Post-apocalyptic skill sets

By December 18, 2012 War Paint 66 Comments

I do not know why I am such a big fan of dystopic literature, especially of the post-apocalyptic variety. OK, first, I need to clarify: When I use the word “literature,” what I really mean — or at least mostly mean (in terms of both inflection and frequency) — is “movies” and “TV shows.” When I was in college, I was a printed-word devotee of science fiction and fantasy, much of which was assuredly dystopic in nature, and much of which was of the post-apocalyptic variety. (I also did not own a TV in those days. Additionally, VHS had not yet been invented, much less DVDs, both of which have opened up entire new worlds of special-effects-laden counter- and anti-utopian offerings that did not exist when I was a stereotypical opium-smoking ’70s-era liberal-arts-type undergrad.)

As I have grown long of tooth and grey of beard, my reading preferences have moved toward contemporary, reality-based creative non-fiction (e.g. Malcolm Gladwell’s books) and contemporary fiction (e.g. the novels of Pat Conroy and Richard Russo), even as my viewing preferences have trended more than ever toward tales of futuristic mayhem, chaos and what followers of Earth First! might call a “return to the Pleistocene.”

Again, I have no readily accessible frontal-lobe explanation for this attraction, an attraction that, given my inclination to interface as often as possible with Wilderness Areas legally designated and protected by the federal government, might seem somewhat counterintuitive, if not outright contradictory. (More on this seeming contradiction a bit later.) That aside, movies like (recently) “Children of Men” (critically doomed before it even hit the big screen by the fact that its marketers inanely opted to invoke comparisons to “Blade Runner” — only the best futuristic movie ever made — during its pre-lease advertising campaign), “Terminator Salvation” (fatally flawed because it starred an even-more-robotic-than-usual Christian Bale), “The Book of Eli” (a tepid movie that gained rudimentary style points because it was filmed in New Mexico) and “The Road” (which had the added benefit of originally taking book form) will always attract my undivided attention. As will TV shows like “Terra Nova” (which has been inexplicably cancelled) and “Revolution” (despite the fact that its characters seem to maintain a high degree of personal hygiene and coiffure, even though the cosmetics-producing world as we know it was destroyed 20 years before the series was set), “Jericho” and “Jeremiah” (the producers of which seemed during its short run to understand that, in a post-apocalyptic world, people would likely be perpetually filthy and unkempt).

The list of post-apocalyptic movies and TV shows is long, and, admittedly, in the minds of devotees of more-highbrow “films” like “Schindler’s List” and “The English Patient”), mostly lame. The “Planet of the Apes” franchise. (The re-make was predictably awful.) The “Mad Max” franchise. “A Boy and His Dog” (Don Johnson’s feature film debut). “Falling Skies.” And the classic “Cherry 2000,” which, despite its massive flaws with shit like plot, dialogue, characterization, special effects, continuity and fundamental logic at least was able to boast, in the lead role, a 28-year-old Melanie Griffith, who, in that little tight leather vest, while cradling the decidedly phallic rocket-launcher, was setting some high post-apocalyptic fashion standards.)

(Here I should point out two big-budget movies not on this list: “Waterworld” and “The Postman.” Though my love of the genre allows me to often sink below my usual already-low critical standards, nothing allows me to sink down to the level of a movie starring Kevin Costner — though it needs to be stressed that “The Postman” was based (very loosely) upon an excellent novel of the same name by noted sci-fi author David Brin.

The underlying pathology of this life-long attraction (my exasperated wife would call it an addiction) to post-apocalyptic movies and TV, while not directly influenced by the end of the world that is scheduled to arrive this very Friday, has certainly reached the forefront of thought processes that are currently wondering, on the off chance that the Mayans were right, if I have picked up any salient end-times vocational skill sets.

