Solar Storms 2012
by Ted Howe and Shirley Swift
North Liberty, Iowa – November 1, 2012 “Damn” Frank said forcefully turning the radio off and standing up. “Sounds like those solar flares are gonna’ happen after all.”
“R.J., you got your ears on!” Frank excitedly yelled into the CB mike trying to get his neighbor.
“What’s got you riled up today, Frank?” came the reply.
“You hear anything about these solar flares?”
“Yeah. Haven’t had any since July but it’s gonna’ happen again sometime soon, Frank, from everything I’ve heard. Don’t tell me you’re not prepared.” R.J. laughed into the mike.
“Damn, Boy, I’m prepared for anything,” Franks booming voice came back.
“Frank, got to go. Nancy wants to go into town and the kids are running around. By the way, Frank, you’re still invited to Thanksgiving dinner.”
“Sounds good, R.J. I’ll bring a turkey.”
“Over and out,” R.J. replied as he clicked off the radio
That R.J. is a neat youngster, Frank thought to himself as he started cleaning his 50-Cal black powder muzzleloader. “Gonna’ need this in tip top shape,” Frank said aloud, admiring the rifle.
Born in rural Iowa in 1952 Frank had seen it all. Frank’s father, a World War Two veteran, had married his sweet heart, right out of high school. They had five children before he served in the Army and five more after he came back to Iowa after the war. Frank was the youngest of 10 kids born from 1930 to 1952. In fact Frank was an unexpected child but still loved. Frank’s father, having seen many atrocities during WWII had a severe mistrust for world governments and taught all his children how to survive on their own. Frank’s homestead, inherited from his parents never had electricity. There had been no indoor plumbing, no running water except for what the windmill in the back yard provided. There was a small creek to bathe in. The homestead pretty much remained the same since Frank took it over. The only changes were a solar powered generator to use and indoor plumbing.
Frank learned how to shoot, track, hunt, and skin animals as a boy. He felled trees and chopped wood with the best of them. Once he was old enough to work on his own his father put him to work in the gardens around the property. They still exist today. Frank was a large child and got bigger through his teen years working on the property. Most of his older siblings had moved on. Frank went to school during the week and it was there that Frank got to experience indoor plumbing and electricity. Frank didn’t have many friends being “backwards” according to his peers. He was shunned as most were afraid of him.
At eleven-years-old President Kennedy was shot and Frank’s father sat him down and told him about the goings on in Vietnam. Seven years later, at 18, Frank was drafted into the Army and soon headed for Vietnam. Knowing the survival rate of an incoming recruit in 1970 Frank’s father told him, “Keep your head down, son.” He spent his time in the Army doing just that.
During basic training Frank excelled. He shot better than everyone and according to the drill sergeants he “had great ability to site the targets quickly.” Frank was soon promoted because of his marksmanship. Having been sent off to Vietnam, Frank didn’t know what to expect, but having been taught numerous survival skills by his dad, he excelled as an Army sniper.
Fighting four years in Vietnam, Frank rose through the ranks of the Army eventually topping out as a sergeant. He brought home a Silver Star and the Medal of Honor for saving a Marine platoon during a firefight. He was injured in that fight and received the Purple Heart as well. Given the opportunity to go home after the injury, Frank turned it down and kept on fighting. When the war ended Frank returned home. His mom had died during Frank’s absence and his dad died soon after his return. Frank courted one of the high school girls he knew and wanted to settle down. They almost got married, but, things didn’t work out as she wanted the “finer” things in life after all. She also thought Frank acted like a stranger after his return. The post traumatic stress disorder was common, but Frank wouldn’t talk to anyone and chose to deal with his depression on his own.
Frank, not wanting to be in society closed himself off from the outside world and jumped headlong into building a survival compound. He let his beard grow and soon became known as the “Mountain Man of North Liberty.” Wandering into town once a week to get supplies and food Frank was aware of the goings on in the world, but didn’t care. The gas shortage of the mid-80’s had no affect on Frank as he didn’t use gas anyway. The young people in town pointed and laughed at the “Mountain Man” when he came into town. The older people who knew Frank’s story shuddered when he arrived, hoping today wouldn’t be the day he would snap. The police kept a watchful eye but kept their distance as the Police Chief, having grown up with Frank, knew his small police force was no match for this man.
