Be Prepared | Feature | Chicago Reader

Be Prepared 

What's so stupid about survivalism? If disaster strikes--a war, an earthquake, a chemical spill--most people will count on the government to take care of them. The members of Live Free International will be ready to fend for themselves. So who's crazy?

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A freight train carrying a load of toxic chemicals through the south side derails. Thousands of residents are exposed to poisonous gases. Even though authorities make an attempt to evacuate, many people are overcome by toxins and end up in the hospital.

One of Commonwealth Edison's nuclear plants suffers a catastrophe along the lines of Three Mile Island. Radiation is spewed into the atmosphere, and there's panic in the air, too.

There's been a monster snowfall in Chicago, and nothing--absolutely nothing--is running. The few grocery stores that have managed to open, assuming you can get to one, are low on supplies. The pipes in your building freeze, and you're left with no water supply either.

What do you do?

The members of Live Free International see the answer to that question in survivalism: emergency preparedness by the individual, not the state. They don't think there's anything silly about having a few gallons of water, a couple of days' worth of canned food, and a firearm in the closet--or in the case of the railroad-riddled south side, a gas mask for each family member.

Most survivalists live in the country, where they can grow a sizable portion of their own food and thus be that much closer to self-sufficiency. And most keep pretty much to themselves. In case of disaster, they reason, it wouldn't pay to advertise. So the 1,000 members of Live Free are something of an anomaly: they make their homes in urban, suburban, and rural areas; they've banded together; and they want to share their message.

Though Live Free wants to communicate, mostly to educate the public, most of its members don't want anyone to know who they are. They're not usually willing to come forward as individuals, partly because survivalists have been alternately vilified and mocked by the press. But now Live Free has taken a new step toward communicating with that portion of the public willing to listen: Dial-A-Survivalist, which makes its Chicago telephone-book debut in the current issue, right after Dial-A-Stock and before Dial-A-Temp. Callers get messages on emergency preparedness, food storage, wilderness survival, and more recently on the differences between automatic and semiautomatic weapons.

Survivalism got its start with the nuclear-attack fears of the 1950s and '60s, but in the last two decades it has moved into more general areas of disaster preparedness: for floods, fires, earthquakes, chemical debacles like the one in Bhopal.

"The average survivalist we deal with is usually very involved with the community and its welfare," says founder Jim Jones. "They're not 'hiding in the basement waiting for Armageddon' type of people."

They are individualists with an array of radically different interests and a touch of paranoia, perhaps brought on by the press's image of them as nuts sporting bandoliers and flourishing Bibles. "The news media know that a guy with a machine gun is a lot more exciting than someone learning what type of berries to pick," says Jones. "We've been doing this for more than 25 years, so we got pretty upset when a lot of these right-wing [crazies] started calling themselves survivalists."

Locally, Live Free has about 55 names on its mailing list. The group puts out regular newsletters (one national, one local), supports its new Dial-A-Survivalist line, has a computerized bulletin-board service, and offers seminars in various parts of the country and overseas on aspects of survival education and supply. "We see society going toward dependence, toward loss of self-reliance, toward loss of privacy--and we're running the other way, toward self-reliance," says Jones. "The more self-reliant you are, the more likely you are to survive."

Live Free, says Jim Jones ("Please, no Kool-Aid jokes"), began as a sports club founded nearly 40 years ago by a group of high school buddies who liked to shoot muzzle-loaders and otherwise emulate the pioneers. "You're talking back into the late 50s; four of us are still members of the group," says Jones. "We got more involved in the aspects of what happens when a hunter gets lost in the woods, and we grew with that, networking. We finally realized we were involved in an organization that was into something a little different." Not quite 30 years ago, Jones and his friends turned the Ticonderoga Sports Club into Live Free, headquartered in south suburban Harvey. Thriftily, they kept the old club's pine-tree insignia.

Jones first got interested in survivalism when he had a bad experience hiking down the Grand Canyon: he neglected to drink enough water. While he was recovering, a ranger told him that it was a common problem for tourists. "When you're from the midwest, you figure you drink water when you're thirsty, and when you're not, you don't. In the desert, that doesn't work," says Jones. He then "got into education. Then the nuclear thing came along, and we got into that. It all just sort of evolved."

Live Free has no religious basis, unlike the "survivalist" groups that provide a spot of dappled green color for the evening news. "We're not the guys in cammies, with a gun in one hand and a Bible in the other, shouting that the end is near," says Jones. To the extent that the movement is political, it's essentially--though unofficially--libertarian. Live Free's members are looking for the government to stay out of their way and let them take responsibility for their own lives. "We were involved with conservative groups, but they weren't going where we wanted to go, and we've got a number of liberals [in the group], too," says Jones. "We've got a lot of common ground with the Mother Earth News types. We go with people who want to survive, and don't just want to blame their problems on somebody else. Let's first of all take care of ourselves and the people who want to help themselves, and not worry about the people who want the government to do everything for them.

