I don’t for one second believe that the world is going to end on May 21, 2011, as Christian fundie Howard Camping predicts. I do know this: if the forecast calls for brimstone while I live in my Westport neighborhood, I’m going to my friend Jim’s house.
I met Jim years ago, at a poetry reading at Prospero’s Books on 39th and Bell. Jim’s a weird dude. He can write a sonnet with the same ease that he can skin a deer, which he would have likely de-brained with his 1945 M1 Garand (the gun General Patton credited with winning WWII). I could give you a description of Jim, but in the interest of saving space, picture the physicality of John Goodman in “The Big Lebowski.” (Same wardrobe, too.)
I stopped by Jim’s brick house one recent afternoon to get his take on this allegedly approaching “End Times.”
I found him in the book-crammed attic of his house. A rifle rested against the windowsill of the wall facing the street. On his laptop, Jim was clacking away at measurements for a gate design destined for the mouth of a cave in the Mark Twain National Forest. The grate keeps humans out while letting bats pass freely. Jim’s big on caves, and bats. Naturally, I assumed that at the first sign of widespread disorganization and civil breakdown, he’d head for the remotest stone hole in Missouri. That’s after looting the crap out of the Sunfresh grocery store down the street, of course.
But Jim surprised me. “I think your best bet’s to stay in the city,” he said. “I think the most important thing you’re going to need in that scenario is the law, and everything else is secondary to that.”
Well, I asked, what about those survivalist types who’d want to get away until law and order was restored?
“They would go where all the other nutty survivalists would go,” Jim said. “Southern Missouri.” Jim pronounces the state’s name with an “uh” on the end, as an authentic local boy should.
So what would they need to know? I asked. How to tie knots and build lean-tos?
Jim snorted. “That’s Boy Scouts. I mean, that’s a game. After three or four days with no food, they’re going to be desperately hungry. You’ve heard of the Donner Party, right?”
“They’d start going crazy, and they can’t get back to the city,” Jim continues. “Now that they have used up all the gas, they can only walk 10 or 15 miles at a time. What becomes important in those circumstances? Safety pins become important. Fishing gear becomes important. You know, stuff you would never think of. And you won’t have enough of what you really need to survive, you just won’t.”
Not even with a bunker and a can of beans? And a can opener, I added, feeling clever.
“Guy will come along with a rifle and shoot you in the f*ckin’ head,” Jim said with a certainty I wouldn’t dare question. “Now your beans are his. Then some other guy will come along and shoot him. And that’s how it works.”
Okay then. What are the real skills one ought to acquire for such bleak times?
“How to kill someone with a high-powered rifle at 500 yards,” Jim said without a moment’s hesitation. “That’s the biggie. The second biggest skill is being willing to pull the trigger. Being absolutely utterly f*cking ruthless. That’s the biggest skill you’ll need, and that’s where most people will fall down.”
What makes 500 yards the magic number, I wondered?
“Nothing,” Jim said. “It’s just a long goddamn way away. Usually, if you shoot someone at that distance, they don’t ever know they were in the sights. They were just standing there one minute, and the next minute they’re dead. And you can come up at leisure and take their sh*t.”
At 500 yards, I reasoned, someone would probably also have a good vantage point to see people sneaking up on them. Wrong again.
“Problem is,” Jim replied, “people are going to sneak up on you.” He pointed to a book on his shelf by General David Hackworth, paraphrasing the general’s words:
If you are in the Army and you find yourself in a fair fight, you have planned your mission poorly.
“You don’t want a fair fight,” Jim said. “There’s no reason to have a fair fight. What you want is to put the crosshairs on the other guy’s forehead and blow the top of his head off. And most military engagements are like that. The most common last words are, ‘Oh sh*t,’ and by the time you say it, the bullets are already in the air.
“Chivalry is long gone,” he went on. “Went away 500 years ago. Modern industrial warfare is nothing but f*cking ugly and unfair. The most important skill to survive is the ability to be f*cking ruthless. To meet your neighbor, agree that you’re going to take care of each other, find out what your provisions are that you’re going to have together, and as soon as the sonofab*tch turns around, put a bullet in his head. You just doubled your food supply.”
“Maybe I don’t want to come to your house after all,” I said. Jim, my neighbor who plants tomatoes in his backyard and keeps a supply of sun tea in his fridge at all times, was sounding one cataclysm short of Rambo. I pictured him donning buckskin and smearing his face with the blood of the nearest housecat.
“There’s no logical reason to be moral,” Jim continued. “I think if all the quote-unquote Christians got raptured, we’ d be a much better society. Good riddance. But I do think Christianity gives purpose and meaning to large numbers of people. And I do believe that those people need a religious basis for their morality. But most people’s morality basically boils down to a set of prejudices.”
What about the Golden Rule, I asked, while scanning the attic for signs of a struggle and eyeballing the distance from me to the stairs.
“Isn’t the Golden Rule an example of morality not as a prejudice, but as a rational calculation of self-preservation? It would suck if someone did x to me, so I’m not going to do x to someone else?”
“It doesn’t suck for you at all,” Jim countered. “If you do x to them and get something that they have, it’s a net gain for you and who gives a damn about them? There’s no rational reason to care about other people. The reason they have to teach you the Golden Rule is because it doesn’t make any sense. When I’m hungry I eat, and nobody had to teach me that. We’re basically aggressive animals. Wolves will eat other wolves. When they see an elk they don’t say ‘Well, if I eat that elk, someone might eat me.’ They just eat the f*ckin’ elk. We are just very very smart wolves. You’ve heard the saying, ‘Man is a wolf to man.’ Sexist language, but you get the idea. We are just smart omnivores with a tendency toward predation.”
So that’s it, I asked? When you see the flash, waste no time getting as savage as possible?
“If survival is the objective,” Jim answered. “ But if the world’s going to end like that, I don’t want to live in it. So I’m gonna stay here and try to establish civil law. Not because I think all you nice people shouldn’t kill each other, but because that’s the world I want to live in.”
What a relief, I thought. Jim’s battier than one of his caves, but he isn’t itching to kill anybody. But just in case, word to Parkville: if it all goes to pieces this Saturday, for God’s sake, stay out of Westport.
“By the way,” Jim added as we meandered down the stairs for some sun tea, “if you come over here and I’m saving your life, you’re gonna owe me a LOT of sex. Okay?
“I don’t save lives for free. And that’s the only f*cking commodity you’re going to bring to the game. So just get ready.” He laughed uproariously. I laughed nervously. “Unless you’re a real good hunter,” he said, “then maybe we can find a spot for you on the team.”
In other words, if I’m going to survive the apocalypse -- with or without Jim – I’m going to need damn good aim at 500 yards.