Adding to that train of thought are the myriad reality-based TV shows being broadcast these days that center upon people who have spent much time, money and effort preparing for what they feel is some imminent big-time shit getting ready to hit the fan. These survivalist series focus on folks who have built hardened bunkers and stashed years’ worth of food and weaponry and who are fully prepared to open fire on anyone who, after the aforementioned shit hits the aforementioned fan, tries to walk through their barricaded front door.

I mean, this preparation for the post-apocalypse is just exactly like it was during the most-fearsome days of the Cold War, when people were building and stocking underground bomb shelters, like the one Viggo Mortensen stumbled upon in “The Road.” This I know very well, as I spent my formulative years living on a Strategic Air Command Air Force base in northern New York. Every six weeks, my stepfather, a navigator on a B-52, had to take up residence in a decidedly un-aesthetic underground facility known as The Bullpen, a place where flight crews lived in a constant state of faux red alert, ready, willing and able to dash from bunk to cockpit at a moment’s notice should the sudden need to release a little hard rain upon the Soviet Union arise. (Think the drab Crystal Peak facility in “Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines.”)

I only ever visited the innards of The Bullpen once. My stepfather’s scheduled stint overlapped with Christmas one year and those dedicated defenders of the American Way assigned to The Bullpen on the day celebrating the birth of the man to whom the “Golden Rule” is often inaccurately ascribed (“Therefore all things whatsoever would that men should do to you, do ye even so to them” (Matthew 7:12)) were allowed to bring family members into the poorly illuminated bowels of the Cold War for 30 minutes of supervised present exchanging. (The presents had to arrive unwrapped, and were searched and scrutinized by no-nonsense hombres carrying much in the way of weaponry.) To my six-year-old self, The Bullpen was about as cool as a place could get. It consisted of tunnels and nooks and crannies and a bunch of men (this being a few years before I came to understand the almost stunning disadvantages of guys-only settings) hanging out, shooting the shit and playing cards all day, while awaiting the End of the World. My mentally inert self wanted to move in that day, to take up permanent residence in a land of perpetual red alert.

It was not just during the regularly scheduled stints that the pilots, co-pilots and navigators of Plattsburgh Air Force Base got to visit The Bullpen. Not surprisingly, there were various drills and practice alerts and scrambles and mock-attacks (the latter being mock attacks on both us and the enemy). Those were always captivating occurrences. Sirens blared, floodlights illuminated the sky and the roar of jets filled the air. It was glorious! We used to go out and sit next to the runway while these alert drills transpired, watching wave after wave of bomb-laden death machines rising majestically into the cloudy sky.

Then, one day, there was one of those “this-is-not-a-drill” moments. It was October 22, 1962, the day President Kennedy announced to the nation the implementation of a Naval blockade of Cuba and the only time the Strategic Air Command was ever ordered to Defense Readiness Condition (DEFCON) 2. DEFCON 2, for those interested in things like the concept of Mutual Assured Destruction (the appropriately named MAD), is defined as “next step to nuclear war.” (The rest of the military thankfully remained at DEFCON 3.) The sirens on Plattsburgh Air Force Base blared at midday, and all kids enrolled in the base elementary school were ordered home directly. When I arrived home, my mom, a child of the Luftwaffe’s relentless pummeling of her native London, was in preparatory high gear. You want to talk about a lady who knew all about getting your ducks in a huddle when the bombs were getting ready to start falling. She had a survival kit that would be the envy of any high-tech doomsday nut being profiled on the National Geographic Channel these days ready and sitting on the kitchen table.

I’ll bet my mom could not fucking believe that, here she was, a mere 17 years after the end of the war that crippled her native land, living 3,000 miles on the other side of a goddamned ocean, preparing yet again for fire to be falling upon her and hers. But, being a hard-ass Englishwoman, she did not outwardly fret; she only stiffened her upper lip and prepared for another round of mankind’s seeming endless desire to destroy itself.