Frank built a compound around his place. Ten foot high, four-inch thick oak beams topped with razor wire completely surrounding his property. He built sniper stands in his trees under the guise of them being tree stands for hunting. He built a bomb bunker with foot-thick concrete walls, able to withstand a small atom bomb. He kept the bunker stocked with survival supplies over the years. The inside of the bunker was equipped to grow hydroponic vegetables and churn out its own electricity. He built underground tunnels throughout the property. In fact he could go anywhere he wanted to without ever going outside.
Frank was aware of the Nixon scandal but didn’t care. Reagan was elected and Frank found that amusing. “Our nation led by an actor – typical United States,” he thought. Throughout the 80’s Frank kept to himself and kept preparing for the worst. He became so self-reliant that his trips to town became less and less frequent, much to the relief to the local population. There was a solar storm in 1989 that knocked out electricity for a few days. Frank laughed it off and went on with his own business. September 11th, 2001 some crazy guys crashed planes into some buildings and Frank knew the nation would soon go to war.
And then one day sometime after 9/11 Frank became aware of some goings on again at the abandoned homestead to the east of his home. Frank, ever-curious sneaked over to the other place and discovered his new neighbors R.J. and Nancy.
A few days after this R.J. arrived at his gate; his first visitor in 27 years.
“What do you want?” Frank said looking at the young man.
“I want to learn.” R.J. replied.
“Learn?” Frank spat out leveling his rifle at R.J.
“Survival. I want to learn how to survive these days,” R.J. spat out. “You heard about what happened in New York didn’t you?”
“Yup; don’t care either; didn’t affect me.”
“It affects everyone, you old coot.” R.J. replied.
Frank, stunned by the audacity of the young man standing before him, let out a laugh.
“You want to be like me? You’re my first visitor in 27 years and everyone is afraid of me.”
“I’m not,” R.J. replied.
“Oh – you’re not afraid of me?” Frank said leveling his rifle at R.J.
“Nope.” R.J. said standing his ground.
“That’s a start then,” Frank said pointing his rifle toward the ground. “What’s your name?” Frank asked
“R.J. and my wife’s name is Nancy, and I have a young son, Tommie.”
“What exactly do you want to learn?”
“Everything – hunting, tracking, preserving animals I’ve killed. How to grow things and how to prepare for the day the shit hits the fan.”
“Ever kill anything or shoot a gun?”
“I am in the reserves,” R. J replied.
“Sergeant Frank Jones, former Army Ranger Sniper,” Frank replied as he held out his hand to him.
R.J. shook his hand forcefully and an uneasy friendship began.
Throughout the next year every evening after work Frank and R.J. got together and worked on survival training. Larger projects they saved for the weekends. Tracking an animal, shooting different types of rifles, digging a latrine, skinning an animal, building and maintaining a garden were all worked in as time permitted. Frank went over everything he knew with R. J and noticed R.J. becoming quite knowledgeable. At times Frank, now in his 50’s struggled to keep up with the younger man
Frank and R.J. became more than friends – they trusted each other. They talked every morning on their CB radios and every afternoon they practiced their survival skills. Frank even came over for dinner a few times, meeting Nancy and little Tommie. He was mellowing with old age. One day R.J. arrived at Frank’s door.
“I’ve been called to active duty.” R.J. said holding up a piece of paper.
“Eighteen to 24 months.”
“Ah, the Russian Vietnam,” Frank sneered. “When you got to go?”
“Next week. I need a favor, Frank.”
“Keep an eye on Nancy and my boy for me.”
“If I don’t …”
“You’re coming back, Boy; you learned from an old Army Sergeant.”
“No buts. Now let’s get to work on some more skills.”
Throughout the next two years Frank would drop in at R.J.’s place, checking on Nancy every couple of days. He would listen to the radio and hear about things getting worse and worse in Afghanistan and the search for Bin Laden. He was a silly man with strange beliefs who fought the Russians in the early 80’s. Every few months Frank got a letter from R.J. talking about experiences and how he survived different situations, accredited to his training with Frank.
Almost two years later Frank heard a commotion at the gate at the end of his driveway. Grabbing his shotgun, he high-tailed it outside.
“What do you want?” Frank said to the man outside his gate.