"I'm not a very religious person . . . I base my movement primarily on my study of history, and what I think is important. For instance, look at gun legislation. If you trace the history of the people who have stayed alive and stayed free, they generally did so through having firearms--not necessarily using them, but having them." Jones compares the results of the American Revolution, where citizen-soldiers had firearms and used them, and the recent events in Tiananmen Square. He points out that the bad guys--drug dealers, criminals, invaders--will always have access to guns: "The reality historically is that you can't disarm everyone. They talk about the AK-47 being so terrible. But if you talk to the people in Afghanistan, they don't think it's so terrible!"

Jones, who says that he doesn't consider a Russian invasion here particularly likely, denies that survivalists are selfish. "We don't have control over everything--we certainly can't control nature. Face it: bad, terrible, awful, hideous things happen. We can't stop them from happening, but we can cushion the blow. We can use social first aid. You can't always avoid somebody getting a heart attack or getting cut and bleeding a lot, but you can keep them from dying through first aid or CPR. We want to avoid unnecessary suffering. We feel we are a humanitarian organization. We're not here to persecute anybody, or to blame anybody, or to hurt anybody--we want to help people to be more self-reliant. That's going to be the big struggle of the 21st century: are we going to be self-reliant or dependent?

"Some of these so-called survivalist groups think they'll emerge from a disaster to be the power. Well, we're not interested in being the power--we don't want there to be a power! The way it usually happens, somebody rides in on a white horse, you've got people who are mentally and physically dependent and helpless, and the guy on the white horse says, 'I'll solve all your problems.' So people turn over their freedom for the promise of food and water. But it usually doesn't work out that way--quite often, they don't even get the food and water. We want to be able to make a choice, to be able to say to the guy on the white horse, 'No, I don't need you.'"

The members of Live Free are a shy lot. You can't reach them by telephone unless they decide they want to talk to you. The Dial-A-Survivalist tape gives a post-office box in Harvey; write to them and include a telephone number, and if they want to, they'll call you. If they think you should talk to another member of the group, they'll have him (virtually all of the active members are men) call you. This is just as well, since once they agree to be interviewed, they tend to go on at length. They do not generally trade in last names, sometimes give phony first names, and may resist handing out the most basic information, like age, marital status, their jobs, and the towns they live in.

Jeff Planck is more forthcoming than most. He is a 26-year-old staff officer for Live Free--unpaid, as are all his colleagues there--and he does not fit the stereotype of the survivalist. Of average height and build, he's almost nerdy looking, with his black plastic aviator frames, plain suit, conservatively cut brown hair, and small mustache: he looks like a back-office operations clerk in the brokerage industry, which in fact he is. He also has a master's degree in international relations from the University of Chicago. An ex-Rosicrucian, he now calls himself a "panentheist," which he translates as "the natural world equates God," and met his Jewish bride at a Mensa meeting. Several years ago Jeff spent 14 months in India, learning endurance and testing his abilities. Now he and his new wife live in a typical south suburban apartment, and he doesn't see anything odd about being an urban survivalist.

"Everyone who lives in the industrial world today has to be prepared for a breakdown in the support network," he explains in a quiet voice. "There's a very complicated and delicate support system for anyone in the first or second worlds--the food supply, for example. I don't think there's a reason to differ between urban and rural; a survivalist, as Live Free sees it, is prepared to survive wherever he is. It's harder. We're often forced to live in apartment buildings, we're dependent on supermarkets and functioning highways. But most of the jobs are in the city. We just have to be prepared."

Planck and his wife "are pretty typical apartment dwellers," he says. "The measures we can take are pretty limited. It's a rather frustrating situation." They'd like to relocate to Arizona. Meanwhile, they do what they can, though they're limited by both space and finances: they have some firearms, camping gear, medical equipment, gas masks, a sturdy car ("The Mitsubishi is a nice, day-to-day city vehicle"), and a three-month supply of food ("It's all we can store"), consisting largely of five-gallon containers of red winter wheat and long-grain rice, along with water.

"There are lots of rail lines through the neighborhood, and leakage of chemicals is always possible. We've got Israeli gas masks--they only cost $6 each, and they're a really good thing to have around--and kits prepared for each of us in backpacks, so we can move very quickly if there is need."

Planck buys his gas masks and other, less usual supplies from mail-order outfits like Sierra Supply, Poole Surplus, and Indiana Camp Supply, Inc. Magazines like American Survival Guide ("The Magazine for Safer Living") offer sources and ratings for various survival items, from weapons and gear to health items and food. The February 1989 issue provides information on do-it-yourself weather forecasting, international-travel risks, "gas, germs and terrorists," hypnosis, trapping, and the Smith & Wesson 686. There are pages of ads for diesel generators ("Own your own electric company!"), timber wolf-German shepherd hybrids, pellet guns, tiger-stripe camouflage clothing, and books such as The Poor Man's James Bond, Volume Three, which is full of make-your-own gadgets. Obviously, just from the quantity of Rambo knife knockoffs alone, there is a much larger market out there than Live Free's 1,000 families.

"For many of us, survivalism's our main hobby, the main thing we do outside of our family or our regular jobs," says Planck. "A lot of what defines a survivalist is what we own, and a certain mind-set. There's a small group of businesses which find us profitable."

