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The Future Past

Let’s pause a moment before we head for the exits. I’m talking about the spectacular, the ludicrous, the humiliating and uproarious discomfiture of the Y2K doomsayers. How deliciously wrong they were! We’re dealing here with one of the biggest busts since the Edsel. 

Are there lessons to be drawn from the fiasco? I suppose the core phenomenon to be looked at is the propensity of the richest, most secure nation in the history of the planet to believe that collapse, utter and awful, is just around the next corner. 

This mental outlook is understandable in, say, Poland, which has been invaded and ravaged not a few times in this century. And there are some ethnic fractions here — Hmong, for example — who could be pardoned for having an apprehensive take on the future. But the Hmong weren’t buying all those generators, or laying in enough canned food and bottled water to last through the rest of this century. 

Driving by Costco right before New Year’s I saw a couple staggering towards their truck with a pallet load of toilet paper. Few things agitate the American soul more sharply than the possibility of a shortage in this vital commodity. It’s up there with oil and electrical generating capacity. At least one of my Petrolia neighbors — a lawyer invested heavily in gold stocks under the supposition that a) the Arabs wouldn’t have fixed their computers, and so b) there’d be an oil shortage, with c) a rapid decline in living standards, morals, the rule of law and thus d) the collapse of capitalism, requiring e) gold as the only fungible medium of exchange. 

I suppose that this profound apprehension is the price tag — a modest one to be sure — that comes with being top dog on the block. 

Back at the turn of the 19th century the British had similar worries, and spun endless fantasies about the precise way in which everything would collapse. In l903, a huge bestseller in the UK was a book called When It Was Dark, by Guy Thorne. His particular version of Y2K horror was a fantasy about what would happen if it were shown that Christ never rose from the dead. By means too complex to describe here, the villain engineers a fake archaeological discovery throwing doubt on the Resurrection. Here’s what happens then: 

“We find wave after wave of lawlessness and fierce riot passing over the country such as it has never known before — the Irish and the Italians robbing and murdering Protestants and Jews, fathers and mothers treated with contempt by youth, maidens are spat upon and cursed by a degraded populace and assailed with eager sarcasm by the polite and cultured…” 

Thorne visits one emblem of collapse after another, and reaches his climax: “The terrible seriousness of the situation need hardly be further insisted on here, Its reality cannot be more vividly indicated than by the statement of a single fact: THE STOCK MARKET IS DOWN TO 65!” 

At least here the apprehension derived its strength from a collapse in religious belief. Today I can respect millenarians and indeed fundamentalist Christians who awaited the Rapture.

This same expectation is part of the eschatology of their faith. But the fear that prompted my atheist lawyer-neighbor to buy gold, gasoline, canned goods and toilet paper had nothing to do with the Rapture. He was seized, like many others, with an entirely irrational panic: that technology would fail. 

Being an optimist myself, back in September I pondered how best to honor the new millennium and decided to commission works of art, to be placed on the steep, wooded hill behind my house. This plan allowed me to approach Elizabeth Berrian, an artist living in Eureka who makes wire animals. Back in the l840s an early settler in the Mattole Valley where I live reported in his journal that from a hilltop he could espy no less than thirty specimens of Ursus arctos horribilis, aka Ursus ferox — grizzlies to you and me — grubbing about looking for berries and bugs, or hunkered down on the edge of the Mattole, scooping up salmon. We still have mountain lions and brown bears, but the grizzly is long gone, so I commissioned Berrian to weave out of aluminum stainless wire a 9-foot grizzly, destined to haunt my hill. 

In the months that followed Ursus, hanging from a pulley in the barn where Berrian works, gradually grew in size to his present majestic nine feet and on December 30 I drove up to Eureka in my truck to pick him up. We tied him on his back to the lumber rack and I headed for home in the darkness. 

Halfway up a mountain grade all power in the 68 Dodge truck failed. No lights. No power. No emergency brake. Low compression so the gears wouldn’t hold me. Take my foot off the brake pedal and either I’d roll back to the right and drop off the edge or roll back to the left and drop into a ditch at the base of the cliff. Stay put and some homeward bound logging truck would plow straight through me. Ursus and I waited for the end. And it wasn’t even Y2K yet. 

The rancher in the mighty 350 Ford pick-up didn’t hit me. He had a chain and pulled me to a safe spot, handing me his cellphone. The AAA dispatcher 300 miles south in Petaluma patched me through to Jerry, who runs the local breakdown service at Tipple Motors in Ferndale. I told him I had a wire grizzly on my rack and if necessary he should pull me 50 miles home to Petrolia, almost a freebie on my triple A-plus card, one of the greatest bargains in America. 

In the end Jerry fixed the truck and Ursus and I puttered south under the stars. The next day Jerry called and said he’d had a call from the AAA office in Petaluma, wanting a photo of “the wild grizzly” reported by the night dispatcher as having been tied to a truck up in Humboldt. On New Year’s Day we unveiled Ursus before an admiring crowd of Petrolians, and now he’s up on my hillside, a ghostly intimation of the past that we should honor more, while simultaneously fearing the future less.

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