“I want to learn how to survive!” came the reply.
“Seems like you already know how to survive,” Frank said smiling. “Seems like someone taught you well enough already.”
“You sure did” R.J. replied.
“Good to see you, Boy,” Frank said. He opened the gate and grabbed him in a bear hug.
The next couple of months Frank and R.J. went back into their routine of talking and working on survival skills. R.J. suffering from PTSD seemed to get over his depression over the killing faster then normal with Frank’s help. Target practice and work around R.J.’s place helped.
In 2005 R.J. and Nancy had a baby girl they named Samantha. R.J., a busy family man now with two kids cut back his skills training with Frank to once or twice a week but they talked daily on the CB if only sometimes to say hi and make sure everything was ok. During hunting season Frank and R.J. and their other nearby neighbor, Henry, would go out and stock up their freezers with venison, or in Frank’s case, his ice house. Frank came over every Saturday night for supper and even went into town with R.J. on occasions. To some he appeared as a grizzly bear but to R.J. and Nancy and the kids he was a big Teddy Bear. R.J. introduced the lifelong bachelor to several women he knew but things didn’t work out once they found out Frank had no phone or electricity and hunted for his food. They just ran back to their modern life in town.
Thanksgiving, 2012 The day finally arrived and Frank showed up at R.J.’s at day break with his freshly killed wild turkey. The Thanksgiving gathering filled up R.J.’s home. There were his parents, Ron and Jil, from Bettendorf, his aunt Gert from Rock Island, and his neighbor Henry’s family and of course his family and Frank.
Frank and Gert talked about the solar storm in 1989 and how it affected them all the way into Iowa. Even with some flares during the summer no one was taking the current threat seriously.
One of the things she discussed with them was living on the farm for 40 years. One of her grand nephews had been listening and he asked about the solar storm back in 1989. Did she remember anything about it 23 years ago?
“Land’s sake, yes, Paulie,” the older woman said. “Did you hear about that on television?”
“Yeah, Aunt Gert,” the teen answered. “Was it that bad?”
“It wasn’t a problem for us, but then, it was the way we lived. We had a large garden and canned and dried a lot of food. We cut and stacked wood all summer so we’d have heat and could cook on the wood stove in case of winter storms anyway.”
“… but, what about,” and her voice became very low, “going to the bathroom?” Sammie asked.
“For seven years old, you ask some interesting questions,” Aunt Gert smiled. I grew up using the outhouse, child … and a chamber pot.”
“Gross,” Paulie screwed up his nose.
“Necessary.” Aunt Gert responded curtly.
“The main problem was in Toronto, Gertie,” Ron responded. Iowa is hundreds of miles away.”
“The systems are all dependent on each other to some extent. Our power was out for only four days. Toronto suffered for weeks.”
“But all you need to convince you how bad it can be,” began Ron, “is to look how the east coast suffered because of Hurricane Sandy.”
Gertie answered, “Same thing – no one prepared to be without electricity.”
“Some are prepared,” commented Frank.
“Some more than others,” finished R.J.
R.J. had tried to convince his parents to prepare for the worst, but they, like so many baby-boomers thought the younger generation was just looking for problems. The newscasters were having a field day with the “facts” but most everyone just thought they needed something to talk about since the elections were finally over.
Ron and Jil met while they were still in high school. Very few women were career-minded in 1965 when they graduated and the two married within the year. Ron had worked at a few jobs until he got a break and started in the John Deere factory in Moline. It took all of his strength to work the ovens in the summers when it was a good 30 degrees hotter than outside. Winters weren’t so bad except for the road conditions. Ronald Junior, R.J., was born in 1968 and after he started school, Jil found a part-time job. They were a typical middle-class family with a home, a mortgage, two cars, and of course, R.J.
Jil kept working after Ron retired in 2001. R.J. had married back in 1994 and moved to North Liberty, about an hour’s drive west, just north of Iowa City. Now, with a substantial retirement from John Deere, Ron and Jil’s home and their cars were paid up. They relaxed, when Jil had time off, gardened together, visited with friends, tried their luck at the near-by casinos, and of course later on entertained grandchildren.
When their son joined the reserves they weren’t too happy but figured it was his life. For some reason he liked hunting and had a good neighbor near his farm to hunt with. They had met Frank a few times and felt safer that their grand-kids had someone who helped R.J. look after them.