One of the things that survivalists own is firearms, a hot button for many of their critics. "There's a weapons requirement as well as one for food, and that's probably the most sensitive item," observes Planck. He notes that, because of the recent anti-gun push in the mainstream news media, Dial-A-Survivalist tapes have focused more on gun rights. Planck says, "It's not that big a deal normally. We like to have a spectrum of firearms--not just a single firearm for hunting, self-defense, and varminting--because one firearm won't do a spectrum of things. Our requirements are more complicated than most people's."

Planck recommends that the aspiring survivalist invest in five guns. One is an intermediate-power rifle, such as a Garand M1A, Ruger Mini-14, or AK-47 (the civilian version--the real AK-47 is illegal). This kind of rifle, he says, is the best for bringing down large game: "The kind of rifles that survivalists prefer are the kind the press calls 'assault rifles.'" Then you need a shotgun, preferably a 12-gauge pump, for birds, and a .22 rifle, because ".22 ammunition is so plentiful, and it's a fine round for small game." A short-barreled .38 caliber "detective special" pistol is good for self-defense and very concealable, and a larger automatic pistol, such as the Colt .45 ACP, is "not very concealable, but it's a good thing to have. Really," Planck adds, "that's all you need."

If you're just getting started, or can afford only one weapon, he prefers the .223 Mini-14, calling it the single most useful firearm. "It can be used as home defense," he says. "It's an excellent hunting rifle--a number of deer hunters use it. I'd advise getting one of those the first thing. A snub-nosed .38 is the next step, then maybe the shotgun. This is a lot more firepower than the average urban person thinks he needs. You have to consider this might be the last year you'll ever [be able] to buy it. Thirty years from now, you'll probably be quite happy you did."

Planck, who is used to defending the right to keep and bear arms, argues that the police can't be everywhere--and in the event of a major social upheaval, they almost certainly won't be. "The reason 'assault rifles' are preferred is that they are very well suited to the problems of defending small groups from larger, relatively organized groups. It's a longer-range weapon with the ability to fire a number of rounds without reloading. Of all firearms, it's the most handy over the perspective of the next several decades."

Like other members of Live Free, Planck bristles over the image of survivalists in the press. "Other media sources try to portray us as a basically racialist, nationalist organization of fundamentalist Christians. But the racialists keep to themselves; they don't trust anyone who doesn't believe in conspiracies. And I've never encountered religious rhetoric.

"We certainly look aghast at people who call themselves survivalists and then do things that get them thrown in jail. Our political philosophy is to lay low, try to keep political repression at a minimum, and try to live our own lives. Survivalism is its own philosophy--it doesn't need a political justification. We want to be free and to live, but other than that, there's not much."

The successful survivalist, he says, "has to be a polymath. There's no one to go to, you have to do it yourself. All the survivalists I've known have been thinking people--they have to be! After all, there's no curriculum."

Live Free, unlike the conspiracy-buff groups, is easy to join. Just pay your dues and make a "reasonable effort" to take basic survival precautions. Planck says, "We're not focused on a specific threat--we're trying to remain as unfocused as possible." Like Jones, Planck doesn't worry much about a Soviet invasion, and he thinks that nuclear attack from that quarter is pretty unlikely in the present atmosphere--but he points out that other countries, many of them not particularly stable, now have nuclear weapons as well. Survivalists fear bacteriological warfare. They fear a weapon that could knock out computers. They fear natural disasters.

"The world of the future is likely to be wondrous, but scary. Look at the technological and sociological changes of the last 20 years. Can anyone really believe that the world of 2010, 2020, isn't going to be changed? The future isn't all shiny towers in the sky and spaceships--it's probably also bacteriological warfare, and maybe a few more waste spills."

Joe is 34, single, tall, blond, and mustached; he wears wire-framed aviator glasses and a plaid flannel shirt. A smart, articulate north-side contractor, Joe is Live Free's director of public affairs, and it is his voice and words that are heard on the Dial-A-Survivalist line. The line, which he calls "the cheapest form of electronic advertising we could find," is his joint project with Planck, who scatters printed cards advertising the service in public places. Joe is a relative newcomer to Life Free--he's in his second year--but he dates his interest in survivalism to grade school. "We spent a lot of time hiding under our desks," he says, during the Cuban missile crisis and afterward. He got back into survivalism in the mid-1980s, and collected from around his house a drawerful of possible survival items--just things like flashlights and first-aid kits. "Now," he says, "it's a whole closet." He started reading survival magazines. "I was very cautious about contacting any group--I wasn't sure if I was going to be getting into radical politics or what. But I've met some really marvelous people."

As "the Mad German," Joe puts out Citywide, a desktop publishing effort that comes out irregularly and combines news clips, book excerpts, editorial cartoons from other media, and commentary from Joe himself. The spring 1989 issue includes photos of antigun state senator William Marovitz and Joseph Goebbels, juxtaposed in "Separated at Birth?" style. There are numerous examples of Joe's deadpan humor, including this disclaimer: "Citywide is produced, in its awful entirety, by the Mad German, working under tremendous stress in a sealed, refrigerated room while under constant surveillance by unknown entities. News, photos, and irrational religiopolitical ravings must be directed to: Citywide, P.O. Box 59812, Chicago, Ill. 60659. Please wrap dead animals securely. Discolored or oozing explosive materials will NOT be accepted."