It is also interesting to note that my mom was totally on Kennedy’s side. She had lived through what she derisively referred to as Neville Chamberlain’s inexcusable appeasement of Hitler in the 1930s and she was fucking done with that shit. She wanted Kennedy to bomb the shit out of Cuba, Khruschev, the Soviet Union and whoever else the fuck needed a good bombing at that particular chronological juncture, MAD-based apocalyptic consequences be damned.

(We never did get to hunker down in the base’s bomb shelters, much to my eternal disappointment, as the Cuban Missile Crisis eventually fizzled into the history books, one of its few remaining connections to modern times being yet another hideous Kevin Costner movie, this one called “Thirteen Days.” (I would personally take nuclear annihilation over another Kevin Costner movie any day of the week.)

You would think that, perhaps, such a near-traumatic experience, along with hearing throughout my childhood my mom’s first-hand accounts of life during the Blitz, would have imprinted into my psyche a very anti-post-apocalyptic mindset, one that would far prefer movies and TV shows about, say, uninteresting and unthreatening, groups of friends living in New York City, where, every week, they struggle yet again to utter so much as one syllable that is not cliché and/or moronic.

But, just because I am a devotee of post-apocalyptic film and TV shows does not mean I crave, or even desire, a post-apocalyptic future. Far from it. Assuming that Hollywood is up to its usual intelligent, perceptive and prescient standards, I can safely say that the vision presented of most post-apocalyptic scenarios is unappealing in the extreme. (And here I need to stress that, when I refer herein to “post-apocalyptic” movies and TV shows, I am referring to a distinct sub-set of movies and TV shows that are “futuristic.” “Futuristic” movies and TV shows present many varying visions of, well, the future, some of which are appealing (you gotta admit, that 25-year lifespan notwithstanding, “Logan’s Run” presented some intriguing future lifestyle options, mostly of the frequent-sex-with-scantily-clad-nubile-nymphets variety) and some of which are not. “Post-apocalyptic” movies and TV shows generally fall into the letter category, along with other, non-post-apocalyptic dystopic visions of the future, such as totalitarianism (“1984”), unquestioned acquiescence to corporate power (“Brave New World” and “Minority Report”), general cultural decline (“Blade Runner”), theocracy (“The Handmaid’s Tale”) and the institutionalized evolution of terminal stupidity (“Idiocracy”).

Still, there’s something about that post-apocalyptic Hollywood vision that intrigues me. Maybe it’s the eternal campout aspect. Maybe it’s the fact that, while you might have to spend your days scrounging for food and trying to repel the incessant attacks of those who, like you, are fighting just to survive, at least you don’t have to deal with being put on hold for 45 minutes by Comcast. No fine print when it comes to buying a new car. No cranial cramping due to the inexplicable fluctuations of the stock market. No questions about your smoking or drinking habits when applying for life insurance. No pre-existing conditions.

Of course, there would also be no Internet, cable TV, new cars, retirement accounts or insurance. But, then again, everything’s a trade-off, isn’t it?

Maybe I am attracted to post-apocalyptic movies and TV shows because I subconsciously wonder if I would, if I could, survive.

As I indicated several thousand words ago, I do not believe it is coincidental that there is so much apocalyptic and post-apocalyptic thought permeating our psychic airwaves these days. Top of the list, there’s the Mayan calendar shit. Moreover, there’s a general feeling that the world is going to hell in a hand basket, a feeling assuredly promulgated by various political, commercial and religious interests that want you to believe the only way to avoid, or at least survive, the looming descent is to buy into their program. Then there’s the undeniable evidence that, well, the world is going to hell in a hand basket. It’s hard to not believe in a post-apocalyptic future when you’ve just had 26 people killed in an elementary school in small-town Connecticut, when you’ve got polar icecaps melting like ice cream outside on a summer day.