Both R.J. and Nancy had full time jobs and had a different kind of life. Nancy loved her horses and everything about the farm R.J. had inherited from his great-granddad. After Tommie came along she stopped working however and R.J. assumed a lot of debt.
Still, the two of them were made for each other, as they both seemed to want to live off the land – be independent. “I’ll take my 50” television and air-conditioning, thank you,” Ron would say laughing. Jil would always agree.
North Liberty, Iowa – December 1, 2012 –“No!” Frank said pounding his fist on the table and turning off the radio. “R.J., you got your ears on?” Frank said keying the mike.
“Yep, come back.”
“It’s December 1st and it’s supposed to snow tonight and that solar storm they predicted is coming.”
“I know it’s coming, Frank, I heard it too.” R.J. replied.
“Trouble’s brewing,” Frank replied. “I can feel it in these old bones.”
“How much snow we gonna’ get?” R.J. asked knowing Frank was a good snow forecaster.
“Maybe a foot, maybe more. But the wind is gonna’ howl to make things worse.”
“Great,” R.J. replied sarcastically. “Keep warm Frank.”
“You too. Out.”
Sure enough that night the wind picked up. The snow started falling and the solar flares arrived. Frank slept through it all, cozy in his bed unaffected by the power outage.
The next morning Frank heard R.J. on the CB radio.
“Yeah. How long they predicting?”
“National Guard says could be a while. My parents are at the local high school in Bettendorf. Told them to get ready for it, but they didn’t listen Frank.”
“Deaf ears, Boy.”
“Gonna’ go get them when the weather clears up.”
“You need someone to ride shotgun?”
“I need you to keep an eye out for my farm; especially Nancy and the kids.”
“Will do. Out.”
The next couple of days the weather got worse and worse. Frank and R.J. talked a lot more often and Frank could hear the desperation in R.J.’s voice wanting to get his parents.
Bettendorf, Iowa – December 1, 2012. Ron yawned and stretched in his recliner. The 11 o’clock news was filled with the latest scientific reports about the solar storms. Hokey shows, designed to create a public panic, were on about survival and the “Mayan calendar” and the end of the world for the past week and he was fed up.
“It’s almost as bad as all the news media and hype over the election last month,” Jil blistered. Her vehemence surprised Ron, but he understood. The newscasters were having a field day. They warned of telephone signal towers being useless, but no one seemed to believe it. Every television station seemed to debate the pros and cons.
“Well, the storms are supposed cause power outage,” he tried to soothe her.
The lights blinked and the couple stared at each other without comment. The national weather broadcasting warning system signal was sounding its ominous alarm as a banner ran across the screen, blocking out what was being said. By the time Ron realized the weatherman’s warnings had been correct the lights blink off all together.
“Stay calm, Hon. I’ll go get the flashlight.” Ron stumbled out of his chair and made his way to the kitchen cupboard. The cats got in his way. He tripped and almost ran into the table. Feeling his way to the cupboard he couldn’t believe how totally dark it was.
“I should have gotten those battery powered night lights,” Jil called to him.
“Good time to think about it,” he muttered as he felt on the shelves for the flashlight. Finally, he found it and turned it on. The beam was low. “We got any batteries?”
Jil thought it better to stay where she was and told him the different drawers to check.
Ron found the stash, replaced the D-Cells and an eerie twilight settled into the kitchen. “Are these the only batteries we got?” He located the smaller flashlight in another drawer.
Jil got up, comforted by the glow coming her way and went to the mantel. She lit the candles, feeling rather smug that she kept the matches behind the candles for convenience sake. “There, nice and cheery.”
Ron came up behind her, encircling her waist. “… or nice and romantic.”
“Right, you dirty old man. It’s past your bedtime.”
Ron chuckled. “That’s what I’m saying … ”
“I’m going to call the kids – make sure they are okay,” Jil ignored his suggestion. She tried dialing on her cell phone only to see there was no signal. “It’s dead,” she said disgustedly.
“They warned us about that.” Ron handed her the smaller flashlight. “Save the batteries.”
Ron went back to the wall phone in the kitchen. “No dial tone. Holy smoke. Maybe the reports were right about those solar storms.”
