was no longer welcome. I had too much pride to let him see how it hurt to be so summarily excluded and by the time I pedaled home I was downright angry. What did he think I wanted from him and his? Mr. Houchins was right about one thing, I could take care of myself; all I wanted was some company. Did that make me too needy? It took me a full two days to calm down and really think about it and when I did I realized that I was glad I had never shared exactly what went on at my place. Without intending to be I’d been smart. Dad used to say you didn’t have to worry about unsaying something you never said to begin with.

After Mr. Houchins’ and I had our little talk I really started doing some thinking; real thinking, not just fantasizing and playing pretend. Up to that point I had been making the same mistake a great many others had; the difference was I hadn’t had to pay for it. The “enemy” was still someone I didn’t know, someone who was away from this area … the threat was there but it wasn’t immediate. My family had been killed “away” by “away” people. Yes, I brought the reality of terrorism into people’s backyard but nothing had yet to happen in our backyards, or so I thought.

Oh sure, there were the squirrely people that every community has and they acted just about as squirrely as you could get and some of them paid for it. Every town as a juke joint – gathering place where liquor and women are served up and not necessarily in that order – or a “bad” side of town you didn’t go around at certain times of day. There were truly bad people in town just like there had been truly bad kids in school but my reality was that I didn’t have anything to do with them so they wouldn’t have anything to do with me. Stupid? Probably. Naïve? Most definitely. Would I have admitted to either at that point? Not in a million years.

After I started really thinking I stopped feeling sorry for myself and took a good look around. With just one glance I knew I had a sweet set up. Mostly of course it was thanks to Dad but everywhere I looked I could see my own hand in things. I think Dad had done it so that I would feel some ownership, some sense of having a place to belong even though I was just a kid. I hadn’t really appreciated that until then though in hindsight I realize it probably had a lot to do with how he was raised and how he got shafted in his grandparents’ will. I took what I had for granted; I suppose a lot of kids do but that’s no excuse and it was time for me to begin to put childish things away.

I had a good solid roof over my head. It was a green, metal insulated roof so I knew, barring catastrophe, it was going to be there for a long time. I knew how solid it was because I had helped Dad put the blasted thing on during one, long, hot miserable week two summers before. I knew that under the metal and insulation there was an incredibly thick layer of real plywood, not that OSB crap that was in common use back then. Dad and I had taken the roof off down to the old beams and trusses then added new trusses between the ancient beams so that they sat sixteen inches apart. Heavy sheets of one-inch plywood, clipped together with “H” clips and then nailed in place, was put on top of the trusses and then the new roof was put on top of that. Of course it was all complicated by these gazillion cuts that Dad insisted had to be perfect for things like the ridge vent, vent stacks, and solar hot water pipes. Talk about a freak-ton of work. They just don’t make many craftsmen like my Dad these days; even I will cut a few corners using technology when it means avoiding making my shoulder ache.

The rest of the house was (and still is) just as sturdy as the roof. That same summer we reworked and replaced all the soffit and fascia as well as the siding on the attic portion of the house. On the inside of the attic – it traversed the whole of the house – we finished it off with insulation and cement board and put in all sorts of storage bins and shelves at Mom’s request. Mom was one of those people that expected you to organize your sock and underwear drawer every Saturday before you could go out and play. I learned to keep it the way it was supposed to be as I went and am still that way … more out of habit though than because I inherited Mom’s neat-freak gene.

One of the technology kicks that Dad had gotten onto was “artificial wood.” It is quite common these days as a result of recycling all of the debris from the old population centers and landfills. Just like today the old stuff was a composite material pressed to look like real wood. In our case Dad rebuilt the floor of the wrap around porch. The irony is that he got the artificial wood from the mill … the paper mill where he worked … which was using the fake planks to build a nature trail through some land that the mill owners planned on donating to the state so that their family name would be one something that lasted forever. The stuff came in two colors back then – gray and brown – and Dad used all the scrap pieces of the brown variety he could find for most of the porch but then used the gray for decorative insets and at the house entrances at the front and back. Mom couldn’t stand it at first but when she realized how much easier it was to keep clean she just used a few woven grass rugs and put some plant stands out there and never complained again. I was just happy I wouldn’t ever have to smell another can of Thompson’s Waterseal; man did that stuff stink.

From the house I went on to the other necessities that I knew were needed. First was water. Had it in spades. From the house well there was potable water to drink and cook with. There was a well on the barn that was good enough to bathe, do laundry with, or water the chickens and giant angora rabbits – the rabbits weren’t my idea but Will’s and I just kept taking care of them and letting the breed to give me a connection to my brothers. Besides it would have been cruel to just release them to the wild because the fuzzy things would die from hair ball problems.