Which finally gets me to the meat of this story. A couple years back, long-time Mountain Gazette writer Vince Welch turned me onto a website called freedomguerilla.com. Thomas Krenshaw, Mr. Freedomguerrilla, lives in a blighted neighborhood in Brooklyn, the kind of neighborhood that could easily serve as a setting for an urban-based post-apocalyptic thriller, maybe one that includes scads of vampires and/or zombies and/or an eye-patched anti-hero named “Snake Plissken.” Though I do not know Mr. Krenshaw personally, we have exchanged a few broadsides based upon his website posts.

I have never been entirely clear why Mr. Krenshaw chooses to live where he does. It doesn’t seem as though he’s looking to find beauty in blight or beauty hidden in blight. (He occasionally seems to find artistic inspiration in his surroundings, which I guess is something.) Were I to venture a guess, I would have to say he’s a man who is actively preparing for, if not the apocalypse and, by extension, the post-apocalypse, per se, then at least he’s preparing on some level for “Whatever’s Next.” (And I’m not talking about making efforts to pad his 401(k).) Judging from his posts, his neighborhood essentially serves as a training ground for surviving a worst-case scenario of Whatever’s Next. There’s violence galore, gangs running rampant and a necessary face-down furtiveness on the part of those who simply want to make it through the day without shooting or being shot. Everyone owns a snarling pit bull trained to kill. Direct eye contact all but guarantees a physical confrontation. The streets are lined with trash. Graffiti is everywhere. The skinny trees are all long dead. I mean, fuck! I think Krenshaw’s vision of the future matches up pretty closely with the place he now calls home, and he wants to be ready when the vision becomes a reality that transcends his shitty neighborhood in Brooklyn.

What I do know is that Mr. Krenshaw rides a subway every day, carrying many pounds of tools, to go to work at some sort of metal foundry, a place I envision being dark and dirty, with lots of loud clanking and maybe even liquid steel being poured from caldrons into other caldrons. A place very much like the methane generation facility beneath Bartertown in “Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome.”

And, while, again, I can’t say why Mr. Krenshaw has chosen his current life circumstances, I believe I know through his writings why he has chosen his vocation: Learned metal workers will always be of use, whether in this reality, or in Whatever’s Next.

Which has got me thinking in an obviously very roundabout way about vocational skill sets that would be valuable during and after Whatever’s Next, whether Whatever’s Next takes the form of a thermonuclear war, alien invasion, plague, a zombie and/or vampire infestation or a more linear march toward a future that boasts such life-altering starring roles as climate change, population explosion and Dark-Ages-like religious fanaticism.

I need to note before I progress further that herein I’m talking less about disposition than I am about actual abilities to grow, make and fix shit. If, as many of us predict, the future will include heapin’ helpin’s of the kind of bleakness we see in movies like “The Road” and on TV shows like “Jeremiah,” then we all “know” survivors will need to be resilient, adaptable and strong — traits that can transcend specific vocational abilities.

As well, I believe it’s fair to say that the post-apocalyptic world that may very well be up and running by the time these words make their way to an Internet that likely will no longer be working that the main “profession” evident during Whatever’s Next will be “scrounger.” This is definitely an arena where destitute residents of the Third World will be at a decided advantage, to the point where they will likely be able to make a few extra bucks (or expired cans of peas and carrots, the likely currency of post-apocalyptic bleakness, if “A Boy and His Dog” can be believed) by organizing scrounging seminars for suddenly displaced arbitrage specialists. Well-practiced dumpster divers will also move to the head of the class, as will long-incarcerated felons, who will enter “The Road” and “Terminator Salvation” both well versed in surviving tough living conditions and being creative and determined in their acquisition strategies.

I also need to note here with a certain amount of glee that the world we will face starting December 22 will likely be a place where vocations like hedge-fund managers, HMO administrators and real-estate developers will suddenly find their services, uh, no longer necessary. Verily, such white-collar leeches will suddenly find their vocational options limited to slave labor, food sources or maybe even pets. Of course, the same can likely be said for editors, writers, graphic artists, advertising salespeople, webmasters, IT specialists and most everyone else whose resume includes in bold letters any variation on the theme of  “liberal arts.” Musicians, poets and visual artists, especially of the entitled and haughty varieties, will also likely benefit from expanding their vocational horizons. Muy pronto.

