Tuesday, November 22, 2044
A history student followed Pat down from the college to interview me for a paper he’s writing. I was kind of flattered, and told him he was welcome to stay at FAR Manor with us as long as he needed — there’s always plenty of food — and even for my 86th birthday if he was inclined.
“Sure,” he said, “We’re on break until Monday. And I’m really not looking forward to riding back to campus alone.”
“Hey, it’s only 25 kims,” I said. “I biked twice that when I was twice your age.”
He chuckled. “Yeah, but did you have a pack of clothes, books, and a recorder with you?”
“You got me there. But we didn’t have aerogel fairings or those hub motors for the hills, either.”
“You win some, you lose some, right?”
“Right. Do you mind sharing a room with some kids?”
“I guess not.” The kids in question were already checking out the visitor, whispering among themselves — probably about who would have to give up his bed — then Bobby walked up. “You can have my bed,” he said. “I’ll take care of the fire tonight.”
“Isn’t it your night anyway?” I asked.
Bobby blushed, and the visitor laughed. “Busted!” he said, and Bobby shrugged and walked away. It’s easy enough to embarrass a teenager, but flustering one is another thing.
“Well, c’mon in,” I said. “We can sit on the porch and talk. It’s still warm enough, and it’ll be quiet.”
Daughter Dearest, whom the kids call “Mama” these days, brought drinks and something to snack on. We sat and watched the kids through the screen, goofing around outside on one of those warm days of late fall, a jar of Luke’s hooch and a couple of glasses on the table.
“Good kids,” I said. “Kids are always happy to help out if they know they’re contributing… and that it’s appreciated.”
“It’s like that at my place, too,” the student — Darrell is his name, I think — told me. “At least you have a lot of room to move around, in these old houses. Didn’t you just have your own family in here, back when?”
“Occasionally,” I said. “We had other kids staying with us a lot of the time, and after the Powerout started we ended up with two foster kids and a Hispanic family. That was one way we knew things were changing a lot. But I think we were kind of unusual in that regard… most people wouldn’t have anyone but a relative living with them, back before.”
“Well, it’s the ‘back before’ stuff I came to talk about, before the Powerout got started — I guess you figured that out. I found a copy of that footage you took at Nickajack, back when things were just getting started, in our archives. But you aren’t listed as a militia or junta member. I got kind of excited when I found out you lived so nearby, and are still around to talk about it.”
“I had a strange, and rather uncomfortable, relationship with the junta,” I said, knocking back a gulp of hooch then replenishing my cup. “Even if I didn’t agree with their aims, I felt like what they were doing at Nickajack needed to be recorded. None of what we used to call the mainstream media wanted to associate with them, so I volunteered. I nearly got killed… by my wife when I got home!”
“Yeah. We have copies of old blogs in the archives, yours and lots of others, and they’re a big help for seeing what things were really like for everyday people. But it’s always good to get a first-hand report. Not all reports were created equal, you know.”
I laughed. “Not all lives are created equal. May you live in interesting times is truly a curse, but it makes for interesting reading.”
“So what do you remember about the junta people?”
“In a word: misled. I ran into one of the Nickajack folks shortly after the Flood, and he told me about the Restoration from his side of things. He spent some time in a prison camp, and learned that the televangelists he thought were running the show were being run by the ultra-wealthy—”
“Yeah. Preachers with TV shows.”
He chewed on that for a moment. “Some stuff you can read about, but you just can’t internalize. They had their own TV shows?”
“Yeah. Some owned entire channels. Mostly on satellite and cable.”
He shook his head, as if it were too much to comprehend. “Were you a believer, back then?”
“Still am. Penitent, though. I never had much respect for those guys in expensive suits, always begging for more money. It’s important to remember, the junta rank-and-file thought they were obeying the will of God. Some of them killed themselves rather than admit they’d been duped so completely. Some just opted-out… which can be a slower form of suicide. Col. Mustard made it, and found something useful to do with himself afterwards. He’s still alive, down in John’s Creek — if you want an account of the junta from someone who was inside it, I could ask him if he’d be willing to tell you about it.”
“Yeah, maybe. But it was something else I was wondering about. I keep hearing stories of how things were like 40 years ago — burning up oil like it would never run out, cities bright as day by night, using delivery trucks for family vehicles — it sounds incredible. This must be a letdown.”
“Not at all,” I said. He gave me a curious look. “We used to call it the Rat Race. We were so consumed by it that very few ever stopped to see what it did to us or the world around us. We had so much energy and material wealth, it stunted our imagination. We knew there had to be a better way to live than burning up all the oil and ignoring the warning signs, but we just couldn’t — as a people — think of one.”
Darrell looked lost in thought for a few minutes. “I never heard anyone put it like that,” he said. “You really think people are better off now, even after all the disasters we’ve seen this century?”
“Well, now that things look like they’re finally starting to settle down… yes, I think so. I always hated that ‘it builds character’ crap; it was always someone not suffering who said it. But the struggles we’ve been through? They’ve given us a purpose. They showed us that we could be more than what we had let ourselves become. I saw plenty of suffering, and helped out where I could. I saw petty evil, and fought it. I suppose you could say the survivors are better off, but you — and those kids out there — are better off, too.”
“You wouldn’t go back, then?”
“Not if you gave me a tanker full of gasoline. We were tested in the fire, and barely passed through it. But we made it, and ended up a wiser people. We learned some hard lessons, and the biggest one might be this: unlimited energy doesn’t mean unlimited happiness — maybe it’s the opposite.”
“It's like the old joke about being rich: it has its own problems, but I’d be willing to try.”
We laughed and chatted until suppertime.