The old cisterns provided water for the gardens; a solar powered pump ran the water through a drip irrigation system that Dad had designed for Mom that wouldn’t pull any power from the main generator. There was also a spring-fed stream that ran into and then out of the fish pond that sat off to the west of the house. Dad had started to build a water powered generator, and in fact had all of the fused pipe dug and laid. Even the turbine was in place. What was missing was running all of the electrical connections. Dad’s schematics were still hanging on the bulletin board in his shop out in the barn; I just couldn’t seem to get the energy for that particular project. Dad and I had always done things together; doing it alone I worried I would muck something up and take the whole system down.

After water came food. My mother’s gardens had easily fed our family of four with more than plenty left over for the church pantry and friends and neighbors. We also traded some of our produce to the Mennonite farmers the next county over for sorghum, corn, wheat and the like but there were large pails of the stuff … I mean pails upon pails of the stuff … in the basement. Mom always kept us about two and a half years ahead on the basic whole grains because the rising costs really bothered her. Plus Will had problems with gluten because of some of his treatments interfered with his ability to digest some things so there was a lot of specialty grains down there too in twelve to eighteen month supplies. Dad had pinched about having quite that much but what Mom wanted Mom got in that respect.

Because a large freezer would have pulled too much juice Mom’s methods of preserving food pretty much fell along the lines of canning, drying, and smoking. Plus by doing our own preserving Mom was able to monitor what went into Will’s diet. I don’t want to say it wasn’t worth it because of course it was but sometimes it still gives me neuron overload to think of all the life my brother could have lived if he had just been given a chance.

As to growing more food to replace what I used, I had that down to a science. While Dad took care of part of my education, Mom made sure she instilled in me a few things as well. Raised beds, edible landscaping around the house and main yard area for decoration, square foot gardening in the back of the house surrounded by a high lattice type fence to keep the deer out, sustainable gardening in areas that are less accessible to the water system, aquaponics using a small fish tank where the little fish are given a chance to mature before being introduced to the pond and gobbled up, hydroponics in the greenhouse and then just regular old plant beds where things like herbs and fruit were grown. There was the orchard on the opposite side of the house from the pond and the nut trees out on the edge of the forestry belt that lay between our land and the three hundred or so acres of planted pines owned by the paper mill. Nope food wouldn’t be a problem for me or for a family.

Problem was I didn’t have a family and couldn’t even pretend that fact away anymore. Then it struck me. Why couldn’t I do the same thing the Houchins family had? Why couldn’t I build my own enclave or clan? The answer to that? Nothing. At least nothing insurmountable.

First question I asked myself was who would be in my clan. Houchins members? No. They already had their own group and I did not want to be taken over and absorbed by them because it could very well mean losing my autonomy and control. The other neighbors? No. There weren’t really any close ones left on my side of the county and I avoided the few there were because they were desperate and desperate people were dangerous people. Who then? I felt so stupid when the obvious finally occurred to me.

Matt of course, then Marty. I missed them both like crazy and hearing Matt’s voice on the radio only made me long for his company even more. Then a few other names popped up. But I knew to get Matt and Marty I would need to take on their families. I realize in hindsight how naïve my thinking was but that wouldn’t last much longer.

So I became determined. I made a plan. I made a list. Naïve I might have been but stupid I was not. I went through the list of my friends and tried to figure who they would want to bring with them. There was Matt, his mother and two sisters plus his cousin Ajax and his little girl that lived in the apartment over the old carriage barn they used as a garage. Marty and her parents made another three. Beyond that I wasn’t sure who to ask first. I knew absorbing so many people at once would be difficult so I decided to focus on my two best friends first and once I got them settled in and on board we could bring the others in.

Now the thing was for them to be my best friends, pals, gaming partners, etc. we never really went to each other’s homes; figuratively yes by hooking up online but literally not so much. I could usually raise Matt or Marty in real time by texting or through instant messaging; those two were never far from a portal to the internet. Even in school they had their computer tablets with them tucked into a special pocket of their notebook. No one had ever come to my house either because it was too far for most of them to get to, I was on the only one of my group with a car of my own so I could have gone into town to see them but there was always some reason it didn’t happen; mostly legitimate but probably a lot of it was just social laziness on our parts. In those days the cyber world wasn’t nearly as developed as it is today but it substituted just as easily for true physical interaction. Put in words perhaps today’s generations can more easily understand, there was no need to go to your friend’s house for cookies and milk after school when you could meet online at any time and do something fun and heroic like kill orcs, dragons, zombies, or evil space aliens. I was never much of a gamer but my friends were so I lived the game through their replaying their experiences at lunch during school.

What it boiled down to is that I knew I would have to have something big enough to entice them to leave their homes and come live with me. Matt never said much but I got the feeling that things had kind of exploded at their house after his father disappeared. The others I wasn’t sure about as Matt clammed up about them every time I tried to ask. I had what I had but I didn’t want to ruin the surprise until I could get them to the house so what else could I bribe them with … groceries.

I baked a loaf of bread, some cookies, and some of my special brownies that Matt liked then carefully packed them in my most beat up back pack. Oh I kept imagining their surprised faces and how eager they would be to follow me and then when we got back to the house just how happy I would have made them and how they would never want to leave or make a fuss. Yeah, like I said, naïve.

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