February 16, 2001

by Robert Waldrop

Part III

So there we were, the third week of February, 150 people huddled in five houses, drinking melted snow, using latrines in the backyard, and now we were sitting around looking at 500 pounds of wheat and 500 pounds of soybeans. I'm remembering that the last time I had tried to deal with a whole soybean in the kitchen was in 1975, using a soybean casserole recipe from Laurel's Kitchen. As I recall my roommate and I ended up going out for hamburgers that night.

But we met this challenge too. I had my recipe books and stuff I had downloaded from the internet, and even though I don't necessarily cook with soybeans, this country does produce a lot of them, and it seemed likely to me that if there was a big problem with food production and distribution, that sooner or later we would be faced with the question: "What do I do with this big bag of soybeans?"

When it comes right down to it, there are actually a lot of things you can do with soybeans. True, we never managed tofu, but we did make soy grits, and soy flour, and soy milk. As it turned out, we didn't even have to manage tofu, because some Vietnamese folks who lived two blocks over brought ten different kinds of tofu and other curious concoctions made from soybeans to the very first Truman Market in March. They even kindly explained to us what we should do with it.

The arrival of the soybeans seemed an opportune time to start publishing a neighborhood newspaper, so the threat of immediate hunger being temporarily abated, and no other immediate emergencies at hand, we decided to reach out to neighbors beyond our street. I had stored some plain gelatin and carbon paper, and with these two items, I had the makings of an old-fashioned spirit duplicator (most people remember them from gradeschool). I had also stored several cases of paper, but I was never able to find a working manual typewriter, so we hand-wrote the first edition of the Blue Valley Reporter, published from Oakley Street in Kansas City, Missouri. Because we were short on paper, it was nothing very fancy, but it did have a headline:

Civilization Crashes, Blue Valley Survives!

Millennium Bug Bites Hard!

And this was the first article: Early on January 1, 2000, the technical infrastructure of the US crashed due to the Year 2000 bug. Many people have left the area, it is likely that some are dead of cold and hunger, but many more are alive. You are one of them. Congratulations! You have survived the end of the world as we knew it. Most of us are now asking, "What do we do now?" According to the instruction book, "After the End of the World, immediately begin to build a new one. Remember the mistakes of the old, and do better with this one." Here's some ideas on how to get started.

The rest of Volume 1, Number 1 consisted of information on what to do with soybeans, how to make an expedient grain and soybean grinder from metal water pipes, and the importance of starting a compost heap immediately. It had an advertisement for the Better Times School, which would offer classes in gardening, composting, and surviving in new circumstances starting the first week of March at Our Lady Queen of Peace Catholic Church. It announced the First Ever Truman Road St. Patrick's Day Parade for the upcoming March 17th and that St. Joseph's Tables would be available for visitation and prayer on March 19th at all the Catholic parishes in the area, with the food distributed in the evening.

We printed 100 copies and took them to each of the churches in the neighborhood, plus the other houses where we were aware of people sheltering. We also gave a copy to a policeman on a bicycle who came down Truman, and asked him to pass it along to whoever was in authority downtown.

The churches were all doing important work. They were sheltering large numbers of people. Initially, most of them had access to some kind of propane heating, usually brought in by church members. But as propane supplies were depleted, they all cobbled together wood barrel stoves. They were glad to get the information on what to do with soybeans. We also decided to send people from our house by several of the churches with my grain grinder, to help their feeding efforts several days a week (kind of like a circuit riding miller). Most of them had started schools to keep the kids busy, many with teachers from existing schools in the neighborhood.

But we had another problem looming, and that was water. And it was a more difficult problem than dealing with soybeans. The reason the cattle were coming to town at the end of February was that snow was melting (we didn't have a meteorologist handy to explain why this was happening so early). We had filled every possible container with melted snow (and it's amazing how many containers you can find when you go scavenging), for drinking and washing and other such purposes, but it wouldn't last forever.

So I was glad that I had talked with an old friend back in 1999 about how to make an expedient water purification system. We were only a couple of miles from the Missouri River, but that water was pretty dirty. We lived on a hill, and thus were dubious about the possibility of digging a well. There was an artesian flowing well in a park in the area, but it was actually further away than the Missouri River. Our household had about 30 gallons of gas (the tank in the car and the truck were both full, having been used only to charge up the car battery to keep our radio going, and for one trip to my place of work (a Catholic Church in a suburb) to tell my priest I wouldn't be able to come to work anymore, and to make some suggestions about what they should be doing. We had another 20 gallons in gas cans in the basement, but any way you looked at it, driving back and forth to the Missouri River or the artesian well was an expensive proposition.

We decided to start with the artesian well, while we worked on water purification. We used a portable swimming pool as the first stage (settling). We would pour Missouri River water into it and let it settle for a couple of days, then siphon it off into a rube goldberg contraption consisting of several buckets with alternating layers of sand and charcoal. I'm not talking about charcoal briquets, of course, but charcoal that we made ourselves the old fashioned way. The water that came through this process would then be boiled. Maybe this was overkill, but we didn't have a health department handy to give us advice. As it turned out, we only had to do this for about 6 weeks, because by April, water deliveries were being made by truck. When the people from the water cooperative came by and made their offer, we were quick to agree. You could pay with all labor, or with labor plus other value (such as the Catholic or Blue Valley bucks which had just been authorized by the city council, which turned up in March.

In the first week of March, we had several things going for us. We had food and water -- you would not believe how good soybean grits, sausage, and biscuits can be, even if you eat it every day. The weather was warming up, we still had some gasoline if we needed it, people were going back to their own homes so the house wasn't so crowded. And most importantly, people were starting to adapt to their new circumstances.

It was like somebody exploded an "Idea Bomb" in the neighborhood. There was very little time wasted on meetings, but everybody was interested in learning. The methane digester idea was found in some old Mother Earth News copies that somebody had in their basement, it seemed like a really good idea to everyone, as the whole outdoor latrine situation (or carrying buckets outdoors to pits) just grossed everybody out. Pouring the buckets into methane digesters that we had built ourselves was a bit less gross, at least it seemed we would be getting something back from our efforts. To use methane in propane or natural gas appliances the jets had to be drilled out so they were wider, but there were people willing to do this, and most of them were willing to accept a future favor for doing it right now, it only took a few minutes and drills and batteries to run them were available. So you can see that very early in all of this -- March -- we were developing new economic arrangements, labor was already specializing, and commerce was commencing. OK, it wasn't the Kansas City Board of Trade, but it worked.

Green houses and cold frames sprouted everywhere. It's amazing how much seed is available in a neighborhood, and this was before people from the University Extension and Kansas City Community Gardening Association came through in April. Our diet was pretty much the same, and everybody was ready for fresh vegetables.

I remember the day I saw the first early flowers peeking through the ground. I found myself thinking, Look at this, all of our technological infrastructure crashes, but here is this flower, doing what flowers do, poking its way through the ground. If that flower can survive, so can we.

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As always, please feel free to comment, correct, instruct, or suggest. You can email me at rmwj@kc.net

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