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Over Easy: Alas Babylon

Alas Babylon – Chris Drumm flickr creative commons

Alas Babylon by Pat Frank is a novel that takes place in the fictional town of Fort Repose that sits on the equally fictional Timucuan River in central Florida which empties into the St. Johns River. Based upon the real town of Mt. Dora all in the late 1950s.

The book concerns a nuclear war with the Soviet Union but mostly about how the the characters survived the aftermath confronting the various disasters and crisis that follow. Franks setting for this is almost ideal as it appears to be far enough away from any major target and located such that it receives little fall out and on a fairly unpolluted tributary of the St. Johns river. All of which I can tell you is very unlikely as most Central Florida waterways are NOT something one would want to bathe in let alone drink water from. Once you get even a slight ways down stream from the head waters – usually a major spring – the water gets dark and brackish and these days pretty polluted from run off etc.

The main character is Randy Bragg, a lawyer who does not practice law but lives off the the proceeds of the citrus groves his ancestors planted years ago.  In the big old stately house of this grandfather’s and father’s on River Road, even having access to an artisan spring. The house is also half his older brother Mark’s but Mark lives in Omaha NE and is a Colonel in the Air-force – SAC intelligence.

The story begins with Randy receiving a telegram from Mark that he is send his wife and kids down to live in Fort Repose and the Randy is to meet with Mark that day at noon at McCoy AFB just south of Orlando. It ends with Alas Babylon. A code word between them for a major disaster.

So if I see it’s coming, and there is time, I’ll send Helen and the kids down here. And I’ll try to give you a warning, so you can get set for it.”
“How?”
Mark smiled. “I won’t call you up and say, `Hey, Randy, the Russians are about to attack us.’ Phones aren’t secure, and I don’t think my C-in-C, or the Air Staff, would approve. But if you hear `Alas, Babylon,’ you’ll know that’s it.”

When Randy arrives at McCoy he is first met by Paul Hart who he met on one of Marks visits and then by Mark after Mark arrives. They talk in Randy’s car and Mark fills him in on the situation. That Mark has learned the Russian battle plan from a Russian General that defected. [Also unlikely]. Here is where the cold war propaganda gets really thick. With vastly over estimated Soviet Union nuclear capability and vastly under estimated US capability. And that the Kremlin was fixated on the US and winning a war with us. We have learned since – and I strongly suspect that the intelligence community knew this – that the US was not a major concern but that Germany and Europe was. Anyone who knew anything about the political situation during and after WWII would guess this.  And that a situation in the Middle East is where all this drama is to take place. That Frank had little use for Miami “Miami’s entertainment was usually in bad taste.”

Randy returns home and gets ready for Mark’s wife and children – Helen, Ben Franklin and Peyton.   Ben Franklin being 13 and Peyton 11. Just before he is to pick up his sister in-law and her kids he hears on the radio of an incident in the Middle East that would become the cases belli, excuse to launch an attack. [Not likely as well].

They no sooner get home an in bed then the attack comes and they are woken up from their slumber by the attack on Miami and Homestead AFB. Which introduces us to the first of many crisis. This where this site begins to take issue with the books premise and story line. However I tend to disagree with it on a number of points. For one thing I would say there were relatively few problems with tourists fleeing the destruction. For a town or area in that part of Florida, this would not be unusual. There were no interstate highways or even a  minor, let alone major, tourist destination there at that time. No Disney or theme parks or anything. Orlando, the biggest close by burg was only slightly larger than Chardon Ohio here.

The Orlando Airport had no Jet capability, that would come much later when the Jet Port – now on what was McCoy AFB – would be built.  That whole area only barely qualified as any kind of target. In the book neither Patrick AFB or Canaveral are hit. But neither amounted to much until the space program got off the ground.  Orlando, Tampa [McDill AFB], Miami and Jacksonville get hit. When Orlando gets hit the electricity goes.

