The sardine and apple course complete, Dad served dessert: the last of this year’s Girl Scout cookies. Sitting there later, sipping wine with Dad—on what I still thought of as the “new” sofa, which was now nearly twenty years old, but Mom and Dad had bought it when I was in high school, so it was forever new to me—I began to relax for the first time since... well, I don’t know when. A very long time.
I relaxed enough to ask Dad to tell me what life was like these days in his little corner of Mira Mesa. After a second glass of wine, he relaxed enough to tell me.
“One day at a time,” he said, then shook his head. “Ye gods, that sounds stupid. ‘One day at a time.’ Honestly, I’ve always thought that was an inane expression. Right up there with ‘There are no stupid questions,’ and ‘Things to do before you die.’”
I chuckled. “Exactly. When else are you going to do them?”
“Right! But these past few weeks I’ve come to understand ‘one day at a time’ can mean something after all. More than just attitude, too, when your very survival is at stake. So, at the end of Day One I was still alive when I finally got some sleep. Somewhat to my surprise, I was still alive when I woke up the next morning, too. So I assessed; I reconnoitered; I gathered assets. I survived; I am surviving. One day at a time.”
“Tell me about Day One.”
“Are you kidding me? Who knows more about that than you?”
I shook my head. “No, I—I’m afraid that this ‘Chosen’ business gets in the way of… of understanding what it’s really like. Out here in the so-called ‘real world.’ It’s like I can’t see the trees for the forest.”
“Ha. I always appreciate a fresh approach to a tired cliché.”
I love my dad. “‘It is extempore, from my mother wit,’” I quoted.
“Petruchio; The Taming of the Shrew. Very good.”
“One day I’ll come up with one you don’t know.”
“That’ll be the day.”
“Buddy Holly,” I said. “Song of the same name.”
“Amateur. John Wayne; The Searchers. Buddy Holly got it from him.”
We could have kept this up all night, and Dad would probably have liked to do just that. Dad once joked that if he were to write an autobiography, he’d call it But I Digress. I held up my hands. “I give up.” I poured myself another splash of wine; filled his glass up. I realized that it was important to me to get his perspective on the End of the World. “Go ahead, Dad. Talk to me.”
He took a sip of wine, put the glass down, stood up and stepped over to the fireplace. He opened the screen and pulled the poker from its stand. The fire was crackling along nicely, and didn’t need any tending, but I knew this was Dad’s way gathering his thoughts. “You remember Mrs. Randolph?”
“Well, for the last few months we’ve had this unspoken little thing going across the street. Once or twice a week I just happen to be sitting out on the front porch when she just happens to be out tending her garden. I give her a little wave; she gives me a little smile back. You could see her dimples clear across the street.”
“I remember. Pretty lady.”
“Anyway. Day One. Boom.”
How’s that for understatement? He took a deep breath and let it out in a long, quiet sigh.
“I passed out on the front porch swing. When I came to, I looked across… She’d collapsed; was lying flat on her back in the bromeliads. I couldn’t hear anything at first except my own blood pounding in my head, but the neighborhood was probably quiet anyway. Part of what made this goofy flirting across the street so nice was that most of the time we seemed to have the whole block to ourselves… I ran over to her. She was still holding the hose; the water was arcing right over the sidewalk.” Dad poked the fire again. “Her eyes were wide open. She looked like she’d just heard the most surprising thing. There was a tiny bright red bead of blood just under her nose. She…”
I couldn’t bear it. “I know, Dad. I’m sorry. Look, we don’t have to talk about this.”
Dad sighed. “Maybe not, but I think I want to, in a way. Someone else to remember her. Her name was Rose. She was a few years younger than I…” He went on, telling me everything he knew about her, which in the grand scheme of things wasn’t really all that much. I’m afraid I wasn’t listening as well as I should have been, because I found myself thinking of Heather Jenkins, dead on the pavement in front of the Diamond Horseshoe. She had great dimples, too. When Dad said, “I wish I’d had the chance to know her better,” I could honestly say I knew what he meant.