Jil laughed. “Is this something like 1989 in Toronto?”
“I thought you didn’t listen to Aunt Gert’s stories.”
“Well, if it’s the same thing she described, we might have a day or two of battery power and cold food.”
“We can use the fireplace and cuddle to stay warm,” Ron smiled, hoping to make the best of the situation.
“It’s going to get cold in here. We should start a fire now.”
“Okay, come hold the flashlights for me. I’ll bring in some wood from the garage.”
The couple coordinated holding the lights and working around the cars in the garage to get some wood from the meager pile of logs. It took almost a half hour to get a small fire started and the house was already getting chilly.
“Did you notice anything strange outside?” Ron asked.
“… couldn’t see anything outside.”
“That’s what I mean – no street lights – no cars.”
“No lights in the houses.”
The couple, now holding each other looked out the front window. The colorful holiday lights that had outlined many of the houses on their block were out. Their neighbor, Jim, across the street, was walking through his house with a flashlight.
“We’d better close the drapes to hold in the heat,” Ron said as he used the flashlight to find the pull cord. The only sound was the drapery rings sliding across the rod and the crackling logs in the fireplace.
“How many times can you flush the toilet before it won’t work any more?” Jil asked as she turned on her flashlight.
“I have no idea … try to conserve the water I suppose.”
Ron tried the telephone again. It was futile. They could drive out to his son, R.J.’s farm in the morning. He stood outside the bathroom door and when Jil opened it he was standing there, shining the flashlight on his contorted face.
It startled Jil and she slapped his arm. “Don’t do that!”
“Too late – already did.”
She stomped off to the bedroom for some quilts and he relieved himself. He set the flashlight on end, making a torch of it so that he could brush his teeth. By the time he was done, he had not heeded what he had said about conserving water. Barely a trickle was coming out of the faucet.
“Come on, pull the recliners closer to the fire. I want to make up some beds.”
“The hide-a-bed … “ Ron started.
“Too late,” Jill spit out. “I’m tired and need to sleep.”
Once situated for the night, Ron got up again and put another log on the fire. He would have to do that a few times during the night, he reckoned, but right now, he needed sleep too.
Two a.m. and a pounding on the front door wakened them. Ron shone the flashlight outside the door windows. It was the neighbor, Jim.
“What the devil you doing out here?” Ron asked as he opened the door to him.
“Freezing my ass off,” Jim answered “Got no heat.” He was covered with snow and Ron noticed the front steps weren’t shoveled clear any longer. He thought it rather odd that an old Marine like Jim didn’t have an alternative heat source.
“Come in and get warm.” Jil had gone to the linen closet and got a wool blanket for him. The men pulled another side chair closer to the fireplace for Jim.
Ron put two logs on the fire. Jim dropped his back pack on the floor, hung his coat on the hall tree and kicked off his boots. He accepted the wool blanket and wrapped up. “Ain’t this a bitch?”
“That’s putting it mildly.”
“Yeah, I shut my water off – didn’t want the pipes to burst.”
“Shoot, guess I’d better go downstairs and do the same.”
“Be careful, Hon,” Jil offered.
“Right,” Ron answered and made his way to the basement. It was really getting cold in the house. He checked the thermostat on the way back to the living room and it was 55 degrees in the hallway.
“Do you know what the temp. is outside?”
Jim answered. “Yup. It’s 18 degrees.”
The trio didn’t say any more, but fell into an uneasy sleep.
Jim watched the fire until he couldn’t keep his eyes open any longer. A survivor of Desert Storm he was normally prepared for everything. Training like that just stuck with a guy. He had been edgy about the solar flare stories and thought perhaps he could be of some help to his neighbors. What he lacked in social skills he more than made up for it in practical living skills. He functioned best when he was in control and living in the suburbs was wearing thin.
In the morning it was 48 degrees inside the hallway, but only slightly warmer by the fire. Jim and Ron made a trip to the garage for more firewood and soon a pan of water was being heated on the wood grate.
“Where’d you get the water?” Ron asked.
“I had a couple of distilled water gallons set aside for my CPAP. We have some instant coffee and some tea bags. If you’re hungry, there’s some instant oatmeal.”
“Just like camping,” Jim tried to lighten the mood.
“Only I don’t usually camp in the dead of winter,” Ron responded. He turned to Jil, “How did you sleep without the CPAP last night?”