So, OK, what are the professions/vocations/skill-sets that will be most valuable once the Mayan calendar tick-tocks its way toward Whatever’s Next December 21?

• I think it’s fair to say that healers will be in demand. Whether able to stitch up a gaping leg wound caused by a crazed, chainsaw-wielding zombie or to forage through the woods for a certain kind of vine that soothes radiation poisoning, healers will always be able to find a way to stay well stocked with expired cans of peas and carrots.

• Jacks-of-all-trades will thrive. I think of my stepfather and my father-in-law, both of whom are white-collar types (lawyer and dentist, respectively) who grew up in lean times on marginal farms. Both of whom served in the military. Both of whom can fix a sump pump, re-build an engine, build a brick wall, grow tomatoes and tend to barnyard fowl.

• Repair people of all stripes. Once the end of the world as we know it is at hand, I don’t think there will be a lot of new Oldsmobiles rolling off the robotic assembly line. Folks who can keep old cars running (maybe we can import some skilled labor from Cuba and Myanmar), keep the electrical grid functioning with minimal spare parts, keep aging railroad cars in service, patch decomposing sewage systems and repair bicycles and half-assed, leaky irrigation systems will be much in demand. As will craftspeople like boat builders, fishing-net-makers, arrow-makers and, like Mr. Freedom Guerrilla, metal workers.

• Sadly, those with military training will likely thrive even more than they thrive in today’s world. The question will of course be whether they thrive by providing protection for others who are trying to rebuild the shattered world or whether they will thrive via exploitation. I fear there will be some of both, though this will assuredly be influenced by the number and disposition of any vampires, zombies or aliens that might be lurking about.

• Food producers. It always surprises me how much your average person thinks he or she can just one day decide to start gardening and — voila! — sustenance will magically spring forth from the ground in tasty profusion. Gardening is hard, and survival gardening is even harder. I grew up helping tend a garden that was a needed food source for our family and feel I speak with less stupidity than normal on this particular subject. In addition to dealing with the unpredictability of weather and water, there are all manner of plagues and pests that can descend upon one’s potato patch and render a season’s worth of work moot. Same goes for hunting, fishing (catch-and-release will very quickly lose its yuppie cachet) and what will become the new outdoor recreation craze post-meltdown (replacing geocaching): frantic foraging. Almost every place, including inner cities, offers up much in the way of foragable victuals. But your average Pizza Hut devotee wouldn’t know yucca root from a Krispy Kreme doughnut. The food-producing learning curve for system analysts from Cleveland and soccer moms from Seattle will likely not be fast enough to make up for the involuntary weight-loss programs that will come down the pipe hand-in-hand with the apocalypse. Thus, dairy farmers in Kansas and dirt farmers in Virginia will be able to extract a bit of karmic revenge on those who considered them uneducated hicks for all those decades.

• Zombie, vampire or malevolent alien. Very few post-apocalypses worthy of the term can survive without one of more of these. Bit hard to train for before the fact, but, judging from Hollywood’s post-apocalyptic offerings, these will be critical skill sets, despite, or maybe because of, their fictional status.

I guess if there’s one overriding theme to this subjective post-apocalyptic skill set list, it would be practicality. Just about everything on the list has palpable benefits, unlike our pre-apocalyptic reality, where I ask of a significant percentage of the human population: What do they bring to the table?

Of course, half the time I’m asking that, I’m looking in the mirror.

In the meantime, I think it’s high time (probably past time) for someone to organize a post-apocalypse-based continuing-ed program. Maybe even an entire educational facility could be built. The University of the Apocalypse. Home of the Fightin’ Zombies. Fight song: “We Don’t Need Another Hero.”

Oh, never mind …

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