The rest of Dad’s Day One was not too different from what I had heard many times over from survivors in quiet communities all around the world. Of the ninety or so folks in the immediate neighborhood, fourteen had died outright, including one stranger behind the wheel of a UPS truck that went on to crash into the Binkowski’s living room. In this neighborhood, the “Angel in the Sky” was a bit distant, appearing some miles to the southwest, over the ocean facing San Diego proper. Still, there were many deeply affected by it, and by mid-afternoon Ernie Bagayan, patriarch of a large Filipino family that occupied two neighboring houses at the far end of the block, was leading about half his clan down Calle Cristobal towards Interstate 5 to head south toward the Angel. So far, they had not returned.
But in that first hour or so after the Trumps, there was a lot of barely-contained panic. As the shock began to wear off, tempers flared, and it was obvious to Dad that someone needed to step up and take charge. As one might expect from an area so full of retired military men, there were several volunteers for the job.
George Hanson, who lived next door to Mrs. Randolph, was the loudest of the bunch. He was also short-tempered, prone to grudges, and as Dad put it bluntly, quoting Aunt Dede, “Dumb as a bucket of hair.” After dodging or indirectly countermanding Hanson’s decisions two or three times, Dad read the looks on his other neighbors’ faces and finally confronted Hanson when he issued a particularly thoughtless edict about taking possession of the houses of the deceased.
“Hold on, Chief,” he’d said, deliberately bringing up Hanson’s Navy rank. “You don’t have that kind of authority.”
Predictably, Hanson reacted badly. “Yeah? Screw you, Kristopolous. Somebody has to—”
Dad could go full-on military in a heartbeat: “That’s Commander Kristopolous, Mister. Absent orders to the contrary, or sufficient civilian authority to override, I’ll be that somebody, starting right now.” The other men gathered nearby quickly backed him up, and Hanson, outranked by a dozen grades or so, had to step aside.
Still, Dad is more Professor than military leader, and he took charge accordingly, asking for ideas and opinions from the others, nudging them when necessary in the right direction, making sure everyone—including Hanson—was involved. A few days later, Hanson organized an ad-hoc election to choose a neighborhood leader in a bid to create Dad’s “sufficient civilian authority.” He called the job “ombudsman,” by which he really meant “boss.” Mr. Hanson was too thickheaded to realize that Dad would have won such an election handily, had he been interested. Instead, Dad declined to run, and nominated and endorsed Mrs. Walker from down the street, who was the principal of the grade school a few blocks away. She was a great choice; a no-nonsense educator with a dry sense of humor that everyone respected. The “election” was held in Hanson’s driveway by show of hands. Hanson got three votes, counting his own. Dad was pretty sure the other two owed him money.
Before that, though, on Day Two, Dad surprised everyone by organizing a raid of sorts on the 7-Eleven around the corner. After sundown the evening before, Dad and a couple of others had reconnoitered and found that the store had apparently been left alone all day—probably at least partly thanks to the large dead body that was lying right across the doorway. Dad planned to make body disposal a priority the next day, but survival came first. This was the only cache of supplies within his neighborhood, and it was likely that the block behind it thought of it as theirs, too.
Hanson and some of the more aggressive types were all for sweeping in and ransacking the place, but Dad had other plans. If Mira Mesa was going to avoid becoming a street-by-street gangland, they needed to establish a higher order of “law.” So Dad led an armed militia in commandeering the 7-Eleven, and ultimately set it up as a sort of trading post. He found a volunteer to act as Quartermaster, began to establish a barter system, and stretched the ice supply to keep food viable for as long as possible. There were some tense moments facing other armed groups that had intended to take the place for themselves, but superior organization and diplomacy prevailed, and no blood was spilled.
The Binkowskis volunteered their house, severely damaged by the UPS truck, as a temporary morgue. Before night fell that second day, they had to add two more: Tim Hollis, a big, outgoing guy about two or three years older than me, went out into his backyard and blew his brains out, and Mrs. Hendrickson, a sweet old grandmother right out of Central Casting, sat back in her easy chair and took every pill in her medicine cabinet. Dad waited for someone else to suggest it, but it seemed obvious to him that they should go ahead and use the Binkowski house as a crematorium. (This was common all over the world; with so many corpses and no power equipment or ready means of transportation, it was the most sensible—and sanitary—way to deal with the problem. Runaway fires were also a common subsequent problem, but Dad made sure every effort was made to control the burn.)