“Not well, but without electricity what am I supposed to do?”
Ron nodded sympathetically. “I’m worried about Aunt Gert, too.”
“And the grandkids; I hope they’re safe,” finished Jil.
“R.J.’s home, isn’t he?” Jim asked.
“If he didn’t have to work over last night. The kids’ mom is there at the farm, probably having a fit she can’t water the horses,” Ron snickered.
“I’m more concerned about the kids …”
“Don’t fret, Hon. As soon as it’s light we’ll get the car around.”
“I didn’t remember to get it gassed up yesterday,” Jil said flatly.
“No electricity – no gas stations open,” Jim shook his head.
Jil scowled at him and then sat down frustrated. The heat from the fireplace was barely keeping the room warm. The chill she felt from being caught without gasoline upset her as well.
The coffee was drinkable but certainly not the robust brew Ron liked in the morning. He hated oatmeal and opted for a slice of bread with peanut butter.
“Well, if the power company doesn’t come through, I did bring some extra supplies … at least I hope you’ll let me stay,” Jim went to his backpack. He pulled out beef jerky, canned fruit, and some granola bars. He opened a package and offered the box to Jil.
“Of course, you’ll stay,” Ron said slowly wondering how long it would take for the power company to restore the electric service.
It was well after 11 a.m. and still not fully light outside. Jim stood at the front door looking out the small panes of glass. “I can’t see my house.”
Ron jumped up and pulled the front window curtains open slightly. The straight line wind was whipping the freshly fallen snow creating a zero-visibility condition. “When did the storm start?”
“It was falling steadily when I trudged my way over here. Guess it hasn’t stopped.”
“Ron,” there was panic in Jil’s voice. “The kids … “
“Try not to get too upset, dear. We wouldn’t be able to get through the streets now anyway.”
Jil went into the bedroom and cried. It was her way of releasing tension. She hadn’t believed all the negative news reports were actually true, but now she regretted not listening – not being prepared.
Ron knocked on the door. “Are you okay?”
“Yeah. Just getting more blankets,” Jil called wiping her eyes quickly.
“I’m going to get some more wood and take a snooze after we eat. Not too much else to do,” Ron told her as she came out of the bedroom.
Jim helped him bring in the last of the logs and they stoked the fire. The trio ate more peanut butter sandwiches and canned fruit and huddled by the fire.
“We have any marshmallows?” Ron quipped but Jil didn’t bother to answer.
Ron wrapped up in the comforter, his cats jumped up on their usual perch, his lap, and he tried to get some rest. He began drifting off to sleep thinking about his aunt, Gertrude, and what she had said at Thanksgiving. “The systems are all dependent on each other to some extent. Our power was out for only four days. Toronto suffered for weeks.”
“Four days,” Ron mumbled as Jil shook his shoulder gently.
“Wake up, Ron.”
Jim was opening the front door to what it appeared to be Eskimos. When Ron finally was alert he saw they were from the National Guard. “We’re here to take you to a safe center. Your son, R.J., said he thought you’d still be here.”
“R.J.,” Jil began. “Is his family okay?”
“Yes. He has a battery short-wave radio and was able to get through to us. The family is fine. Can you be ready to leave in 15 minutes or so?”
Jim was pulling on his boots and re-packing his back pack.
Ron asked, “What about the pets?”
“Sure, you have to have travel crates for them though.”
“What should we bring?” Jil asked.
“Here’s a list – bring what you can.” The guardsman handed her the list and a large satchel. Jil began gathering things from the kitchen. Jim helped shove the comforters in another satchel.
“Your aunt is already at the center,” one of the guardsman offered.
“Not surprised,” Ron answered and rounded up the cats that had taken to hiding under the recliners.
Fifteen minutes later the guardsman had Ron, Jil and Jim, along with two protesting felines tucked into a snow-rover. The guardsmen reassured Ron that they could talk with R.J. over the short-wave once there.
Heading toward the high school which had been made into a safe center, they stopped a few times to gather other stranded people from Ron and Jil’s street. Each household brought food items from their cupboards to add to the store of food already there plus pillows and quilts. And, since Aunt Gert was waiting for them Ron made sure to bring the pinochle cards. It might be days before they could go back home.