This is where the first crisis occurs. When the little girl – Peyton – gets temporarily blinded by the flash from Tampa.  And they follow on from there. With three cases of radiation poisoning and  a fire in the Big Wooden Hotel. The town clinic hit by drug addicts and on and on.  I do have to admit that Frank paints a relatively optimistic view of  the situation but does bring up some points that you do not consider. Like what happens when the fish don’t bite in the river. Or when you run out of salt. With unbelievably lucky solutions to both. Like one of the best fishing guides around in “Preacher” Henry and that the headwaters of the river just happen to end at a natural out cropping of salt.  [Salt Springs ? Pretty far north.] And how they keep the Admiral’s radio running with batteries from the cars. Possible for some of the old WWII Military sets. A number of them used Dynamotors for  their power.  Admiral Hazard being retired from the military and having served in the ONI would have had access to something like that and Malachai Henry – Preacher Henry’s son, having been a mechanic during the Korean War, would know how to hook it up.

Toward the end they learn that the government is now in Denver CO. and that they live in the largest clear area in Florida – where all of the state had been designated a contaminate zone.

Interestingly enough, Frank goes into some historical and philosophical analysis with the Admiral writing about his part in the Pentagon as the reason for the war.

He opened a drawer and drew out a folder. “I called this `A Footnote to History.’ You see, I was in the Pentagon when we were having the big hassles on roles and missions and it occurred to me that I might be one of the few still alive who knew the inside of what went on and how the decisions were reached and I thought that future historians might be interested. So I set it all down factually. I set down all the arguments between the big carrier admirals and the atomic seaplane admirals and the ICBM generals and pentomic division generals and heavy bomber generals and manned missile generals. I told how we finally achieved what we thought was a balanced establishment.
“When I finished I read it over and realized it was a farce.” He tossed the manuscript on the desk as if he were discarding unwanted fourth class mail.
“You see, I confused the tactical with the strategic. I think we all did. The truth is this. Once both sides had maximum capability in hydrogen weapons and efficient means of delivering them there was no sane alternative to peace.
“Every maxim of war was archaic. The rules of Clausewitz, Mahan, all of them were obsolete as the Code Duello. War was no longer an instrument of national polity, only an instrument for national suicide. War itself was obsolete. So my `Footnote’ deals with tactical palavers of no real importance. We might as well have been playing on the rug with lead soldiers.”
The admiral rose and unkinked his back. “I think most of us sensed this truth, but we could not accept it. You see, no matter how well we understood the truth it was necessary that the Kremlin understand it too. It takes two to make a peace but only one to make a war. So all we could do, while vowing not to strike first, was line up our lead soldiers.”
“That was all you could do?” Lib asked.
“All. The answer was not in the Pentagon, or even in the White House. I’m looking elsewhere. One place, here.” He tapped Gibbon. “There are odd similarities between the end of the Pax Romana and the end of the Pax Americana which inherited Pax Britannica. For instance, the prices paid for high office. When it became common to spend a million dollars to elect senators from moderately populous states, I think that should have been a warning to us. For instance, free pap for the masses. Bread and circuses. Roman spectacles and our spectaculars. Largesse from the conquering proconsuls and television give aways from the successful lipstick king. To understand the present you must know the past, yet it is only part of the answer and I will never discover it all. I have not the years.”

Pretty heavy stuff for the late 1950s with the cold war in full swing. This is the part that really grabbed my attention when I first read the book. It was an assignment that I got in my Senior class High School Social Studies, half of which was called Americanism vs Communism. The teacher giving it to me as a large part of my grade after a lengthy discussion on the subject one day.

Though the book is full of inaccuracies and inconsistencies, like the Western Union lady  getting any kind of message once Jacksonville got hit, since all teleprinters on a loop circuit are wired in series, or that the phone service would be interrupted locally as at that time all local phone used big banks of stepping relays and was run by large banks of storage batteries at 48 volts and any town of any size had it’s own telephone switching center.  I still feel it’s a good read as it does get enough right.

So there you have it. An apocalyptic novel about a nuclear dooms day.  Though one of the kinder gentler ones.

So what ever else is on you mind, have at it.

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