One day at a time. Of course, the afternoon of Day Three, the TVs and radios all came on at once. There was a great deal of boisterous celebration that the power had returned, but that was of course mistaken. Once everybody settled down and saw the Angel towering over Washington and heard the invitation to gather for news in an hour, the speculation began, and Dad heard people say out loud all the weird theories they had been nursing for the past few days. He could only shake his head.
Then came the first appearance of “the Chosen” and the Dog & Pony show that followed. If anyone recognized me, they said nothing to Dad. Even Dad wouldn’t have been certain based on my appearance, but of course he knew my voice.
It seemed no one slept that night. I was due back on the air at four a.m. here in California, and everyone was far too keyed up to sleep. People made little campfires on their front lawns, and anyone that was so inclined could wander from one to another, auditing the various conversations. Dad was so inclined. He heard a lot, but said nothing. He was still reeling from seeing his son introduce Angels to the world.
Then came my appearance the next morning, and the President’s Last Stand. Dad had withdrawn to the house to watch it alone. The “broadcast” had stayed “live” through the moment Colonel Hatfield stepped up; then the screen went blank. A few hours later, the whole thing ran again.
Everyone in the neighborhood who knew me at all recognized me this time. By the time the sun was up, nearly all of them had gathered in the front yard, but Dad felt they were more curious than confrontational. Dad wound up leading this impromptu town hall meeting as if it were the discussion period following a particularly controversial lecture. Of course, he was as ignorant of the current circumstances as any of them, but that was no real impediment; Dad often claimed that he could hold forth on any subject for at least fifteen minutes, even if he knew nothing about it.
Opinions on the current state of the world were all over the map, and opinions on why the Professor’s nobody of a son was their “Chosen” human interlocutor ranged from ridiculous to incomprehensible. Some wondered out loud if the entire event might not be some mass hallucination; perhaps people in other communities saw a “Chosen” only they could recognize. Dad admitted that that seemed as likely as a scenario as any; lacking more data, how could they know? It all amounted to an opportunity to vent and even bond a little, and if there was new resentment focused on Dad for the crime of being my father, it simmered under the surface for the time being.
A few days later, Barney arrived. Although clearly not a hunting dog by bloodline, Dad took him along on his first foray into the canyon immediately north of the neighborhood. It was just Dad and two other guys, along with Barney. It almost ended very badly.
The canyons had been a sanctuary for homeless and illegals for years. Every so often the sheriff or the INS (or both) would make some effort to clean these camps and shantytowns out, but they always re-formed the minute law enforcement moved on. It had been a while since the last such effort, and the denizens of these rugged little arroyos considered themselves masters of their own domain even before the Trumps sounded. And they were more conversant with current affairs than might have been suspected, since there were TVs scattered throughout these camps, and as long as they had screens and speakers, they worked as well as any when the Angels put on their show.
When Dad’s little hunting party bagged a couple of rabbits, the gunfire attracted about a half-dozen guys from a nearby camp. Fortunately, one of Dad’s companions spoke fluent Spanish (as opposed to Dad’s self-taught “Spanglish”), and they were able to “reach an accord,” as Dad put it. The terms were simple: you can keep one of your rabbits, and stay the hell out of our canyon. Dad thought this was entirely reasonable.
Over the next couple of weeks, this primitive way of life started becoming the new normal. When trains started rolling with supply runs, caravans crawled down from the mesa to the nearest railhead a couple of miles to the west. Hauling supplies back up was hard work, but it also gave the able-bodied something to do, so Dad figured it was worth it on that count alone.
There were other minor adventures to recount, but as the evening wore on, I missed some of the details. The last story I remember was about Gareth’s arrival. Barney started barking his head off one evening, and when Dad went out to investigate, he heard a distinctive “Whoosh!” from overhead—a hot-air balloon was hovering right over the street.
It was Gareth. He had ridden the roof of a box car down from LA, and borrowed the balloon from a contact in Del Mar. Dad didn’t tell me this, but Gareth probably dropped APAFA pamphlets all the way up to Escondido before making his unerring way to our old front yard. Like some Oz version of Santa Claus, he brought a big sack full of presents for the whole neighborhood: candy bars, bottles of wine, an entire case of little jack-knives, you name it; all stuffed in a huge grain sack, and all appreciated by the crowd gathered round.
Now why hadn’t I thought of that?