Joe comes close to being the polymath Planck says a survivalist ideally should be: he has developed skills, he says, that have saved him "one hell of a lot of money. I fix my own faucets, put in my own locks, build furniture--and all the materials come out of the alley. People in our culture throw away hundreds, thousands of dollars' worth of stuff. I've got all the consumer comforts--TVs, VCRs. People threw them out and I repaired them. It's nice not to have to hire people to do for you things you can do for yourself."

Joe has met with hostility from people who don't approve of his survivalism. He calls them "suicidalists" and accuses them of wishful thinking: "They think that the 7-Eleven is always going to be open and the power is always going to be on. They push to the back of their minds any possibility that things are going to change."

What does he say to critics who ask if he'd shoot his hungry neighbors in the event of a disaster? "Why is the government putting me in this position? . . . I want people to stockpile food, because those who do aren't going to be part of a starving mob. The more people who do [store necessities], the better the chances that order can be maintained.

"You know, people in cities have a very strange reaction to danger--they stand and watch, they run toward danger to see what's happening. It's probably from watching too much television, but they have extremely poor reactions to danger."

What about charges of hoarding?

"They complain about our hoarding, but animals instinctively hoard food. When you see the fragility of things, though, how quickly they break down--look at the snowstorms in '67 and '79. In '67, things were pretty civil. But in '79, things were starting to break down, you saw fistfights over bread and parking spaces."

Joe lived in Hyde Park during the 1968 riots, and because he had to leave his apartment a few times for supplies, he had some scares. "If there were, say, another riot situation, I wouldn't have to leave the house for a week, two weeks. People would be running out into possibly dangerous streets to buy a quart of milk--I don't need to buy a quart of milk. I've got dried milk at home."

He also stores cigarette tobacco and rolling papers--he doesn't want to face nicotine withdrawal during bad times. A survivalist, and he still smokes? "Hey, we're not perfect!"

Some people play at being survivalists. It's an intellectual game, fueled by purchases from glossy catalogs put out by pricey firms like Quartermaster, which sells British paratroop smocks for $99.50, table cigarette lighters disguised as miniature M-16 rifles, and every variety of bomber jacket conceivable at fancy markups. To Joe, however, survival is just common sense--sense that has already paid off on several occasions. "I've used my stored water twice in four years," he says. "The first time, the pipes broke in a cold spell. Then last summer the water pressure in my building was so low, we couldn't get any water out of the faucets. I've used my kerosene lanterns for blackouts. And the food is a hedge against inflation. I use it in rotation [with other food]. And it's worth it to have it, because it's saved me trips to the store."

He's tired of being accused of "buying into the arms race" and being told that preparedness makes him a warmonger. "Survivalism causes wars like fire extinguishers cause fires, like lifeboats cause shipwrecks," he says. "I'm more than happy to address any rational criticisms of wanting to stay alive."

Everyone seems to jump on the survivalists. Awake! excoriated them in a cover story: Jehovah's Witnesses feel it's better to let God look out for us. But the Live Free people think that the mainstream press are wearing the biggest cleats. And if survivalists are afraid that all reporters, and their editors, are just out for a sensational story, replete with misquotes and misrepresentations, they have some reason. Television's "entertainment news" has been particularly unkind.

It's been hard to put a name to the media bogeyman, but that changed with the 1987 book Armed and Dangerous: The Rise of the Survival Right. Now the members of Live Free have someone to loathe: its author, Chicago Tribune western-states reporter James Coates.

"It's a vicious attack," says Planck, his voice rising, "and very damaging. It's the stereotype of the camo man carrying a Bible, terrorizing blacks in Arkansas. Coates leaves out facts: the racialists are a tiny group, but there have to be several hundred thousand people who regard themselves as survivalists to support the number of businesses that depend on them.

"I don't know why some kind of elite have decided that we are such a threat that they have to attack us. We're nice people, and we don't like this small cadre that's being portrayed as survivalists. Look, they don't have food stockpiles, they don't pay a mortgage so they can own a home. They're not really survivalists--we find that what they're doing is more likely to put them in jail."

"Armed and Dangerous is about the most savage piece of crap I've ever seen," says Joe. He bought his copy at a used bookstore, he says, "so I wouldn't be putting any money into the author's pocket. He's written a book about extremist politics that omits extremist groups like the Jewish Defense League, and the extremist black groups--he's made extremism out to be something practiced only by armed, white, Bible-thumping rednecks. He's tarred all survivalists with the same brush. All this crap about the Book of Revelation"--Coates writes extensively about the religious survivalists' attention to the Bible. "I do believe in God," Joe says. "I don't believe in any particular organized religion."