Jim had been in Desert Storm and was used to quick get-aways. In fact, he told Ron he kept his back pack in his Good Store.
“So, what’s a Good Store?” Ron asked as they bumped along in the snow rover.
“Get Out Of Dodge,” laughed Jim.
A guardsman spoke loud enough from the front of the vehicle so that Ron and Jim could hear, “always good to be prepared for a quick get away.”
Jil shivered and looked at Ron for reassurance. This really didn’t sound good. But, instead of trying to calm her fears she saw him nodding his head in agreement.
By the time they got to the high school there were 9 people, including Ron, Jil, and Jim plus the guardsmen. They were greeted by others who counted heads. Jil spotted Aunt Gert near the center of the cafeteria where the generator-driven heater was.
“Gert!” Several people turned to see the newcomers, but Gert waved a gloved hand at them, beckoning them to the heater.
“Come get warm, kids!”
Some of the teenagers laughed to see middle-aged people being called kids. Gert gave them a disapproving look and then softened. She ended up laughing too as they dragged their belongings toward her.
“I’ve got a cot over here,” she motioned towards her items. “Thank God you’re alright.”
“You can say that again,” Jil smiled at the older woman.
Jil and Ron headed toward that area but Jim hung back. One of his gun club buddies, Bill, had cornered him and had his arm around Jim’s shoulders, leading him away.
“Jimbo, you packin’?”
“Shhh,” Jim cautioned him. “Of course.”
“Yeah, me too. Never know when you need fire power.”
The men set up camp next to each other and talked quietly for a long while.
The guardsmen used the facilities, got a hot cup of coffee and started to get ready to go back out into the cold.
“Aren’t you staying here?” asked one of the teens.
“No. Our duty is to search and rescue – not stay and watch over you. There’s plenty of gas in the generator just outside. You’ll be okay for at least three days.”
Greg, a rather rotund young man commented, “Well, I hope we won’t be here that long!”
Several echoed his sentiment.
The school custodian, Larry, was manning the short-wave radio used for bus communication. Several had hand walkie-talkies but this was meant to be a land-line radio and had a large antenna. It had been converted to be able to be run with a battery as well as electricity. “The power grid is out. It may be weeks … “
Ron caught Jim’s eye and raised his eyebrows as if to ask his opinion. Jim just shook his head “yes.”
Gert was giving some instructions on cooking on a hot plate as she was one of the organizers of keeping the stranded fed. Jil jumped in and helped get paper and plastic ware out for the meal and soon two long tables were filled with lots of bread and beans and canned vegetables. There was plenty of water and hot instant coffee.
Ron went over to Larry’s corner. “Can you try to contact R.J., my son from North Liberty? His call letters are K8AMB.”
“That sounds like a ham radio handle.”
“Yeah, but I don’t think he has any ham equipment now.”
“Well, I’ll try to raise him.”
“CQ CQ CQ – looking for K8AMB outta’ North Liberty. You got your ears on R.J.? This is big Larry.” A few minutes passed and Larry repeated his call.
“Hey there, Big Larry, you got R.J. Come back.”
Jil joined the men and Ron put his arm around her. Hearing R.J.’s voice warmed them to the bone.
“Hey there, R.J. Got your dad and mom here. Come back.”
“Great. Are you two okay? Come back.”
Larry handed him the mike and showed him how to push the button in while he talked.
“Hello, son. Your mother and I are fine. Aunt Gert is here too.”
Larry took the mike from Ron and said into it, “Come back.”
“As soon as the weather clears, I’ll be there to pick you up. Come back.”
“Tell him we just want to go home,” Jil said to Ron.
“We should go home,” and rather self-consciously added, “Come back.”
“The power grid will be down for weeks. Sorry to have to tell you that. Come back.”
By then others in the stranded crowd had come up and there were mutterings about inconvenience and anger toward the power companies.
Larry tried to quiet the crowd, “Quiet down and listen.” Then he spoke to R.J., “What is your news source? Come back.”
“You know I’m still in the Reserves. I am getting the news straight from the base reports. Come back.”
Ron took the mike. “We’ll do what you say is best. Be careful coming here. Come back.’
“You got it. See you soon. Stay warm, Come back.”
Larry finished up the conversation. “Okay, R.J. Thanks for gabbing. 73s.”
