Book Review: Alas, Babylon

Alas, Babylon, by Pat Frank, was among the original TEOTWAWKI (The End of the World as We Know it) novels. It was written in 1959 about 1959. It was a time of national prosperity, racial segregation, and during the peak of the Cold War. A time of peace, but when people lived daily with the threat of global nuclear war looming.

Then it actually happens, with almost no warning, the Soviets launch a preemptive full-scale nuclear strike against the United States and its allies. To the survivors, including the people in the small Central Florida town of Fort Repose, it was just known as “The Day.” The day when everything that was and everything they knew, changed forever.

Our protagonist, Randy Bragg, is the scion of a once prominent local family. Before, he was living a quiet life with very little purpose. After, he struggles to find his role as he becomes responsible for his brother’s family, then the neighbors – both white and “colored”, and ultimately the town. Randy has a couple of days warning (from his high-ranking military brother) and tries to stock up on extra supplies. It was insightful to see what he thought was important and what he didn’t get. He also tries to warn some close friends, but the response he receives, “So here comes our local Paul Revere . . .  What are you trying to do, frighten my wife and daughter to death?”, would probably be similar to the denial we’d see from family and friends.

For me, with my medical background, it was very interesting to read about Dr. Dan Gunn, the town’s only medical provider. About his initial struggles to take care of so many people, most of whom are still in denial. His knowledge that he has so little equipment and supplies and that once they’re gone, they’re gone. How he, the caregiver, pushes himself to almost complete physical collapse. And watching his naivety about his own safety, until he’s targeted for the drugs and supplies he might have.

As resources become scarce, cash becomes valueless. Even early on when it was still accepted for payment, stores quickly sold out and nothing new arrived. People barter for what they need; food, gasoline, ammunition, alcohol, precious metals, and even coffee become currency.

When the initial food stockpile is depleted, they struggle to produce their own. Randy laments, “The end of the corn and exhaustion of the citrus crop had been inevitable. Armadillos in the yams was bad luck, but bearable. But without fish and salt their survival was in doubt.” Some of their needs were obvious, of course they had to quickly locate a sustainable source of drinking water. But no one thought of what would happen when they ran out of salt, and the dire consequences. They had to provide their own security, not only against humans but also animals. They were creative how they rationed energy–fuel and batteries–and how they reacted when it finally, inevitably, ran out.

This book illustrated that mental and physical preparation are what are necessary to endure. Randy sums things up, “Survival of the fittest . . . The strong [and prepared] survive. The frail die. The exotic fish die because the aquarium isn’t heated. The common guppy lives. So does the tough catfish. . . . That’s the way it is and that’s the way it’s going to be.”

Soap and Water

Minor cuts and scrapes happen from time to time. Though any open wound is a potential site for infection, we really don’t think much about the small ones other than their initial pain and the inconveniences they cause us as they heal. Most of us live in a world that is relatively safe and even minor wounds don’t happen very often. When they do, the simple steps we take to care for them plus our daily hygiene practices prevent most infections. In rare situations, when the injury becomes infected often the biggest hassle is finding the time to get to the doctor’s office for prescribed antibiotics.

But in a long-term disaster/collapse situation, a minor wound–if neglected–could become deadly. In that scenario, there are several things that will aggravate the chances of getting an infection: 1) We will be doing more ‘dirty’ jobs, i.e. working outside, building fires, handling animals; 2) We will be doing a lot more manual labor, i.e. cutting wood, cooking over a fire, building and repairing, and other activities that can easily lead to cuts and scrapes; and 3) Clean water and basic hygiene will not be as accessible or convenient, i.e. no running water in the house. So a relatively minor wound that is ignored while you continue working gets more contaminated; then the wound isn’t thoroughly washed out because clean water is saved for drinking. In a short period of time that wound can develop a serious infection.

What is the best way to clean and care for a minor wound? Common answers frequently include hydrogen peroxide or alcohol, but not only do both of these harm the healthy tissue they can also delay wound healing. I’ve even heard someone say that ‘alcohol must be the best because it burns the most when you apply it’ – it burns because you are killing the exposed healthy tissue.

The best way to clean a minor wound, and prevent infection, is to remove all debris from the wound with cool, clean running water (this could also be poured or squirted from a container) and a mild soap. Then prior to bandaging it, lightly apply (think chapstick application) petroleum jelly on the wound. This will help the healing process by keeping the wound moist and clean and stop the bandage from sticking. Using antibiotic ointments is unnecessary, they add unneeded cost and may help create more antibiotic resistant bacteria; their main benefit is the same as the petroleum jelly.

Remember there’s a fine line between tough and stupid. The only medical aid available might be from your own group. So plan ahead to minimize injury: wear protective gloves, long pants and long sleeves, and, if appropriate, a helmet and/or goggles. When you do get a minor wound (and you will), make it a priority to clean and dress it as soon as possible. Be sure to know where the nearest first aid kit is kept, have water available for washing, and keep soap in your preps.

Even if you’ve done everything right, there’s a chance infection will occur. The type of infection common in these type wounds is cellulitis. Cellulitis, if not treated by antibiotics, “can cause a life-threatening condition known as sepsis”. This is described by Dr. Bones on his Doom and Bloom blog post, Cellulitis: An Epidemic in a Collapse. I recommend reading it. Next Monday I’ll explain what I’ve learned, and recently done myself, to acquire a stockpile of ‘collapse medicine’ antibiotics.

(Friday: What I Did This Week To Prep)