Joe feels that Armed and Dangerous began what he calls "the mass-media attack" on survivalism in the last few years. "Then there was Betrayed, a movie about white supremacists. Then there was Talk Radio. There was a Hill Street Blues episode, where the cops were called to some dingy little apartment building, with a character identified as a survivalist. He was an absolutely raving, babbling maniac, who has steel plate screwed to the walls of his apartment and bandoliers across his chest. And he's gone one step further than anyone I've ever met: he's storing bottles of his own semen in his own freezer to start a new race after Armageddon!"

Joe also cites Miami Vice, Midnight Caller, and Pink Cadillac as being antisurvivalist, "viciously antigun," or both. These portrayals, he says, have "nothing to do with survivalism. But the public image--it's evidently in someone's self-interest to show anyone interested in self-preservation as some kind of maniac."

In Armed and Dangerous, Coates tries to establish the point at which mere survivalism becomes the "Survival Right":

"Until [Denver talk-show host Alan] Berg's [1984 murder] the phenomenon of Survivalism largely appeared to be the province of widely scattered individuals who spent far too much of their hard-earned money buying freeze-dried food and military equipment to store under their beds until that long-dreaded day when the Russians finally come. Men's magazines have long been peppered with ads for hunting knives painted in camouflage colors with hollowed handles where one can store waterproof matches, a bit of fishing line and a few hooks in preparation for the day survival depends upon living by one's wits off the land. Indeed, learning self-confidence in the wilderness is considered a noble goal, a character-building pursuit for healthy young prep school Episcopalians in walking shorts and boots from L.L. Bean.

"Could somebody who went one step further and stockpiled a couple of deer rifles be all that different?

"Yes. Different and very dangerous. . . .

"All Americans, of course, must deal with that unrelenting curse of late-twentieth-century life--the prospect of standing by impotently as leaders in Washington and Moscow haplessly or by design plunge the world into a thermonuclear holocaust. Coping with this underlying terror of current life takes many forms. Some find solace in religion. Others work in political movements. Many find relief in alcohol, Valium or other chemical solutions to anxiety. Most just choose not to dwell on the nasty subject.

"The Survival Right, on the other hand, has developed a very different strategy for coping with the specter of Armageddon. Instead of worrying about how to prevent the coming holocaust, these Survivalists have devoted their energy to planning how to prosper by it. . . . The Survival Right really did learn how to stop worrying and to love the bomb."

Coates is writing chiefly about several minuscule packs of right-wing religious nuts who can all be categorized as Identity Christians. They believe that Anglo Saxons are the true Jews, and therefore the true Chosen People, and that those called Jews today are the descendents of Turkish Khazars. But he lumps in all survivalists with the marginal fundie-thumpers he describes, the ones who've mostly put a religious spin on the old bare-faced racism of the Klan. In Coates's book, anyone who's stashed away some canned food, bottled water, extra toilet paper, and a shotgun is a borderline loony.

Planck and Joe say that the only direct reference to Live Free in Armed and Dangerous is incorrect: Coates says that the group "boasts a thirty-nine-acre survivalist center near Baraboo, Wisconsin." They say a few members did buy some (now practically suburban) land on their own, but it's by no means a "center" or anything approaching it. And they complain that Coates didn't talk to them. He replies that they didn't respond to his queries.

"They don't like what I wrote," says Coates. "I got a letter of complaint--that I made them look like right-wing loonies, and they're not. I say, 'Oh, yeah? You are, too!' A key theme in my book is this: when you choose to cope with that specter by moving toward a survivalist path, you are taking the first step down the primrose path toward the loonies." He is particularly critical of anyone keeping guns.

But when Joe's use of stored water is pointed out, Coates softens: "I'd be pretty lame if I said there was anything wrong with having water. It's a matter of obsession. Live Free is in the 'small s' camp. But it's much more rational, frankly, to be a survivalist in Laramie, Wyoming, than in Harvey, Illinois--it's 50 miles from an MX missile field. If you were in Laramie and saw what was happening, you could get into your car and drive two hours and you could be out of the reach of any real radiation. Try that in Harvey, Illinois, and you'll be tied up on the Dan Ryan, right?

"You start out with ten cans of Campbell soup, a shotgun, and some water, and then you start thinking, 'Well, this isn't enough.'" Obsession begins, Coates says: you start reading survivalist literature and adding more and more to a horde of food and equipment. "You get into the whole nexus that brought us Robert DePugh and the Minutemen [extreme right-wingers]. You get plugged into a network, and once you start, you're on your way"--toward formal loonydom in Coates's opinion.

Coates lumps some diverse groups together in what he calls the Survival Right. He includes, for example, the followers of former Trotskyite Lyndon LaRouche. When it is pointed out to him that Sheila Jones is black, and that the famed LaRouche "Democrat" candidate, Janice Hart, is Jewish, he doesn't budge: "A number of the followers of [American Nazi leader] George Lincoln Rockwell were Jews. Any Jew who reads Lyndon LaRouche's sermons, monographs, and newspapers and can't see anti-Semitism is myopic. His inner circle has many Klansmen. I bet you could probably find a fair number of white people who would like to support Farrakhan, for whatever reason."