Several hands of pinochle and talking filled the afternoon. Another rover filled with stranded souls pulled in just before dinner and some that had been there overnight were not too happy. “More mouths to feed. Hope we won’t run out.”
“We all brought food to share. Don’t get ahead of yourself,” Ron commented to deaf ears. Jil put her hand on his arm to keep him from saying anything more. Could they really turn ugly and kick them out into the cold?
Sally, a friend of Jim’s was among the newcomers. She and Jim were talking marriage a few years back but Jim couldn’t stand her constant fault-finding.
“Jimmy, I’m so glad to see someone I know!” Sally almost cried as she ran into his arms.
“It will be okay, gal.”
“Can I stay with you?”
“Well, you’re here and I don’t think either of us are going anywhere.”
“I mean, can I stay with you tonight?”
“Oh, uh, we can pull our cots together,” Jim said rather surprised.
Ron could hardly hold in his laughter and he buried his face in Jil’s shoulder. Gert stifled a chuckle as well.
The pets that had been brought by people were taken out of their cages and allowed to use one room, filled with sand emptied from bags, to relieve themselves. It was going to really stink in a couple of days, Ron told Jil when he came back to their area. A prayer of thanksgiving was offered over the meager food. Everyone ate dinner quietly and it was “lights out” at 8 p.m. The only noises were from discontented pets and snoring as Ron drifted off into a guarded sleep.
“Get up! Get up!” came a startled cry about two hours later. The gasoline tank holding the generator’s life’s blood was being tapped. Men scurried around and women gathered together, bringing children close by. Jim and his buddy, Bill, had their guns out in no time and were shooting in the air.
The thieves didn’t get all of the fuel, but got away with at least half of it before being scared off.
Larry, guardian of the short wave, was on the air in no time. The national guard sympathized but could be of no help at this time. They would bring more fuel when it was available.
“Looks like we’re going to have to keep watch,” Bill stated. “I’m up now, I’ll watch for the next two hours.”
“Yeah, then get me,” Jim responded. “The rest of you get at least four hours before you’ll be called to take a watch.”
Ron couldn’t believe it. Or could he? He was the age that he was too young for Vietnam and too old for Desert Storm, so he had never been in the military. Jim and Bill were younger and had served. They were more of a mind-set of survival. For the first time in his life Ron regretted his inexperience.
“Can you believe this?” Jil whispered to him when he came back to his cot.
“Unfortunately, yes. I thought R.J.’s tours in Afghanistan had warped his sense of peace – now I’m seeing it prepared him to take care of his family.”
“I was surprised to see Nancy’s pantry when we were there last month,” Jil commented. “I even laughed a little.”
“What you didn’t see was his ammo cupboard.”
Jil sighed. “This is scary.”
Ron pulled her closer to him and they fell asleep, uncomfortable on their cots, but warm and feeling safer.
Sally snuggled close to Jim and he patted her arm and then covered them both with one comforter. She was crying softly.
In the morning, after breakfast, three families banded together and left in a large four-wheel drive SUV. A woman offered to pray with them and they took a few minutes to ask for guidance and help. They took only the food they had left from what they brought with them and their comforters and a hand-held CB. They had a definite goal in mind and figured they could make it in only 6 or 7 hours. For about a half-hour they called back reports of what they saw. The roads were still impassable in places and they had to turn around several times. Eventually they found roads that they could travel but were soon out of range.
“They were so foolish,” Sally said over her cup of coffee.
Neither Jim nor Ron answered her.
“I said, those people were fool-hardy to leave here,” she continued.
“Sally, everyone has to make their own choices.”
“Well, it seems to me …”
“We’re going to leave when R.J. comes here,” Jil interrupted her.
“You’re going home, right?”
“Not sure. He said the power grid would take weeks to repair.”
“Nobody can survive without electricity for weeks,” Sally pouted.
Jil looked at Ron and he got the message loud and clear. “We are all going to do what is needed to survive, Sally. We have to be positive and help each other stay that way.”
Sally screwed up her mouth in a pout until she saw Jim staring at the floor. These people were her only hope and she changed her tune. “I’m sorry. All of you, I’m sorry. Guess I’m just scared.”
Jim smiled slightly at her. “We all are. Every one of us.”