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The Verge of Extinction

Apocalypse Soon

Bacteria Boogeymen



It's a sunshiny May morning in Powell, and cars race by on Clinton Highway as Greg Lambert stands soaking in the rays on the deck in front of his business, Advantage Survival Pantry. Lambert, 33, is an amiable, talkative fellow—the kind of man who can generally command a conversation and fill every empty silence. But right now, he can't even get a word in edgewise. For standing there with him is a rather menacing looking customer, a man who's stopped by apparently to let Lambert in on a secret: his store is irrelevant, his services unneeded.

"Why should I stock up food for Y2K," says the mustachioed man, glowering ominously. Pause. "I've got a gun—when the time comes, I'll just take yours."

Smiling, nodding, attempting vainly to explain why this is not exactly a good idea, Lambert listens in good humor as the man explains how when the apocalypse hits, he'll be showing up at Advantage Survival Pantry to take what he needs by force. Lambert's offer to share freely with the man if he finds himself in need when the crisis comes falls on deaf ears as the menace abruptly turns, jumps in his late-model muscle car, and beats a hasty retreat. With a sigh, Lambert turns to enter his store, which is housed in a tiny, prefab shotgun building notable only for its adjacency to Clinton Highway's celebrated airplane building. He's seen it before—the fear in a man's eyes caused by the life-rocking potential of the Y2K bug.

Y2K, for those of you who have been living under a rock, is shorthand for the "year 2000 problem," a computer glitch caused by the fact that early computer programmers short-sightedly opted to save (then) precious memory space by limiting dates to a two-digit format—45 for 1945, 86 for 1986, 99 for 1999 and so forth. Problem is, the year 2000 will register to PC-based computer systems and aging mainframes simply as 00—an invalid date, the end of time. Doomsaying speculators and conspiracy theorists across the planet have seized on the Y2K bug as reason to sound the alarm—to predict everything from stock market crashes to air-traffic havoc to nuclear meltdown.

Lambert knows the worst-case scenarios well; he's read the literature, hobnobbed with the extremists—menacing mustachioed man being only the latest in a stream of customers who come in varying states of alarm. He rattles off the doomsday rap sheet with ease: "All the nuclear power plants blow up because their computers are not compliant," he begins. "All of our cars just instantly stop wherever the are because of the little ICU chips. Elevators are stuck. Airplanes drop right out of the sky because their engines quit. The Russians accidentally launch nuclear war and we retaliate. Terrorists take advantage of the opportunity to release all these conspiracy-theory viruses they're making, and all life is completely and totally wiped out.

"The best-case scenario is that absolutely nothing happens," he continues in the interest of balance. "Bill Gates comes out with a magic quick fix, and it's emailed out to everybody, the problem is automatically fixed and it doesn't cost us any money. I think it's going to lie somewhere in the middle."

As such, Lambert is a Y2K moderate, a preparedness-minded (his words) individual who's personally stocked up enough food to last about a year, who's invested in a little gold and withdrawn a couple of thousand dollars from the bank. "Basically, my philosophy on Y2K and any emergency preparedness is that this should be looked at as an insurance policy," he explains. "I don't advocate that anybody move to a cabin in Montana, completely solarize their house, quit their job, cash in their 401K, or do anything extreme like that.

"But by the same token, I think it's just as extreme to think that everything is so wonderful, that our society is so great that nothing could happen. I think there will be problems. I think it's probably wise to have a couple of months' food supply in case something happens. I think that if a person plans on six months to a year, they're not being too radical.

"If I knew what was really going to happen, I'd be on the Psychic Friends Network," he concludes. "But I would guess that we'll have power outages, we'll have problems with food distribution. The water purification system might not work at the KUB. We might need to boil our water to purify it. We may need to cook our food over a flame. People might be out of work for a few weeks. Things that might not be the end of the world when you're looking at the big picture, but can be absolutely devastating when you look at the little picture."

His business exists to fend off this devastation; his store has the usual survival suspects, piled on folding tables: industrial size containers of Tang, giant barrels of rice and beans and corn and oats and TVP (textured vegetable protein), wind-up shortwave radios, solar-powered flashlights, cans of instant heat, powdered eggs and butter, water purifying devices, matches, huge gasoline and water containers, and a surprising array of seasonings and spices (with a surprising emphasis on curry—Lambert's personal favorite). His prices are reasonable—99 cents for red curry paste, for example; $1.99 for a can of instant heat that would last an electricity-deprived family a week.

Lambert, a savvy businessman (in another life, he runs Lambert Motors Inc., a family business that specializes in rebuilding and reselling totaled Ford vehicles), opened the Advantage Survival Pantry three months ago because he saw both an opportunity and a need. Price gouging, he explains, is not his thing; in fact, part of his impetus for starting the business was a response to hysteria-mongering opportunism—he wanted to provide his neighbors with a sensible alternative, one that could help them prepare for the problem whether their budget was $200 or $2,000. The only package deal he offers is a six-month food supply, which costs less than $700.

Again, his approach is informed by his realism: "I can't really be profiteer here, and try to scare my neighbors into buying a bunch of stuff. I could be selling $10,000 packages like anybody else. I know the rhetoric, I've read the books—I could talk the doom and gloom just as scary as possible and make a lot more money. But aside from the bad karma that would be associated with that, I'd never sell a car again. People would say, 'Why that guy's the one who conned me into buying $10,000 worth of Tang, and now we have to drink Tang every day for the rest of our lives. He's the one, he did it, we'll never buy anything from him again.'" Bad news for a used car salesman.

But in the face of bad news, Lambert likes to look on the bright side. "In a way, this might be one of the best things that ever happened in this county," he says earnestly. "You know, if everybody is off work for two weeks, and people get a chance to actually meet their neighbors and have to share their potatoes and rice, it might just bring folks a little bit closer.

"This is not going to be Road Warrior," he concludes. "It's not going to be post-apocalyptic mutants. We're real people, and I'm not going to watch my neighbor starve to death, and my neighbor is not going to charge me with a gun for my food."

Knock on simulated wood grain.