On the other hand, Coates excludes Mormons. The members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, who have grown from a tiny cult, the 19th-century equivalent of the Moonies, into the largest neo-Christian religion in this country, have historically believed that they are the true "chosen people," just as the Identity Christians do. They also require that every family keep on hand a year's supply of food, water, medicine, and clothing. "They have 72-hour kits--the stuff you'd need in any emergency--food, first-aid kits. The women's sewing clubs make them, one for each member of the family," says Coates, who's now working on a book on the powerful group. But they differ from the Survival Right, Coates believes, because survivalism is only one facet of their religion. "It's a whole lot different," he says, "than when your whole life revolves around it."

Coates says reflectively that Live Free "didn't get as good a treatment in my book as maybe they should have." But, he insists, "once you start with survivalism, you're on your way."

"I swear to you upon whatever religious documentation you care to acquire that I have never met a white supremacist [in Live Free]," says Planck. "There is some sexism--but no anti-Semitism, and we've had some black members. One of my personal goals is to build up a more representative Chicago-area membership--it's one of the things Dial-A-Survivalist is designed to do. It's like a gene pool--you want as many different members as possible for a strong organization. And we are not political."

"We're trying to get away from survivalism being an asshole buddies' backpacking and beer-drinking type of thing," adds Joe. "There are a lot of families involved--that's what works best, when everyone in the family has some idea what's going on. The kind of situation to avoid is where the men are sitting in the basement talking about guns, and the women are upstairs complaining about the men."

Ken Seger, 38, has been a member of Live Free for over five years; he's now their state coordinator in Missouri. A former record importer and stereo-equipment salesman, currently he's a self-described "housespouse." He takes care of the three Seger children, ages 9, 5, and 4, while his wife, a physician, supports the family.

Is there a religious basis for his survivalism? Seger laughs dryly and replies, "My religious views are very similar to Ayn Rand's--I'm an atheist. One thing about Live Free I do like is that they go out of their way to discourage talk about religion."

Seger grew up in Omaha, home of the Strategic Air Command, and was very aware of the possibility of nuclear attack. Today he lives in eastern Missouri near one of the continent's nastiest fault lines, long overdue for a killer quake. "If you're ready for nuclear war," he says, "when the New Madrid fault goes, you'll be ready for that, too."

Seger is the sysop--system operator--for Live Free's bulletin-board service. It's a big job, and a labor of love: he bears all the cost of the expensive components involved--a computer, software, modem, and dedicated telephone line. And he does all the work, clearing out dead files once a month, selecting and sometimes writing the files offered, and "validating" users. "I call," he says, "and make sure it's not a prankster."

The bulletin-board service is free, but to get into certain files, a caller has to pass a brief survival test. Those who fail are advised on what they should read to get a passing grade. "Basically, I just want people to become a little better educated about what survivalism is all about," says Seger.

Some of the articles are taken from other bulletin-board services. The American Civil Defense Association, a private organization, has given Seger permission to transcribe articles from American Civil Defense. Other items include book reviews, general survival information, and even information on AIDS. Want ads are also run. There's a lot of emphasis on nutrition, because of the survivalist emphasis on food storage. Survivalists are also interested in economics and politics, power sources, and Second Amendment questions--on the right to bear arms. "I try to cover all the bases," Seger says.

Seger points out that you can buy a year's supply of prepackaged food, which can be stored indefinitely, for $195. "I am prepared for whatever happens to come along," he says. "A snowstorm that knocks out the power for three or four days can really cause hardships. So can strikes. If there's a big savings and loan disaster and you can't get money out of the bank, if you have food and supplies stored, it's probably no longer a problem. It makes living life much easier--it smooths out the little rough spots. If there's a big rough spot, it might mean the difference between life and death.

"I'm responsible for my children until they reach their majority. If the government fails, that does not absolve me of my responsibility."

When a fire at the Hinsdale switching center a year or so ago knocked out telephone service for much of the Chicago area, Live Free members made emergency communications between doctors and hospitals possible: they used their CBs and ham radios.

"The bottom line here is information," says "Bill," the ham-radio operator with a general-class license who was largely responsible for that effort. "We have attempted to put together a net of people interested in survivalism. Preparedness is a key thing here--to get the equipment that would function in a power-outage situation, the kind that would run on a car battery, for instance."

Bill is 57, the father of three, lives in Du Page County, and works in an office. Of all the survivalists I interviewed, he was the only fundamentalist Christian--"But not to the extreme!" he says. "I saw what was going on in the world, how thin our life as we know it is," he says, "and I also saw that the philosophy of 'it can't happen here' wasn't true. You need mental and spiritual preparation as well as physical. We have been very fortunate in this country so far.

"Survivalism is some degree of recognition that your life might not always be what it is today. I'm not looking forward to it, I hope I'm wrong--I'm not one of these people who prepares and hopes to be vindicated! But those who say, 'The government will take care of me'--when the boom is lowered, they'll be high and dry. Then it will be, 'Help me, help me!'" He compares the situation to the parable of the wise and foolish virgins in the Bible: the wise virgins have their lamps trimmed and ready for their bridegrooms, while the foolish ones sleep. Bill says, "You have to be ready."

Some might wonder why individuals should concern themselves with disaster preparedness. Doesn't the government have programs to take care of such situations?

If you lived in the Soviet Union, China, Switzerland, Sweden, or Norway, the answer would be yes. Swiss preparations are often high-tech, state-of-the-art--tunnels dug into mountains, big enough to hold entire aircraft, shelters with food, blankets, and medical supplies built under every school. A Swiss citizen army, which requires annual service from every able-bodied man from late adolescence to retirement age, puts a semiautomatic weapon in virtually every household. (Despite the extensive distribution of firearms, the Swiss have a very low homicide rate.) Then there are the low-tech preparations of the Chinese, consisting largely of a tunnel system with entrances in every block in every city and extending 20 miles into the countryside. Per Chairman Mao's original orders, it contains large stores of grain. The Soviets have shelters for almost their entire population.

The Chinese and Soviet preparations are aimed primarily at the threat of nuclear war, which their governments obviously consider survivable. The Swiss have also considered the possibility of an invasion of their small but rugged, mountainous country, and are ready for most natural disasters as well.

Since the brief flurry of fallout-shelter building in the Kennedy era, this country has let things slide. "Most of our civil-defense preparation has degenerated," Joe says. "It's all paper. There's no longer any active civil defense in Chicago at all.

"One justification for the interstate highway system--which was originally built for the military--was that fallout shelters were to be built under the entrance and exit ramps. We don't have any more shelters, we don't have any more food supply. The current government policy is crisis relocation and generating paper. But I don't think standing in a frozen cornfield in your Reeboks with a little overnight bag will cut it."

If you go by the blue pages of the Chicago telephone book, there is no more civil defense. And trying to get through to the Federal Information Center to learn what they're calling it these days can be an afternoon's project. When I finally reached the pleasant lady at the FIC, I found it's now called "emergency preparedness," and a variety of other things. It's being handled by a patchwork of federal, state, county, and local agencies. She was unable to come up with a phone number for a Cook County emergency-preparedness office, although the existence of one is mandated by law. The best she could offer was an office in Du Page.

Larry Bailey, who's chief of the national preparedness branch of FEMA, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, says he "wouldn't want to touch" a comparison of American civil-defense programs with those of other countries. "They do seem to put more of their per-capita money," he says, "toward civil-defense programs.

"I think, sure, we should put more of our priorities and dollars into the civil-defense program. But thinking about nuclear attack has over the years kind of been delegated to not as high a priority as some of our other hazardous programs."

FEMA, he says, "is principally concerned with the continuity of the federal government" in the event of a major disaster. Other agencies look after other aspects. "The agencies are in varied states of readiness," he says.

I got the number of the Illinois Emergency Services and Disaster Agency from the pleasant FIC lady--it does not rate any kind of listing in the telephone book. Jerry Grubman, the coordinator for region three, which includes Chicago, says, "We're geared today toward more natural and man-made disasters [not war]. We deal with local governments to develop plans. If communities meet federal guidelines, they're eligible for federal reimbursement."

The agency addresses several questions, including the crucial issue of who is in charge: "Nine times out of ten," says Grubman, "the mayor is out of town when disaster strikes." They also work out issues of money, equipment ("everything from backhoes and body bags to trucks and disposable diapers"), and mutual-aid agreements between towns. "We're very involved with nuclear-power plants in Illinois," says Grubman. "We can respond to provide protection and evacuation around power plants if needed." They also work with the Red Cross. Given what Grubman says, the first line of defense for the state seems to be relocation of the population in affected areas.

Grubman feels the system "is in real good shape . . . it's really become sophisticated." She cites quick notice of power-plant leaks and other problems, like flooding.

"Public education is part of local government's job, through the newspapers and schools," says Grubman. "I think public awareness is greater now because of [1988's] floods. Some nursing homes that refused to evacuate, because they thought the local police department or fire department would come in and take care of things, learned a major lesson. Sometimes it takes a major tragedy to make these people do what they are not required by law to do." She would like to see more laws to enforce cooperation.

She would also like to see some semblance of emergency preparedness in individual households. "Individuals should have a flashlight with fresh batteries, a radio, water, canned foods--we're not talking about war, but other things happen."

Francis Moriarty, the deputy coordinator of the city's Emergency Preparedness and Disaster Services, says that, although things have been pretty dismal on the local civil-defense front in recent years, he and his people are working hard to change that. "We are making all the preparations we can, based on the resources available to us," he says. "We're trying to increase the resources for every contingency." Chicago's current administration is taking civil defense more seriously than the last one did, and Moriarty says big changes are coming in the next year: "We've been doing an extensive amount of planning. That includes extensive use of every agency in city government.

"There are still shelters--lots of them! There are signs posted outside these places--every subway opening, every public building. There are some other [private] buildings dedicated as shelters as well, but they're not as readily available." Despite Moriarty's assurances when I wrote--twice--for permission to view a shelter, I received no response. The first request was nearly two months ago.

The shelters usually have some supplies, but Moriarty's agency is in the process of replacing everything from food to radiation meters. "You wouldn't eat a biscuit that's ten years old," he says, "and some of that stuff was. We're taking inventory."

Moriarty sees some danger on the international scene. "The attack problem still remains the same--glasnost or not, it's still the same. Police, fire, water, sanitation, those all go into our planning; our department does what it can with our own preparations. The important thing is the stability of the government after such an event. If the mechanics are in place, we'll be able to survive the attack."

He rates public awareness of civil defense as "very low." And he agrees that people "wouldn't have much chance if they relied on the government" alone. "I see nothing wrong with survivalism--it could help assure the survival of our population. More people should be aware. It's what any human being should want to do, to survive. It speaks well of an individual's forethought. But you cannot convince the majority of the public to go and do it. Sometimes that form of public education falls on deaf ears.

"We are making all the preparations we can, based on the resources available to us. We're trying to increase our resources for every contingency. In a realistic sense, because of the type of government [the Soviets and Chinese] have--military--they have more control than in a free democratic society. The Swiss have a high standard of living, and they devote more money to civil defense. In this country, Congress won't pay for it, and the locals can't. We're just trying to put this house in order."

A ten-page Live Free survival checklist offers an opportunity to size up your own survival assets. Page one is for vehicles; page two focuses on communication, from CB radios to field phones; and page three is on light and power, on assorted lanterns and flashlights. Page four is devoted to food. Page five details camping equipment, and page six is field equipment.

"NBC"--signifying "nuclear, biological, chemical"--is the cryptic heading of page seven, which lists meters to measure radiation and the like. Page eight is completely filled with items relating to rifles, from type and cleaning kit to slings, bayonets, and "bandoleers." Page nine is devoted exclusively to pistols. And page ten, to ammo.

Sierra Supply, located in Durango, Colorado, specializes in Army-surplus items. It offers M-1 Garand accessories ("Original G.I. equipment, new unless noted"), including slings for $3, plastic muzzle covers ("Korean War Issue, mint condition, very rare") for $2 each, or three for $4.75, and round loaders for 50 cents. GI "boonie hats," for $10, have five patterns from which to choose. Inert grenades, in two varieties, are $5 each, and Israeli gas masks with filters are $7.95 each or two for $15. There are books on every aspect of warfare and an entire page of "social statements" in sticker form. Some of the stickers are tasteless but somewhat humorous--"Sometimes you are the dog--sometimes you are the hydrant," "Warning: my guard dog has AIDS." Some are vaguely hostile--"Iran sucks." Others are belligerent and downright scary: "Warning! Is there life after death? Trespass here and find out," "Expect no mercy."

Indiana Camp Supply Inc. offers everything from official Boy Scouts of America supplies to soulful wilderness posters and Cordura backpacks. Clearly, with its assorted tents and books like Introduction to Duck Calling, it's useful to plain, ordinary hunters and campers as well as survivalists. But few campers or hunters require professional-quality medical instruments or first-aid packs as elaborate as those sold here.

SI Outdoor Food & Equipment, though it counts sportsmen among its clientele, is pretty straightforwardly devoted to survivalists. The catalog, which is studded with folksy commentary and information from its owner, offers among other things a year's supply, for one adult, of freeze- and air-dried food, including some real meat--not textured vegetable protein, or TVP, which monopolizes the protein franchise in cheaper units. The cost is $450, freight collect, or $1,195 for three. You can supplement it with cans of other meats, grains, granola, scrambled-egg mix, and even Neapolitan ice cream. Also to be found are deluxe security cabinets and used Italian army rucksacks. And of course there's a vast array of books on every topic from wilderness camping to changing one's identity. Dozens of other such firms may be found among the advertisers in American Survival Guide.

"There are some people that you do not talk about the subject of staying alive with at all," says a Live Free member who insists on total anonymity. "I mentioned to one friend that I'd put in a dead lock and a burglar alarm, and he said, 'You have turned your home into an armed camp!' Another one told me, 'If anything happens, I'll come over to your house.' Well, 90 percent of your survival supplies are available at Dominick's, Walgreen's, and Sportmart. This is someone who will spend thousands on stereo equipment and thousands on designer leather furniture, but he's unwilling to spend a cent on survival.

"With a third friend, I mentioned civil defense--and he put down his coffee cup and said, 'You're assuming that something is going to happen.' There's just a mental block against it."

He feels that, in the event of a disaster, he'd have some help to offer others, but adds, "I'd rather spend time helping one person that cares enough to do something on his own than someone who could do something but won't.

"There's a lot of denial, fear, and lack of understanding. There was an article in one of the women's magazines on surviving a chemical accident. It had some good ideas--if you live near a factory, be aware which way the wind blows, and if there's an accident, put a wet towel over your face and get the hell out of there. I can't argue with that, but it's better to spend $6 to $10 on an Israeli gas mask and have time to grab the cat or whatever on your way out."

"There's a lot of adverse publicity against this type of preparation," says Bill, the ham-radio operator. "The news media like to focus on the paramilitary, but if I were to sum it up, I'd call it just safer living. It's recognizing what could happen and taking steps.

"I try not to get too paranoid--I just take comfort in knowing I've taken steps to do something about it."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/John Sundlof.


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